Sunday, September 6, 2009

Why I am a scientist

Not that I want to make this blog much more autobiographical or self-indulgent (what the hell, its my blog!), but a recent thread on twitter and in the blogosphere, started by Andrew Maynard at 2020Science, with a follow-up by Steven Hill at Testing hypotheses... about how they were inspired to become scientists, has got me reminiscing again about my own sources of inspiration that led to this life in science. I also think my story might be worth sharing because of a background that is rather different from the others mentioned above - so allow me to offer a different view from another part of the world. Here, without further ado, is my list (in not strictly chronological order) of significant influences on the road to becoming a scientist:

  1. Mrs. Menon: my science teacher from ~5th grade on in New English High School in Ulhasnagar, a distant suburb of Bombay. She had a reputation as one of the best teachers in school, and I was really looking forward to being in her science labs. But scientific enlightenment came in a rather opposite way than I (and perhaps she) might have anticipated: not by example of what she knew and taught us, but by the realization during one class that she didn't know (or was confused about?) something quite basic! I remember vividly: she was lecturing us about how "water seeks its own level" with the example of a U-tube filled with water where if you raise one "arm" of the tube, water will appear to rise up that arm and fall down the other arm. Wait... what?! Shouldn't water fall in the arm being raised and rise in the other one to maintain its level? That was what I shot up my arm to ask her and we had a bit of an argument, with the rest of the class on the sidelines. I asked why we don't do the experiment and see what happens - surprisingly, she agreed, and pulled out a rubber u-tube. Of course, the experiment proved me right - and we went on with the rest of the lesson. Why has this incident (almost more than anything else I learned in the 12 years in that school) stayed with me so vividly? Because it shattered my illusion, nurtured in the traditional hierarchical culture of deference to elders and authority still prevalent in India, that these elders/authorities actually knew what they were talking about! They could be so wrong! And little old me could show them how they were wrong - empirically. What an empowering moment for a 10-year old!! In retrospect, it was remarkable the Mrs. Menon even allowed me to challenge her in class and let me conduct an experiment that proved her wrong in front of the whole class. And I still don't know to this day whether she went through the whole thing as a teaching device, to make us think, or if she had simply made a mistake and was sticking to her guns in the heat of the classroom moment when confronted by a student actually paying attention to what she was saying. My ego (and the fact that this was a unique event in all the years in her class) would like to think it was the latter, but as a teacher myself now I wonder if she was wilier than she let on? Either way, thank you Mrs. Menon, wherever you are, for setting me on the path to a life in science!

  2. Charles Darwin. Of course, my students might say, rolling their eyes - but that's not a cliched answer! It was not reading anything Darwin wrote that got me into biology, but the story of his life as novelized by Irving Stone in The Origin which I picked up during college from a second-hand book-stall on the sidewalks of Flora Fountain in Bombay. (And thank you Dad, for alerting me to Stone's work in the first place by recommending his Lust for Life).

  3. Stephen Jay Gould's The Panda's Thumb and other writings. I've gushed a bit about Gould in the recent past so I won't say more.

  4. Libraries! A decent well-stocked public library is practically nonexistent in Indian towns, sadly. But Bombay offered alternatives, and me and my buddies, like so many others of our college generation, made the most of them, spending a lot of time in the very different libraries of the British Council (Darwin, Patrick Moore, Attenborough, Dawkins, and, of course, PGW), American Center (Gould, Sagan, Steinbeck, Asimov, Carson), and Soviet (yes - this was pre-perestroika! Engels, Tolstoy, Mayakovsky). These libraries opened up a whole world of science and wider literature that was largely unknown even to most of my college teachers (sad, but true).

  5. Bombay's infamous local trains! If not for my daily commute from Ulhasnagar to Bombay VT (75-105 min each way depending upon whether I caught the fast or slow local), I never would have had the time to read all those wonderful books, nor ponder the mysteries of the universe!

  6. The Institute of Science, a wonderful place not so much for my professors, but for its amazing library with a century-old collection of books and, more importantly, journals, actual science journals that we could blow the dust off of and marvel at (even if many subscriptions were no longer current). Here I was able to read not just about the discovery of DNA's double-helix structure, but the original Watson & Crick paper too!! The labs were pretty well equipped also with some real research ongoing - this is unusual again in the Indian context, where for most undergrads "science" is stuff you memorize from out-of-date textbooks and hand-me-down notes, rote dissections and lab "experiments" - not something you can, you know, get your hands dirty actually doing!! But this Institute (which, sadly, has walled itself off from undergraduate teaching once again) allowed a bunch of us ne'er-do-well undergrads to run around the labs tinkering with things, building telescopes, and generally having a ball learning to do science on our own.

  7. Peers. And this is another one I want any students reading this to remember - your peers are perhaps the most important component of your learning, especially in science, so surround yourselves with curious, nerdy friends! Although I didn't have any truly inspirational (in the positive sense) science teachers until I reached graduate school, I was lucky enough to find a bunch of fellow-traveler-nerds with whom I shared a natural curiosity about the world and a growing love for science as a way to satisfy that curiosity. Vishy, Pradeep, Rajesh, Ravi, et al (and my sister Vaijoo) - if not for them, I might well have ended up a bank clerk or worse!

  8. Finally, like Maynard, I must also tip my hat to all my school and undergrad science teachers who did their best to beat the curiosity and wide-eyed wonder out of me, to make science dull and tedious, to make me respect authority, to do well on standardized tests, and so help me get into medical school (my parents' ambition which I so utterly failed to fulfill)! And a special bow to the Head of the Biology Department at Ruia College (sorry I can't remember his name, this was in 1987) for taking a half hour of his valuable time trying to talk me out of joining the strange new MSc Wildlife program at the Wildlife Institute of India, to keep me from throwing a promising career away!! Thus, for my ability to withstand all that counter-programming, and persisting in this doomed business of science, I have to give another shout out to Mrs. Menon: thanks again, Ma'am!!

A final note for those of you who've known me since graduate school days and may wonder why I haven't mentioned any influences past 1987: its simple - I was already on the path to becoming a scientist by the time I got to WII. This list is of the signposts that helped me find that path in the first place!

Now, dear reader, how about sharing your own story? How did you become a scientist?


RBH September 26, 2009 at 10:30 AM  

Thanks for that.

I 'knew' I wanted to be a scientist very early, due mostly to a couple of books my parents had. One was a general reader survey of then-current (in the early 1950s) physics and the other was God, Graves and Scholars.

Then in high school in the late 1950s, in a rural village of 1,000 people, I was exceedingly fortunate to have an inspired science teacher. He taught biology, chemistry, and physics (he was the only science teacher in the school), and let us play in the ill-equipped labs. We fermented fruit juices into alcohol, blew up hydrogen generators, built an oscilloscope from a kit, cultured pond water for microscopic viewing, took apart shotgun shells to get powder for rockets, and dissected a fetal pig. Through all that we retained all our fingers and eyes! Unfortunately, not long after I graduated from high school he left teaching to work in industry and make a decent living to raise his family. But many thanks, Mr. Bauermeister!


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