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A student’s perspective on meeting Uttam Pokharel
January 25, 2019
As I walked to Dr. Uttam Pokharel’s office, nervousness started to disperse through my bloodstream. The questions I would ask him echoed in my brain like some tone-deaf yodel. Usually, I am nervous going into interviews due to unfamiliarity with the subject, but this time was different. I was worried I could not put my respect and admiration for Pokharel, from now on referred to as Dr. P, into words. Before I stumbled into the world of writing, I was a misguided biology student. My first college chemistry course was with Dr. P. I did well in the course, an outcome that surprised me. I always have attributed that success to the way Dr. P teaches. While he held a place of respect in my head, I knew near to nothing about him. The questions echoing through my skull were for my own curiosity, as well as for this very teacher feature.
My anxiety decreased rather quickly. Actually, it was almost as soon as I entered his office. The millisecond he saw me enter, the energy of the room changed. It was a mix of excitement, nervousness, curiosity and friendliness. We exchanged pleasantries, and then, Dr. P surprised me. Before I could even start to ask a question, he inquired about me. It was not the questions that caught me off guard; it was the genuine care that radiated through each question that got me. My first few minutes in his office were a perfect synopsis of why I am fond of Dr. P. He has an inviting, casual and caring aura that surrounds him.
The interview started as generically as possible. I asked a few softball questions to get the ball rolling. It did not take long for that to happen. I keep saying I interviewed him, but that is not precisely true. I had every intention of being professional, asking the questions and getting the information needed. After the first few questions, it turned into a conversation. I had to remind myself to take notes. Before I go on about my time with Dr. P, I should give some background information on him.
Dr. Uttam Pokharel was born in rural Nepal. He did not have access to an excellent education until college. He recounts how his chemistry teachers were particularly bad, a small bit of irony I enjoyed. He would move to Kirtipur, Kathmandu, Nepal, to continue his education. Dr. P would attend the University of Tribhuvan. At first, he studied both biology and chemistry. He settled on chemistry for the opportunities it would give him later in life. In 1996, he would get his bachelors in both subjects. He did his masters in organic chemistry at the same university and would complete the program in 1998. Dr. P then went on to teach in his native country. He wanted to continue his education, but money was an issue. That is why he came to the USA. Dr. P met the requirements for paid schooling and a stipend. In 2012, he would then get his Doctorate in Organometallic Chemistry from the University of Kentucky. After earning his doctorate, Dr. P did his post-doc at Louisiana State University. In 2015, he came to Nicolls State University. He lives in Thibodaux with his wife and two kids.
The details above do not really define Dr. P, though. All can be found with Google and a quick read of his curriculum vitae. Dr. P is the perfect blend of self-determined and selfless. Both attributes were abundantly clear through most of the conversation. They were clearest when talking about three specific topics: teaching, his research and citizenship.
The reason a person teaches says a lot about who they are as a human. Dr. P’s purpose is noble. He has an intense love for what he does. His passion became apparent when I asked him if he prefers teaching or research.
“In Chemistry, just teaching is not enough, and being in a small university, we wanted to give opportunity to our undergraduates. Also, if I would just be focused on teaching, then who would help them with research? Research is very important to their careers. So, we started helping these students and engage them in in scientific work. Like, independent studies. So, I equally enjoy both,” said Dr. P. It becomes a cycle. He is teaching the next generations of researchers, people that will eclipse or aid him in his own scientific ambitions. Dr. P does not see the world of science as a battleground. His research and his teaching both add to our growing knowledge of the world we inhabit. He is not, by any means, a glory seeker. He feels as if it is his duty.
I will be honest here, chemistry usually goes right over my head. While reading about Dr. P’s research, I was lost. The greatest attribute a teacher can have is the ability to simplify difficult subjects all while never talking down to someone. I decided to see if Dr. P could do so with his research. He did, with the grace of a ballerina. There was no pause. He just went at it in a manner so unpretentious that I was enthralled. He simultaneously made it seem simple while talking to me as an equal. Then, there is the reason he got into chemistry. He saw it as the best opportunity for success in his life. It was not a fiery passion for chemistry, but his own drive that got him where he is today. I do not want to imply that he does not enjoy his work; he certainly does. He turned that drive for success into a way to aid others on the same path, all while adding to the scientific discourse. He specifically researches the capture and recycling of carbon dioxide into useful materials and the study of organic semiconductors that function similarly to silicone.
Dr. P is not a United States citizen. A fact that should not matter regarding one’s opinion of him, but it brought to light how humble and positive Dr. P is as a person. He is not mad that he is not a citizen. He is “not sure if we [him and his wife] will have citizenship here, or not…” But, he “has a Green Card” and seems to be content with his status as a permanent resident. He may not be a citizen, but he is a clear example of someone that has achieved the elusive and often unobtainable American dream. Not the American dream that involves riches, fame and notoriety, but the American dream that is about striving for a goal and achieving success. Dr. P went from a rural and poor area of Nepal to be a respected academic that gets paid to do what he loves. He may make a lot less than he deserves, as I think all teachers do, but he is happy. He is content. In his own words, “I am not from here, but also, I am contributing to this society and university.” The most important thing to Dr. P is his work and that it is helping the greater good.
I could end my writing about Dr. P by waxing poetic about how he is a fantastic teacher and person. That was my intention before the end of our conversation. I closed my time with him by asking if he had any message we wanted to give to the readers of the Nicholls Worth. I think his response best encapsulates the person he is: “As I said, I am not from that strong of an academic background, but I have continuous dedication, in my education. That is how I am here. I don’t think I have spent much money on tutors and extra help. If you have the motivation and dedication in your life, I don’t think there is any barrier to be successful. I do not have much time to do extra things. Most of my time is dedicated to my education or field. If a student, they all have chosen their career path, but they need to be really dedicated. Education should not only be about grades. Education should be for learning. So, one day, like when it is needed, education should work for them to make their life easier. That is what chemistry is doing for me, right now.”