Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Responsible Scientist
To the vast majority of of the Indian Public (maybe others as well), the person in a white coat pouring a lustrous green clear fluid from one raised test tube to another raised test tube containing a bright scarlet fluid, is a scientist! In rural areas where literacy equals education, the concept of a scientist might be a little alien. In urban centres, where in some select schools and colleges, select Science educators work passionately, the notion of science and and a scientist is a little clearer.
What makes a scientist a responsible one? The view of a practising scientist or student is likely to differ from what the society thinks. It should be rewarding to examine both perspectives.
A web dictionary search for the word 'scientist' yields definitions like "an expert in science, esp. one of the physical or natural sciences". The layman's picture of a scientist is critical. It determines the aspirations of the next generation of kids taking interest in science.
The taxpayer's investment is what perpetuates the noble scientific endeavour. His or her faith needs to be kept and nurtured. But where does the taxpayer come accross the goings on in scientific establishments? The mass media chiefly! The occassional newspaper (I personally applaud the Science and Technology section in 'The Hindu') gives people an inkling about new findings in various scientific disciplines. Their interactive columns where 'how's and 'why's are addressed go a long way in sustaining scientific interests of minds, young and old, not necessarily directly involved in Science. However, reports of scientific progress in most high circulation newspapers and television channels are limited to those pertaining to fertlity, libido and warfare. While they cater to basic human instincts of sex and conflict, they pervert the largely sexless non-combative scientific effort.
Radio reaches 70% of the nation. The Bourgeoise are greatly influenced by television. While whole channels maybe devoted to nature and science, the proportion of viewership they capture is peanuts compared to family drama in soap opera. The audio visual input on TV is a big step in spreading what science is all about. The numbers of science students inspired as kids by these shows indicate that they have their role to play, in spite of their small viewership. More than science, it is technology that captures the fancy of many.
Technological products are Science's fashionable daughters. Everyone wants a date with them. Disillusionment results very so so often, like on so many first dates. DDT was touted as the mosquitoes nemesis, man's saviour from malaria around 1939. Waterbodies, swimming pools (with children in them) were generously sprayed with it. A mere 33 years later, it was denigrated as Hell's own poison and held responsible for untold deaths and banned in the USA. Chemical fertilisers were spoken of as the crops' elixir and later besmirched as an environmental curse. Many more such examples exist. 'Oh those lying scientists! They with their fancy testing and all, told us it was all okay. They are the ones responsible for this!'. Can one really refute such allegations?
Universities and Research Institute hold 'Open Day' these days. Members of the public, school children and collegians chiefly, attend these events. Most of them return fascinated by the techniques researchers employ. The odd voice asks "What's point of studying a stupid molecule whose function you don't even know? Sure, there might be two stars going around each other, and the point is...?". "What about those hungry people with no roof to hide them? While these guys waste thousands of rupees on a fly's wing, those people starve and suffer!". hmm... Are these guys doing there stuff responsibly?
Education is an inseparable part of science. It should be anyway! It is the responsibilty of a scientist to ensure that research and scientific enquiry prevail not just till he/she's around but long after he/she's gone. Both of these are imperative aspects of a scientist's job. A fair section of practising scientists think so. So, does the scientist who pays little attention to the development and training of his/her students stand absolved? Enthusiastic students and their prospective employers certainly think not. It is a disservice to society and future generations to deprive them of valuable knowledge and skills that have accumulated through the toil of hundreds of deligent workers and thinkers, thereby making them repeat the whole process and wasting time and energy.
Asking questions about nature and getting answers by logical, repeatable methods outlines the scientific method. Responsibilty lies in asking oneself... what questions are important? ... need they be immediately relevant?... are my methods wasteful or harmful in any way?... does this help anyone else answer any other question?
Intellectual parties exist based on answers to these queries. Some say there is no such thing as an important question. 'We' work to satisfy human curiosity. The resultant knowledge maybe helpful in someway at some point in time and that, frees the effort from the burden of immediate positive social implications. Opponents opine, few in number though they are, that a large part of purely fundamental research is a pure waste of resources. Others, chiefly non-scientists, question the ethics associated with particular fields, embryonic stem cells being one of the one of the most recent ones. The agencies deciding these resources so far have been liberal with the horizon of questions whose addressal they fund, chiefly buying the first argument. These are predominantly public agencies. Yet, the freedom to choose a question is restricted to the set that are 'hot' in the community at that moment.
Private agencies who promise unlimited budgets have obviously a much narrower range of interest. It here becomes clear that the scientist's responsibility of asking questions is wrenched away and replaced by a third party's commercially inclined decision. Often commercial interests overlap with social need. Ranbaxy say, would love AIDS to be tamed, so that it can reap the bounty fom selling the treatment.
Thirdly, methods need to be fancy to attract attention. Attention is what many researchers, just like many others vie for. It gets you one up in the rat race. Their feasilbity is a secondary concern in affluent establishments. Both the effects and outcomes of these methods are subject to criticism. Untoward environmental effects and ethical issues doggedly haunt many streams. The Law and funding bodies judge their validity with finality.
Now, is it at all a wonder that a large number of people in the business are either, confused or callous or both about the isue of responsibilty? To appreciate what the responsiblities of a scientist are and to know what a responsible scientist is, requires deep cogitation after having experienced the life of a poffessional which is by no means as easy peasy as others might think. Passing value judgements on scientists requires weighing a large yet finite number of factors together. I guess you just have to be one to know one!

Friday, November 03, 2006

Been here a year now!
I’m writing this upon someone’s request. Not that I didn’t want to earlier but I officially have a reason now. The request was ‘tell me about the “I-have-been-in-TIFR-experience”’. I have but a year behind me in this monument that India maintains to honour and perpetuate Science. The experience may just have been like any other to a hardened researcher (other than from Physics and maths; the biologists and chemists understand each others grievances better). But for someone fresh out of a BSc and fairly naive in the ways of research, it has been a roller coaster ride!
A lot of people feel they have achieved something big when they come into TIFR. Most of the time it reflects in their confidence, at times to a point of arrogance. I felt differently (at least from my point of view). From the outside, one perceived it a different world altogether. One expects brainy minds zipping back and forth, discussing weighty issues of scientific truth in its ungarbed, realistic state. Stepping into the campus from the main gate, as the main building revealed itself from behind the majestic banyan, I felt an awe similar to seeing the first glimpse of the Taj Mahal from the first Red gate. All that lore surrounding the great minds at work in TIFR made me feel inspired by even the building in which such high solemn deeds were done. Then of course, once among the crowd and attending the first few lectures and seminars that past near tangentially off my head, the awe deepened. As ill acquainted with the ways of researchers as I was back then, everything seemed the way it should be and I, out of place. Little does one realize in the first couple of days that not even the senior most students understand all of it. But those were the unwise, uninformed first few days.
As a student fresh from college, there was a hunger for learning. MSc students are assigned advisors (read Bosses), without their choice, under whom they are supposed to do their Projects. As has been my habit for long, learning was more through discussions than reading. I tried the same tactic. Unfortunately, the mantra around here is “Find out and tell me”. This definitely is not something any of my teachers had ever told me. When one takes courses here at DBS, one fact glares at you. Coursework is a pitiable excuse for its namesake! Apparently it used to be a lot worse. The rare exception exists. The evaluation however, maintains very high standards (just as it should be). The sad thing is to some students, at least has been to me, this ‘find out yourself’ business comes as a shock. But then, your advisor (Principal Investigator, PI for short) doesn’t seem to worry at all about how your coursework goes. After all the main thrust (30/42 credits) is on your project. You are lifted above the sundry college practicals to enlightened research!
It isn’t a wonder why the emphasis is such. You come to TIFR for MSc and are paid Rs 5000 a month. How many people get that? You had better produce DATA to keep the ‘paper’ mills running. Your advisor bothers a lot not only himself/herself but also you, about this aspect of your ‘education’. The ‘find out yourself’ seems a lot worse right now! This is true especially when you have to defend your experiments every six months in front of the whole department. Dr. K.S Krishnan called them ‘Causerie’ (apparently French for Crow-talk, je ne sais pas Francais) and the name stuck. These sessions are usually objective analyses of the work presented. Of course, the same hands that create great sculptures can equally well strangle someone. Often the PIs let loose what appears to be a vicious and sadistic academic attack on the poor student. Such instances are humbling, sometimes humiliating for the person at the receiving end.
But such is the education disbursed at TIFR. Education is too broad a term to fit this goings on. In fact a lot of things are misnomers in my opinion. This is vocational training aimed at producing researchers. Education is something just happens on the way, on your own accord. Come to think of it, that is the way it happens in most ‘good’ places: Select talented people (my case being an exception). Give them the resources and exposure to quality research in the form of top scientists within India and abroad. And motivate them to do a good job. Again, the motivation can come as an incentive or a threat. You constantly feel the latter in most labs here. The incentive is generally that satiation of your own drive that, at extreme points, tends to break down. It seems only to highlight a popular prevalent policy “What doesn’t kill you, leaves you stronger”. See how sweetly “find out yourself” fits in? You sometimes feel the other guy just doesn’t want to help you. The person is forgiven. He or she has data of their own to produce and defend. In the end, you emerge a survivor: a survivor who has had to break Olympic records to save his life. You know what questions to anticipate at presentations. You know where to look for, not ask for, answers. You know how much the people know and need to know about your work. At a later stage you appreciate the nuances, beauty and elegance of experiments and drawn inferences. You value time and organization like never before. Stronger you certainly are, if alive.
The campus is a major part of this survivor’s life support system. The sea face is something TIFR could absolutely not exist without. Nourishment for the soul pours in when the sky turns scarlet at dusk. Its grey rainy garb is inspiring too! Oh, but why forget the light blue on a sunny morning with cottony wisps floating about? All of these sheltering a lush green lawn manicured daily. The joy of viewing this vista while sipping good tea in the air conditioned West Canteen makes the entire trauma worth it. Full marks to the gardners and consmetic maintenance section! In the main flow of life are sugared in memorable moments you get to pass with lab-mates, department-mates, TIFR-mates and sometimes people outside TIFR as well. My seniors at TIFR have been wonderful people. I found people to look up to among them, and some others, not quite. At most occasions, the whole student gang behaves as a single unit. A student’s substance, depending on how much grit he has, is usually moulded in a most productive fashion. The feeling of being here is unique. I hope I still have something nice to say after the remaining two years. Only time can tell.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Irony


I awaited a local
At Andheri of all stations
A nagging feeling
Testing my patience

Mumbai's funny thought I
Where shit and gold together lie
The best groomed people
Their overfed pets
The sad plagued people
Envying those pets

Afore me a sick man lay
Harbouring as many worms
As straw in hay
Blistered skin with infected wounds
He was pain personified
What more do I say?

To his right was a mutt
A broken leg, it had no hair
Fungal eczema everywhere
Ticks at its eyes blinding it
Its suffering too gave you a scare

The sick man saw the mutt
He got up, his temper amuck
He couldn't move much
Very little energy as such
But upset he visibly was
He seemingly liked not dogs

A diseased body shooed another
Drove it in someother direction
Both in hunger and in pain
The sufferings of both were just the same

Both were stray, both were sad
Yet an arrogance one of them had
And then, what happened next was sadder stil
There came a dog, not at all ill.

A pomeranian on a leash
Its clean white coat
Worth quite a dote
To sick man's arrogance
It was an antidote

It snapped at him
And he recoiled
The dog careful,
Its coat unsoiled

It then strutted away
With its tight slacked mistress
Leaving the poor sick man
In greater distress

It was a cruel episode
It left my head humbly lowed
A cruel joke if at all
How lucky I am, I saw it all

Is it only I who see?
No one else in the city?
Is it lost, the abilty?
To notice the agony and irony?

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Company
3rd September 2004

This cool dusk post monsoon,
I wish for company, really soon
I can't sit still and watch the moon
For lonliness lays me a loon.
Every evening this does happen
My concentration does slacken
Saturation with books reflects on my looks
My nose alert to what elsewhere cooks.
Yet my conscience it presses
Due to various sorts of stresses
Work I must in excesses
For acaedemic grade muscle flexes.
But Company I crave
Be it a Saint or a knave
I do not rant and rave
Why must this evening be grave?
I might fancy a lover
Be it Preity or another
Spending time is all the matter
But let it be meaningful
It makes the interest fatter.
Still, there is literature
Way appealing than viral nomenclature
Though its quality could a be fixture
Books provide company I believe
Alas! The sort I wish to leave
It had best be a friend
Conversation with whom would have no end
For him, my schedule I'm willing to bend
Or better still, time suspend
For the while my pen sufficed
Kept me warm, not a nerve iced
But the ultimate company, I've realised
Is me, myself, the solitude from paradise.

This poem was written in tense times when my future was fairly uncertain and dangling in front of me.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Published in the IIS Newsletter Jan 2006

A Graduate’s anguish

As the nation marches towards vision 2020, the scientific community in India is impeding its own progress. The Intelligentsia of India bears the sacred task of furthering knowledge and learning. A better job can be made of it is a prevalent feeling. The situation is likened to a racer who just can’t utilize the abundant fuel available to it.
The student component of an educational institution is as important as any other. Being among students here, one easily realizes the tremendous potential that lies in our human resources. The fact that Indian students contribute majorly to the world economy speaks volumes about our potential. Unfortunately, these diamonds in the rough aren’t quite being polished. It must be acknowledged that primary and secondary education in India can do a lot better than it is doing now. However, the importance of higher education can’t be neglected. Denying training to virtuous students can be quite a folly. I try to explore the facet of this situation that applies to graduates in Life Sciences under the broad issue of higher education in the country.
A fresh graduate who devotes himself to Science is often disappointed to note that there are not many ‘good’ options. Indeed, only a fraction of worthy students receives a ‘good’ higher education here. Colleges in country have begun to show promise at this level. But how much they can manage in their meagre resources is anybody’s guess. In stark contrast “hundred crore” rupee grants are being handed out to haloed research institutions for furthering science. The commendable research that comes out of these places can’t be maligned. But questions regarding how much of their grants are invested in nurturing minds for the future can certainly be raised.
The philosophy that “a large number of mediocres can’t replace small number of brilliant minds” holds water. It is unfeasible, however, to take the “small” number so literally. Two, four, seven, ten… are the number of students our five star institutions take in every year. Merited Universities in the country have a larger intake though. It’s apparent that Universities that can educate students in larger numbers as well as or better than the research institutes do. Besides, the large faculty and student force might be able to do a lot more science as well. With better infrastructure (and faculty) in Universities, we might take one step ahead to solve the problem of underutilization of talent.
Fundamentally, sequestering fine brains out of access to students is as much a sin as withdrawing funds from education itself. Research does progress along with teaching, a lesson that a few people fail to learn from foreign universities they strive to collaborate with. Numerous research institutes are coming up in the country to do highly focused research, and they do it too. But why doesn’t it dawn on anyone that these aren’t the ideal places for learning. Often, the institute is a factory, publications are the product and students are labour. Whatever they learn is picked up by the way and no attention is paid to broadening their horizons. A university setup on the other hand, while solving the problem of numbers to some extent, allows for Scientists to impart their knowledge and more importantly, their way of thinking to students keeping them honest at the same time.
Bolstering University education might be a one of the many solutions us students are looking for.
While this shift is conceived and materializes, students can only hope for the best, perform as best as their environment allows and hang on. For surely things will change for the better and we’ll be there to make it happen.