In a town in southern India, two hours outside of the city of Chennai, nine-year-old Kamesh Sankaran heard reports about the Challenger space shuttle disaster off the coast of Florida on Jan. 28, 1986. The news coverage fascinated Sankaran. “I became enamored by everything in the space program,” he said, “but my real talents were in art.” In high school, his paintings were featured in an exhibit, but he had other plans for his future. When Sankaran told his teachers he wanted to go to college to study aerospace engineering, “They thought I was crazy,” he said. “Nothing I was doing until that point indicated to them that I had any talent in science.”
Sankaran, the youngest of three children, applied to several science and engineering programs at universities in India; after being rejected by all of them, he applied to the Illinois Institute of Technology. Sankaran was not only accepted; he received a sizeable scholarship. At age 17 he got a visa, packed his bags and moved to Chicago.
Though his transition to living in the states was difficult, Sankaran credits his undergrad years with developing his intellectual and professional growth. His personal and spiritual growth came when he attended graduate school at Princeton. “It was the most significant phase of my life,” he said. After a fellow research student shared the gospel with him, “I decided to have an informed argument with my friend, so I bought a Bible and started reading it.” Sankaran became involved in campus ministry while earning a master’s in aerospace engineering and plasma science and technology, in 2000, and a Ph.D. in the same subjects, in 2004.
Whitworth President Bill Robinson had heard through the grapevine about this promising scholar. On a visit to Princeton in 2004, Robinson met Sankaran and encouraged him to apply to teach at Whitworth. At that point, Sankaran had received a number of lucrative offers to do research, and to teach at universities with well-known physics and engineering programs. He knew nothing about Whitworth but applied anyway. During the on-campus interview, he fell in love with the community, and he accepted the job offer Whitworth made. “I had this sense of peace about Whitworth, that this is how God is going to work in my life and through my life,” he said.
Since joining the physics faculty in 2004, Sankaran has been named a Whitworth Most Influential Professor by the class of 2014; he received the Dean’s Junior Faculty Award in 2006; and he received an Academic Mentoring Award in 2012. Sankaran spends lunchtime with students as much as possible, and each summer, he and his students conduct research for NASA. And under the tutelage of Sankaran and his physics colleagues, Whitworth’s graduating physics majors enter prestigious graduate programs around the country; recent placements include Princeton, Harvard, Columbia, Carnegie Mellon, Notre Dame, Georgetown and others.
“The one thing that stands out is God’s goodness,” Sankaran said, “in the many ways I’ve been blessed, first and foremost, with the relationships with my colleagues and my students.”