From A Village in Gujarat to a Lab at Harvard: One Indian Boy's Triumph - Common Sense Living Newsletter
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From A Village in Gujarat to a Lab at Harvard: One Indian Boy's Triumph

Oct 17, 2014

From A Village in Gujarat to a Lab at Harvard: One Indian Boy's Triumph 

When a boy from a village in Gujarat was bouncing around the country from hostel to hostel, neither he nor those around him expected that he'd end up at Harvard University working on a project that could revolutionize the way the world detects and treats the HIV virus that causes AIDS.

But the path to achieving your dreams is uneven, strewn with hospital visits, broken chappals, and ATKTs, as was Sultan Khetani's path to make his country proud.

When Sultan was in the first standard of a Gujarati medium school he would spend his after-school hours teaching himself English from a book. His parents knew then that they had to get the boy a better education, because he had in him the yearning to learn.

Not having the funds to go to a better school, he ended up doing stints in hostels around the country, until he ended up in the Fidai hostel in Panchgani, to whom he today attributes a major portion of his success.

"Wasn't all this uncomfortable moving all through your childhood and lack of stability enough to put you off school altogether?" I asked him.

But it had had the opposite effect. 'I loved learning. And as soon as I knew what I wanted to study, I realized I would do anything to get there.'

Chasing passion through perseverance

What he had wanted to study was something with the human body and technology, but he 'just couldn't articulate what it was at the time.'

In his search for this perfect subject, he unwittingly passed on the possibility of a full scholarship for an education in medicine, and later regretted it. So he enrolled in what he thought was the next best thing: biomedical engineering.

'At first I hated it there.' He felt trapped, like he'd missed the boat and was now being carried off in the wrong direction. He would bunk classes, and almost failed out the first year.

But he wasn't one to give up, I realized, when he went on to tell me what he did when he was bunking classes.

'I'd hang out in the library and read up on the subject I was interested in.'

In his long stretches of reading he learned that biomedical engineering involved exactly what he had wanted to study but had been unable to express.

Some will call this luck, but I call it perseverance. Even when he had worried, and despaired, about being in the wrong place and having lost out on the chance of a lifetime, Sultan did not give up on his passion. If I can't learn it at school, he thought, I'll just teach myself.

Fail and fail until you succeed

Engineering was a challenge for him as it is for anyone. 'Engineering dhakke khaa ke pass hua*. I'm not that intelligent, to be honest. But I'm willing to work hard.' (I saw in his manner a mature intelligence, but it was this humility that won me over).

He laughs at the memory of struggling his way through the degree, failing several times, and thanking God for the ATKT system.

[ATKT allows you to move to the next year and keep studying even if you fail a subject, as long as you retake the exams and eventually pass them. It stands for 'Allowed to Keep Term', but college students jokingly call it 'After Trying Keep Trying', which is what Sultan did until he passed.]

And he loved every minute of it. He managed to pull up his socks and his grades in the last year to graduate well, and armed with his unbridled passion and degree, he found himself a good job.

Let passion drive you, not pride

The job was a great boost to his ego and his finances, but the scientist in him was craving more. He visited IIT Delhi to explore the possibility of further study. They unceremoniously turned him away. Coming from an unknown engineering college with unremarkable scores, they didn't see a future for him there.

Pride hurt, but desire intact, he came away more determined. So he researched private colleges and decided to get his Masters at SRM Chennai.

Not once, or twice, but a hundred times

He learned he could do his thesis project at a university abroad. He knew this was a distant possibility, but that didn't stop him from trying.

And it didn't stop him from trying a hundred times. He applied to a hundred and six programs. He was very interested in a program in Canada with whom he followed-up... twice... only to get a letter saying, 'If we don't email you that means we are not interested.' Ouch!

Except what better way to feel better about such a rejection than with a letter from Harvard University saying they were interested.

Looks like we made it... finally!

So, after jumping through hoop after hoop his whole life, tucking away his ego, and pursuing his passion with what seems like unending energy, Sultan the scientist was finally at Harvard, working on what he'd always loved.

Oh, but that's not the end of the story. He's currently working on a project with his supervisor Dr. Hadi Shafiee, to develop a diagnostic machine that will test for the HIV infection as easily and inexpensively as you can test for diabetes today.

This project has been selected by a panel of scientists from amongst hundreds of entries as a finalist, one of three, for a $100,000 research award.

The design could revolutionize the way HIV is detected and treated, possibly saving millions of lives around the world, and in India where the HIV epidemic is an increasing challenge.

The winner from the top three will be decided based on a public vote. Sultan has come to India to gather support. He's been touring the country, visiting colleges, writing to key thinkers and influencers, he even wrote to the Prime Minister to reach his goal of one million votes.

If this boy with his passion and perseverance can reach a place where he will benefit the whole world, then I will do what little I can to help him. He will make India proud, and I want to be part of his story.

I've already voted for the HIV detection program to receive the Brigham and Women's Hospital's Bright Futures Award. And I hope you too, my dear reader, are inspired by this story and will support this bright young man to do his wonderful work and usher in a brighter future, for himself, and for the world.

To vote for the Fighting HIV/AIDs - A Low Cost, Flexible Microchip click here.

Curious about the technology? Dr. Hadi Shafiee describes the microchip technology in this video.

To help them reach their goal of a million votes please email and share this with your friends. To send Sultan a message of encouragement do leave a note below.

*Colloquialism for 'struggled to pass'


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21 Responses to "From A Village in Gujarat to a Lab at Harvard: One Indian Boy's Triumph"

Shivachandra Reddy k

20 Oct, 2016

Dear Sultan Khaitani, thums up to your perseverance. All the best

P bosubabu

09 Jun, 2016

Good.Go head.

Raghava Koganti

19 Feb, 2015

Thats awesome and magnificent !! Perseverance is the key to your breakthrough !! Supporting you my 100%, you will achieve what you've aspired for !!

Arun V Galgali

26 Oct, 2014

Great, stupendous, thumbs up to your perseverance & hard work. .....kudos keep it up.

ramchandra varma

25 Oct, 2014

Very good wonderful achievements done by Sultan Khaitani.A perfect role model to all.It explores the hidden treasures in an individual.Well done Sultan.

Ananth Badigair

22 Oct, 2014

Wow! what an inspiring feat Mr. Sultan!!! This is one more proof that it is the perseverance that pays. I salute you from the bottom of my heart. Keep doing the wonderful work that will help millions.

Seetharaman Raja

20 Oct, 2014

Wonderful ! Great inspiration ! A perfect paradigm of how a role model should be !

Tufail A Siddiqui

20 Oct, 2014

I hope Sultan's story inspires a thousand others to believe in themselves and make their own path. my best wishes to the team. You guys are doing great work. May you find succeed in all your endeavours. God bless. Best Regards Tufail

Deepak Kumar Maheshwari

19 Oct, 2014

Very interesting story about Mr.Sultan, his perseverance brought him from Panchgani (India) to Harvard apart from a novel system ATKT which reminds that a failure need not be understood in conventional terms , it can also mean that doer is doing the job in a new way unknown to others. We can only wish him all success !


19 Oct, 2014

Great to help a deserving student for a noble cause. God bless you.


19 Oct, 2014

Wish you all the best Mr.Sultan Khetani


19 Oct, 2014

Hi Hadi, relentless perseverance in your passion to help humanity... great job, congrats and all the best , you inspire.... cheers anup


18 Oct, 2014

Colloquiaism for struggled &pass


18 Oct, 2014

We are proud of Sultan for his perseverance and wish him all suxcess for the benefit of HIV persons


18 Oct, 2014

Great story. Given the coaching enabled admission procedures to top engineering colleges in India, it is heartening to know that there is life beyond them.

Like (1)

Raghuveer Singh Rathore

18 Oct, 2014

My dear Sultan, I am extremely delighted to learn about your dreamt achievement and let all we Indians share your ecstasy. You are the real Hero, who has made every Indian and the entire world proud of you. The mankind would ever remain indebted to you for your research at Harvard University for fighting HIV/AIDS. You are the real revolutionalist who has detected A Low Cost, Flexible Microchip, which will definitely prove a boon to India where the HIV epidemic is an increasing challenge & 3rd world countries as well. You have added one more feather to India's cap of glory. You are the true Son of India. Hats off to you for your just unbelievably successful research you had dreamed of and could finally achieve your target without giving up i.e. after struggling hard & facing great obstacles. Wish you long & healthy life always.

Like (1)


18 Oct, 2014

Totally focussed . Hats off.

V M Surrendiran

18 Oct, 2014

Perseverance helps! Hard works always pays!! Congratulations & keep going!

Venkatratnam karumanchili

17 Oct, 2014

Good gentleman. God bless you

jawad basith

17 Oct, 2014

Great going!hope your effort is successful,and all the best!

Geeta Dinesh Shah

17 Oct, 2014

I strongly support Sultan and Dr Hadi. Shaifee in their endeavor to design a simple and cost effective HIV aids detection device. Pl register my vote for sultan and his project.


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