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Vol.25, No. 18 Mar. 31, 2000

Recent Engineering Grad Practices Hindu Rite and Benefits Alma Mater

By A. Dunlap-Smith

A recent Columbia graduate is wasting no time in giving back to the schools that he says gave him so much. Vikram Sheel Kumar, a 1999 graduate of the Engineering School and now a first-year medical student in Harvard Medical School-MIT's Division of Health Sciences and Technology, is donating a portion of a scholarship he just received to five schools, the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science among them.

"In Hinduism there's something called Guru Dakshina, which means giving to the teacher," Kumar says. "This is my Guru Dakshina, my way of acknowledging how these schools changed me: Columbia is where I learned how to talk, how to think—I even learned how to walk from New York!"

Kumar, 23, was awarded the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship for New Americans on March 1. The fellowship pays half his graduate school tuition for two years and provides him with a yearly stipend of $20,000, also for two years. The total worth of the Soros Fellowship to Kumar's graduate education comes to $70,000.

To thank the five schools that he credits with helping him to win the Soros Fellowship, Kumar will distribute $5,040 of the first installment of his stipend to them—a donation of $1,008 to each. The schools are: the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, where he studied industrial engineering and operations research; the Modern School, his high school in New Delhi; the Indian Institute of Technology, where he spent his first year of college before transferring to Columbia; MIT, and Harvard.

Kumar acknowledges that his donation is a modest one yet, "considering this is the first sum I have ever earned, I give it as if it were millions."

He chose the figure of 1,008 because of its significance in the Hindu religion. Kumar explains that he wears a necklace of 108 sandalwood Rudraksha beads, each one measuring a unit of 100,000 breaths, the total of which equals the 10,800,000 breaths that the Hindu scriptures say a person takes in a year. The Hindu faithful are expected to say a mala, a series of chants to God, 108 times or 1/100,000th of the year. The sum of $1,008 is therefore Kumar's way of thanking each of his schools in mala units.

Each year since they were started in 1998, 30 Fellowships for New Americans are bestowed on accomplished young immigrants or the children of immigrants by the Paul and Daisy Soros Foundation.

Paul and Daisy Soros are the elder brother and sister-in-law of the well known financier and philanthropist George Soros.

Kumar was born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., until the age of 10 when his father, a doctor, moved the family to New Delhi to join the medical clinic Kumar's grandfather had established there. After high school and a year of college in New Delhi, Kumar returned to the U.S. to study at Columbia.

His work in computational neuroscience with Professor Rafael Yuste at the Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science yielded a software program capable of tracing patterns in the brain's neuronic activity.

Kumar and Yuste have applied for a patent on their program, which can be used in the stock market as well as in genome research.