April 13th, 2020

By Ashwitha Lakshmi

Here I am, sipping my coffee and staring out of my only real window to the outside world. It all does seem a bit too cinematic. And as a clockwork, I start to ponder on the endless rhetorical questions that we often ask ourselves.


Isn’t it amusing how we are so caught up in the present (or future) that we lose track of how far we have come? A typical Indian twenty-something, in New York, living a life she still finds hard to believe. A student in a renowned University and even an amazing Laboratory, I get to do everything that I ever imagined and more. Could life get any better?


I can see my reflection smiling away in the window and I think “Oh I know what comes next”. I’m pulled into a known reverie.


As cliche as it sounds, unlike most, I do not remember when or how I fell in love with science. But one memory does come to my mind. In 2007 I got to meet my grandparents after a long hiatus (isn’t that always the case?) but they were very ill and I felt utterly helpless. For a brief period of time, I wanted to become a doctor and help others who were sick. But to my dismay, I was made aware that even the doctors often felt helpless.


And that is when a realization hit me – the medical profession stands tall on the shoulders of thousands of scientist’s life work. And for doctors to function, we need scientists who lock themselves in labs for years together, if not decades. (More power to doctors, especially in tempestuous times like these, but we as scientists have a hugely pivotal role to play)


My first rendezvous with anything remotely “sci-fi” was when I met my uncle and aunt in their lab. Yes, they are scientists. My uncle was working on this curious project on Kala azar (also known as Visceral Leishmaniasis) which is the second largest parasite killer in the world, which I could hardly follow back then. But it did strengthen my resolve to become a scientist.


Even at the mere mention of a famous scientist’s name, I’d ask myself: What does it take to become a good scientist? And do I have what it takes?
What makes me fit for this fascinating but immensely challenging life-career?

“I am a good human first, meticulous next, then a team player. A contribution made in the spirit of humanitarianism – is what makes a good scientist” – I would pride myself into thinking.


When I entered Grad school I was worried that I’d spend my entire life with Biology. Thankfully Biotech turned out to be an interdisciplinary field. (*Pheww) And like every grad student, there were times when I thought I had bitten more than I could chew. I would often wonder why I was made to study Engg mechanics and Engg drawing. And there were times when I felt out of place. Call it frustration or just wishful thinking, I even lured myself into thinking that I could become an actor instead. But life has weird ways, even a small mosquito can induce life changing decisions (intended cliff hanger).


As weird as it may sound, a sleepless (blame it on mosquitoes) night can actually change the course of your life. Weirdly, my research idea on mosquito proteins gave me an opportunity of a lifetime – to work in one of the most stellar labs in India – BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research center) where I worked in Radiation biology and health science department on Expression and purification of mosquitocidal binary toxin component BinB and its receptor protein Cqm1 using bacterial expression system project. For me, all this while science was just in the books or in the research papers. But for the first time, I could hold a protein in my hands (Of course immobilized in gel). The first time I could visualize a pure protein band – a huge one at that!

All of these were baby steps to me in the field of scientific research and I couldn’t wait for more.


My usual lab schedule was between 8 in the morning till 8 in the evening and I still yearned for more (and nope, I’m not bragging ). Nobody could stop me from thinking about going back to the lab every day. On some days I couldn’t even sleep due to excitement. The next seven months went in a jiffy. And all the hard work culminated into a Research Publication.


When I look back it was one of the greatest achievements of my life. From begrudgingly referring to research papers for class assignments, to writing and publishing my own research paper with “actual scientists”, it has been an exhilarating journey.


That’s when I knew I wanted to spend my life in scientific research. The new-found purpose of my life made me pursue a Masters degree in Biotechnology. And I remember being overjoyed to the extent of crying, when I was accepted into NYU. Once in post-grad, I worked as a Graduate teacher’s assistant for the first 6 months and then received an email from my advisor on an opening for graduate Research assistant in Montclare lab and after reading the work that was happening there on protein, I knew I had to apply.


The first formal job interview of my life! The excitement was killing me but it helped me prepare for it. On the day of the interview I remember being scared out of my life but I gathered all my courage and reached for the interview where I met Stanley Chu (my mentor). He put me at ease with his demeanor and kind words. And the questions were pretty interesting too. Overall, I was happy with the way the interview turned out. (Fingers crossed)


I was in my class when I received an email saying I got the job and cried from happiness again (I cry a lot when I’m happy lol). Next thing I know I am on a video call with my whole family and friends, and was super excited to begin work at this lab. In hindsight, I could not have asked for a better mentor and was a bit too excited to learn a lot from him.


Life has been kind to me with wonderful people – my parents, my elder sister Pavi, all my friends at high school and grad school. Yes, good people are often hard to come by, much harder to retain. But I am lucky in that sense because I have my people whom I can trust my life with. Oh the gratitude and compassion! I feel a new spring of warmth blossoming inside of me.


Now I see my reflection smiling away in the window and now I know why. And I’m pulled back into reality.