Sandia scientist charts journey from rural Nepal to national labs

Sandia scientist charts journey from rural Nepal to national labs

Bishnu Khanal, a native of rural Nepal, works with this ultra-high vacuum Tribometer, which tests wear and friction of samples in a space environment. Khanal is manager of the Materials Mechanics and Tribology Department for Sandia National Laboratories. (Courtesy of Craig Fritz/Sandia National Laboratories)

Everything was strange when Bishnu Khanal arrived from Nepal to work on his Ph.D. at Rice University in Houston.

The student, whose classroom was sometimes under a tree in his rural village, had never flown before that 2005 trip. He didn’t speak much English and he didn’t know a soul.

“It was exciting and I was nervous, both,” Khanal says. “Think of it this way: You’ve never flown. You’ve never had any of the food. Even the salt comes in this small, tiny packet. What is this? Should I eat it or not?”

After learning about American condiments and getting his Ph.D. in chemistry, Khanal went on to work at Los Alamos National Laboratory, Intel Corp. and now Sandia National Laboratories.

He was named this year’s Most Promising Asian American Engineer for his work in nanotechnology, semiconductor fabrication and materials science. The award also recognizes public service — in Bishnu’s case, for establishing a trust with his personal funds to support underprivileged students in his Nepal village.

As a student himself, Khanal wasn’t a kid who embraced science from the start. He didn’t really focus on the subject until high school, when he learned that it was interesting and that it provided him a challenge.

“Until high school, I was very average, never below, never up,” he says. “Kind of stupid, not very stupid. Just very normal, honestly.”

Early on, he had aspired to the goal his father had set for him: “My dad was a driver for a government officer. Government officers have a driver, a cook — they have all this luxury.

“My dad very often used to remind me, ‘That’s the life you want to have. And how do you get there? Get an education, get an education.’ So that was one of the biggest motivations for me.”

What do you think has made you successful?

“I think I’m very focused and determined. If I’m going to do something, I’m not going to get frustrated. I can keep working and get it. I have many examples at Sandia and Intel, where I took on something that everybody said, ‘Oh, that doesn’t work, it’s the limitation of the technology or the limitation of the equipment. We can’t do that.’ And then, I say, ‘Hand me the data.’ Whether it’s luck or my determination — whatever you want to call it, I have had many successes where people said we can’t get that done.”

Tell me about a failure.

“There are many failures. You try 100 times. One of them works, but 99 are failures. It’s not like magic.”

Please describe going to class under a tree.

“Unlike in the United States, a school can grow from elementary to high school as each class (moves) to a higher grade. When I joined Bagalamukhi School, I think it was up to class 8 and growing to a higher class every year. However, due to limited resources, construction of new classrooms, and buying desks and benches, it took a … few years, so they moved lower classes out under the tree. But, if you are late, you don’t have a mat (to sit on). So, what we used to do is, you know the big sack of rice? That sack is a really good mat. You can fold it and put it in your bag, take it with you and then, in class, open that. Just sit down, criss-cross. The mat is yours. Nobody is going to take it away from you.”

Did you get a good education?

“Definitely, I did. If the environment was better, maybe some other kids who didn’t succeed in their life would have succeeded if there was a push or some other things we didn’t have. But, for me, I feel lucky that I was able to get the education I wanted.”

Was it difficult for you to get to the U.S.?

“When I finished my master’s, the obvious thing was, OK, let’s go for a Ph.D. But I didn’t have any money and neither did my parents. Think of what a bad planner I am. I have no money, but I’m applying to go to the U.S. I got a visa, but there’s no one to support me. Then, I start talking to a few people I know and I got three friends to give me $2,500 … to buy the air ticket and do some shopping. So, I came to the U.S. with negative $2,500. When I landed … my first goal is to pay that money back because I promised. So, I paid them back, and that’s how my journey started.”

What are your goals now?

“To be a successful manager, to have a functioning team and enable that team to do what they want to do. If they achieve their goal, I achieve my goal. For every situation … I focus on how the best manager I had or the best people I knew would handle a situation. I want to move forward, raise my family and make my kids successful. If I can help them see farther than I can see today, I think that would be a big accomplishment.”

What do you do in your free time?

“I go for a run, or I work in my garden. I spend time with the kids.”

What are you most proud of?

“Growing up in a small village in Nepal and coming to Rice is in itself a proud moment. At Rice, I was successful and won a lot of awards. Then, being at Los Alamos, that was a proud moment. A prestigious national lab. Going to Intel, a big company, and then coming to Sandia. Right now, being in front of you and interviewing for the Journal. It’s a big proud moment. I’ve never had this. I have kind of a sequence of all the moments. All are valuable and, because of them, I’m here.”

 

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