Gurinder Nagra: passionate scientist, avid reader, and inspiring blogger

Monday 24 July, 2017

His ideas are big, but the delivery is soft-spoken and unassuming. Talking to old Warrane boy Gurinder Nagra, a real humility is evident – a humility that perhaps you wouldn’t expect from a 23-year old who’s done Oxford Summer School, volunteered in Zimbabwe, and is about to set off across the seas for a funded PhD at Stanford University.

Born in India, seven-year old Gurinder moved to Australia with his parents and sister for a better life. They settled in Griffith, where they had relatives, but Gurinder was keen to explore further afield – which is why he went for, and received, a scholarship to UNSW.

Gurinder lived at Warrane for his first year of a Bachelor of Advanced Science (majoring in Earth Science). During this undergrad, he discovered his interest in research and so started setting goals for where he wanted to be – Honours, and a PHD at an overseas institution. 

Fast-forward a few years and Gurinder is on schedule: due to begin his five-year stint at Stanford in September.

“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “I had a number of other options as well... but I guess for me it’s all about impact. So I could earn a lot more money by taking a safe option, getting a good job; or I can have a larger impact through my work and I guess live a more fulfilling life by doing what I want to do even if it’s less money... I think it’s more stimulating.”

If you think that’s stimulating, you should hear what he’s thinking for his PhD research.

“Essentially I am focusing on the carbon dioxide problem,” said Gurinder. “So we are emitting carbon dioxide from our power plants...It’s a waste product, it just goes out into the atmosphere... how can we stop in from going out into the atmosphere? Essentially what I’m trying to do is create a product out of it limestone, which already has a really large market.”

“The whole point of doing the PhD is to create something; to patent something and to increase this rate of reaction of the carbon dioxide into the limestone. A lot of the time in academia we do the research but we don’t see it through, so I’d like to do the research and then take it to a point where it’s economically feasible and then I’d like to start a company and get it working and actually have an impact. I guess the driver for me is the problem and fixing the problem, not so much the path or career path.”

Although Gurinder only spent one year at Warrane, it’s clear that it had quite an impact on him.

“I’ve still got some of my best mates from Warrane that I’m still in touch with. And there’s a really good sense of camaraderie, even now, that I value a lot from my time there. Even if I’ve grown a lot since then, it’s like that kind of sets you up on the path of growth,” he said.

Gurinder also valued the variety of perspectives on life that he found at Warrane. “I was from the country, and I guess I wasn’t exposed to as many views as I encountered at Warrane,” he said. “It kind of got me thinking. Even if it was after my time there, I was still thinking about the different views whenever I’d think about an issue, because I’d been exposed to those different views at that college. I think that’s definitely important and creates a more open-minded individual.”

Another thing that probably contributes to Gurinder’s open-mindedness would have to be his reading. And we’re not talking a bit of bit of light reading –we’re talking a book a week or so for the last two years!

“I really enjoy reading... I guess I just make an hour or two hours every day in the morning or the evening. At the moment I’m travelling quite a bit so it’s reading while I’m commuting... I like reading about great people of the past, for example Thomas Edison, their biographies. I like reading about stoic philosophy. I like reading fiction as well, so Hemingway, Tolstoy – I’m reading War and Peace at the moment.”

In addition to this, Gurinder even writes (check out his blog at https://www.gurindernagra.com/). “My blog’s kind of about lessons I learn from reading, and the whole theme is basically mental toughness or, I guess, resilience - how do we build resilience in our lives and the lessons to do with resilience in our lives.”

Resilience is something that Gurinder feels passionately about, perhaps even more so after the passing of a close friend last year.

“I think it’s quite important... our ability to deal with pain, we have a really low threshold... even the way we deal with it, I think, is not correct,” he said. 

 “Sometimes we tend to suppress it or push it away...but it requires feeling. It’s important and we need to recognise that... When we’re kids, for example when we’re crying, often the first thing our parents or someone else will tell us is to stop crying, but that doesn’t actually help the kid solve the problem. Because you’re teaching the kid to basically suppress the emotion instead of being curious and saying okay, why are you crying? Why do you think you’re sad? ... I guess there have been periods where I’ve had to use that in my life. There have been tough times and it’s really helped me, and the whole point is to help other people.”

One thing’s for sure: Gurinder is working to be his best self. So it’s no surprise that his idol is a big name: Abraham Lincoln.

“I’ve read a few of his biographies and he had a really difficult life but...despite it all, just his willingness to serve his country, and do good for his fellow men and women was the key driver in his life;  and that eventually was what got him to the position of President. But also being able to bring people together when the country was so divided and really untie a country in a civil war... All of his moments of darkness in his life gave him clarity which was really unique to everyone else, who were kind of losing their heads because the country was in crisis. But he was able to make decisions that were right and able to push the country forward even though everyone else might not have thought so at that time.”

What else can we say about Gurinder? If he could go anywhere right now, it would be Iceland – “It’s a scientist’s dream!” he exclaimed, adding that he liked remote places. And if he could learn a new skill, it would be to paint well: “I’ve read a lot about Van Gogh and Picasso... how they talk about art and how they express themselves through it...I want to be able to do it myself.”

As for a last sentiment from Gurinder, these words of wisdom should do the trick: “I think we all have a responsibility to make the most of our lives; that’s probably the one thing I’m most passionate about,” he said. “So encouraging people to be the best they can be: doing the best work that they can, but also being the best person they can be - being kind for example.”

We wish him well at Stanford!

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