Monday, August 27, 2007

Adventures from week 1. (warning: not for the faint-hearted, although I survived)

#1: Instant cervical dislocation: Sign up for a pregnant mouse, and on day 9 post-conception (going by appearance of vaginal plugs, hence daily monitoring required (monitoring duty rotates)), bring the pregnant mouse from the animal room. Even if the only life forms you have worked on so far were microscopic, did not squeak or have the ability to run, do not be scared of mouse. Hold the  mouse dangling by its tail, which makes it naturally cling on the the railing of the cage for support. This makes it easy for you to whack it on the base of its neck with one swift motion of  the end of the forceps. Mouse dies instantly. Lay the mouse on its back, make one long cut along the abdomen area, push aside the intestines and find the ovaries. Snip off the embryos that are arranged like a string of pearls beneath. Keep embryos in petri-plate on ice and move on to dissection scope for appropriate use. Dead mouse is wrapped in the same glove used to kill it and flung into a freezer, to be disposed off when full or stinking (emptying freezer duty rotates). Blood, gore. bad smell and involuntary twitching of dead mouse is expected, do not faint at any time during procedure.

#2: Stuck in an elevator: Sometimes elevators malfunction, and you may be stuck on one between floors on a friday evening after hours. That's why they have that calling bell in the elevator. Push it, do not panic. Some kind soul might finally hear you "Are you stuck? Hold on, I'll go get some help in a minute". Help arrives in fifteen minutes in the form of the maintenance guy. "I'll get you out of there in a minute," he says. By now you should know that it won't be a minute. He turns the mains off and on, which is supposed to make the doors open. They don't. He gets a key that is supposed to help open the inner doors from outside. He gets to pry open the outer doors to a crack, finally after 20 minutes, and you can see another person and get some fresh air to breath. The whole emergency key system does not work to unlock the inner doors because the door locking mechanism is jammed. He tells you to stay calm and he will go get help (in a minute). You are alone again , and even the outer doors that he got to open slam shut. Ten minutes later they return, and help you wedge the outer doors open with a crowbar. There is lots of banging down on the inner doors using heavy iron poles and crowbars, trying to forcefully break the locking system and open them. All you can see is the beams of the door getting dented and broken, but no signs of the doors actually giving way. Of course, don't panic. Don't curse your stupid self for getting on an elevator (to go down!) just because you didn't know where the stairs were in the building. This is so not the time. Take a deep breath of stale air, and study the door locking system that the guy is trying to get to unjam. Ask them to bring you a screwdriver and a wrench, use all your collective might to open the inner doors just a crack so tools can be passed on to you into the elevator. Work on unscrewing the aluminium panel that covers the locking system and then take apart the locking system. Doesn't matter, just unscrew any screws till you can see the cable that holds the doors taut loosen up. After 20 mins of heavy turning and unscrewing (the screws can be old and heavy and very tight), the cable comes loose and the doors give way. You can jump out now, you are a free woman!

And if the whole mouse incident was too traumatising to handle, you have a new job offer now, to work with the elevator repair guys who were clearly impressed with your (outward) calmness and handy-ness with tools.
P.S: Posting via email from a work computer, cannot answer comments, sorry. :(

From grad student to post-doc (via long and lazy fattening vacation)

My glorious extended vacation (thank-you, USCIS) finally came to an end. My O.P.T finally in hand, I am proud to report that I boarded my flight out of India with little drama. I found that logic over-ruled everything else in my head this time- I was sad about leaving my parents, especially having been at home for so long, but I had had my fill of lazing and more, was ready to get started and this just had to be done. I was actually quite high-spirited and also excited about my first non-stop flight from India to the US. (Which, by the way totally rocked and I'd fully recommend it, the 15 hours literally flew past and the best part was no delays caused by stopovers).

My sis and b-i-l drove me into Philadelphia and helped me settle in, which made my life so much simpler. An apartment had already been reserved for me, I had a futon (thanks to my b-i-l and sis) to sleep on from night one, my alarm clock - radio plugged in, and the essentials to make my morning chai. I was all set. My first week  has been mostly "getting settled", paper work, formalities,and losing and finding my way around. The first thing that struck me was how much time I have now in the lab. A whole day just to do research! No T.A work, no classes to take, no grad-student responsibilities, just science! Wow!  There are very few grad students and no undergrads on my floor, so the other thing that jumped out soon enough was suddenly being surrounded by only 27-28-year olds and older. No inane conversations, silly undergraduate sense of humour, and such like. Post-docs seem like a more focussed, busy, and mature crowd of people, and I like being one among them. However, along with that, some of them also bring along a  strong shade of jade, something that I want to guard myself against for now.

Day 4 found me setting up for my first experiment in the new lab. It was a preliminary, straightforward experiment, a technique that I had performed a zillion times as a grad student. Still, there was  a broad smile on my face and a slight sense of nervousness as I went about doing it. How I had missed the pipetting all these months! The experiment worked, and I found myself saying "it had to work, there was no other way,  and it did." I had expected a bit more elation what with it being my first experiment in the new lab and everything, but apparently, it will take more for me to break into a dance over experiments that work, now.

Comparisons to my past life constantly dot my train of thought. "Can you believe they don't even have an online inventory  here!", and "The way <i> I </i> used to do it in grad school was different, but this works too..", and so on. The whole sharing bit is not coming that easy to me, having enjoyed the benefits of being the only student in my lab in lutom for many years. After a few days of trying to assimilate all the new stuff I was hearing and learning here,  I called up an old lab-mate in lutom, desperate for details about my old life.  It felt so good to talk in a familiar tongue, familiar words, familiar science.  Who is taking care of my frozen down parasites? What did E finally found out in his project? Did K's stuff finally work? What's the gossip from the meeting? Did they fix that centrifuge yet? And most important, who is using <i>my</i> bench now?

I then realize, I am the one using my bench. Because my bench is here. Yes. the science, the system, the vocabulary, are all very very new, but I chose to get into it, and I love the challenge and the excitement that the newness brings. The start has been smooth, but I get the feeling that it is a bit like the calm before a storm. A storm that should be fun tackling.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Some more Bombay bits

I guess it's natural for one to be madly in love with the city they grew up in- [even more so if it's Bombay ;)]. Here's a list of things I really relished when I went back after living in Hydie for two months .. some of these are, indeed, associations and memories I have with the city (that anyone could form with most any place), while others are true Bombay-isms, that make Bombay what it is.

1. Autorickshaws: They are (mostly) always willing to take on a passenger even if it'll get them minimum fare. They charge by meter, and not a paisa more. They have (mostly) zero attitude (Yeah, two months in hydie and you will really start appreciating this). But most of all, I love that you can hop into a rick and strike up a conversation with the auto wallah about Shiv sena, current affairs, rain, or an impending World War. (Yeah, I have covered all these issues with autowallahs). A priceless snippet of one such conversation from this trip..

Me: Public aur press ne usko fukat ka chadhake rakha hai...(Sanju baba, of course)

Auto driver: Arre! aap jaisi hi-fi madam koi ro rahi thi usko jail hua iskeliye. Kayko roneka? Usko apni kiye ki saza mil rahi hai bas.

Note the words "hi-fi madam", yes, they made my day. :)

2. Bindaas Bombay: It was pouring cats and dogs. Bombay now presses the panic button every time it rains longer than 10 - 12 hours at a stretch. I got on a bus to go to Siddhivinayak, and we were in one of those low-lying areas in waist-deep water, the bus had stalled. Everyone seemed tired, hassled and worried. A man got on the bus and slipped. Some stranger helped him regain balance. He thanked the man, a joke was made, and an entire bunch of drenched and hassled people who didn't know each other broke into peals of laughter.
I was smiling too, even though I didn't hear the joke. :)

3. Help is always forthcoming: The first thing I had to do when I landed in the city, was to close my old bank account. So I went straight to the bank, bag and baggage, wet and umbrella-less. I put forth my best marathi (quite rusty now) and explained to the security guard at the bank what I needed to do. He offered to watch my bags for me, explained me the procedure to close my account, brought me a blank sheet of paper to write my letter, pointed me in the direction of who to see and essentially made it a breeze! Also made small chit-chat with me while I was waiting and told me where I could get some nice hot chai near by. :)

Since I didn't have a cellphone, the P.C.O machines and my little book of numbers were my lifeline for those 5 days. Not once did the shop manning the P.C.O refuse to give me change for a ten-rupee note so I could make my calls.
[Yes, this has happened umpteen times in hydie. I don't know why]

4. Food: I ate duniya bhar ka kachra when I was there, and it tastes best when enjoyed from the street-side vendors. For the wusses there are several new joints that serve all this kachra made from mineral water. Then there's Monginis, Naturals Ice cream, Gaylords, K Rustoms, Swastik, Shiv sagar and a host of other places I didn't even get my fill of.

5. The sense of purpose: Everyone strides about in urgency and hurry. I loved the crowds and the hectic current running through the city, wherever I went. I loved waking up with the city, and sleeping late, watching it still awake and abuzz.

6. The public transport system: The local train network and the BEST bus system can pretty much take you from any point to any point. To fill the gaps, there are rickshaws and taxis always. It felt so good to navigate myself in familiar territory, get from one end of the city to another without too much trouble and make it in good time too.

7. The sea: Nothing beats sitting along Marine Drive, watching the traffic, hawkers, couples, and assorted joggers and tourists, or just watching the sea and the Mumbai skyline. Complete bliss in the middle of chaos.

Yes, it will take me a while to stop fawning, I have been Mumbai deprived for two years and was living in hyderabad for the past two months! :p

Monday, August 06, 2007

Yeh hai Bambai meri jaan: redux

Bombay was calling. One last fling before I left the country, she beckoned, and I had to go. I landed in Bombay with a broad smile on my face. For those five days, my life was the exact opposite of how it has been for the past 2 months. Wake up early, meet A for lunch, B for coffee, C for dinner. Get up, repeat with a whole new set of people. With most of my friends either working or at home with little babies, it was not easy to get them to come out and meet in the same place. So it was a nice logic puzzle to combine folks on the same train line with old haunts I wanted to revisit, simultaneously finish my shopping, errands and of course factor in the great mumbai monsoons. And it was a total blast from my past!

I was living with a couple different friends who had given me the keys to their house so I could return as late as I wanted, no questions asked, and no feelings hurt because I wasn't exactly spending time "with" them. This made for the best arrangement of all! I got to experience the Bombay that never sleeps, in a way I was never allowed to do for all those years of living there, since I lived with my parents.

Meeting friends was a mixed bag of emotions, as always. Lots had changed now, what with husbands, in-laws and kids in the picture. There were stories of sad and happy marriages, separations, and everything else in between. It was nice to see some very welcome changes and also nice to see that parenthood hadn't changed a thing about some of them. When we got together and caught up over street-side food and shopping, it was crazy laughter, leg-pulling and lots of heart-to-heart conversations, just like the good old days. We managed to pack the past two years or more within the 3 - 4 hour long meetings and were back on the same page with each others' lives. My friends also noticed several changes in me, but did not resist them. They insisted on buying for me little things that I felt like buying for myself and made it a point to ensure that I got my fill of all things Bambaiyya. The simple things made me realize how precious these relationships are- and how lucky I am to have them.

One on really terribly rainy day, I had planned to visit my school and college. Visiting the school I went to 20 24 (no thanks to CC for pointing that out) years ago was quite an overwhelming experience, and my day was made when my junior KG teacher actually remembered my name, and introduced me as one the school's best students! They were all very emotional and very proud of me and my achievements. My teacher opened up her secret stash of candy and handed me two chocolates- these were special. They were reserved for students who did a good job in cursive writing and did not cross the red and blue lines in the notebook. :D The classroom of little 3 year olds kept staring at me , envy mixed with wonder.

On the same day, I went to my college, where I got my Bachelors and Masters degrees. Having made it through waist-deep water (often thinking about turning back and dropping the idea) I approached my old classroom and waved out to my prof who was in the middle of a class. She stared at me for a second, trying to figure me out, and then yelled "Arre TGFI! Kitni moti ho gayi hai tu!!" (= Hey TGFI, look how fat you've become!) to which the entire class turned around to look at me. Thanks, ma'am, for the warm welcome, I said. :D It was so nice to see all my profs, lots of improvements to the labs and facilities in my department, and getting offered chai and samosas in the teachers' staff room, again, a much coveted indulgence. I had been carrying around my bound thesis (in two plastic bags , much like that Bheja Fry guy) and it got lots of cheers and congratulations from my proud professors. I was so glad I made that trek in spite of the rain and managed to actually meet all my profs.

Another set of people that were on my list to meet were parents of my best friends, even if those friends were not living there. These are the people that saw me grow up, fed me when I landed up unannounced, chided me when I didn't perform well in exams, and were proud of every milestone in my life. There was a great feeling of strength in seeing them, sharing my good news with them and enjoying their warm indulgences just like it was in the old days.

At the end of five days, I had had a great time, revisited wonderful memories of my past, and added a few firsts too. I left Bombay with a broad smile on my face.