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Rehabilitation science student celebrates rare award trifecta with his now-reunited family

The pandemic kept Samuel Durairaj, a Ph.D. student in rehabilitation science, separated from his family for 11 months, but they were there to see him win awards for research, teaching and leadership.

Family of four, with father and mother sitting and two young children on their laps
Samuel Durairaj, an award-winning doctoral student in rehabilitation science, reconnected with his daughter, wife and son once they all could reside in Kansas City.

When Samuel Durairaj won his first award of the evening, he walked up to the stage alone.

When he won his second award, he strode to the stage with his 1-year-old son in his arms.

And minutes later, claiming his third award, he brought his 6-year-old daughter to the stage.

The audience at the University of Kansas Department of Physical Therapy, Rehabilitation Science and Athletic Training Pinning Ceremony clapped and hooted in appreciation of his multiple awards: the Bittel Family Leadership Award, Outstanding Graduate Research Assistant and Outstanding Graduate Teaching Assistant. But they also probably noticed Durairaj’s bright smile of a proud papa who scooped up his children to share in the acclaim.

That night was a celebration of Durairaj’s hard work as a doctoral student in rehabilitation science in KU School of Health Professions and the unique situation of having one person win three prestigious awards. But for Durairaj, it was also a celebration of the sacrifices he and his family made to continue his education and the joy of finally having his wife and children back with him after a year apart.

In August 2021, Durairaj traveled to Kansas City, temporarily leaving behind his wife, preschool-age daughter and 2-month-old son to pursue his doctorate in KU School of Health Professions. He also gave up the steady paycheck of his position at Christian Medical College in Vellore, India. For 12 years, Durairaj had taught small classes — only 10 physical therapy students a year in a highly selective program — while treating patients and managing a team of physical therapists in the afternoon.

“My real liking of teaching started when I was a student, observing my own teachers and the passion they had to teach,” Durairaj said. “We had such a reverence, respect and affection toward our teachers.”

Coming to KU

In 2014, Durairaj participated in a short exchange program created by Mani M. Mani, M.D., a graduate of Christian Medical College who became a professor of plastic surgery at KU School of Medicine.

“That’s how I first got this opportunity to come to KU, and that’s when I really thought I could do my Ph.D. at KU,” Durairaj said. “We don’t have many (Ph.D.) opportunities in India.”

Portrait of Samuel Durairaj
Samuel Durairaj

He waited to pursue the degree. First, he got married. And then his wife, Suja Angelin Chandrasekaran, had to finish her master’s degree in occupational therapy. And then they had a child. And then they had another child. But not even a pandemic could stop Durairaj from coming back to KU Medical Center for his Ph.D.

For his family, however, it was a different story. They all needed visas to enter the United States, and because of the pandemic, visa applications were on backlog. No one knew when, or if, visas would be available.

“It was so, so bleak,” Durairaj said. From his apartment in Kansas City, he scrolled through multiple online forums about obtaining visas. “Everyone was saying that there’s been a backlog of several thousand visa applications, and there’s no definite timeline that they will open anything.”

So, he called his wife, and he watched his children growing via video link. “Despite missing my family, I was happy how things were going in my life at first. All I had to do was read, read, read and finish my assignments,” Durairaj said. In the silence, he achieved a 4.0 GPA.

A hurried journey for visas

One day in May of 2022, things changed. “Visa appointments just opened up, and I was able to book an appointment for all of them, my wife and kids, but with only three more days in hand — meaning that I saw the appointment on a Thursday, and the appointment was set for Sunday,” he explained. “But it wasn’t the regular place they had to go — it was in a town that was several hours of travel, like 2,000 kilometers. We had to scramble in two days’ time. “

In July of 2022, Durairaj greeted his family at an airport in Chicago. “It was a nice, happy moment,” he said. “I didn’t see my son for almost a year. Though he saw me on the phone every day, he didn’t really connect with me when we met in person. He saw me as a stranger. That was something we expected. So, he didn’t come to me.”

But these days, it’s a different story. It’s Daddy’s face that greets him at 5:30 a.m. “My son wakes up very early, so that is my first job.”

His other jobs for the day follow. Teaching. Research. Studying (not only for his Ph.D. but also for several professional certifications). Picking his daughter up from the bus stop. Supporting his wife Suja as she completes her certifications and seeks employment as an occupational therapist. And then, maybe, sleep.

“I sleep less now. (I go to bed) around 11:30, sometimes beyond that,” Durairaj said. “I try to squeeze as much time as possible between (academic) reading and juggling things here at home.”

Outstanding in two fields

Patricia Kluding, Ph.D., chair of the Department of Physical Therapy, Rehabilitation Science and Athletic Training in KU School of Health Professions, said someone winning awards for both teaching and research, like Durairaj, is unusual.

“Most Ph.D. students choose to be either a research assistant or a teaching assistant in a given semester,” she explained. “It is unusual to do both and very difficult to excel at both roles at the same time.”

Kluding said Durairaj “clearly excels” in the role of graduate teaching assistant, but he also gained praise from his research adviser and mentor, Abiodun Akinwuntan, Ph.D.

Akinwuntan, dean of KU School of Health Professions, is also co-director of the Laboratory for Advanced Rehabilitation Research in Simulation (LARRS) where Durairaj has assisted in research.

“He has this calmness about him,” Akinwuntan said. “He’s a very respectful individual, and that draws people to him. When you have someone who is calm, smart and welcoming, then you can understand why students are indebted to him, and he does his research well.”

More time for snow

Durairaj plans to spend the next year or two at KU Medical Center, finishing up his doctorate and giving his daughter, Jessica, another winter (or two) to enjoy the Midwestern snow.

“All she wanted to see in Kansas City was the snow because she had never seen the snow before,” Durairaj shared. “But the family came in July (2022), so she had to wait six months. She’s now so excited to see snow on the road. Change is challenging — a new country, a new kind of setup. But it’s been a wonderful journey so far.”

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