Microbiology PhD student Bikash Bogati learned during his second year of study in 2017 that helping others balances out the demands graduate students juggle with countless hours of research, teaching, and coursework. Unlike some of the students in his cohort, Bogati also faced adjusting to a new culture, having moved to the US from Banepa, Nepal, to enroll at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Because of the culture shock, he questioned how to behave and engage in classes and with his professors, which made him suddenly and uncharacteristically shy.
To make matters worse, Bogati’s research was not progressing at the rate he’d hoped—an added stress to his already low energy levels. However, a colleague’s question to him changed his life. “He asked what I would do with an extra hour every day. Without much deliberation, I said I would use it to help others.”
“Back home, we did not have many opportunities to work with formal volunteering programs like here. I grew up watching my parents always help others in need, which influenced me to follow their path. I feel helping senior citizens is a way to thank the previous generation as their work and advancements have helped make our life easier.”
Inspired to consider how he could help others, Bogati found Volunteer Assisted Transportation, a volunteer driver program of the Knoxville–Knox County Community Action Committee. The organization was looking for assistance driving elderly people to stores, appointments, and religious services. The opportunity to assist senior citizens reminded him of the bucolic village he grew up in, where everyone knew one another and his grandparents were always close by.
In a recent article published in Science, Bogati shared how volunteering three hours of his time most weekends—time he would have otherwise spent sleeping in or scrolling on social media—created a calmness in his weekday schedule.
“In comparison with the time that I spent following virtual stories on Instagram or Facebook, sharing experiences and stories with my riders was much more rewarding.
“Life as a graduate student has a lot of things going on. It is easy to be frustrated when the experiments in the lab don’t go well or when I fail to perform my best. Although I knew it was a common experience, it was easy to feel like a fiasco. Working with Volunteer Assisted Transportation helped me overcome this, as no matter what, I was doing something impactful.”
Although the distances Bogati drove his riders were short, the conversations improved his confidence by miles.
“When I shared with one of my riders that I felt mediocre compared with my colleagues who had worked in advanced research facilities, he described how his work abroad had helped him, and he assured me that for my specialty—microbiology—my experience working in a country with a huge burden of infectious disease would be invaluable. I started to reconsider my feelings of inadequacy.
“Curious riders wanted to know about my research, and I had to find multiple ways to explain science. This prepared me to better communicate microbiology research to a nonscientific community and led to my confident participation in a 3-Minute Thesis competition, distilling five years of my research work into a three-minute presentation to a broader audience.”
Bogati has continued volunteering time with the program most weekends for the last three years. Since 2018, three of his friends—including Pankaj Dahal, a PhD candidate in UT’s Tickle College of Engineering, and Shiva Dahal, a PhD candidate in the Department of Physics—have signed on as volunteers with the organization. Now in his sixth year as a PhD candidate, Bogati is nearing the completion of his degree.
“I feel helping others has helped me to become a more productive graduate student, a better scientist, and above all a happier human being. I am working to publish my research while also applying for jobs. But these hurdles now seem surmountable. I’m proud of who I have become, and I continue to reflect on how I’m using the most valuable thing in life—my time.”
Lindsey Owen (865-974-6375, email@example.com)