by Meredith Dault
3rd February 2011
When Niraj Kumar decided he was ready to pursue a PhD, he had a job as a research fellow at a university in Mumbai. “You are assigned research and you do it,” explains Kumar, who had then recently earned his Master’s in Fisheries Science at the Central Institute of Fisheries Education (CIFE), Mumbai. Though he knew he loved research, the position made him realize that he needed more room to grow and experiment intellectually. “I think I realized that if I wanted to open up my own innovation, I needed some freedom and power -- and eventually my own lab! So I decided I should get a PhD.”
Though he started his doctoral degree in India, he soon felt that he had learned most of the skills that CIFE had to offer him. “I started thinking about going abroad,” he says, “the fire was burning to move somewhere else...to move on from Mumbai.”
Kumar began searching out the possibilities, looking into universities within the British Commonwealth. Though he admits that he hadn’t heard of Queen’s, his online quest to find the right university (and a suitable program) lead him to Dr. Virginia K. Walker, a professor in the department of biology. Intrigued by her research, Kumar sent her an email.
“The moment she got back to me, I knew I wanted to work with her,” he explains enthusiastically. “Many professors I wrote to didn’t even answer me, but she explained everything and was very systematic. But still...I didn’t know if she would select me (as a student),” says Kumar with a smile. He was shocked, however, when Walker called him in India. “I was thrilled, but nervous,” he laughs, “because I had never interacted with a foreigner on the phone. But she was fascinating and easy to understand. And I made the decision that yes, I will go work with her.”
While the move to Canada was a significant one, it wasn’t the first time Kumar had overcome a major challenge. Born and raised in the state of Bihar, in eastern India, Kumar grew up in an extremely modest family that lived on very limited income. After earning his undergraduate degree, Kumar toured some of the potential universities he might attend for graduate school. When he first visited the CIFE, Mumbai, Kumar says he felt mesmerized, and dreamed of studying there. “For a person like me, it was like a different country,” Kumar explains, referencing his humble background. But when he realized the school only took 45 students a year, he knew he had to get motivated. He qualified for the entrance exam, and defied the odds by being accepted. “Nobody would have given me a one per cent chance that I would get selected,” he laughs.
Arriving in Canada, of course, brought a different set of cultural challenges. Kumar says he is grateful to the Queen’s University International Centre (QUIC) for helping him make sense of his new home. “The first week, I explored everything,” he recalls. “I met so many other international students...it was a party every day! There were events, people, meals. I felt very good, immediately.” After a week, his supervisor even managed to introduce him to a group of Indian students who regularly played cricket. “I felt like I was at home within a week!” he laughs.
Kumar was soon in the thick of new and challenging research looking at stress in arctic soil bacteria, specifically “stress caused by the freezing and thawing process, which is predicted to become more so because of global warming,” he explains. That research lead to work on stress in nanoparticals, as well as in nanotechnology, a developing field. “All is not well with nanotechnology,” says Kumar, explaining that though the field is expanding, “we don’t have a solid understanding of how it will impact the environment. We need to handle it with care. Kumar says that he fears that nanoparticles may influence microbial communities in the arctic. A recent talk on his nanoparticle research was recently included in the ‘award’ category at the 2010 Canadian Society of Microbiology conference.
Though he admits the first couple of years (before he found his feet and got his research was well underway) were a bit of a struggle, Kumar says the decision to come to Canada was the right one. “When I came I was hell-bent on going back,” he laughs, “but I think I am a changed person living here. I have so many friends from different countries. I think Canada is one of the most accepting countries in the world.” Kumar laughs, thinking about how when he first left India, his peers hadn’t heard of Queen’s. “Now everyone knows about it!”Back To All Stories