Wednesday, May 22, 2013

A Lot Can Happen Over Coffee

Yesterday, I met two scientists. One is a neuroscientist about to join Yale, the other, her husband, an immunologist in NY.

And they changed my perception about how I should pursue my higher studies after MBBS.

No, the meeting wasn't a coincidence. I'd never be in CCD on any given day unless someone invited me over there. But the events that led to it, was undoubtedly a long chain of logical but random choices (even involving a confessions page in facebook).

So, what was so earth-shattering about this meeting that my career plan has to undergo a complete overhaul?


Here's a slightly modified transcript of the conversation:
(KI = the neuroscientist, AG = the immunologist, ASD = me, SSB = my friend)

KI: So, how are you liking MMC?

ASD: To answer that, I'd have to go back in history. Till about the end of grade 10, I was going to be a Professor of Mathematics. Because back then, I liked and understood the subject really well. But at the end of grade 10, I decided that I had to do something relevant and of importance to the world (not that Mathematics is pointless). I decided I'd do MBBS. And after MBBS, I'd choose IAS and enter social service; or do DM in Neurology, so that I'd be doing some research in brain and cognitive sciences later on.

And then, at the end of grade 12, I had a real chance to pursue Computer Science and Mathematics. But then I stick to my ill-logic of practical importance, and choose to satisfy my curiosities in CS and math as a hobby while I become a doctor.

And what makes me confident about this all encompassing polymath style approach, is the over-confidence that my study technique lends me. I believe that even in a fact-oriented subject like Medicine, when you go deeper with your understanding of the concepts (sometimes hypothesising on things) you'll have made facts intuitive, thus avoiding the need to memorize them, and at the same time making you very good at the subject. That's why I started and I'm just waiting for the results.

So, in short, it doesn't matter to me, the college. I like it, because I'm in it.

AG: So, you thinking of developing a brain-machine interface, or the like? You know what, the research on all those is going full swing right now, and probably by the time you reach there, it'd all be over. They're mapping out all the connections in the brain, and the US government has given nod to a $300 mn bill already for the 'connectome' project.

ASD: Okay! But that's so going to fail.

AG & KI: If you look at it, it's much like the human genome project. They're just trying to figure out the connections as perfectly as possible, and once we have it, possibly we'll end up with a whole lot of applications of it. You know how the CNS pharmacology is not based on our knowledge of the brain, but on pure luck.

ASD: Okay! I meant it wasn't going to solve consciousness or intelligence or anything. For health, of course, yeah. So, tell me your stories.

KI: I did my MBBS starting in 1999, while AG started in 1996. Towards the end of it, I realized that writing an entrance examination after graduating, and then getting into post graduation rate race, was so not going to happen for me. But, I also knew that to get into research positions abroad or in India, I needed to have something in my c.v. So, I went to the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore during my internship and stayed there for 3 months, doing their work, closely learning how the entire system works. And I convinced the director there of my commitment to do science, that they wrote a recommendation letter for me.

And with that I could join a neuroscience research team. In essence, when you apply to universities, they ask you what you have already done, because they need some way to separate the grain from the chaff. They need to find out who is really committed to doing this, who is capable of doing this, and who knows what they're going to do.

But that's not an excuse to neglecting your academic performance in college. They really aren't waiting for a guy who took 5 years longer to finish medical school just because he was interested in doing much cooler things. They want someone who is good at whatever he does.

And, you gotta compartmentalize your academic studies from the things that you learn for your research interest. Because they could well be at odds with each other.

And then +swathi sb comes in after finding her lost scooter key.

SSB: Sorry I'm late. I know you're talking about career. I wanted to do something in public health, for the poor who are suffering. So, does this all apply for me?

AG: Well, we aren't pretty confident about that sector, and there are people who're better qualified to answer that. But still, there are a lot of ways you could help the community. You needn't necessarily be working at a rural setting, because that'd only make you a practising doctor in rural areas. You could gain experience while working as the doctor for NGOs that operate in rural areas. That'd fetch you insights into how things work or doesn't work there. Then maybe you can use it to do some work from the cities.

SSB: Okay. Forget about me, continue your story?

KI: Ha, so I did some work on astrocytes, the glial cells. Now, to do my post-doctoral work I'm joining Yale Medical School.

ASD: Wow! The Yale?

AG: Yes, the Yale. Like I'm joining Sinai for getting some clinical practice.

ASD: Okay, you haven't told us your story.

AG: Ah, I finished MBBS, like she already told you and then I went to Bombay to stay with my mother. While doing MBBS, I had done some studies in P&SM, and with only that experience I went to the nearby Tata Hospital. And I didn't know whom to meet there. So, I went to the Director directly, and told him "Sir, I'm a medical graduate. I am interested in doing research." And he was amused. He talked with me for a while. And then he wrote a note.

I took that note to the lady it was addressed to. And she was an immunologist. They were working on genetics and stem cell therapy. And I worked with them. And I was among the team which discovered a therapy for ADA deficiency, which was also first of its kind.

ASD: That is the example for stem cell therapy in biochemistry.

AG: Yeah, so you know how important that was. And then I was thinking of doing some stuff, when I stumbled upon the much cooler stuff that one of my colleagues were doing there. He was trying to make changes in dendritic cells that'd enable them to better identify cancer cells. And then the T-cells would be able to identify them and kill them naturally. So, I'm working on it, now.

ASD: So, what progress are you making on it?

AG: In research, you usually do not make any perceivable progress in a short term. That's, maybe, one disadvantage of it. But you shouldn't really get bogged down by that. You will build on someone's work, and then someone else will build on your work, and maybe credit you. That's how progress is made.
And if you ask us whether we've made the right choices, we are not old enough to say so, but so far so good.


Thinking of it, my idea of doing a DM in Neurology is stupid, when all that I want to do was research on the brain. The most natural thing for me to do is, after MBBS, to join some institute where they do some actual research on the brain.

And so is it going to be.

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