Tibetans in Tech: Cultivating a Passion for STEM

August 15, 2017

One sunny spring afternoon, I found myself seated at a table alongside a group of students and Geshe-las (Tibetan monks), sipping on a cup of freshly brewed tea and discussing a wide range of subjects from political activism to science and technology. It was a stimulating conversation, filled with warmth and levity. Who were these monks, you ask? They were part of an educational program known as the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative that ​began when His Holiness the Dalai Lama invited Emory University in Atlanta, GA, to collaborate with the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives. Out of this partnership arose an opportunity that would provide Tibetan monastics with a contemporary scientific education that would complement their existing study of the mind and body. As I said my goodbyes to the monks before heading back to my apartment, I could not help but contemplate the importance and necessity of scientific literacy, whether one wishes to become a scientist or a Tibetan monk.

 

As a Tibetan student pursuing an education and a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) in the United States, it is often difficult to find other Tibetan peers who have similar STEM-motivated interests. Actually, it is often difficult to find Tibetan peers, period (presumably because of, you know, the 6-million-only statistic). As a result, one is left with a yearning for guidance that can only come from another who has walked in the same shoes. The undeniable need for cultural preservation and political awareness as a consequence of the historical baggage we must carry has given birth to several intellectual Tibetans in fields such as language, arts, political studies, international relations, and activism, to name a few. All of these individuals have contributed immensely to the advancement of the global Tibetan community and cannot be thanked enough for their continued efforts. However, there almost seems to be a certain scarcity of Tibetan paragons when considering the STEM community. Don’t get me wrong: I am not saying there are no Tibetan students pursuing medicine or aerospace engineering or biomolecular research. The quandary I wish to point out is simply this: how many Tibetan intellectuals can you name that are fountainheads of scientific inspiration?

 

Again, this is not something that is limited to just the Tibetan population. Scientists and engineers have seldom had success in becoming shining beacons of inspiration in their communities, even though they are the driving force behind human progress. We idolize music artists and famous actors and can also name each of the Kardashians, but very few of us have an Albert Einstein poster hanging on our bedroom wall. And I get it: being a boring scientist in a boring lab doing boring experiments is not the sexiest job in the world. There is nothing glamorous about spending 10 years of your life working on vision systems that would enable cars to drive autonomously, or trying to build a device that can detect cancer cells in their earliest stage, without any guarantee of success at the other end of the tunnel. Science is seldom celebrated, and often taken for granted. The effects of this can be especially magnified in the sparse population that is the Tibetan diaspora. We do have platforms like VOA where we have heard about scientists like Tenzin Choephel-la, a PhD Aerospace Engineer at Pratt & Whitney (a major aerospace manufacturer headquartered in Connecticut) who also serves as a board member of the Tibetan Scientific Community based in India. Some of my closest Tibetan friends are successful engineers and public health specialists. We need more effective initiatives that will enable us to bring these educated professionals to the limelight, display the nobility of their efforts, and incentivize the growth of Tibetans in the field of science and technology.

 

Now, in terms of prospects within STEM, I speak out of both informed prudency as well as inherent bias when I say that the next big revolution (after the industrial revolution) that the world will reap immense benefit from is that of artificial intelligence (A.I.). A.I. encompasses a pangea of interdisciplinary fields such as robotics, data science, business analytics, health and others that I could keep on naming, if I so desired. A.I. has the capacity of changing our daily lives, influencing domestic/foreign policy, destabilizing economic systems, and reshaping entire industries from the ground up. Today, we hear about jobs like machine learning engineers and data scientists which were virtually non-existent before the 90’s. It has therefore become even more crucial to encourage young Tibetan students who express interest in subjects like computer science and engineering to take the next step and be part of a growing cohort that will make tremendous contributions to human progress. Several of my peers and I have the privilege of being part of prestigious universities and companies that are on the driver’s side of the vehicle called scientific innovation. By encouraging and empowering fellow Tibetans at the vanguard of this movement, or aspiring to join them, I think we can make a considerable impact and chart a strong course for generations to come.

 

In the end, one of the most important things to remember for anybody navigating the sphere of STEM is the ever-changing nature of the beast. New discoveries and inventions are being made at such a rate today that school textbooks and the education system have not been able to keep up. Some college courses directly use peer-reviewed journals and papers that were just released a few months ago as part of their teaching material. We can no longer just earn our degrees and languish in past achievements; one must make an active effort to update themselves constantly and embark on a journey of lifelong learning. And we don’t really have the liberty of making excuses and eschewing this responsibility: with free online learning tools like Udacity and Coursera, as well as full, free course materials offered by prestigious universities around the world, all at the beck and call of our internet-connected devices. But sometimes with so much information out there, it can be equally confusing and difficult to filter out the good from the not-really-good. I am happy to be part of the YETI program which is a resource for younger Tibetans that helps to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio (yes, I can’t help making these nerdy analogies) and empower our younger brothers and sisters. We need more role models, and we need more teachers. I always go back to my favorite astrophysicist and science educator, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson when I think about the cycle of learning and giving back: "Science is a cooperative enterprise, spanning the generations. It's the passing of a torch from teacher, to student, to teacher. A community of minds reaching back to antiquity and forward to the stars."

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