America, Graduate School, Science

#11. To be part of the Nobel prize celebration

I remember that when I was younger and used to view the world of science through a rosier lens, I was deeply moved by one particular scene from the movie A Beautiful Mind. It was that scene where the Nobel committee sends an investigator to verify whether John Nash is sane and ends up watching other professors ritualistically giving away their pens to Nash as a token of his achievement and joining Princeton as a faculty.

Much later, I found out it was just a dramatic add-on to the screenplay and no such tradition exists in Princeton. Nevertheless what was beautiful about it was the moment of recognition and the joy of being associated with a community & brotherhood who appreciates the sophistication and impact of your achievements. As a kid who wanted to step into science, it was a huge motivation.

As years went by, career choices were made, compromised with tiny weeny aspects of life to be where I am now, I realized in due course that science is always not so exciting. You toil, do your share of hard work and most of the time your work doesn’t get translated into something impactful. You don’t bring an overnight change in people’s lives. Also what you do doesn’t make sense to your next door neighbour or your friends and they stereotype to be someone of the order of ‘Sheldon Cooper’.  But I also learnt to be appreciative of the fact that science is a team effort and it is an engine which we all drive together & somewhere all of it is connected.

uncEveryday as I enter Lineberger comprehensive Cancer Research centre at UNC where I work as a graduate student, I see a community of people working their ass-off to push the field forward. True that science is not philanthropy. Everything we do is not purely for the benefit of the community and often we have to orient our research to individualistic needs and under circumstances where pressure to publish and receiving grants guide research goals. But no career aspiration can make an individual spin the wheel for years unless he/she is truly emotional and passionate about what they do each day for the rest of their lives.

Just because Dr. Aziz Sancar and his colleagues made some breakthrough in understanding of DNA repair mechanism doesn’t mean that we are an inch closer to the cure for cancer. But today I rediscovered that cumulative passion and emotion as I saw the same community gathering together at UNC to recognize and celebrate the success of Dr. Sancar. Somewhere life came a full circle.

Bonds, Friendship, Music, Relationship, Student Life

#7. Catch 22, Murakami & ‘Me’ time

“In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.”
― Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

The very purpose of starting this blog was to give a channel to my hitherto stifled thoughts, which I was pondering over, trying to get across but couldn’t. An ideal alternative would have been to maintain a journal but that wouldn’t really help to attain my closure as I still ran into the process of locking the stream of thoughts essentially to my personal domain. In order to truly  communicate, I needed a space  where I could pour my ideas, frozen in sentences. But what exactly I was trying to communicate and who was my audience? Was I really trying to scream to the world reaping open my insides, showing I’m me? I rather always found the idea of sharing titbits of personal emotions in social media 24*7 nauseating and irritating. It wasn’t really my mouthpiece. I also didn’t want to justify others for who I am. I was rather unsure of why I was doing this. But I still wanted to register my expressions periodically for my heart wanted to let go of the burden of thoughts and I craved for the lightness. Probably seeing the words and polishing them also helped me to appreciate, to comprehend.

There’s a real catch with the age that is 22. You stand in face to face with the world outside from the comforts of a DSC_0015_editedcozy college life with its illusive sense of complacency. The fear of future, which was silently crouching in the dark comes and encapsulates you. And if you are a student with a prolonged research life ahead, you don’t really feel so excited about the journey ahead once all the intensive formalities gets completed and you start to mentally prepare yourselves for the gruelling ride which seeks perseverance and patience. You don’t really doubt your life choice, cause you have probably made this choice on your own without any peer pressure. But things change. The initial charm of science touching lives and the ‘muggle’-ish astonishment towards scientific wizardry  wanes away as you be a part of the school of ‘sorcery’ yourself. You see the world through a prism of pragmatism and anxiety sets in.

I never spent time in my home for a prolonged spell since I left my home for my undergrads in the summer of ’10. The summer breaks and winter breaks were always pre-occupied with internships home and abroad. But when I eventually got the time this summer to spend with my parents, in my home town before I leave it for good, I found things have changed. It wasn’t the same old place where I lived. These weren’t the same people I lived with. Or probably everything has remained same, but all what has changed is my dynamics with every entity.

“Memory is a funny thing. When I was in the scene, I hardly paid it any mind. I never stopped to think of it as something that would make a lasting impression, certainly never imagined that eighteen years later I would recall it in such detail. I didn’t give a damn about the scenery that day. I was thinking about myself. I was thinking about the beautiful girl walking next to me. I was thinking about the two of us together, and then about myself again.

-Haruki Murakami, Norwegian Wood

I had always an affinity for abstract, surrealist elements; kafkaesque themes. That’s why once I got a hang of Murakami it was difficult for me to let go of the obsession. I got hold of my first one, ‘Hard-Boiled Wonderland and End of the world’ from my best friend. She bought it for herself and before she could read it, it ended up with me. The easy readability, his characteristic narrative style, the magical metaphors and the reverberated use of music central to the character development diversifying from Dylan, Beatles, Coltrane to Beethoven drew me towards his other works and I started making a diet on his books in rapid succession. However, this period of life was running in parallel with the turmoil in my personal world. My long-term relationship came to an end. And with the termination came up the doubt, the regrets, the baggage of overwhelming nostalgia and the eagerness to go back to the past to tune it despite knowing nothing can be changed. I was looking for a closure, but neither the past, present or the future could assuage my mind. Till then, I stayed beside my friends and motivated them during their troubles. But once it happens to ourselves, only then we realize how difficult it is to follow suit.

“The truth. It is a beautiful and terrible thing..”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone

Staying in home elevated my frustrations. In a long long time, I had enough time with myself and had the trouble of adjusting myself to the obvious realities of life. I tried to engage myself pro-actively to derail myself from my train of thoughts. However being at the edge of my student life, I found my circle of friends generously distributed like pinheads in the map. And then there was Murakami. His penmanship bordering on the themes of loneliness and isolation pushed me towards my inner darkness. I started having mood swings and depressive feats.  However, as I went through these cycles I gradually learned to celebrate what I had in my life. The remnant of myself from my past which I was carrying with me. I felt like coming out of the storm and looking back at the changed landscape and the changed me. I stopped nourishing loneliness.

Whenever I finish writing a new post, I feel uncertain about what I am going to write next about. But then I saw that can’t be planned. Whenever words seem to come in moments of outburst, they just spontaneously trickle down through my keyboard and then I again reach the plateau of uncertainty. And that’s similar to our life. We are actors being pushed to the stage for a cold run. We can’t guide the course of the movie we cast ourselves, the only thing we can do is to perform our act properly. Es muss sein. It must be. We have no choice 🙂

I am not a happy person. I am not an unhappy person either. I am just not sure of the changing life around me. And I now understand that having doubts is perfectly normal.

Higher Education, Life at IIT, Student Life

#2. Ticky tacky | Doodle jump : Being a science undergrad in IITs

And the people in the houses all went to the university,
Where they were put in boxes and they came out all the same

There’s a green one and a pink one and a blue one and a yellow one,
And they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same.

– Pete Seeger, Little Boxes

I was sitting on an evening train with a friend of mine, returning from Kharagpur (KGP) to Kolkata. It was already growing dark outside and with each successive mechanical drag, the outsides were fast trailing behind us. As my friend focused her attention on playing an arcade game where the avatar has to hop on the suspended platforms to keep itself alive, I started wondering about the platform I left behind myself. This particular visit to KGP was aimed at collecting the provisional degree from the institute as it wasn’t possible for me to attend the convocation. With this , all ties with the institute had been severed technically. Chances are bleak that I might revisit the place which I used to call home for the past five years.

Enrolling in IIT KGP under an Integrated Masters in Science program wasn’t a compulsion for me. I wanted to pursue an undergrad degree in basic science for a very long time. However, being a citizen of a nation obsessed with IITs and IIMs, and hitherto an outsider to the IIT system, I was fooled. I was tricked into believing that by joining IIT, I would be able to receive the best academic training and share my domain with a cluster of like-minded students which would facilitate me in realizing my aspirations. I was incorrect in my assumptions. But today as I sit back and ponder on last half of my decade, I can’t say I regret my decision.

In an extremely competitive job-market like that of India,  where there is a morsel of white-collar jobs across a limited platter of sectors, choice of higher education is guided primarily by opportunity than passion. Students try to select, or as in most cases compelled by societal pressure to opt for courses which have decent job prospects. Although, this statement is a tad too ambiguous because a major chunk of these jobs require skill sets irrelevant to the actual specialization of the student. People cultivate and hone these skills as they come to determine their orientation or often guided by prospective financial dividends.

As I landed in the lush green campus of KGP which stood as an embodiment of independent India’s vision of self-sufficiency in training their own work force and of being a technological super power, I found myself beside a group of extremely determined students who were conscious of their toil in cracking the draconian admission test and now were on a mission to secure their professional leverage.

IIT KGP in macro
IIT KGP in macro

The freshman and sophomore year in IIT shredded my initial motivation to take up research as a career. In general, IITs have a policy of recruiting professors primarily as research faculty, with no due emphasis on the art of teaching. Since an outstanding research career has no correlation with the craft, sensitivity and creativity that teaching involves, good teachers are an exception, not a norm in the campus. Students are not willing to learn either and are happy to leave with a decent grade after last-night-mugging, further disengaging the professors. The system winds in a vicious catch-22 cycle.

Students here are extremely dispassionate and goal-oriented. And as I say this, I’m not being judgmental but sensible. During their duration of stay, people engage in various extra-academic activities ranging from recreational ones like sports, music, dancing, dramatics, quizzing to more professional activities like social entrepreneurship, business plan writing, hardware modelling etc. While the natural human tenacity of finding oneself in a social association remains a significant interest, strengthening the profile of the corresponding individual is always the primary motivator.

As I metioned before, classes were disastrous! Not only that, research as a career orientation instantly raised eyebrows and invited curious glances, and alienated you from the herd. Albeit inadvertent, it was an ongoing practice of silent shaming and almost coerced you to toe the line. I was utterly confused and I decided to experiment with every possible option before zeroing on a career path.

In the next few years, I tried at hand at almost everything. I worked with startups, volunteered with NGOs, took up courses in finance, joined student business forums, tried my hand at coding and became part of a team involved in social entrepreneurship. While the experiences were enriching, it helped me to eventually realize that these were not my cup of tea. On the other side of the spectrum, my inclination to academic research grew stronger with every scientific project I pursued. However, here too I took a significant detour as I shifted my inclination to Biomedical doodle-jump-3.8-1_506x900sciences from my actual major of Chemistry. To me, Biology was an academic epitome of ‘Despicable Me’  in high school. 🙂  But surprisingly, exposure to the interdisciplinary aspects of the subject changed the way I used to conceive it and I ended up developing my profile along that line. Today, as I am sitting back in my home waiting to join a doctoral program, I can’t say for sure that I am liberated of my uncertainties and concerns about my future. But I have a strong conviction about one thing. That it is an informed choice.

Our journey in IIT was not a standard assembly line where we were shoved in to churn mass-produced graduates. It deprived us of a strong classroom teaching. The peer pressure bogged us down, the divergent interests baffled us. But all these ‘difficulties’ had a potential to use them to our advantage. It gave us the necessary exposure and left the rest on our own.

In the end, we weren’t much different from the game of doodle jump my friend was playing to kill her boredom. My entire five years was a giant platform game; hopping on the right platforms and to steer clear of the obstacles was the only way to advance and stay alive!

Photo credits:

IIT KGP in macro – Ashay Gangwar