Lokesh Nagineni describes himself as someone who never backs down from a challenge.
From becoming a top spelling bee participant in the U.S. to earning a black belt in taekwondo and teaching the martial art, Nagineni’s determination to succeed is evident.
Now, he is tackling his biggest challenge yet – pursuing a medical degree as a member of the Paul L. Foster School of Medicine’s class of 2023. And he’s doing it at 19 years old – the youngest student to matriculate at the Foster School of Medicine in its 10-year history.
He graduated from UT Dallas in December 2018 with a bachelor of science degree in biology.
Nagineni was selected as a Foster Scholar and awarded a prestigious Foster Scholarship that helps pay student tuition costs. El Paso businessman Paul L. Foster’s 2007 gift of $50 million to help create the school of medicine also funded the Foster Scholars program.
“I was actually very intrigued because this is a fairly new school,” Nagineni said, explaining one of the qualities that drew him to the Foster School of Medicine. “It stands at a very unique place because it’s not just on the Mexico border, it’s on multiple borders.”
Nagineni was born in Irving, Texas and grew up in Flower Mound, a suburb of Dallas. He spent his summers in southern India with his grandparents in an area with a climate similar to El Paso’s.
Early on, Nagineni took a natural inclination to learning when he discovered spelling bees.
“I was 6 years old and I said, ‘Hey dad, this looks cool.’ And he said, ‘All right, go for it,'” Nagineni said of his first spelling bee. “I got knocked out in the second round. I don’t even remember what word I missed, but I remember it was a lot of fun.”
Undeterred, he kept studying; his natural curiosity drove him to uncover the origin of words.
“I remember looking at some of these words and thinking, ‘No way that’s part of the English language,'” he said. “And it turns out, I was right. They were taken from other languages. I loved looking at language patterns and seeing how they ended up transforming over the years. Latin and Greek form the basis of a lot of English, and they form the basis of jargon that people use in different professional fields.”
His love for words led him to the semifinals of the 2014 Scripps National Spelling Bee in front of a televised audience on ESPN. His TV appearance was only 30 seconds or so, but it was enough for his friends and classmates in middle school to capture videos of themselves watching and cheering for him.
Nagineni became interested in becoming a doctor around age 8, after his grandmother was diagnosed with cancer and became bedridden.
“I didn’t really like the hospital, and we went for that entire summer,” he said. “The doctors said they really couldn’t do anything for her at a certain point.”
Knowing the doctors couldn’t help her, he reached out to his maternal grandfather – a physician – to help him understand a profession that can lead to such heartbreaking moments.
Nagineni asked his grandfather, “If you have limitations, then why is this your job? What makes it worth it?”
His grandfather, a rural physician, took Nagineni to his clinic.
“I spent a lot of time there, and it was a completely different atmosphere,” Nagineni recalled. “I saw medicine from the provider side. The focus was more on what we can do to make a patient’s quality of life the best it can be, whether that be eradicating their illness, treating just the symptoms or delivering palliative care. There’s an entire range of care and treatment in medicine.”
Nagineni said his grandfather was supportive of his dream of becoming a physician, but made sure he understood the reality of the day-to-day life of a doctor.
“He said, ‘That’s great, but you know there’s a very long path and you have to keep working hard? There’ll be days that nobody might need your help, and there’ll be days where everybody might need your help. There will be times you’ll be exhausted after a full day, and you’ll be woken up in the middle of the night to go and treat somebody. So, will you really stick with it?'”
Nagineni explored the idea even more because that’s the kind of curious kid he was.
“I just kept on going back with him to visit the clinic, kept on asking questions. I bugged the nurses so much I’m sure they must have been tired of me,” Nagineni said. “I talked to everybody I could in health care and came to the conclusion that as long as you really like your work and the spirit of the profession, you could do it for the rest of your life.”
Now at age 19, he’s taking the first step toward the life of a physician that he first considered as a profession about 10 years ago—right around the time the Foster School of Medicine admitted its first class.
“Nagineni is the type of student that the team from the Foster School of Medicine works to recruit. Someone who has a passion to serve others, determined to pursue a career in medicine and is attracted to our diverse community. Nagineni is the future of health care,” school officials added.