Monday, August 25, 2008

Veery Real

Khrishen and I were walking towards the car. The students parking lot is at a distance from the Student Carrels and Khrishen's lab. I ogle at the first car, a BMW coupe parked right in the Faculty parking. I almost want to touch it. But then my eyes veer to silver Lexus posing at a different angle. Oh... and how could I miss the Porsche GT Carerra, purring silently in the other corner. I'm thinking "What sheer propulsion it'll give. Raw, smooth power!"... "Do you want to touch it?" sneers Khrishen in his Mauritian French accent. Not quite Poirot, but pleasant anyway. "Nah... it's the thrust of the engine beckons me" I retort... and we smile.
Khrishen is a year into the graduate student life and I a day into it. Judging graduate student lives is tough. At twenty four, people have set ideas of what constitutes a good day. Khrishen is happy with his Sunday. He did some clean immuno-staining today and gathered three other papers supporting his hypothesis. I was reading papers... one paper... all day. We had to read this paper about the worm C elegans for the Genes and Development thread. I was floored. I know the mouse cortex. The fly is fly, I admit. But this lowly nematode is quite something! Horvitz, Brenner and so on were magicians... Amma and Papa were happy this morning when I spoke to them for half an hour, stupid Noshi was asleep... And we were thinking about these "important" things, happy with what a lot of people would call a geeky, nerdy life!
Khrishen's car is a nice Nissan Sentra. It makes his Schumacher turns well enough. I saw one of those the day he picked me up at the airport. The car nearly flew off the ramp. Nearly. But he doesn't drive rashly. He drives at the normal Freeway speed, 80 miles an hour. Everyone does! We scowl jealousy as Mercedes, BMWs and Audies zoomed past touching 100mph and over as we hurtled home in the Sentra. But we are sane PhD students aren't we? We control the primal urge for powerful satiation, like so so many other desires. The freeway is like a playground for automotive enthusiasts. One's need for speed is fulfilled.
I was hugging my bag instead of letting it rest at my feet. It's a beautiful present from a good friend. More importantly, it holds the newest love of my life: A sassy, smart macbook and an iPod touch. I'm lost in a train of thoughts "I like my computer, just what anyone can want.... looks good, is smart and very cooperative... maybe I should call her... shhh.... FOCCUUSSS... so what was that you have to do?... write to Yun Li about the rotation, have you read her paper?.... on what basis do you think she'll reccommend you to Parada you DiCk?! And the paper for tommorrow? You'll look the dumbest in class"...
And just then this less than glossy white car with a black hood seems to be veering funnily to the left, without showing the indicator. I wasn't even watching though aware of the cars moving around me, though we were in the fastest, leftmost lane. Something was wrong. It happenned in a split second. The white car slammed into the door next to my seat. Khrishen didn't even notice it coming. The loud thud bore a lot of force. We were inches from the waist high solid concrete divider. The crash pushed us within millimeters of it. At 80mph, that's scary intimacy! We swerved and got back in the lane. I looked back to see the drivers. They slowed down and went out of sight. The glasses were all intact. Didn't see a dent on the inside. But we had been hit pretty hard. Adrenaline takes more than seconds to set your heart racing. But within those seconds you feel a V8 engine thudding within you.
We took the next exit off the freeway and parked by a closed tyre shop to assess the damages. The doors the right of the car got glued to the body. They wouldn't move. I was thinking, how much cost would one incur for this. It wasn't even our fault. Frigging Junkies! Now how are we going to pick up the new incoming student from Chennai day after? While the car gets repaired I could volunteer to make the phonecalls to apartments for the new guy's accomodation we were planning. So I'll have to do this between classes. I won't be able to do it in the afternoon. And the papers... Shit!
We headed back home. And then it started coming back to me. What all I had experienced minutes ago. I could easily have been organic smush in a metal and concrete mortar and pestle. Had the car edged into us with a fraction more force, I wouldn't be here! And then all the repairs, classes, reading papers and lab rotations would blow to heaven... or wherever.
I started revaluating what I'm doing, why I'm doing it and if I'm truly happy. I asked myself, if I would have died today, would I have died happy or droned on to an unsatisfied pitiable death.
I think I would have been happy afterall. I'm doing what I like, where I like and at a nice time in life too. Not just the people I'm close to, most of the people I know, have little to complain about me. I don't either! Few, if any would think that my death was a blessing to the world.
But then, time is the critical entity that I haven't been appreciating so much. I need to do all I can as best I can as soon as I can! The phrase "Life's too short" and the words "petty existence" suddenly seem to be in perspective. I hope none of you need a car crash to realise this! :)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

An Ode to Colaba Causeway

To those who haven’t been here
I’d like to to say,
You’re missing a glamour-fest
For every inch is glamour doused
From Regal Cinema to the Electric House
Bracing the Café christened Leopold
Is a bustling market, fairly old.

Keep your money to yourself
Away from predatory merchants
They lure you with trinkets and T-shirts
And lockets and pendants
And telescopes and DVDs
And other wasteful commodities.

I suggest you trudge along
In your head, sing a song
For just watching is no sin
Plainly, to avoid greed’s din.

You’ll see many things be assured
And many a beggar have endured
But sadly have slapped them aside
Like ticks pricking the conscience inside.

At night you look overhead
And see the sky black and dead
“Where are the stars?”
They ask sans delight
Then look around…
And bask in starlight

The stars descend everynight
To this streach of road: young and neon bright
They take every shape, colour and size
And boldly drape to please the eyes.

Every sense can be pleased
Once you have your pockets eased
Then sit back
To watch your character teased
By the fawning waiter, the comely sylph
The drug peddler and bullying police

It IS nice nonetheless
Though not as good as it gets
So to one and all I pray
Just for the experience, do come once
To Colaba Causeway.

These lines came to me on a happy BEST bus ride from VT to Navy Nagar.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

The Work Culture at DBS, TIFR: A student's view

I'm being presumptious when I say that all my contemporary students in DBS will agree with this, but a fair fraction does, and that makes these views non-trivial. Feedback hunters... listen up!

TIFR and NCBS arguably offer the best exposure to biological research to their students, the country can afford. The GoI is generous in funding researchers at all stages and levels of their career in these sister concerns. This translates to top notch facilities and hands on experience to all students during the course of their training. The scientific prowess (publication ability) of scientists at these establishments is unquestionable. Their publication profiles are good and the last review of the department conducted by a panel of internationally "BIG" biologists was favourable. Publications are after all the only legitimate yardstick of research output from a lab. The department is scientifically active with regular journal clubs, weekly departmental work presentations (given by student and research fellows) and Annual Work Presentation by the PIs themselves. I'm sure this is what meets the eye of an outside observer. Ah! What a pretty picture?!

It is the dream of most Indian science students to make it to the clique of haloed institutions of which TIFR is a part. It is a very valid aspiration. Not many places have the excellent facilties and money to offer. But let us look at the mechanics of the Department of Biological Sciences(DBS)'s functioning at the student level a little more closely. The faculty of any place on earth will be hard pressed to find a student body more devoted to their work than that at TIFR. Students don't show stress while work long hours. The average time a student spends working in the lab is 12 hours. The lab is not a second home. It is home itself. The student community is sometimes family, complete with its black sheep, scape goats and villainous characters. It is the loose bonding with peers that keeps the suicide rate to zero.

Emotions and physical sensations that render a life human, are sacrificed at the altar of the Data God. Seriously, those are perfectly respectable and the minimum expected work ethics. But(!) His high priests and priestesses play the intermediaries between the student and the eclectic word of the Lord. It must be followed at any cost. Work is done religiously. Why so? Besides self satisfaction, a mention in the Priests' good books goes a long way. They send you to higher abodes where the Data God is more beneficent, or to holes from where it is difficult to emerge. Sacrifices have to be offered to keep the Priests happy. Gruesome ones too... hang on for them.

Health ceases to be a concern. Students lose weight as if it were a lizard licking at your neck. Backaches, calf muscle aches, migranes due to hours of continuous poring over microscopes to meet sadistic deadlines are no surprise. Clinical instances of depression have been reported. Of course most of the psychological stress goes unreported. There is a small number of labs where guidence and mentorship are generously given. Considering that there are nine functional labs at the moment, you do the arithmetic. There are labs where there is no attention from the PI, because there is no PI. There are labs where the PI is permanently busy and therefore inaccessible. Then there is the category of sadistic, blood sucking, slave drivers running labs of zombies striving to get a breath. One subcategory roughs you up for the wild. You feel empowered at the end of the gruelling torture, maybe even thankful for it. The other subcategory is unspeakable in its selfishness and ruthless impalement of students. The will to do science is systematically asphyxiated as a by product of selfish ambition. Nothing seems to stand in the way of it. Data God's stochastic frown on a student could even ruin her/his career in science. There has been talk chucking people because of clinical conditions they might be in. The responsibilty that comes with becoming a "guide" is passe. You take students as "labour" (a doctrine being sold to a faculty member of a different department by one member of the DBS faculty). If students have problems performing, "underperformers" can always moved out of sight and thence, out of mind at any point.

I opine that a student's situation is akin to a mountaineer on a thin ridge high on the wall of a plummetting cliff of advancement, overlooking a stagnated valley, supported by the safety threads of friends, data and luck, trudging along in thin air ever conscious of the treacherous next step. Not all students will agree with this. Wait till their eyes open!

But nonetheless this place has dished out some sharp, honed minds. Like the logic gaging scientific activity through publications, the accomplishments of the alumni of TIFR speak for the system. Certain aspects of the system yet need attention and improvement. Maybe the readers have something to say!