Beda Luitel: Finding a Way
by Shianne Gruss
In 2009, Beda Luitel left a refugee camp in Nepal with his family, headed for Boise, Idaho. They had spent a total of 18 years in the camp, between their deportation from Bhutan and their resettlement in the western United States. After living in the camp for seven years, Luitel and his family learned that their drinking water was contaminated with dangerously high levels of arsenic. It was a painful lesson.
“Water is a very important entity,” Luitel says. “There’s either too much water, too [little] water, pollution, drought, or flood.”
Into the Eye
Luitel, a graduate research assistant, does not study groundwater quality, however. Under the supervision of IIHR Assistant Research Engineer Gabriele Villarini, Luitel studies hurricanes. Since he joined IIHR in June 2013 after receiving a BS in civil engineering from Boise State University, Luitel has analyzed every hurricane that has made landfall on the continental United States between 2007 and 2012.
The project’s objective is to develop a model that can be used to predict whether a tropical cyclone will develop into a hurricane, therefore allowing adequate preparation for dangerous weather. Luitel is also characterizing rainfall associated with tropical activity to determine whether satellites are accurately predicting rainfall events. Villarini and Gabriel Vecchi of Princeton University’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory received a $300,000 grant for the project from the National Science Foundation in May 2013.
“[Luitel] had a pretty steep learning curve, which has become flatter and flatter over the past year or so,” Villarini says. “Even though his journey has just started, I am sure he will make very significant contributions to the scientific community in the years to come.”
For Luitel, the journey has seemed like a long one.
Weathering the Storm
Luitel was 10 years old when more than 100,000 Bhutanese people of Nepalese origin were forced to leave Bhutan during a 1988–92 government-enforced ethnic cleansing. Luitel stepped foot in school for the first time at age 11 in a refugee camp in the Jhapa district of southeast Nepal. High school was more than three hours away by car from the Goldhamp Camp where he lived with his family and more than 9,000 other refugees.
“We weren’t supposed to work,” Luitel says. “But we found a way.”
Despite the challenge of receiving and financing an education in Nepal, Luitel earned a BS in physics from Tribhuvan University in Biratnagar. He had originally wanted to study engineering, but it was too expensive; he ultimately paid for his studies by tutoring high school students in physics.
“After coming [to the United States], I had no idea that I would go back to school, because I was fed up with studying,” Luitel says. “But I saw numerous opportunities here.”
Encouraged by his advisors in the McNair TRIO program at Boise State, Luitel applied to five different professional programs. The University of Iowa accepted him immediately as a research assistant, and IIHR also offered the best pay, he admits. “Having two kids and going to school fulltime is quite challenging, both in time management and financially,” he says.
Luitel, his wife, and their children live in Iowa City, near his parents and four of his siblings and their families. “I didn’t know the winters were so crazy here,” Luitel says. “But it’s okay. I survived.”