I found what I love in science
The secret to a happy life is exploring something you love more than yourself and committing to it. In my journey of exploration of that “something,” I opened myself up to a plethora of opportunities that consumed my energy as well as time. I came to realize that the hardest part of the journey is to make your own path and remain focused on that path with unwavering faith. You have to leave aside elements of negative influence that can adversely affect your mental health. Additionally, you have to remember that patience and teamwork are very important to exploring the unexplored, hidden mysteries of nature that may be waiting for you.
Growing up in a small town in India, the only career options I could think of were in medicine or engineering. I would not have guessed that I would be pursuing science in the future, although my training in science had started in my childhood. The long, exciting discussions with my dad starting from how a plane flies to issues of global warming helped me evaluate the value of science in our day-to-day life. As I grew up, I found myself enjoying studying chemistry a lot.
For my graduation, I continued to pursue my interest and study chemistry. I followed up with a Master's in pharmaceutical chemistry and got an opportunity to work in the industry immediately after. But somewhere deep down I was unhappy and not enjoying my work. I am very grateful that I decided to leave my job and join the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) lab in India as a researcher. I started my research on tea, the second most consumed beverage in the world. As I started studying tea chemistry, I became more fascinated with its health benefits along with the question of why it is one of the most consumed drinks globally. The art of manufacturing different teas and the production of complex tea aromas are areas that still need to be explored more. For my PhD, I chose to work on the compound L-theanine, which reportedly produces the relaxing, sleep-enhancing effect in tea and contains many beneficial properties.
The lab I joined worked with analyzing tea chemistry, and my project specifically dealt with plant and soil microbe interactions. Having studied chemistry, it was interesting for me to switch to biology since I was studying how soil bacteria produce enzymes that are beneficial for humans. However, the path of research that I had sculpted for myself was rough. My work made me face many ups and downs: facing failure on a daily basis was just one of them. During a continuous stretch of failures, I found I was foolishly comparing myself to far more experienced people and returning to my room, feeling defeated. While working in the lab for months, I identified my deepest flaws— the unhelpful thinking patterns which held me back from personal improvement. I kept questioning myself every day and wondering whether or not I was truly cut out for research; maybe science was not meant for me. Everyone else seemed to be managing their work in the lab smoothly, while I was fumbling. I faced a multitude of hurdles which took me weeks to conquer. I am grateful to my friends and the little voice of faith inside me that kept egging me on to focus on why I had started research in the first place. Without them, I would have certainly given up. The inner voice always kept reminding me of the question I was initially interested in: Can we not produce the enzymes that are in such demand in the market at an industrial scale?
Curious to understand the molecular biology of the enzymes and frustrated by not getting the intended results, I was determined to understand the protein biology behind the whole process.
My journey thus far has neither been smooth, nor providential. Instead I would characterize my journey as a heave of personal certitude. Every so often, I was forced to sit and ask myself, "How has science shaped me?" The inner voice would whisper, "It has made you aware of your unexplored potential and still gifts you every day with souvenirs of self-improvement, foresight, resilience and patience to get the right results, learning from day to day failures and getting back to work with the same enthusiasm every day to perform the experiments in every possible way for the expected outcome.” I have experienced it all because of the beauty that is science.
As a voracious reader, I wanted to delve into writing next. It was a new horizon for me to explore. My love for writing expanded when I started enjoying writing manuscripts and reviewing articles. Here I will recapitulate that the art of doing science is not like following a passion for a brief period but more a matter of doing “something” consistently all the time, every day accepting all failures and successes.
From dealing with friendly soil bacteria with unfriendly proteins to purified friendly proteins, my work has given me the chance to find my hidden strength during times of failure, which I would have otherwise never discovered. From my most apathetic phases to those when I resumed my experiments with renewed vigor, I became aware of my strength – the ability to stick by my unwavering faith and belief that there definitely is “something” out there that I need to reconnoiter. My pursuit of science has led me on an incredible journey, where sometimes I am like an excited child with insatiable curiosity, while at other times I am dealing with utter disappointment. As I come to the close of this story, I must repeat that it is very important to identify something far greater than ourselves. We also need to have a strong conviction in our own abilities to contribute to scientific advancements, faith in our inner voice and in the questions that keep us going back for answers even when everyone, including ourselves, wants us to give up.
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