Friday, November 13, 2009
Wednesday, November 11, 2009
The UT Southwestern Campus spreads out over a fair area. It's about a half an hour's rapid walk across. But in spite of the sprawl, it shoots up vertically, which is not typical on Texan landscapes. Dallas downtown, the nearby office district has taller building but nothing else sprouts higher for tens of kilometers. It's more a conglomeration of three hospitals and five, sorry... now seven massive research towers. They are beautifully planned but the architecture is sadly unimaginative. TIFR had two floors dedicated to biology, which would be equivalent to a floor and a half here, spacewise. And there are 72 floors worth of space exclusively dedicated research and teaching. It is hardly the typical sprawling US university with spaced out dorms, parks and football fields. But as far as I can see, it serves its purpose.
The first couple of months here were charged with the desire to prove myself in every possible way. When the first semester began, we grappled with the core course. There were lectures, paper reading and problem solving sessions. The bigger idea is to broaden the students' horizons whichever field of research they pursue. I had never before read a structural/protein biology or bioinformatics paper. This course gave me the opportunity to understand and critique these papers as well as solve problems. I found paper reading sessions very useful. Experts in the field sat with us in small groups and patiently made us analyse data in ways we might not have. The lectures were good in stocking up on knowledge that I would otherwise never have gained. Classes were were goal oriented, well prepared for and well taken. Besides, they had the quaint feeling of classroom teaching all over. The problems we solved were not particularly challenging. About seven or eight of us got together and discussed questions and possible answers and then explained one problem to the whole class of eighty. It was striking how differently people could interpret and solve the same problem. I think these sessions were an interesting and effective way of getting students to communicate their ideas to themselves and outsiders. We all realize that is such an important skill in science sooner or later.
Of course all was not quite as rosy. Half way through the core course people realized that they could get through a lecture without the required reading. You could walk in prepared to describe only one figure in the paper presentations and get away with it. Whether you were present at the lectures didn't matter. You had access the lectures audio and powerpoint at all time.
Many people slacking on the core course, were up to something possibly more important. They worked as much as possible in their rotation labs. Though there are 350 research labs here, some labs are more sought for than others. You'd want to be the PI's top choice, and you'd slog to be it.
My rotations were interesting in many ways. I got the feel of being in different work environments. The HUGE lab, unlimited resources, "talk to me next Friday" experience in the of Dr Luis Parada was very different from the fairly new small "don't know if I'll get the R01 grant" labs.
And then I ended up joining one of these new small "don't know if I'll get the R01 grant" labs. The thinking that went into this was simple. I was jumping into a whole new field. I was not as comfortable with the techniques as I'd like to be. The field was appealing, the lab had money and projects. Small lab bosses tend to be more engaged with their students than administrative work. Obviously, they are concerned about their students' welfare when their own well being is intimately linked to it. And I lucked out. The people in my lab are nice and the boss and I get along well. The Boss gets as excited about a new result as I used to be, when I solved a new and difficult math problem eons ago. All that remains is for me to pull some splendid work. I smile to myself when I think of it. Only time will tell what happens.
I love the interdisciplinary feel of UT Southwestern. I sit down with Sudeep and discuss prospects of studying interactions within transcription complexes. He works on actin polymerization and I look at stem cell maintenance. We keep spilling beautiful ideas and critiques in discussions/presentations about things as varied as immunology and signalling.
There are talks on cutting edge work in all sub disciplines of Biology. Some leaders of protein biology, signalling development and neuroscience walk these corridors. And, they are more accessible than you'd imagine. They'll probably take a lecture in one of your courses. You ask them a quick question in the lift and they'd be happy to answer it. If the question was smart and you were a first year, they might even get you coffee to try and recruit you. Does this recruitment theme sound familiar to anyone? :)
Hehe... I remember, a cousin was all happy when she was in the ladies' the same time as Shilpa Shetty at Mumbai Airport. I think I felt like that when the Nobel laureate Dr Joe Goldstein was sitting next to me in the shuttle. The realization I had heard four of this years' Nobel laureates give talks in the past year, struck me the same way. Samuel Pfaff and Gord Fishell whose work was the basis of some research in my previous lab, gave talks in the seminar room on our floor on consecutive wednesdays. Their new work has the same broad theme but vastly different approach and techniques. A recurrence in most talks is the number of non americans doing the work in these labs. It amazing how the first world gets to direct the world's best minds into doing what people are only dreaming of everywhere else. The bounty of resources, a furiously target oriented work ethic, proximity to reagents and people and sadomasochistic peer pressure might have something to do with this. And there are other reasons, that we can talk about when I know them.
I dream that at some point in time, Indians aspiring for success, excellence and professional satisfaction will never have to leave the country. Something is being done right abroad that we can take lessons from. I talked about the lack of opportunity in "A Graduate Student's Anguish" about three years ago. At least in Biology that is being remedied. New Institutes, like the Institute for Stem Cells and regenerative medicine at Bangalore, Translational Health Science and Technology Institute, Center for Vaccine and Infectious Disease Research, Center for Child Biology, Center for Chronic Biology might be a step towards giving bright researchers the opportunity to do well. I am hopeful for IISCERs and 19 Central Universities that are coming up. It is upto us, the people who prove their worth at these temples of progress, to make it all worthwhile. But of course all this way beyond the scope of this article. I want to go back home... which is what all this pondering is about.
On a very different note: While trekking, chaay, going on walks and moon gazing used to be my staple entertainment little over a year ago, since this August, working out, exploring restaurants, amusement parks, Texan landscapes, good movies, B movie gatherings and photography keep my leisure busy. My friends have been kind. I'm their luggage until I don't get my own car.
It's fantastic how cosmopolitan educational institutions are here. On my own floor, we have little countries. There is USA where there are a lot of European and Chinese people. There is a little Chinese village too. We call it the Chen Lab. There are twentyish people of whom only two are non-chinese. My lab is the UN. There eight people. Two Chinese, two Indians, a Turk and Egyptian (for an exotic feel. LOL! ) and then two American men... who call the shots. [Disclaimer: This was a joke]
This can have interesting consequences. I can now greet people in six non Indian languages. At a dinner table with seven people, we realized all of us had different native tongues. This was fun: People in the lab were talking about greying hair (I wrote about these aunties a while ago). One of them is a fastidious practicing Muslim and her scarf covers the whole head except the face. I asked why she was bothered because she wears a scarf all the time. The second I said scarf she was flew off the handle, absolutely furious... PISSED!! I had no clue she would get this upset by my mere reference to the scarf. Later Alpay, my turkish friend told about the animosity between conservative and liberal Muslims in Turkish Society. I would never have known!
I'm learning things too. Tango is my window of opportunity to step out of the lab and meet people who are not into Science. Yes, believe me you... such people exist! :D Only, they are mostly medics. Lol!
Out here, people talk... a LOT. In fact, silence in a group of people is considered awkward. Gotta yap! I'm trying to learn Spanish, but the Mexican cleaning staff "no much talky". I'm learning how to talk about absolutely nothing consequential for tens of minutes. I remember a conversation where Alex and I were talking about a hypothetical situation. We took opposite sides and half an hour later, we switched and went on for a while. Yapping (not gossiping) intelligently, without picking on anyone, is a tough mind sport. Brain numbing at times. Hats of to those who can do it, like Americans... and my relatives :D.
But there is something I need to learn even more urgently. That is giving good talks and asking good questions. Given that my qualifying exam is six months away, my first thesis committee meeting is three months away, the lab meeting is a month away... and.... shit!!.... I have a test tommorrow, I better get at it. Konjum Mainakale Amigos!
Thursday, October 01, 2009
The most elusive exception justifies the pursuit.
The Selyunin Correction
There are no untakeable women. It's just a matter of timing.
Friday, June 12, 2009
The Midweek Crisis
ooOOHHhhhh ggGAWDddd... It is Wednesday evening! uggghhh... It's been three days. Three whole days, since I spoke a sentence outside what work requires. Not a joke, no chit chat, no hanging out over chaay. Just the knee jerk "Good, how're you doing?" to the guy who walked on without bothering for an answer to his "Heyhow'reya'doin'?". Occasionally on Monday morning, there'll be the "..... Soooo... how was the weekend"..... to swollen eyed Shane who's at the next bench. He can be kind. He'll say "Not much. Just relaxin' at home." Ah! The vividity smothers me!
Others in the lab have their own comfy cliques. The ladies always have things to talk about. Usually its their husbands and other people's kids. I overheard "You know, having babies is infectious, you see one and you want to have one". That has killed any drive to make conversational inroads into this clique. The other clique is impenetrable. It might not have been, if they didn't so fastidiously stick to Chinese. More people might have wanted to talk to me, had boss not taken away the Post Doc's rightful experiment and asked me to do it. Me, the black sheep, is now asked about where that antibody is kept and "What happened with that experiment?"... and that is ALL.
It's summer time too. That means, no free food seminars. These seminars are a watering hole for grad students. So again, no real 'socialising' during the week. Things are very different from most Indian Universities/institutes. No one hangs around a moment more than necessary in labs. They all have kids, wives, girlfriends etc to rush to. The PhD students too. Back when Girija(ji) told me about this, I thought the problem can be easily worked around. Afterall, I thought, you'd need just a bunch of friends to loll about with, the way it was in the hostels, or Mac in TIFR. Girija(ji) was so right. The others have people at home, and their isn't much of an Indian herd here yet.
And in the grand city of Dallas you are physically challenged without a car. UT Southwestern doesn't have a Deccan Gymkhana or Churchgate nearby, the way Garware College and TIFR did. There's no Z bridge or Marine drive to stand at and watch the gorgeous traffic go past. No Roopali to make the best coffee companion ever. There's no where to go to, and no way to get there. Imagine my handicap!
And so here we are again. Wednesday evening! The weekend is usually bliss with the skyping at home and conference calls with pals from school and TIFR. Three days have past since that dopamine rush. The married ones are too busy to talk, even for free!! Being at the bottom of this pit doesn't hurt as much as the slump in getting here. Scraps on Orkut and the odd one line email saying "Hi" are the IV drip that keep me stable. Thank you internet. The online TV shows and movies were helpful, until a public email came along threatening of expulsion for misuse of internet facilities. Books were my poison, until I picked up "On how to be a Scientist".
I'm playing psychologist now. I'll give this non-existent problem, a name. We'll call it the Midweek Crisis. The midweek crisis is the Wednesday evening stab of lonliness, if you will. You might want to speak. Just to listen to a human voice in light conversation. This condition is a step away from randomly calling 1-800... service nos. People do this. They call a Hoover call center when there is nothing wrong with their Eureka vaccum cleaner anyway! Just to talk to another human being. Blame it on the hectic weekly schedule, the pressure to perform or whatever you like. But it's there, although not wholly unsolvable.
Dhananjay Chaturvedi PhD (in Psssssssycology) is working on a cure. I've fixed a weekly wednesday tea gathering in the Rosen lab break room. Over tea we talked about things in the lab, Nepal's political issue's and Papa's weekend trip to Dallas (which I'm very excited about)Yesterday was helpful. Hopefully things will get better in the lab and I'll shed my Black Sheep guise. Hopefully, there'll be more people speaking Indian languages around me, more people just speaking around me. Hopefully...
Monday, April 06, 2009
Mitochondria conspire within me
Insiduously Sparking off free radicals
They eat my flesh in a gnawing rage
Inevitably, pushing me to age.
I'm still a young and feisty soul
With a zest for life and set goals
I long to understand life,
I want to ride across continents
and run from pit to peak,
I want to meet new people,
See new cultures
And move the masses...
But there are other things
For which the time has passed
Time slipped by, just too fast.
Age is like true love,
Of course I'll never get it!
Until it smothers me on the sly
Leaving me with shriveling skin and a drying heart
Rickety knees and a frying mind
So Age isn't just a number
But surely, a phantom future
It'll someday be the present
I brighten it now by living it up
For I'm as aged as my thoughts
As old as my deeds
I'll keep them youthful
And let the phantom age.
Monday, March 02, 2009
I wanted the next article on this blog to be an analytical comparison between the UTSW grad school and TIFR. The article is on its way guys... Someday!
But then I want to beat my chest in public. I want to shout out how much I miss India. It isn't just about missing home. It's a LOT more. Somehow evry sense feels deprived
I miss being in an Indian environment. The people speaking a familiar language (Hindi, Marathi, Telugu, Bangla...). Discussing a familiar sport : Cricket! (People I've met here think that cricket is still a five day game). People in a bustling hurry to get to work. Chatting up with the sweeper about how his kids are doing at school. Randomly conversing with passengers in a train about how Manmohan Singh is Mrs Gandhi's puppet; the virtues Rabindra sangeet; (in Marathi) about how the Bhaiyyas (which includes me, I guess they didn't realise) are the canker of Mumbai; to North Indians about how this a free country and merit gets rewarded; how Dalit muscle flexing muscles will make mediocrity pervasive; how to this day a Chamar won't be a given a glass of water in villages everywhere; Katrina ka thhumka in RACE, Salman being a c#$%^a with Aishwarya, Abhishek Bacchan's lack of expressions in Sarkar Raj.... all of this in languages that form my thoughts, flesh and blood. I miss them pouring into my ears.
I miss seeing all the aunties getting together and gossipping about Mrs Chandrashekhar's engineer son starting with a pay pack of 12 lakhs and wondering why Mrs Chaturvedi's son went in for a BSc ("... JUST a BSc I tell you!"). And the uncles sitting down to discuss how the new Vice chancellor's policy might just screw us over! And the very sight of a full family, with the kid wailing to run away and the mother holding on absent mindedly. Although to be fair, the Hispanics here make up for that sight! There is always a small herd of them around the corner. Probably it's the food. American cuisine has few highlights. Mexican food is rich in flavour. Mexican food keeps the kids close to Mommy.
The food works on me too! I TERRIBLY miss the food. Eveything looks big and barely has taste. Indian banannas are so much sweeter than the yellow tree stumps from the banana republics. Where is the desi tamatar? One gets Brazillian mangoes that may as well be avocadoes. I'll say it again! Nothing beats Amma's cooking. I don't have to speak of the special dishes like Jhor Bhaat, Kadhi Chaval, Dahi Bade, Chhole, Rajma, Gadd, Kheer, Panjeeri, Gujiya... The simple Arhar, Chane (esp with the skin), Masoor, Urad (both UP and Bengali variants) ki daalein, with Lauki, bhindi, karela (sukhe and bharma), baingan (sukhe and bharma), kaddu, gobhi alu, palak, patta gobhi, kheere/tamatar ka rayata, Aalu tamatar/Arbi ka rasa (with sev and Chaubeyji ka masala), and hot, soft rotis rollng with Ghee, or thin and crsip parathhas are to die for. Even the snacks at the stalls like vada paav, uppeet, utappa, butter masala dosa had a memorable flavour. I used to think that the puri bhaji Pancham Puri near CST, Mumbai was a far cry from good food. And then I paid fifty times as much for almost the same stuff, at Taj Chat House in Dallas and the flavour was not even close. You're curious. Why I don't cook myself then? The truth is I do. I pay exquisite attention to cooking a nourshing vegetarian diet. But it tastes like cattlefeed!
There is magic in tapri chaay. Ganesh, my classmate here, and I often think of prospects of starting a small tea stall by the bus stop! I'm sure I'll attract the Desi public. Tapri chaays all over the country have three things in common : they are brown, liquid and magical. There flavours and aromas vary all over the country. They vary from college to college, Univ to Univ, train to train, square to square and city to city. The Rs1 - Rs5 glass of warmth works magic with every sip. Memories with friends over this cup of tea are happy and undying. Somehow the chaay experience is so deeply linked with friendship, relaxation, jokes... the good times!
I think I've made this sound as if I have nothing to appreciate about this land. There is tonnes actually. The work ethic, landscapes, the cars, traffic rules... So much so that it'll be a whole new blog entry someother time. I just miss home. I'm not the first one to do it! Everyone at home sleep well. I envy you. :)