By Brandon HENSLEY
So this hot-shot science student walks into Orenda Tuason’s classroom at Crescenta Valley High one afternoon and it immediately becomes a family atmosphere. The student at first turns a chair around to sit in it like A.C. Slater in “Saved by the Bell.” Tuason has none of that that and scolds him like a mother for doing so. The student turns the chair around eventually, but does so like a son who is just having some family fun.
Because that’s the kind of relationship Tuason and her star student Varun Bhadha have after four years together.
At first, it’s not hard to figure Bhadha out. He’s personal, with a sunny disposition and a knack for relaxing his classmates and helping them do better. He carries with him an air of indifference for what people think or for what daunting task may lie ahead of him.
Bhadha is only 17, a senior at Crescenta Valley High School, so maybe it’s not a surprise to see him wearing a faux-hawk hairstyle, a playful smile and checkered pair of Vans on his feet that need to be replaced. He’s still a kid.
But then he starts talking about the time in 2007 when he became a high priest, and then the thought process becomes, Is this guy putting us on? Is this like when a king puts on civilian clothes and walks the streets in disguise?
As an eighth-grader, Bhadha went with his father Rayomand to Mumbai, India. Bhadha’s family is Zoroastrian, a Middle Eastern religion that goes back centuries. Tradition calls for boys to become priests before they hit puberty, so Bhadha’s time had come.
While his father stayed nearby, Bhadha was in a temple for 25 days with several other boys. They woke up to pillows being thrown at them, because rules forbade physical contact with anyone else. They took baths every three days. They had to wear gloves to eat anything, and most of the time they prayed. When they weren’t praying, they practiced praying.
Bhadha and his peers were restricted to temple grounds, but he made it through, and it’s something he said he would do again.
“What I remember most is we had a lot of time where we could do other stuff but after a while everything gets boring if you’re within that area,” he said. “You’re not supposed to go anywhere and you’re not supposed to touch anyone so after a while you start thinking a lot and you’re just contemplating everything.
“It was an experience. It was a lot of thinking.”
Since that time Bhadha, who is Indian but was born in L.A, has stockpiled an impressive list of accomplishments.
Aside from, you know, becoming a priest and all, Bhadha has been a member for four years of the Academy of Science and Medicine program at CV; he won this year’s Distinguish Senior Award in the Science Department; he’s been an Eagle Scout since last year; he ran the L.A. Triathlon earlier this year and competed in track and field for three years in school.
Bhadha is well-traveled. He’s been to 13 different countries and 30 different states with is family. Seeing the world and learning about it comes from his parents. Rayomand is in charge of collecting seismic data at Caltech. His mother Bakhtawar has a Ph.D. and teaches at Pasadena City College.
The cherry on top for Bhadha though is his own work at Caltech, which he started as an intern in the summer of 2009, and still continues as a volunteer on weekends. He first started doing a project on manipulating DNA to turn zebrafish blue with the use of fluorescent proteins. Now he’s on to other stuff in the lab.
Bhadha doesn’t beat his chest when talking about this; leave that to Tuason, his teacher in the Academy.
“If you want somebody to brag for him, I’ll brag,” she said.
Tuason describes Bhadha as goofy (“but in a good sense”), hard-working and trustworthy. It’s the kind of personality that allowed his Academy team to win the sportsmanship award at the JPL Science Bowl last year.
Students compete in that bowl as if their lives are on the line, made worse by teachers closely monitoring them and making notes on their clipboard, according to Tuason.
“Talk about breaking the ice. We would go in, and everybody’s so tense,” she said. But here came Bhadha, relaxed as ever, bouncing in his seat with a smile, loosening everyone up.
“And he’s rocking [in his chair] like, ‘How’s everybody doing? How’s everybody doing?’” said Tuason. “You’d think they were practicing.”
Bhadha shrugs. “I guess I kind of have a knack for that; making things fun,” he said.
Academy classmate Mary Goral agrees.
“When you see Varun you just want to smile. He’s one of those people [you see and] you can’t be upset anymore,” she said.
Bill Dempsey, a graduate student at Caltech and Bhadha’s mentor, agrees that it’s Bhadha’s energy level that is so refreshing.
“If you just think about it in terms of being in a lab, he’s a really inquisitive guy. He is not afraid to ask questions, which is awesome in a lab environment, and he’ll give his feedback as well,” Dempsey said.
Some days, Bhadha will come in and Dempsey and the other guys will start talking about how this day might not be that fun, but Bhadha won’t hear of it. Everything that I do is fun here, he’ll say.
“To see someone who is as motivated and determined and Varun at such a young age is mind boggling and really great,” Dempsey said.
“It doesn’t take a whole lot to get him excited about anything, especially when it comes to science,” said Tuason.
Bhadha will even try to learn with a broken arm. He recently crashed his bike while riding down Briggs Avenue and busted his arm, but that didn’t stop him from trying to come back to his Emergency Training Response class at school.
“It would have been easy for him to say, ‘You know what? I can’t go to class. I can’t do it,’” said Tuason. “But no, he tried to actually continue the class. He wanted to go through it even though he had the sling and he was all battered.”
“He’s really hard-working, but he knows how to make the best of a bad situation,” said Goral.
Bhadha said he gets his motivation from his parents.
“They’re always supporting me and pushing me to do better, so I think that maybe they lighten it up a little bit because I am self-motivated, and maybe they’d do more if I wasn’t as motivated by myself, but it’s not like, ‘You need to do this,’” he said.
Bhadha will attend UCLA in the fall to study biology, but if at some point he needs to find his own way, that’s OK. Rayomand came to the U.S., spent several years at Glendale Community College and spent five years at UCLA before getting a degree in cognitive science, something he doesn’t even use anymore.
It doesn’t seem like Bhadha will have too much trouble with whatever he pursues in the future. Tuason said he’s not cocky, but that he studies so much he’s so confident. Bhadha takes a different approach to his success, much like he’s done with everything in his life.
“I do what I have fun with,” he said.