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Living a life of dreams: A student’s journey from ULM to Yale

Published March 16, 2017

Siddhartha Dhakal

MONROE, La. - A video that recently went viral of CNN contributor and best-selling author, Mel Robbins, argues that, at some point, people bought into the lie that they need to feel ready in order to change their lives. She advised instead, that “your life comes down to your decisions, and if you change your decisions, you will change everything.”

Siddhartha Dhakal, a University of Louisiana Monroe (ULM) international student from Kathmandu, Nepal, lives by this philosophy. He believes that to achieve your dreams in life you must be motivated, take action and find opportunities rather than waiting for them to find you.

His dream of coming to ULM in the spring of 2013 was to excel as a student and achieve his lifetime goal: to enroll in a graduate program at an Ivy league school. This year, that dream has been realized with his acceptance into the Ph.D. program in Biomedical research at Yale University upon completion of his Bachelor’s in Biology this May at ULM.

Not only has he been accepted, but he has earned a full-tuition scholarship with a very generous stipend to cover living expenses. 

When Dhakal went to Yale for his on-campus interview, he said the candidates came from some of the world’s finest schools, including Harvard University, University of California Berkeley, King’s College London, United Kingdom, and more. This, however, didn’t discourage him, but only made him prouder. “I could not be more excited because making it there was a reflection of my passion, hard work, and self-discipline, which I practiced diligently since the day I stepped on campus at ULM,” Dhakal said.

His journey from ULM to Yale wasn’t easy as Dhakal had financial challenges and rigorous admission standards he had to meet. Although tough at times, his burning passion and determination motivated him to overcome those challenges and succeed. “A great GRE score along with a 4.0 GPA doesn’t guarantee placement into a great school. I knew I had to do more,” said Dhakal. “The search committee wants to see a well-rounded candidate; someone who was involved in organizations, held leadership positions, has teaching experience, and most importantly, someone who knows how to conduct great independent research.” 

He engaged in academic research as a freshman at ULM through the Emerging Scholar’s program, a program that joins students and professors in cooperative research and other professional activities. It was this very program that helped him realize that medical research is something he wanted to pursue for the rest of his life. In the next three years, he conducted several additional research studies with different professors at ULM.

In pursuit of his dream of attending an Ivy league school, Dhakal held several leadership positions at ULM, including Vice-President of the Nepalese Student Association during his freshman year, and President of the same organization during his sophomore year. During his junior year, he became President of the International Student Association at ULM.

Dhakal also managed to find time to work as a tutor and eventually as a chemistry instructor. Both positions helped him gain much-needed teaching experience, while also providing funds to cover living expenses. “Since my parents couldn’t financially support my studies, I had to work and go to school,” Dhakal said. “While this was a challenge, it also led to other opportunities.”

The opportunities materialized through acceptance into many different summer research programs. “These programs provide the needed experience in research, but they also pay,” Dhakal said. He spent each day of his winter break writing and submitting summer research applications.

“I was never afraid to apply because if you don’t apply, you are automatically rejected,” Dhakal said. “I was formally rejected over 80 times in the past three years of applying, but I never lost hope. I was sad, but being sad and losing hope are two completely different things.”

He managed to secure summer research internships at three universities, including the State University of New York Upstate Medical University in Syracuse in the summer of 2016. He was also waitlisted at both Harvard and Princeton.

Dhakal never went home during his time in the United States. His summer breaks were spent in labs, not on beaches. While his friends used their phones for Facebook, he explored applications that would help him excel in the classroom. His time off was often spent in the pharmacy lab where he would learn from his fellow Nepali friends, Ph.D. students, or study in a lab environment, which he found inspirational.

Dr. Timothy Foster, Associate Professor at the Department of Microbiology, Immunology and Parasitology at LSU School of Medicine, with whom Dhakal worked in the summer of 2015, best describes Dhakal’s fearlessness and thirst for knowledge. “Nothing stood in his way,” Foster said. “His dedication to the lab was such that he found ways of overcoming locked security doors after-hours on the evenings and weekends in order to ensure experiments were completed on time.” 

Dhakal’s journey from ULM to Yale is one of hard work and dedication on his part, but also wouldn’t have been possible without the mentors who guided him along the way. He believes that inspiration is a very positive force, and would be the first to acknowledge that the learning environment he was in, along with his mentors and ULM biology program helped him find the inspiration needed to fulfill his goals. 

“I’ve always had positive experiences from my first day at ULM. At larger universities, professors don’t have time to focus much on students, but here at ULM, if you really want to focus and learn more, professors will work with you and they really care about you,” Dhakal said. Dr. Joydeep Bhattacharjee, Associate Professor of Biology at ULM, is the first person Dhakal asked for additional research work. Their collaboration started immediately, and they are currently working on a scientific paper to be published. Bhattacharjee said Dhakal’s passion for learning and not being deterred by anything to keep him from reaching his goal is something he could relate to from his own college days. “I put him [Dhakal] in charge of the Carbon Tower data,” Bhattacharjee said. “Analyzing data is not easy and what is more difficult is making sense of it. This is done by Masters or Ph.D. students at other universities, but Dhakal surprised me by being able to not only work on it, but also explore it further.” 

Dhakal presented this very data at a conference and won an award, among many others he received for his excellence in academics and research. 

Dr. Srinivas Garlapati, Associate Professor of Biology at ULM and one of Dhakal’s mentors said Dhakal’s acceptance to Yale University is a big achievement for the ULM biology program. Garlapati’s and Dhakal’s collaboration began in December of 2014 when Dhakal helped the newly-hired at the time, Garlapati, set his molecular biology lab, and the two have also been working on a project Dhakal will present as his Honor’s thesis. “Even though he had a challenging course-load and a part-time job, he was able to find time to do experiments in a research laboratory with enthusiasm and pride,” Garlapati said. “I have been impressed with his passion for science and motivation for doing research.”

After Yale, Dhakal plans on pursuing his medical degree, which will allow him to conduct experiments at the patient level. His passion is science, and he hopes to devote his life to answering some of the most fundamental scientific questions that have not been answered yet. He wants to help his home country of Nepal one day through research, and hopes to stay humble, believing that humbleness is a mark of good education and deeper knowledge.

While reminiscing on his campus visit to Yale, Dhakal said, “although being experts and world leaders in their fields, the professors I interacted with were some of the most down-to-earth people I have ever met, but what really sold me on their program was when they said, ‘we can teach you anything if you come to Yale, but what we can’t teach you is motivation because that comes from you.’”