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Pankaj Agarwal

Most undergrads only suffer through pre-reqs to complete their graduation requirements. But one student is voluntarily taking these courses: in fact, he is excited to do so. When they cost too much, he goes to lecture, completes problem sets and homework assignments-even takes the exams-for absolutely no credit.

And that's not the only thing that sets Pankaj Agarwal apart. He also has a career, a family and two children. Oh, and he's a decade or two older than most of the people in his classes.

Agarwal, 43, says he used to have the typical attitude about required courses 20-some years ago when he was completing his education in India.

"I was just doing what everyone else was doing and didn't know why," he recalls. "I never understood the importance of basic sciences in high school and college.... After 20 years, I look back and feel the need for a strong foundation."

He's had a number of "twists and turns" in life before arriving at Duke, where he currently works as a bioinformatician in the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center.

After getting a degree in chemical engineering, a masters from Louisiana State University, a second masters in environmental engineering at North Carolina State University and working at a long list of companies specializing in anything from software programming to research, he became interested in bioinformatics and began taking any course that would help prepare him for a job in that field. By taking several science courses every semester at Duke, he is trying to catch up on the basics, which have changed significantly since he took introductory classes.

"I didn't even know what a genome was four or five years back," he admits.

For now, Agarwal says he is happy to be taking classes at Duke while working to further his career and that he will be doing so for a few more semesters. But he has some advice for all of us suffering through our pre-reqs.

"Take advantage of being at Duke. It's the best education I've experienced, and I've been to a few different universities. The quality of the teaching and education in general is phenomenal. Make the most of it."

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