Meet Kirthana Ganesh

2024 Winner of the Graduate Dean’s Student Leadership Award


Kirthana Ganesh


Doctor of Philosophy in Psychology

Research Supervisor

Dr. Liane Gabora


Bangalore, India


Graduate Dean’s Student Leadership Award

Award Impact

I have worked within various spaces throughout my five years at UBCO, with a focus on creating, implementing, and sustaining policies, procedures, and communities dedicated to enhancing the welfare of graduate students in general, but also with a specific focus on members from historically and systemically marginalised communities. This award is a culmination of those efforts. To me, it shows that there is commitment from the university administration to recognise and validate such efforts by the student body. It tells me, that they see us, and see the work we do every day to make lives better for each other.

What inspires you about your research?

My research is quite interdisciplinary. Dr. Gabora’s lab studies creativity and cultural evolution. The overarching question that unites all the work we do is “How do new ideas emerge from old ones, and what are the conditions required for this transformation to happen?” We use a mathematical modelling framework called Reflexively Autocatalytic Foodset-Generated Networks (RAFs) to formally describe, model, and illustrate the generation of new ideas, concepts, beliefs etc., within a mind. A really fascinating aspect of RAFs is that they can help us track the ‘lineage’ of an idea; we can see exactly how one thought in the mind of Person A was shared with Person B, and how Person B may have used it as an inspiration for an idea, and how that idea was further elaborated on by Person C. We can even trace them across modalities, like how a song may have inspired a poem, and how the poem may have inspired a political movement!

My work in particular uses RAFs within the context of clinical psychology. As someone training to become a psychotherapist, I feel strongly that therapy is a creative activity at its core; it involves a therapist and client coming together, to find ways to change/create new and helpful thoughts, emotions, and behaviours, to reduce distress and enhance well-being. I wanted to try and break down exactly how and why therapy might work, using RAFs. My dissertation explores therapist perspectives on how ‘change’ occurs in psychotherapy. It has been an interesting experience to dig really deep into the nuances of what happens in the therapy room, and try and break it down into fine detail. I think I have been excited about it for all these years, because the more I do research, the more I feel like I can get close to the art of therapy, and the reasons why a deep connection with another human being can be so healing.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

I have always been interested in learning, and I had a lot of questions about pretty much everything growing up. My family has been very patient and supportive in answering these questions, and one of my earliest memories was when my dad got me a book called “1001 Questions and their Answers”. It was probably to keep me quiet, but it taught me that there’s this whole world of information where every question does have an answer! Years later, research showed me that if there are questions I have with incomplete or unsatisfactory answers, there’s a whole science to how I could go about trying to answering them. Questions are always what drive me, and the more answers I get, the more questions there are.

On the other hand, I have also always been interested in people and their stories. Why people think in certain ways, why they choose to do certain things, and the “why” of human experience is infinitely complex and fascinating. Psychology seemed like the ideal field to help me explore this. Clinical psychology emerged as the frontrunner, as it was the perfect mix of learning about humans, and also finding ways to facilitate healing and recovery. All these different pieces came together to push me to pursue a graduate degree. Let’s also remember that to be Registered Psychologist (or a licensed therapist in many countries), you need a PhD, so that made the path much clearer too.

Why did you choose to come to UBC Okanagan?

I have lived all my life in Bangalore, India. I completed my undergraduate and master’s degrees there, and was looking for a change. I wanted to explore what the world had to offer, and it seemed like the right time to really cast a wide net and be adventurous. When looking at Canada, I came across Dr. Gabora’s work, and was instantly drawn in. It was fascinating, abstract, and with real-world applications, in a way that seemed to align really well with my perspectives. The clinical psychology program here is rigorous and offers many diverse practicum opportunities to really help you discover what you are passionate about. I also like smaller departments with a smaller faculty-student ratio. All these factors pushed UBCO towards the top of my list. The funding that I received for my PhD was also incredibly helpful, and it made the decision simpler!

Where do you hope your degree/research will take you next?

Social justice is important to me. Not only do I want to be able to give back to society, I want to try my best to ensure that services are available and accessible for the people who need it the most. I hope that after I complete my degree, I am able to work within public health, and specifically with marginalised communities, who are often at highest risk for mental health concerns. I want to specialise in working with trauma, to better prepare me for the populations and communities I will work with. I also love teaching, and would love to be an adjunct faculty member (maybe even at UBCO!), teaching and training future clinicians. Some of my friends and I have also been contemplating setting up a combined practice when we graduate, where we can have a location that offers all the kinds of services that we find meaningful, in ways that align with our passion and values.

Please share a little bit about yourself.

In all honesty, during my first couple of years at UBCO, I stopped almost all my self-care activities, and it was not great for my health in general. I have recently begun to intentionally add things to my schedule that I find fun and relaxing. I have discovered a love for the outdoors; I love hikes, walks, snowshoeing, and beach days. I am scared of water, so activities like paddleboarding have been off the list, but I am hoping to try to get comfortable with it this summer. I have also joined a spin studio (Spinco, by Sprout café), and that has been a lot of fun! At home, I love cooking and gardening as well. If it’s one of those days when getting out of bed is rough, listening to music (a lot of Indian Classical), reading a book (thrillers and sci-fi usually), and watching a show/movie (true crime or a lot of British comedy) are the way to go.

What advice do you have for new graduate students?

  1. Breathe. This is a marathon, not a sprint. There will always be things on your to-do list, deadlines to hit, projects to participate in, but none of that is worth anything if you aren’t okay. Your body and your mind need compassion, care, and love, and that’ll motivate them to do all of the difficult things ahead.
  2. Find your community. This journey may feel like a lonely one, but it isn’t. Even at UBCO, there are thousands of other graduate students who are also in the same boat. Find them. Laugh with them, cry with them, complain with them. They are your network of support!
  3. There is no shame in asking for help. Graduate school can be emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually taxing. There are tons of free and low-cost resources on and off campus where you can talk about this and find ways to manage distress. Therapy helped me sort out what I want to care about, what I need to care about, and what I can let go off. Try it!


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