Finding a kindred spirit half a world away

By

Jason Krell

Editor's note: This is part of a series of profiles for spring 2016 commencement. See the rest here .

Palden Choying spent his childhood as a nomadic shepherd in the mountains of the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. He spent his days helping his mother milk yaks and tended to his family’s sheep. At night, he would fall asleep listening to folk tales passed down throughout his community.

Choying’s life changed when his father got a job as a police officer in the county town of Xornda. At 8 years old, he got his first taste of formal education, though the transition was difficult.

“Teachers in primary school never provided inspiration and taught us nothing fascinating,” Palden said. “The teachers forced us to study, and that affected me negatively.”

Despite not being particularly fond of studying, Choying scored third highest out of 200 students from five different township primary schools and two county-level primary schools on the Nangchen Nationalities Middle School entrance exam.

From then on, Choying was motivated to be the top student and spent most of his time studying or playing soccer. By the end of his first semester, he was one of the top four students in three classes — once again helping him to advance to an undergraduate level education.

The next turning point in Choying’s life was when an American professor asked him to join a highly competitive English training program. That, along with his status as one of the top students at his university, helped him get a scholarship to study environmental management in the Philippines.

“At the beginning, my professors wanted me to study environmental pollution in the Philippines,” Palden said. “But I had convinced him to let me study about grasslands. I didn’t have a specific focus at first, but that search led to the Pika.”

Researching the pika, a small mammal viewed by many as a pest, was where Choying eventually landed. It also proved to be his connection to Arizona State University.

While studying, he came across a research paper written by School of Life Sciences President’s Professor Andrew Smith, which labeled the pika as a crucial species in the area. After reading more of Smith’s work, Choying wrote to him and started a relationship that resulted in him enrolling at ASU through a million-dollar, international grant of Smith’s.

On May 9, he will receive his doctorate in biology and society through the School of Life Sciences, part of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Question: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study in the field you’ve chosen?

Answer: Choosing to study in this field didn't come out of a sudden realization of its importance, but rather from a gradual awareness of the environmental challenges facing my home region and Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau. Tibetans have traditionally lived harmoniously with the natural world, and a range of values, including religious beliefs, are interconnected with the natural entities. But external factors such as economic development and social transformations have imposed great challenges in maintaining the health of the environment that Tibetans desire. Keeping a harmonious relationship between nature and humans is the Tibetan peoples’ important cultural heritage, and it is how we define ourselves.

Thus, as a native Tibetan, I felt I had the obligation to strive for maintaining this intimate relationship between nature and humans under the new setting. I thought receiving an education could empower me to achieve this goal, so I chose to major in environmental management from a couple of options that I could select for my master’s program in the Philippines. I am very fortunate to have the opportunity to continue higher education in the biology and society program at ASU.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: I am very impressed by the quality of education in general, but specifically I am greatly inspired by the hard-working professors and many students. I am also very much inspired by how courses are designed to solve real issues with hands-on activities. That is rare in universities where I come from, and I think it is part of the reasons why most of the best universities in the world are in this country.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: My major professor, Andrew Smith, offered me an opportunity to study under his supervision at ASU and work for a research project, “Determinants of grassland dynamics on the Tibetan highlands,” for which he is one of the primary investigators. That was a dream come true, so I didn’t hesitate a second and accepted the offer when he contacted me about this opportunity via email.

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: No pain, no gain.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: The library.

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: I will be teaching conservation biology and biology at Qinghai Normal University in Qinghai Province in China, where I received my bachelor’s degree, and continue my research on seeking sustainable solutions for Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau alpine grassland ecosystems.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: I would use the money to support students who cannot afford education, particularly at the university level in underdeveloped nations. I believe every human being deserves equal opportunities for education and anyone can make a difference in the world if given equal opportunities for education.

Top photo: Palden Choying and President’s Professor Andrew Smith. Photo by Rich Harris