Against all odds

Chandan Singh wants me to understand just how much he loves his books. He holds one up for me to see.

“This is an algebraic topology book. It is a very, very famous book. This is one of the best books on this topic.”

His eyes are sparkling.

“In my college I used to study from photocopies of real books. I think it is common for students to get their textbooks photocopied. Books are very costly.”

“Many kids do not even attempt to go to the school or university. We have very, very few role models in my community.”

Chandan lives in a slum called Jeevan Nagar in the south of Delhi. In this slum there are wide-ranging barriers to education. Access to textbooks is just one of them.

“Only now do I realise that it was difficult to live here,” Chandan says.

“Because of the size of the slum, the houses are very, very small. Everything is very close; the lanes are very narrow, and there are very few water pipelines in the in my area. Water is something that we struggle with.

“Electricity is unpredictable too. Sometimes it goes without any notice. Students find it very difficult during exam periods, especially when electricity goes off at night and they have an exam the next day.”

In spite of these challenges, Chandan excelled at mathematics from an early age.

“Mathematics was the only thing that I could do better than other students. I used to spend a lot of my day studying mathematics. For some time I was not aware I was good at solving problems. Then I got 95 percent in my Higher Secondary School exam.”

As a young student in Jeevan Nagar, the career pathway for a mathematician was not clear.

“This community is a labour community. The families who live here mainly belong to another state, but came here in search of employment.

“Ninety percent of parents here are illiterate, so they don't really understand the value of education.

Chandan at his home in Jeevan Nagar.

Chandan, however, did find role models at Jeevan Nagar.

“I think that there are two very important things in my life. Number one is my family. And number two is my Asha family.”

Asha is a health and education NGO located in Jeevan Nagar. The Director of ASHA Dr Kiran Martin, has played a valuable role in Chandan’s life.

“She looked after my entire education,” he explains.

When Dr Kiran heard of the ANU Future Research Talent (FRT) award, she encouraged Chandan to apply. Chandan remembers the day he found out that his application was successful.

“Oh yes, I can never forget this particular day. It was very early morning. All of a sudden I got this email. I was reading the email again and again and again. I read it three times. And then I realised that I had made it.”

The FRT award provides funding for Indian students to visit ANU and conduct a collaborative research project for 10 to 12 weeks. Chandan identified Dr Vigleik Angeltveit as his supervisor — a specialist in algebraic topology at the ANU Mathematical Sciences Institute — and departed for Australia.

After living his whole life in Jeevan Nagar, Chandan knew that his visit to Canberra would challenge him. Living away from home would push him outside his comfort zone in many ways.  For example, he would be cooking for himself for the first time. But it was the opportunity to grow academically that stood out.

“I gained some mathematical maturity here.

“Earlier my view of doing mathematics was very restrictive. I never used to do things by looking at the bigger picture. But here, when I started working with my supervisor, I learned something from him. He always talks about a bigger picture; he talks about connecting ideas. That is something that was missing in my last experience.”

While he admits his experience at ANU has been life-changing, his love of books remains.

“I feel very lucky that now I have access to a lot of books here at ANU. I have access to standard books, specific books, general books, elementary books. All sorts of books.”

Chandan’s eyes are sparkling again. His time at ANU has come to an end but now his pathway to become a mathematician is clearer. In a few months, he will commence a Masters program at Imperial College London.

For more information visit the Future Research Talent Awards. 

*This piece was originally posted on the ANU Science website.