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Deepak Karki: A Light for Science in Nepal

ICTP Postgraduate Diploma student Deepak Karki
ICTP Postgraduate Diploma student Deepak Karki

24/08/2015 - Trieste

ICTP Postgraduate Diploma student Deepak Karki comes from a rural village in Nepal where distance is measured not in kilometers or miles but in walking times:  to reach the nearest city, count on two days of walking; to reach Kathmandu, the country's capital, it will take a few days more. That he would one day find himself in a city too distant to reach by foot, studying condensed matter physics, would have been inconceivable for someone whose family has lived for generations in the shadow of Mount Everest. Yet the soft-spoken Nepali has overcome obstacles--including family tragedy, poverty and a lack of modern conveniences such as electricity--to become one of ICTP's top Postgraduate Diploma students.

As the only son of six children, Deepak says his family had high educational expectations for him, pooling their resources to send him at an early age to live at school. His limited primary school curriculum included mathematics and some local topics, all taught in Nepalese. It was here that a glimmer of the future physicist appeared: Deepak excelled at numbers. "I was always very interested in mathematics; I enjoy expressing numbers and every-day situations in symbolic representations," explains Deepak, adding, "There was no need to teach me the mathematics, I could just do them, even now."

While young Deepak was away at primary school, tragedy struck his family: his mother died of cancer. With no hospital nearby, she had been treated unsuccessfully with folk remedies. His father was now more determined than ever that Deepak should be educated, and that his son should study medicine. If his mother's life could not be saved, at least future generations of villagers would have access to medical assistance. His destiny was set.

Science was not introduced until secondary school, but when he encountered it Deepak knew he had met his calling. He still talks with great emotion and excitement about that moment of discovery. "Really it was very nice, and what I understood when I discovered science is that it is nothing but the mathematics. Just doing the maths is not sufficient to study nature; so, I used to study the mathematics and the science together."

Deepak's studies progressed, but his interests began to detour from his family's medical expectations. Specifically, Nepal's lack of a reliable electricity supply weighed heavily with Deepak. Nepal suffers from outages of up to 18 hours a day; consequently, students suffer from limited access to working computer facilities and poor lighting conditions for studying. As the saying goes, necessity is the mother of invention, and Deepak's deepening interest in science illuminated a possible solution: superconductivity.

"When I heard about superconductivity I though that maybe it could help our country if someone was able to advance this field. But at that time, I did not know that in Nepal this is impossible, as there is no sophisticated lab. Yet I was so interested and thought we could do a lot for the problem we are suffering in Nepal, superconductivity can really help, so I have to study this."

In spite of discouragement from his school teachers ("They told me superconductivity was a disappointing field that not so many people succeed in," he recounts), and loss of financial support from his family, Deepak pursued his interest with determination. He worked at several jobs to support his bachelor degree courses, studying at night by the light of a kerosene lamp.

In the midst of his undergraduate studies, Deepak sought to enrich his knowledge of superconductivity by performing computer simulations. He soon discovered that this was impossible, given the poor supply of electricity and the fact that his university had no laboratory for such work. "So what is possible if I want to study superconductivity is to just take a paper and pencil and write the thing, to understand it. From that time I decided I will even not use the computer in my future, I will not go to the experiment, for me theory is everything," he explains. Thus, a theorist was born.

Deepak continued his studies to earn a master's degree in theoretical physics at Tribhuvan University in Kathmandu, graduating as the top student in physics out of more than 1,000 classmates. It was there that he first encountered ICTP, thanks to the Centre's close relationship with the university. ICTP scientist Sandro Scandolo, who often teaches in Nepal, met and encouraged Deepak to apply to the Postgraduate Diploma Programme. Now finishing the intensive year of courses, Deepak has thrived in ICTP's supportive atmosphere of first-rate facilities and professors, and is the top student in the Programme's condensed matter physics specialization. He will remain in Trieste to enroll in the Joint ICTP/SISSA PhD Programme in Physics this autumn. Once his formal education is completed, Deepak intends to return to Nepal to teach and promote theoretical physics.

"When I came here my world really changed. This is my perfect place to study. All the professors are very helpful, they really know how to motivate the students. And I am very happy to be here," he says.

--Mary Ann Williams

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