Big ambitions that began with Duke Kunshan

Duke Kunshan alumnus Aman Agarwal has big ambitions that he hopes will change the face of science communication.

A graduate of the university’s first student cohort in 2015, he has taken a rollercoaster of a career journey since leaving DKU, before earlier this year launching a discourse and knowledge-sharing platform for scientists doing cutting-edge STEM research, which he believes could help to spur faster technology development as well as better connections between academia and business.

Aman Agarwal makes a new friend on a visit to the Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou, China

“I’m building a platform that bridges geographical and linguistic divides, empowering scientific talent across the world,” he says. “It’s sort of a social network for people interested in science that will make it easier to collaboratively read and discuss research papers.”

Agarwal joined a fledgling DKU in 2015 as part of the first Global Learning Semester, a four-month-long study opportunity for students from around the world, seizing the chance for an “adventure” and a temporary change of scene from his electronics and communication engineering degree at Shiv Nadar University in India.

On arrival at DKU, he was not disappointed, finding a modern campus with “world-class facilities” and an open learning environment that had a deep impact on him.

Aman Agarwal (second from right) celebrates the Hindu festival of Holi with friends at Duke Kunshan

“It was an academic shift for me, in that the professors were much more social with students than I was used to, much more like peers in a community,” he says.

“It was interesting to have more candid conversations at the dinner table or over lunch with professors, to go out on trips with them and bond on a more personal level. Surprisingly, I am on much better terms personally with all my professors from DKU than my professors from my home university where I spent four years,” he adds.

The trip was also full of memorable events, according to Agarwal, including an invitation to advise the local government on a promotional book, and his 15 minutes of fame on a travel-themed Chinese television show, which saw him filmed visiting Kunshan tourist attractions and trying out local food.

Aman Agarwal (right) with David Rubenstein, co-founder of private equity firm The Carlyle Group, during a conference trip while at Duke Kunshan University

“I was really just being stupid, you know as a naive tourist, like learning to fold dumplings with some humorous commentary in Chinese, but it was a fun experience,” he says.

After DKU, Agarwal returned to Shiv Nadar University to complete his undergraduate degree before eventually taking up his breakthrough job at a Silicon Valley information technology firm called Udacity, helping to lead their expansion into India from an office in Bangalore, at the young age of 22.

“I believe that having been to DKU and having had that international experience working with American peers, having that personality of sorts, was very helpful in them making the decision to take a chance on me,” he says.

Aman Agarwal (second from right) at a Kunshan seafood plant learning to open clams with a pair of pliers during the shoot for a Chinese television show

From there he moved through several other positions over the next few years, working for artificial intelligence companies in India and the United States, including Scale AI and Starsky Robotics, where he was a systems engineer in charge of safety features on self-driving trucks. He also completed a master’s degree in systems engineering at Cornell University in upstate New York.

Eventually, Agarwal returned to India where he was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug. Using the knowledge he had learned over the years he launched an IT education company aimed at helping executives become tech fluent so they could better communicate with engineers and lead their companies through digital transformation. He also published a book called ‘Tech Fluent CEO,’ a condensed version of his company’s training programs.

Aman Agarwal (fifth from right) with fellow DKUers, taking a break from an organized pillow fight in the university dormitory

“Writing the book was the toughest thing I’ve ever done, for sure,” he says. “But the defining philosophy for me was that you can’t take a book back once it’s out there in the world and so I was really motivated to put out the best possible work that I could.”

The book remains, but after two years Agarwal decided to fold the business, instead opting to concentrate his efforts on a new venture, one that had fermented in his thoughts since the Global Learning Semester at Duke Kunshan University – a science-focused social network called DenseLayers.

Aman Agarwal (left) having dinner with DKU classmates at an Indian restaurant in Shanghai’s old French Concession

The online site brings scientists together to discuss their research, using the latest AI translation technology to overcome language barriers. It is also open to people just interested in science and businesspeople who want to tap into the latest scientific developments.

“The mission for the company is to break down as many barriers as possible that prevent people from engaging with breakthrough research,” he says. “I hope to contract the research cycle from years to weeks, making it ten times faster. The ultimate aim in doing that is to facilitate more rapid progress in scientific development.”

Aman Agarwal (left) with classmates on a trip to Suzhou

Agarwal traces the seed of the idea’s “global” focus back to his time at Duke Kunshan University, and being for the first time in an international research environment that was trying to break down barriers itself.

“Going to China and Duke Kunshan changes you as a person in a positive way. You see how much bigger the world is and when you see that you start to be more ambitious,” he says. “I’m pretty sure that if I had never been to China then my dreams would be a little bit smaller.”

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