Brotherly bond: Varkeys made quantum leaps academically at GCU

The Varkey brothers (from left), Philip, Thomas and John, were academic juggernauts during their time at GCU. Thomas is now a neurologist, and Philip and John, who earned electrical engineering degrees, are in doctoral programs. (Contributed photo)

Photos by Ralph Freso

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story originally appeared in the April issue of GCU Magazine.

Their school building was their home. Their teacher? Their mom. They were one another’s classmates for 12 years of home schooling before arriving at Grand Canyon University, where brothers Thomas, John and Philip Varkey excelled and went on to impressive medical and academic careers in engineering.

The Peoria, Arizona, natives grew up in a biracial home. With stay-at-home mom, Rhonda, from the United States and their engineering/scientist dad, also named Thomas, from India, the brothers experienced a rich cultural upbringing.

One overarching emphasis from both parents was to strive for a life rich in academic success.

“My dad used to always tell us there are two main things you have to live by in your life,” John said. “Always work hard, and the only people who are going to be there for you at the very end are your brothers.”

It was then and there that the Varkey family legacy was born.

“We were always a bit nerdy growing up,” said Philip. “We never played a lot of video games, but we played math games and such. None of us were really good at sports. Instead of going out like most high schoolers and attending different events, it was like, make sure to study and work hard because that is your future.”

During their years of home schooling, the Varkey brothers worked closely together as much as their grade differences allowed, and through structure and organization, their mom taught them early on to challenge academic standards and push the boundaries.

“Our mom had a teaching philosophy,” said Philip. “She would say, ‘You are now in high school, and you are going to college soon. I am not going to focus so much on teaching you. You teach yourself.’ We were given books and supplies, did the work ourselves, and she just graded our exams.”

Their dad’s life advice and mom’s teaching philosophy set the Varkey brothers up for success. It pushed them to create their own plans, learn how to execute ideas individually and analyze their results. It taught them how to think, they said. It influenced how they viewed education and shaped their minds for their future aspirations.

While many students struggle with what field of study to pursue or what college to attend, the Varkeys decided their course at an early age. All were fascinated by medicine, math and engineering, and that’s what they pursued at GCU.

It wasn’t until GCU that they attended their first traditional school, one with more than two classmates, big lecture halls and multiple professors.

“First day of classes freshman year was the scariest one,” Philip said. “I was a little nervous in class with a professor because this is someone you don’t know who is going to greatly affect your future.”

GCU alum Dr. Thomas Varkey is a neurologist at Banner University Medial Center in Phoenix. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

Thomas added, “I walked in thinking I would be behind and not know things. For the first time in my life, I had teachers and could ask (them) questions. It was quite the culture shock.”

For the next four years, Thomas, John and Philip thrived on rigorous schedules filled by challenging courses and packed with academic extracurriculars. They took advantage of every minute of college to soak in knowledge and accomplish as much as they could.

Thomas, a 2017 GCU graduate, earned his bachelor’s degree in biology with a pre-medicine emphasis, followed by a master’s in business administration in 2018. While working on his master’s, he also was an instructor’s assistant at GCU and transitioned to teaching his own classes in 2023.

In the Honors College, Thomas helped start the college’s student body leadership club, providing a place students can grow as leaders. He performed seven full-body dissections in his pre-med program and reveled in research while in the College of Natural Sciences (then the College of Science, Engineering and Technology). He earned his doctor of medicine and master of education degrees simultaneously from the University of Texas at Austin and is a neurologist at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix.

Oh, and he touts 55 peer-reviewed publications.

“A lot of my work ethic is based on the idea that I am capable of chasing anything I want,” Thomas said. “GCU is a school where you make yourself. If you want to be a part of a club or an organization, they’ve got it. It offered me more opportunities than I can imagine, and it really shaped my career trajectory.”

John, a 2020 GCU graduate, earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and his master’s in electrical engineering from Notre Dame. He was president of both GCU’s chapter of American Scientific Affiliation and the Honors College student body, secretary for HOSA-Future Health Professionals, secretary of the Honors STEMists, and he served on the college’s Student Advisory Board.

He is enrolled in the Ph.D. program at Texas A&M University, where his electrical engineering research is focused on creating hardware neural networks, a method in artificial intelligence that teaches computers to process data the way human brains do.

Philip Varkey and parents Rhonda and Thomas during Commencement.

“When you want to dedicate yourself to something, you can always find time for it,” John said. “A lot of it is remembering why I chose the degree, which is that I want to do something to better humanity overall.”

Philip graduated from GCU in 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering. At GCU, he was president of the IEEE branch for electrical and electronics engineers, was a member of the race car-building SAE Formula One Club (now called Canyon Motorsports), worked part time in the engineering shops and also worked at La Belle Labs, which designs and prototypes medical and nonmedical devices.

He is enrolled in a joint master’s and Ph.D. program in electrical and computer engineering at Texas A&M. He is also a researcher focused on creating and graphing transistors to use in neuromorphic computing, in which elements of a computer are modeled after systems in the human brain and nervous system.

“High level education is difficult but a long-term investment that is worth it,” Philip said.

The brothers have followed their father’s advice of working hard, and they’ve lived out his second piece of advice: maintain a close family bond. Even with all their achievements and awards, it is the moments they have shared together as brothers that are the most valuable.

“One of the fondest memories I have from college is us three brothers studying in the GCU Honors College lounge,” Thomas said. “We were all studying our individual courses, teasing each other and throwing paper at one another. Just having a good old time.”

***

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