Friday, November 13, 2009


To my trusty darling

mmm… I love you gorgeous
You are wider than you are tall
Your single arm, bends and all
You have no hips
You have no shoulders
A lovely heavy bodied boulder
Bitterness spills over
at your wide, black-lipped mouth
I see through it, in and out
Your brick red ravenously freckled skin
patched with white
Glistens in the sunlight.
Your teeth are missing and so is your hair
Your legs, your eyes… they’re just not there
You smell at the end of a day’s work
I don’t clean you, for I’m a jerk
You’re perfect I couldn’t love you more
No Romeo, no Ranjha felt such amor
You make me warm, when I’m cold
You wake me up when my eyes are sore
You do not yap, you do not bore
You do your job and say no more.
I like my laptop, but I’ll replace it
Like I’ll replace the furniture and rug
But never you…
My beloved Coffee mug.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Been here a year now - 2

From DBS to DBS, the transition from Department of Biological Sciences, TIFR, Mumbai to Division of Basic Sciences, UT Southwestern, Dallas has personally been one of the biggest steps in my life, so far. It's a different experience and I seek to find out why. In so doing, drawing comparisons is inevitable. It would be presumptious to claim that this an all encompassing analysis of anything. Like everything else on this blog, they are my private views. I'll try and describe how my experience here has been vastly different from home.
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!