Scientists Simplifying Science

Author

Namrata Iyer

Namrata Iyer has 3 articles published.

In the #MarchForScience: Just Imagine

in That Makes Sense by

Of the weird things I have on my bucket list, one has always been being part of a protest. Filmy that I am, the vision of me marching and shouting slogans has always seemed immensely appealing. Maybe it’s the idea of being a part of something bigger than me, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. But it would definitely make for an interesting experience and a good story. Today, I sort of fulfilled that wish. Today, I marched for science.

Today, I marched for science.

Technically speaking, this wasn’t the first march I’ve attended. A couple of months ago, I braved the cold winter weather to participate in a small local march in support of Planned Parenthood and women’s rights it stands for. It was a lot like a traditional protest with people standing out on the road waving signs. People passing by in cars, enthusiastically honking to show support or else pointedly staying silent. And then the actual march, led by a police car to clear the traffic, while we shout out catchy (hopefully) slogans, the tail end of the group often a beat or two out of sync with the front. Then comes the traditional group photo at the end of the march, words of encouragement, a plea for continued support by the organizers and then we disperse. It was a fun experience, with the quintessential satisfaction that comes with standing up for a cause that matters. But if you asked me what concrete goal was achieved by that march, in all honesty, I wouldn’t have an answer.

But changing the world is a tough job.

It’s an issue that has often been debated in my house. If you choose, for a moment, to play the devil’s advocate, you can easily question the utility of such a one-off act. It’s not a pessimistic viewpoint, just realistic. You can shout out slogans for a full day. All the opposing party has to do is block their ears and ignore you and all the effort is wasted. If a person’s mind is made up then it’s not very likely that a few slogans, no matter how catchy, will change that; especially since they know that our view towards them is pitiful at best and antagonistic at worst. Maybe a few people who are undecided might hear us and change their mind, but that’s a slim chance. I know, this sounds super pessimistic. But changing the world is a tough job. Hell, changing the opinion of even one person is a tall order, then imagine what it would take to change the world! But if I truly think that marches are a hopeless endeavor, then why go today?

A few months ago, I waged a teeny tiny war with a stranger on Facebook. A “facebook friend” of my colleague posted an anti-vaccine article on his wall and I decided to help set him straight. Of all the debates around science, vaccines are the one issue where the skepticism is almost entirely without foundation and the benefits are unquestionable. I went on with the task determined to be polite, direct, concise and precise in my arguments. I wanted to debate in a way that would not seem like an attack but rather a calm rebuttal of the fallacies in his argument. We had a couple of back and forths, at the end of which, predictably, nothing was achieved. I failed to change his opinion. But somehow I still felt good about it.

Science and Facts are worth the fight.

For once, I felt like I had done my duty as a scientist. I stood up to someone, to defend the facts. It didn’t change his mind, but his misinformation did not go unchallenged. My dissent officially marks his post and there’s some measure of satisfaction in that. And it’s not just strangers. Even in my own family, close family in fact, there are many with opinions which are not based on evidence and logic. For years, I have been supportive of the bad experiences that have informed these opinions. But I realize now that I am doing them a disservice by keeping what I know to be facts from them. Running away from a debate just because it takes effort and might be futile is not excusable. The goal may be to win, but a loss doesn’t lessen the value of the fight. Science and Facts are worth the fight.

Which is why today I marched for science. I know what some of you might say to this. Didn’t I just write a whole paragraph about marches being futile? To be completely honest, going in to it, all I expected was for it to be a fun personal experience. I spent an evening making posters with colleagues. It promised to be a good time with fellow scientists supporting a worthy cause.  But being there actually made me realize how much more it represented.

There was something really magical in the atmosphere, something very powerful about so many people gathered to send out a positive message rather than shouting slogans against something or someone.

March for Science, inspired by the women’s march in January, started out relatively small. But over the past couple of months, the idea spread across hundreds of cities in the US and across the globe to march in support of science to mark Earth Day. In Boston, where I attended, the march had appropriated the massive Boston Commons for the event and it was filled with thousands of men, women and children all carrying colorful and witty posters in support of the cause. My favorite part of the evening was just watching the people around me. There was something really magical in the atmosphere, something very powerful about so many people gathered to send out a positive message rather than shouting slogans against something or someone.

More than anything else, I was in love with the idea of the Kids zone. I think it was a brilliant idea by the leadership of the march. Organizations from across the city had set up stalls to engage children in activities. There were kids blowing beautiful smoke rings in the air, learning to inject medicine into teddy bears and small girls building structures using straws. Looking at all the excited, engaged faces took me back to a lecture I recently attended by a famous professor at Brown, who is deeply engaged in public outreach. He spoke of his own childhood; how as a kid there was no need for anyone to push him into science. The space race in the US and good science programming on TV, was more than enough to spark the imagination of his entire generation. Finding a way to light that spark for the current generation, would probably be much more effective than countless debates. And today at the march, I felt as though I could see that happening.

Be it on stage or in the activities around it, the march found a way to give voice to people of all ages, genders, abilities and ethnicities. The inclusivity and diversity in the event gave it the personal connection that so many other scientific events completely lack. I imagine news channels all over the world covering the event, showing examples of so many diverse people and cultures successfully represented in science. I imagine this image sticking with kids, giving some child somewhere the hope to dream big. I imagine those kids at the march, going home and torturing their parents by asking them endless questions and insisting on building bigger and better things with straws. I imagine scientists and educators looking at the crowd around them and realizing, maybe for the first time, the number of people they could positively impact if they choose to step out of the lab more often; how dire the need for their participation and help actually is.

After all, the best things in life come from the power of our imagination.

I probably sound silly, imagining away in a manner only John Lennon would appreciate. For all my talk, I don’t know if this will make me do more outreach in the long term. But it gave me hope. Hope, that even if we don’t change the administrative policy for science in the short-term, that we would have ignited the minds of the people today. Hope that events like this would give us a future generation that might learn from the mistakes we made. It might be foolish and optimistic, but for once I am content to indulge myself. After all, the best things in life come from the power of our imagination.

Edited by: Abhinav Dey, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

About the author:

pic

Namrata Iyer has completed her PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and is currently working as a Postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, Rhode Island. Her current research focuses on the interactions between the gut microbiome and the host immune system. Her interests include teaching and writing. This blog has been posted previously in her personal blog (http://namrataiyer.blogspot.com/2017/04/just-imagine.html)

 

Creative Commons License This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

 

 

The grass is always greener….or is it?

in That Makes Sense by

As a PhD student in India, I was in a relatively privileged situation. I was in one of the best institutes in the country, a department with good resources, a good lab and a decent project to work on. Nonetheless, you learn pretty fast in grad school that, no matter how good your situation may seem from the outside, PhD is and always will be a hard process on one level or the other. Not just a bad day or month but rather a phase that can last years for some. At such low points, social media doesn’t really help. I would see pictures of many of my college batch-mates who, unlike me, had managed to secure a PhD position abroad and seemed to spend a significant amount of time roaming around and having fun. Granted that social media, at best, gives you a highly rose-tinted and biased view of a person’s life. But knowing that, didn’t necessarily help keep away the pangs of jealousy. Lab seniors, now working abroad, would visit and tell stories of abundance to the point of wastage, kits that reduced work-time to half or less and the luxury of weekends off that you could rely on. From the point of view of a struggling grad student, who felt guilty taking even a Sunday off, this certainly did sound like paradise. I don’t know what did it, whether it was years of watching English movies or all the conditioning from others’ experiences, but I knew I wanted to work abroad at least for a while. Even when I was questioning research as my career path, one of the allures of a postdoc was the option of experiencing a life outside of India. It may not be the best way to make a decision, but I was and still am unashamed of my motivation.

Ever since I moved to the US, I’ve been really intrigued at getting to know the system here. As a postdoc as well as a potential teacher, I am really intrigued by the education system here and how it contrasts with India.  It’s been a lot of fun quizzing people here about their system and I’ve learned a lot in the process. One of the first big surprises for me when I came here was the age factor. Back home, I was used to using a person’s academic level to calculate their age. The math is pretty simple. A biologist’s life graph is pretty predictable; Bachelor’s degree at 21, 23 at Masters, finish PhD by 29 and 5 years for postdoc. Then you frantically apply for faculty positions before the dreaded 35 hits and so on. If a faculty position in India is what you want, then that pretty much has to be your trajectory. And if you don’t want to be in academia, then what you do doesn’t really matter anyway (or so my PhD mentor would say)!! Which is why, it was a huge shock to me when I realized that my roommate, who is a final year PhD student, was 38!!! And it’s not a one off case. I know a number of people who are approaching 30 and are in the early phase of their grad school or sometimes even medical school!! I’ve heard some of their journeys from high school students to undergrad and finally grad school and each one of them is unique and remarkable. Whether it be economic hardship or just figuring out what subject truly interests them, each one of them has had to walk a road of self-discovery before entering grad school. And the beauty is, that they can! The system here seems to set no store by age whatsoever. All that seems to matter is that you really want to be here and that you have the ability to succeed. It makes me really wish our system in India was as open, that an unconventional path was cherished rather than looked down upon, that confusion and lack of clarity was met with patience and compassion rather than rejection. No doubt there are students here who follow the conventional path, or who join grad school because it seems like the easiest or best option. But every once in a while, you get grad students who’ve fought against the tide because this is really what they want to do. I bet there are people like that in India too and we should really open our arms and welcome them into science because they are so likely to want to make a real difference. It’s made me feel a lot more compassion for myself and my own confusion after seeing this.

What’s been rewarding in turn, has been the appreciation I feel (and also received from others) for the kind of training we went through as Phd students in India. And no this isn’t about our willingness to work long hours and work weekends. No doubt that, in many ways, research is made easier here by the availability of resources. Time is considered better spent doing work rather than preparing reagents. But corny as though it may seem, all those hardships and cutting of corners has given us an advantage. I personally feel that the quality of mentorship and training given to me by my lab seniors has been invaluable. Not only did we have to make everything from scratch, but also learn the why and how of everything as we made it. I remember my first 6 months in the lab, just being incessantly quizzed and grilled whenever I learnt something new. But that training pays off every time I have to trouble-shoot, every time I have to design an experiment. That is something working with kits could never have given me. The abundance is so taken for granted here that there just isn’t any need to learn the details. It also makes me really glad that I had the chance to train Masters students in grad school. It seemed absurd to me at the time, training students who were only a year or two younger than me. But I think I learnt more while I was mentoring them than I did as a student. Even something which seemed onerous like lab and department presentations has trained us so well for public speaking. It’s an invaluable asset and it’s surprisingly rare among the students and even postdocs here. We undervalue our own skills way too much.

One of the things I was most curious about when I came here, was the quality of mentorship. I had a pretty bleak view of mentorship in India, especially in the life sciences, and wondered how things operated here. In my limited time here, one thing I’ve come to realize is that good mentorship is rare no matter where you go. No doubt, the expected working hours tend to be much more reasonable here than in India. But even then, you continue to find PIs who micromanage their students or monitor their coming and goings, as if the number of hours spent in lab is an indicator of productivity. Fortunately, I have had the chance to work with two people who are excellent mentors and they have really made a huge impact on my life. It is truly heart-warming and rewarding to work with a boss who feels that their success is tied to your success, who feel like it is their responsibility to look out for your personal growth and enable you to reach your life goals. I must say that I am pretty much spoilt for life now. Such people can really change how you feel about your work. I find myself wanting to do better, not necessarily because I love my work that much, but because I want to help them succeed the same way they want me to succeed. No doubt the systems, both in India and in the US, are cut throat and you need to push the limits of yourself as well as your subordinates to survive and excel. I’m not saying that being nice and lenient and supportive gives you the same kind of success that a whiplash does.  It may or may not. But it’s heartening to know that such people exist and that they can survive in the system. I know a lot of people who would rather be in a renowned but high pressure lab, because even though the life there is tough, it guarantees them the high profile papers they need to move ahead in life. If that is what you want and need, then by all means make that choice. But it’s important to know that you need not sentence yourself to that life for lack of other options. The rat race isn’t a bad thing, but it’s our choice whether we want to be a part of it or not.

It’s been a valuable lesson, learned the hard way but I am glad I got to where I am. It’s been eye-opening to talk to so many people and learn from them. There’s just so much out there if only we are willing to listen. Something as simple as reading university emails every morning has opened up avenues I didn’t even know existed. This is true no matter where you are and what you are doing. You don’t necessarily need to be in the “right” place for good things to happen to you. You just need to be in the right frame of mind to make the best of the opportunities that come your way.

To each his own

in That Makes Sense by

SCIWRI7

 

It has been a year since I officially received my PhD degree and with it the hard­ earned right to call myself Dr. Namrata Iyer. Despite all the effort that went into earning that prefix, it is one I am still acutely uncomfortable using. It is as if using it gives an impression of being something I am not. Doctor, in my books, has always been someone who is working to save lives, an expert in his field, an authority. And expertise is something I felt I sorely lacked at the end of my pursuit of this degree.

I used to always find it weird that this degree was called Doctor of Philosophy. It has been the subject of many a joke in my graduate life, with students mourning about the “sage/hermit”-­like life they were forced to lead on graduate salaries and having to forsake most materialistic desires! But having come out alive and whole from this process, I am beginning to realize how apt that title is.

PhD essentially is a process of examining the world around you, whether at a micro or macro scale. Looking at one tiny drop in this vast ocean of unexplained phenomena and asking a question of it; a question whose answer might provide some clue as to its true nature. Most of the time these questions do nothing more than satisfy our curiosity. But the beauty is that in the process of asking this question, you end up learning things about yourself you would never have discovered otherwise.

No two graduate experiences are alike and some are decidedly harder than the others. I for one had it easy by most standards. Not too much pressure, freedom to plan my work, timely completion of the thesis and a decent recommendation to go where I wish. Despite that, my PhD posed one challenge that till date I struggle with….and that is dealing with failure. Coming into graduate school, most of us have an excellent academic record, top of our class, good research experience and all that jazz. In short, we’re used to being successful at what we do. But then, suddenly we find ourselves not only in the company of equally brilliant peers but also staring down a question/project that comes with no guaranteed solutions.

Apart from the rigors of dealing with our mentors, colleagues and their expectations, the project we choose is in essence a black box without any instruction manual. Especially in fields like biology, the things you deal with literally have a mind of their own. Sometimes things come together like a neatly assembled IKEA piece and sometimes you realize you don’t even have all the pieces to begin with. In a field where each bacterium, each mouse you pick up is unique, you are struggling to discern a hint of pattern or a trend amidst a sea of noise. For many, this struggle ends in triumph while some face down defeat, sometimes at the fag end of their graduate tenure.

Having found myself in the latter category, I was faced with a sort of existential crisis. 5 years of my life invested and nothing concrete to show for it. It made me wonder if I’d made the wrong choice doing my PhD and whether I’m really meant to be a researcher. Maybe I just don’t have what it takes to make it in this field. It’s a long and hard fall to take for someone who, while showing outward humility, never really expected to fail at anything. But being in that position forced me to take a long and hard look at what I really want in my life. It made me step out of the preconceived notion of what life after PhD should be like and make peace with the uncertainty of the future. Not everyone is destined to be a PI (Principal Investigator) and that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for you in the system. Being a part of a good research team with a good leader can be just as satisfying as leading one, as long as you are doing work that you find engaging. When faced with the question of whether or not I want to a postdoc, I realized taking that on doesn’t mean I am sentencing myself to an academic rat race. And it turned out to be a wonderful decision in the end. I was lucky to find a group and an environment that allows me to grow academically and also personally. I’ve explored both teaching and science writing in the few months that I’ve been here and look forward to building a path that allows me integrate things I am passionate about.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not touting myself as a success story….far from it. All I know is that PhD needn’t be the be all and end all of your life. It is just one chapter, one experience and your success and failure in that isn’t necessarily an indicator of how the rest of your life will shape up. Whether or not it leads you to academic success, it definitely does leave you stronger and better equipped to ask questions of life and deal with the answers you get. It is a degree that each one of us would be fortunate to have. So even though I persist in my discomfort with the prefix doctor, I am proud of being Namrata Iyer, PhD.

pic

About the author: Namrata Iyer has completed her PhD from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore and is currently working as a Postdoctoral research associate at Brown University, Rhode Island. Her current research focuses on the interactions between the gut microbiome and the host immune system. Her interests include teaching and writing. This blog has been posted simultaneously in her personal blog today (http://namrataiyer.blogspot.com/2016/01/to-each-his-own.html)

https://in.linkedin.com/in/namrata-iyer-634b564a
Creative Commons License
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Go to Top
Close
loading...
%d bloggers like this: