Prateek Kunwar will be one of the newest PhD graduates from the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa’s College of Natural Sciences in just a few days.
During his time as a Department of Mathematics PhD student, Kunwar has made a profound impact on the state in two ways: he worked extensively on COVID-19 mathematical modeling that informed the state’s pandemic response and he is a mathematics instructor educating our next generation of higher education students at Honolulu Community College. He did all of this on top of completing his PhD requirements.
Earning a PhD
Kunwar earned his bachelor’s degree from Delhi Technological University in India and his master’s degree from the University of Maine. He chose to pursue his PhD at UH Mānoa because Mānoa had scientists working in his desired field: applied dynamical systems. Kunwar defended his dissertation in April 2023 and is on his way to graduation.
“It feels very surreal,” Kunwar said. “Of course, anybody who starts in the program does it with the intention of finishing it. But when you are this close to finishing and I look back, it almost seems unreal that I find myself in this position particularly because after I started I actually took a year’s leave of absence and I wasn’t sure if I was going to come back. But I did come back and then things kind of rolled and I think it’s just surreal.”
COVID-19 forecast modeling
Kunwar was part of a team, under the leadership of Professor Monique Chyba, that worked tirelessly to provide the latest COVID-19 modeling during the pandemic. The model was widely used by experts and decision makers to develop policies for the state and counties.
“It gave me motivation to complete the requirements for my PhD,” Kunwar said. “I kept learning. It kept evolving. There were always new things happening with vaccinations rolling out and new characteristics coming out about the disease. We’re always brainstorming—‘what’s happening around the world? It’s going to happen in Hawaiʻi so we should be ready and how can we adapt the model?’”
During his work on COVID-19 modeling, Kunwar was constantly focused on making sure the data was accurate and credited Chyba with ensuring their findings were translated for wider public consumption.
“I am absolutely delighted to see Prateek graduate, he worked so hard during the pandemic with endless nights and weekends to make sure the model was up to date and that simulations were meaningful,” Chyba said. “It was not an easy journey, modeling COVID-19 while in the urgency of the pandemic did put a lot of pressure. I am extremely proud of Prateek. The reward of his efforts is priceless with a sense of accomplishment and a PhD in mathematics.”
Honolulu CC instructor
Kunwar became a tenure-track instructor at Honolulu CC and continued his education through the support provided by his college. One thing he has discovered about teaching has been his ability to bond with the students, many of whom also work and go to school.
“At Honolulu Community College, there are a variety of students—they are looking for transfers, trade students, some are adult learners, and most of them work while doing school and I’m doing the same. There is a sense of camaraderie that forms,” Kunwar said. “It’s just been incredible working there. I’ve used what I’ve done in my research in my calculus classes and I’m developing some lessons for algebra classes. …I think it’s exciting for the students to know that the mathematics you’re learning may be basic right now but it builds up all of these things that we used in our forecast for the state of Hawaiʻi.”
Kunwar added, “For me, my teaching and my interactions with students kept me grounded and made me feel less isolated during the pandemic. Without that, it would be really difficult to keep going. Teaching at Honolulu CC is really great. Working and having discussions with my students energizes me. It motivates me to look for different ways of presenting ideas and understanding how I could contribute towards their success.”
One of the things Kunwar wants to do after graduation is travel back home to India, something he hasn’t been able to do in more than four years. He returned to Hawaiʻi from India in March 2019 for the job interview with Honolulu CC and then he had one regular semester before the pandemic hit. Kunwar planned to visit India in summer 2021, but the Delta variant, which started in India, emerged.
“This year, I was really pushing myself to wrap everything up and go home to see my family,” Kunwar said. “It’s been a really tough four years being away from everybody. But I’ve had friends and really good support here so that’s kept me going.”