30 August 2014

On India, Independence, and Indian Independence

<not my age to be preachy, and definitely not my place to be cynical>

This month, we completed our 67th year as an independent nation, celebrating 67 years of a tryst with destiny that we substantially set to fulfill. On Independence Day, our collective skepticism and moral disdain reaches amazing levels, each layered within the other. It’s deeply meta. We sing praises of an era long gone by. We claim an Indian origin in everything that the world is grateful for. We talk about how we’re not truly free. We talk about how cliched it is to talk about how we’re not truly free. We talk about how we never walk the talk, and then talk about how we are not talking about the right things. We mourn how we are occasionally patriotic, and then pity how we are patriotic on occasion.

I’m sorry, but I’m going to express opinions about collective opinions. One more layer won’t hurt now, will it?

For starters, we need to stop staking Indian origin on everything good. You know, it is okay for something nice to not have an Indian hand, or for something revolutionary to not first be done by us. I’m not saying it is wrong to claim credit where it is deserved; we just need to know when to stop being ridiculous. So when you are talking about Gandhi, the movie, celebrating the fact that Ben Kingsley has Indian roots misses the point. It’s just worse when we dig through centuries of misplaced pride. Let’s set the record straight: Indians weren’t the first to discover the cube root. Are we really that insecure as a nation that our patriotism is solely dependent on our achievements? Are you any less Indian if Ben Kingsley’s grandfather wasn’t born in India? I’m not, thank you very much.

Next, all the talking about the talking, and all the talking about walking the talk. Maybe, it’s not so bad that we do that. We need to introspect, at least annually, don’t we? A state of the union reflection, undertaken collectively. But, we keep asking the same questions over and over. Does that get us anywhere? If we don’t want to question whether we are truly free, what do we want to question?

This year, I asked people the following question: which decade was the best for independent India? I would appreciate knowing why you choose the answer you give, and how you define best. The reason why I began asking this question is a long unrelated story, but I thought this was a good beginning point this Independence Day.

We all have our opinions about where we’ve gone wrong, and we are definitely entitled to these. However, do we have an opinion about where we’ve done things correctly? Maybe if we identify what’s right, we’ll be able to correct what’s wrong. Maybe we need our history for us to be better or worse, for in isolation, we’ll always just be good or bad.

No decade was a clear winner. In fact, at least someone deemed every decade to be India’s finest. Clearly, our definitions of a happy nation differ widely. Not surprising. More importantly though, this means that every point in our history has something we could emulate today. I was rather pessimistic to begin with. The 50s saw widespread communal violence, in the aftermath of the Partition. We lost a major war in ‘62. The 70s saw another war, along with the Emergency. A Prime Minister was assassinated in both the 80s, and the 90s. The first decade of the new millenium was remembered for political scandal and terrorist activity. And the current decade has already seen more than its fair share of ugliness. No decade has been pure and untainted. Even nostalgia can’t induce a pristine flawless perspective. But, on the other hand, the 50s led to consolidated nationalism, the 60s saw remarkable national progress, and we won a war in the 70s. 80s introduced the concept of information technology, while the 90s saw the markets opening to the world. Important legislative steps were taken in the last decade. Each decade has seen something we hold dear, even today.

It is interesting to observe what trade-offs we are willing to make. The 60s were wonderful, despite the war, says someone. The 70s saw great economic progress, despite the temporary loss in our democratic standing. People’s answers reflected what they thought was an acceptable compromise. It depended on their age, political affiliations, as well as religious beliefs.

However, the one thing every answer showed was that we appreciate moral clarity the most. As a nation, there are various values that we hold dear, values that our Constitution directs us to imbibe and follow. Our favourite times in our own history are when these values have been upheld, not forcibly, but with the respect that our founding principles demand. Winning the ‘71 war, or the Kargil War is important, not only because we won, but because of what we fought for. Economic progress and scientific development are valued because they create channels that allow these values to be upheld: better lifestyles, equal opportunities, and transparent governance for instance.

It does not really matter whether you believe that 1960s were our best generations or the 1990s. You value the first few Five-Year Plans more, as compared to the 1991 economic reforms. Fundamentally though, you value positive policy change. Maybe then, that answers the cliched question we ask. When will be truly free? We’ll be truly free when we are fuelled by values our Constitution prescribes. We’ll be truly free when we uphold these values willingly. We’ll be truly free when these values are practised in thought and action both. We must persevere to live with these very values.

I believe that every time (and that means Independence Day and Republic Day) we go through a nationwide existential crisis, we should look to our Constitution, that we should recollect the best of our past, and try to emulate the ethical balance we achieved. Hopefully, that'll guide us through political pungency, internal indignation, and other present-day problems.

To quote an answer I received, "let's be optimistic, and believe that the best decade will always be in the future." Let every decade surpass the last. That's a rather nice way of looking at it, don't you think?

So if your actions, in whatever form, contribute in ensuring that India stays a sovereign, secular democratic republic, thank you.

PS: I'd love to hear what decade you think is the best for Independent India. If I haven't already asked you, I'd really appreciate it if you tell me what you think.

5 August 2014

Wimbledon 2014

Disclaimer: Unabashed Roger Federer gushing follows.

I have been writing on the Wimbledon every year, since the last few years. It's become a habit. But this year, I was terribly disappointed on Finals night. Roger Federer's loss to Djokovic might not have been as 'epic' as his loss to Nadal in 2008, but it hurt just as much. However, I thought I'd try treating triumph and disaster, the wily impostors, just the same. Roger Federer's loss doesn't take anything away from Wimbledon's grandeur, although it does manage to diminish its charm.

Wimbledon 2014 was full of upsets. A 19 year old wild card showed Nadal the door. Crowd favourite Murray did not move beyond the quarterfinals. Ferrer didn't see the second Monday. Gasquet, Monfils, and Berdych didn't do as well as they probably hoped to do. The semifinals did not pitch the Big Four against each other, as fans traditionally hoped.

Despite the haphazard tumbling of the top seeds, Wimbledon remained what it has always been: pristine in its white purity, polite in its fandom, and perfect in its ageless appeal. Impeccably British. What never ceases to amaze me is how wonderfully old-fashioned Wimbledon can be. It upholds tradition not with the upturned nose of a snob, but with a unmoving air of assertion. We're sorry, no swearing please. We're sorry, but no orange shoes and soles are a part of shoes please. We're sorry but you were cheering too loudly there. The Holy Grail of tennis is undoubtedly Wimbledon, and traditions are a large part of ensuring that. You've to admit there is something wonderfully elegant about not having fluorescent green headbands and shocking pink wristbands.

Roger Federer's journey through the two weeks went relatively unnoticed. His presence was a given because it's Wimbledon and he is Federer, but it was just as surprising because he is 33. Britain's sole (and sore) tennis star was the object of greater scrutiny. People took notice only when he beat his compatriot Wawrinka to enter the semifinals. Suddenly, it was Federer all over again. He was the man with countless records; he was the man with a blistering backhand and a magical forehand; he was never someone written off by critics.

The final was breathtaking, albeit extremely painful. I hate to admit it, but Djokovic was at his finest. Federer was his old self again. He was no longer 33: untroubled, elegant, and a class apart. His game is beauty personified. His defining characteristic is not his strength, a specific shot, or even his stamina. It is his ability to play with effortless elegance and unperturbed ease. The way he won the fourth set to steal the first Championship point from Djokovic is perfect evidence of that.

Wimbledon is not used to seeing him lose. His loss was greeted with a second of shocked silence. As much as I dislike Djokovic, his sportsmanship was touching. To thank your opponent for allowing you to win, at the pinnacle of the sport, without a trace of malice or snideness is remarkable humility. You could see that Federer was close to tears, and I'm glad he did not cry while on court. I would have started howling myself.

But, he's promised he'll be back next year. That is the only thing that makes his finals defeat bearable. He'll be there again, with his calm smile, his beautiful brand of tennis, and Wimbledon will be Wimbledon again.

Here's to peRFection.

30 May 2014

On A Year Of Being A Research Assistant. Or, Yay! Science.

Hello! If you were, at any point, expecting me to update the blog, I am sorry for the delay. A lot has changed since the last post. I'm no longer a college freshman, for starters. More on that later (maybe). Here is a very informal and candid reflection on my first real job. It's mostly written for myself. I ramble a bit, sorry for that.
-----
Background: I worked for a biology professor for a year. Let me add that I am not a biology major (math and chem!), and have, in fact, not taken a single biology course in college. I officially ended my job yesterday (May 9), and felt unexpectedly disappointed. Painfully disappointed, actually.

More background: My professor is one of the sweetest people you could possibly meet. He has an adorably silly sense of humour, runs marathons, and makes bad puns all the time. He works with haloarchae, which are organisms that love really salty conditions. These organisms basically thrive in conditions most other organisms die in. Do you remember any of those look-bio-is-super-cool-the-lake-is-pink-because-of-living-things images on the internet? Yeah, that is what he works with. He has worked them for almost two decades now. He loves them and is offended if you tell him that the cells stink. Would you like it if anyone told you that you were emitting foul smells? Cells have feelings if you work with them for long enough.

Some more background: The lab technician for the Archae-ology Lab (get the pun?!) is a stereotypical science person. And is pretty strict. Well, that’s an understatement. She has very high expectations, believes that dumb questions exist (even I do, but my cut-off is way kinder), and is a perfectionist. I was terrified of her. But, I was also really glad to have her around. My lab technique and understanding of lab protocol increased substantially because of her ridiculously high standards. And because I was always mildly scared of asking her questions, I often figured out things myself, often the hard way. It also meant that the few times she praised me, it made me irrationally happy.

And some more background: I was the only freshman working in the lab for most of the year. Each student in our lab works on a separate project, and projects are interconnected. My job was to find what this one specific gene did to Halobacterium salinarum. This gene (henceforth referred to as my gene) was next to some pretty essential genes and therefore, it was believed that my gene also did something important. And by something important, I mean that it affected bacteriorhodopsin (it’s a protein, gives these cells their cool colour) production.

And the last bit of background: So fun fact, my gene does do something. It doesn’t exactly affect bacteriorhodopsin production as much as we would have liked it to. But, it significantly seems to affect bacterioruberin (another protein, cool colour) production. Here, you should ask if this is statistically significant. (Random aside: you should do that everytime someone uses the phrase “significant change in <insert x>”). I don’t really know. We were testing for bacteriorhodopsin, not bacterioruberin. My professor says that this project presents some interesting results that he would take up in the future. I really hope he does.

I think the first thing I realized was how easy it was to become attached to the organisms you worked with. Within a few weeks, I called the cells “my cells.” I had dreams about gel electrophoresis and nightmares about centrifuges. Not joking there. If my cells actually grew after ten days in an incubator, it made my day. And, just like my professor, I don’t like saying my cells stink. They don’t. (Well, they do, but I have just become really used to the smell). I think my happiest moment in lab was when cells with my genetically modified plasmid were added to my professor’s database. It’s this really cool database he has where he records every cell variation his lab has (successfully) created. Mine is now listed as number 121. It’s stored at -80ÂșC in the second shelf of the freezer. And I think someone just added a 122. I was stupidly happy that my strain number is a perfect square of a prime number!

The second thing I realized is that science is slow. It’s not as if I didn’t know that; it is just that I truly appreciated it after working in a lab. It took me three months to simply delete my gene. Cells need time to grow. Sometimes they don’t and you have to start all over again. Sometimes they grow wrong. Sometimes you hate them, and then sometimes you feel that they hate you. But, with enough patience and agarose, things always work out. I believe things would have been significantly faster (yes, statistically) if I wasn’t a starry eyed freshman. But even then, I have spent countless afternoons transferring liquids from one microcentrifuge tube to another, running PCRs, staring at gel images and sterilizing lab benches.

I am going to digress a bit here to recollect some hilarious lab stories. You remember I told you how strict my lab tech was? There was this one time when I was using a new chemical, and had no idea about its disposal protocol. My lab tech’s instructions: “Read the MSDS. Don’t throw it down the drain. Figure it out yourself.” The MSDS for the chemical gave disposal instructions only if the chemical was in a certain state. I didn’t have it in that state. I spent a lot of time figuring out ways to dispose the chemical safely while she amusedly watch me struggle. It took me a while to come up with a plan, but I did come up with one, and it worked. It wasn’t the most efficient solution and in retrospect, I was really dumb, but I am never going to forget how to correctly dispose this chemical now!

And then, on the last day I was working in lab, this is what happened: My professor was going to show me the entire protocol himself. He did not have it written down, had never done it since coming to this college, and had two beers without eating anything. Joy. It turns out that if you are working with the same organisms since graduate school, remembering the protocol isn’t that difficult but using Excel to make graphs is still a pain.

But the most amusing set of memories I have are my own blunders. I told you that me being a starry eyed freshman significantly slowed the process. Here is how: I once ran a gel in the wrong direction. If you know anything about science, you should be wondering just exactly how stupid I am. Rite of passage--achievement unlocked. I once forgot to put my plates in a bag before placing them in the incubator. Let me rephrase that. I did not realize that I needed to put my plates in a bag. Fun fact: my cells died. A few billion of them. And then, once I labelled test tubes in the form of a math joke. I had multiple samples and multiple controls. I decided to label them as terms of a sequence. I am not really sure why I did that (I mean, I love math but this was just dumb). The problem was that two months later, I had no clue as to how I had chosen the order of my terms in this wonderfully stupid sample sequence. I did eventually find that I had described my naming protocol in my lab notebook. Oh, and then there was this one time I set ethanol on fire. I promise, though, that wasn’t a big deal. Even my lab tech wasn’t mad at me. Honestly though, my learning curve was a really steep one. I did make some embarrassingly awful mistakes, but I made them just once. I think I learnt from them. And I promise, most of my mistakes weren’t a by product of carelessness or stupidity but were a direct consequence of a sheer lack of experience.

There were also times when I did not really understand what I was doing. I should have. It would have made life better. I mean, I have an intuitive understanding of my work. But there are bits where I can't really give you an exact scientifically accurate description of my work. My friend thinks that is totally acceptable--I am a lab minion and am not expected to uncover the depth of my professor’s archaeal empire in one year. Maybe, that is true. I hope it is. On the other hand, one thing that is definitely true is that I should have maintained my lab notebook better. It isn’t incomplete or inaccurate, but it is ridiculously messy and hard to follow.

Oh, I should have added that I am no longer working for my professor next year. You remember that I haven’t taken a single biology class in college? Exactly. He wants someone who is more into biology. The fact that I am not formally and actively adding biology knowledge outside of lab is affecting the research. And so, I am fired. Honestly, I don’t even feel bad about it. He is right. I don’t have enough biology knowledge to continue. But the super sweet person that my professor is, he told me that as my academic advisor, he felt that I should join a lab in my major field as that would be better for me.

I have read enough about scientific research to know that failure is common. Biological research is notorious for being nearly impossible to replicate. Most things in science don’t work on the first try. I knew that going in. Cells died, but that was okay. I went in with full acceptance of the fact that things wouldn’t work. This did not mean that I did not complain or feel bad when they didn’t work. It’s just that I never gave up hope when that happened. Yesterday was the ultimate ending. I had this unrealistic and stupid wave of optimism throughout that my gene did something important (which it actually does), and that I would identify what exactly it did. My project ended on an ambiguous note: my gene does something important but not exactly what we thought it would do. Let me put it this way: I don’t feel satisfied or successful, when I think I deserve to feel both because I don’t have proper closure. What does my gene really do? I was supposed to find that. I didn’t really fail, but now that’s going to be someone else’s job next year. I also am childishly upset that these cells are no longer “my cells.” Well, they’ll always be my cells in the sense that I created the specific strain. But beginning next year, someone else will call them their cells. I know I am being irrational here. But I spent 108 hours in lab over the year. And I spent a lot of time thinking and talking about my work. I was also the only student working on the project, and it was my first one on such an intense level. I am allowed to feel for the cells. Yes?

Oh, and as a true math major, I signed off my lab notebook as if I was completing a proof. Maybe my professor is right. I need to work in my actual major field. But, if you ever work in microbiology lab, here is what I learnt:

1. Never transfer anything to or from an unlabeled test tube. Ever. The first thing my professor told me.
2. Cross contamination does actually spoil experiments. Want to run a gel repeatedly because the buffer was contaminated? I don’t think so. So, stop being awful, sterilize your bench before and after each session. The first thing my lab tech told me.
3. Things can always go wrong. There are many possible reasons. The most likely one is that you messed up.
4. There is a correct angle to hold the micropipette at. And never be stingy with tips.
5. Label things properly. Always. Math jokes aren’t appropriate names.
6. Respect enzymes. The delicate darlings can make or break your experiment.
7. If your lab uses mm/dd convention for dates, follow it. ¾ means that it is March 4, not April 3.
8. Autoclaving is science’s way for getting back at all the awful memes you have created on the internet.
9. Centrifuges are scary. Follow instructions exactly. Nightmares ensured.
10. Don’t hide your mistakes. Admitting them is always the better option. Even if you think you have corrected them just in time.
11. Love your cells. They are beautiful and adorable. And they don’t stink.