Heartbroken by earthquake, Nepali student turns attention to helping homeland

Dhiraj Prasai, a Vanderbilt Ph.D. candidate, stands by Swayambhunath Temple in Kathmandu in 2009, which was damaged in last week's earthquake. (Submitted photo)

Dhiraj Prasai’s nonstop consumption of news about the Nepal earthquake started with a 2:30 a.m. Friday phone call that jolted him from sleep.

Did you hear? His friend said in a grim voice. Everything in Nepal is gone.

Prasai, a Vanderbilt University Ph.D. candidate in interdisciplinary materials science, flipped on the television and immediately started dialing friends and family in Kathmandu over and over. His wife, Pranita Mishra, a data analyst in Vanderbilt’s Department of Health Policy, sat next to him, doing the same thing and getting the same result – hours of ringing with no answer.

It took until Saturday night to get the joyous news that all their relatives and close friends survived the quake, many of them running outside into open spaces with the first tremors and staying there.

Today, with the death toll in their homeland nearing 5,000 and more than 9,000 injured, the Nepali couple is asking Vanderbilt students, faculty and staff to help.

Prasai came to the U.S. in 2005 for his undergraduate studies at Hanover College in Indiana and began his doctoral work at Vanderbilt in 2009. His research involves the study of graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon that can be used to make electronic devices.

The idea to help Nepal started with an impossible Monday in his lab.

“I was too stressed out to work,” Prasai said. “All these pictures of dead bodies posted on Facebook – I couldn’t focus.”

The head of Prasai’s laboratory, Vanderbilt physics and electrical engineering assistant professor Kirill Bolotin, urged him to go home. Bolotin also suggested a step toward healing – raising money to help Nepal.

That night, Prasai launched an email campaign across campus, outlining the challenges faced by survivors – no electricity, no food or running water and limited communication with the outside world. Tens of thousands of people spend their nights shivering in streets and parks, even if their homes are still standing, because they’re unable to return until those houses are judged structurally sound.

“My parents in Kathmandu haven’t even been able to go into the house to inspect and make sure it’s OK,” Mishra said. “They just know it’s there. There are thousands of bodies still trapped beneath rubble, because there’s no systematic excavation that’s happening. All the historical buildings and landmarks are damaged or gone.

“We know there are many families who need help in our city of Kathmandu and outside. We can gather some money and donate through reputable organizations.”

The couple suggests four links where people can contribute:

Want to help?

Dhiraj Prasai and Pranita Mishra suggest people who want to help Nepal visit one of the following sites:


Heidi Hall, 615-322-6614
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