PORTLAND, OR — Avi Gupta is one of those teenagers who can make older people question their life choices. He’s 18 and is getting ready to start his second semester at Columbia University, where he’s president of the freshman class. He was last year’s “Jeopardy!” Teen Tournament champion. He also started a charity promoting dental health around the world.
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And on Wednesday, he announced that he’d raised more than $200,000 for pancreatic cancer research.
He’s also unfailingly polite, supportive and encouraging of others. He’s not having any of people selling themselves short.
“It’s not about how much you do,” Gupta told Patch by phone from his family home in Portland. “It’s what you do. It’s about being curious about the world around you and doing what you can.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” he said. “I’ve had the opportunity to do certain things. It does not make me better, just fortunate.”
Gupta was speaking just a few hours before he went up to Oregon Health Sciences University, home of the Knight Cancer Institute. It was where he would announce the results of his fundraising efforts.
It was Gupta’s second trip to the hospital to announce a donation for pancreatic cancer research. In November, he gave $10,314. The $314 was a nod to pi, a mathematical constant. It was after that donation that Gupta decided that he could do more and launched a fundraising drive, using the hashtag, #InspiredBy.
“I’m interested in a lot of things,” he says. “Math, science, health care, helping people. Math is one of those things that crosses disciplines.”
How did Gupta, a teen whose parents are Indian immigrant doctors and both worked at OHSU, come up with the original $10,314 donation last year?
“Jeopardy!” He was #InspiredBy
Gupta had seen an ad that the show was looking for contestants for its annual teen championship tournament.
“I took the test online, and I did well enough,” he says.
Not only did he get flown down to be on the show, he did well enough to win. Everything. He walked away as the champion with a $100,000 prize.
More importantly, he walked away with a deep appreciation for the show’s host, Alex Trebek, who is battling pancreatic cancer.
“I had spent only a few days with him as we taped the show, but I feel like I’ve known him since I was 5 years old,” Gupta says. “When my grandmother used to come visit us from India, every night we would watch ‘Jeopardy!’ and Alex has been a part of my life ever since then.”
Gupta, who said he plans to study artificial intelligence and its application across disciplines such as health care, says that one of the things the show instilled in him was a respect for curiosity, for learning and for facts.
“I think that facts matter more than anything,” he tells Patch. “They are the building blocks, they matter so much. Without facts, we can’t form opinions, we can’t make decisions.
“Alex is a tremendous advocate for being curious, for facts, for finding out what things are,” he said. “He didn’t just make an impact on me — he makes an impact on our lives and on American culture.”
Gupta was also moved by Trebek’s personal story and his fight against pancreatic cancer. Nearly 60,000 people in the United States are expected to be diagnosed with pancreatic this year, and around 50,000 people are expected to die from the disease.
“Scientists are winning the fight, a fight that is being very taken seriously at OHSU,” Gupta says. “They need help, though. They need more support. They need better diagnostic tools, they need help raising awareness.
“I believed the best way that I could honor Alex was to contribute to those efforts. He’s helped me learn to be curious, to appreciate facts. I wanted to honor that.”
It is this curiosity, this appreciation for facts, that has helped drive Gupta to keep his eyes open and look at things with an eye toward making them better.
That approach led him to start the nonprofit organization, Project 32.
“Adults are supposed to have 32 teeth,” he says. “So often, that’s not the case. Dental hygiene is a very large problem that has ripple effects. A major reason that children miss school is dental hygiene-related problems. And if children miss school, they miss education and a chance to participate.”
Gupta says he first became aware of the problem on a family trip to India for a wedding. He visited a government-run orphanage where 50 kids shared one toothbrush. When he returned to Portland, he called the office of every dentist in the Portland area looking for donations.
“We ended up with more than 1,000 toothbrushes that we could then give to kids,” he says. “I gave a toothbrush to one kid who, after learning to use it, ran off, returning a bit later, proud that he had run and taught his mother to use it.”
Since then, Project 32 has expanded to help kids not just in India but in places including Guatemala and even in the United States.
“We have an obligation to help people where we can, to create the opportunities that others have created for us. We can give a voice to those who need it.”