Thursday, June 28, 2012

Turning Three

I wonder if it is weird to remember the birthdays of your car, your house, your blog, or of other dear but inanimate possessions. I remember the date I moved to the US, I remember the date I moved to Virginia. And I remember the day I bought my car. A private dealer in Kirkland sold me the car after a two month hunt, right after my Mount Rainier trip on a sunny summery day in 2009. I had not even passed my driving test then, and my friends drove it for me. During the initial few months, everyone except me drove my car. We took her to the Bothell temple that evening and did puja. The very next day, she had a flat tire. My mother often wonders when she will be able to sit in my car and have me drive her around. I know the feeling. No one in the family has owned a car before. Driving in Calcutta is suicidal. I usually take the metro, bus, or a cab there.

She has been a good car, and has driven with me to so many places. I hope I can take her to Canada some day. I hope that we can do a cross country drive someday. Well, Boston is not really cross-country, but at least we are going to Boston this weekend.

Here’s wishing my sunshine car a happy three years, and here is wishing us many more years of travel together. I hope we get to see a lot more of the country together.


Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Social interactions inside a car

The inane and eccentric philosophies of life make so much sense while driving. For hours, I would stare ahead in front of me, the solid yellow lines on my left giving way to the dotted yellow lines, and then solid yellow lines, orange lights changing to reds and greens. It is amazing when I thought of the complex web of social interactions that happened in the confines of a car.
I am a seasoned driver pretty used to driving alone. I will often hop in my car at the wee hours of dawn and keep driving. Although people frown upon driving alone, often claiming that company in the car not only kills boredom, but also makes it safer to drive, I disagree. I often roll down the windows while driving, strong gusts of wind caressing my face and disheveling my hair. I put on my collection of favorite songs, alternating between car CDs and car radio. I listen to rock, jazz, ghazals, Bollywood numbers, Bappi Lahiri, Quick Gun Murugun, Shyama Sangeet (devotional songs for Ma Kali), and sometimes songs in languages I do not understand at all. I often shake my head when I listen to songs in Tamil and Marathi. I sometimes lift and fold my resting left leg, strum my fingers on the wheel, whistle, or sing with the music.
Things change somewhat when I have company. The inside temperature is constantly micromanaged, someone repeatedly turning on or off the air conditioning, fiddling with the vents and so on. Then, there is some rewinding, fast forwarding, or mild alluding to the mismatch in music taste. Radio channels are changed, CDs are shuffled, and there are constant complaints about the music being too fast or too loud. This is when there is just another person.
Three is even more interesting, especially if I as not driving. The dynamics of who would sit in the front passenger seat changes with the kind of relationship shared with the other inmates of the car. For example, the right to sitting in the front usually belongs to boyfriends, girlfriends, spouses, co-owners of the car, people with long legs, prettier faces, people higher up in the academic or professional food chain, non-drivers who need to navigate, or simply tantrum throwing people. There is hardly any control over the conversation (especially if it is in a different language), music, or the temperature of the car. However, staring out of the window from the backseat and pretending that others did not exist usually works.
Ditto to problems with four people in a car. If there are couples, they would usually retire to the backseat, ensconced in love, sharing hushed glances, holding hands, whispering jokes, talking about their own worldly problems, about what brand of mustard oil to buy from the trip back to the grocery store, to reminding to return the phone call of Kamalamoni mashima who is visiting her daughter in New Jersey from Naihati. You drive in pensiveness, with no idea about who is Kamalamoni mashima, or why did she choose to bring a tin full of roshogolla from Nobin Chandra Das instead of chumchums or pantua. Things get pretty interesting when the fourth person in the car is a baby. Babies have the right to pee, poop, puke, spit food, or throw tantrums in the car. Of course the right to eating in car is not restricted to babies alone. Not to mention the fight over the directions, whether the GPS is right or the iPhone is right, allusions to gender-based stereotypes of poor driving, that you constantly witness as a spectator from behind.
The worst case is when there are five people in the car, and a combination of everything happens. Someone is constantly changing music (from condition two), you are sitting in the back (from condition three), there is a couple sitting beside you (from condition four), and they are either embraced in sleep, constantly snoring, and occasionally leaning and falling on you, or are in heat. For me, the worse has been sitting in the back seat, while the newly wed Mrs. Wifey was learning how to drive, controlling the steering with a shaky hand, Mr. Hubby was teaching her to drive with endearments like “Shona” and “Mishtu”, and Mrs. Sister-in-law sitting beside me in the back was constantly talking about accidents, hit and runs, and insurance coverage. Of course no one thought of asking me if I am comfortable with the situation. Why would they? I am neither a Shona, a Mishtu, a spouse, a boss, nor a baby enchanting others with her smile.
Hence I prove my point. There is nothing like driving on your own, alone.
(P.S.: For the first time in my three year driving history, I accidentally jumped a rather innocuous looking red stop sign today)

Friday, June 22, 2012

Teacups versus Travel Mugs

Katie Couric addressed the graduating class of UVA last month as a guest speaker. Prior to this, I had no idea who Katie Couric was, but now I do, and am reading her book “The bestadvice I ever got: Lessons from extraordinary lives”. Usually, these speeches are different variations of what I see as feel-good-get-working inspirational speeches. It is not necessarily bad, but it is one of its kinds. I quite liked listening to her speech on that hot sunny day, on the verge of dehydrating and dying. Then, I listened to the same speech on youtube a few more times. The one thing that I loved is her comparison of teacups and travel mugs, where she urges students to stop being teacups, and become travel mugs. Any word related to travel is bound to pique my interest, and honestly, I did not get her point initially. However, I figured out that she was urging people not to become decorative pieces of fine china people keep at home, and instead be strong, sturdy, and go see the world. I really liked the analogy and I had never heard it before. Perhaps that is who I have always wanted to be- a travel mug. There is a lot of value in seeing the world, traveling, and being sturdy. That part of the speech roughly starts at the 17 minute 25 second mark.
            True, being a teacup is boring. Who wants to be a prized possession, kept safe in a shelf? I really hope I continue to be a travel mug, and meet lot many travel mugs in my life.


Thursday, June 21, 2012

Crabby Tales

I sat by the sea for so long that Sunday morning, watching this crab making its way at its own pace. The waves would wash it off once in a while and drag it along, and when the waves had receded, the crab would start moving again. I love the little trail of footprints that took so long for this crab to make. Something very random but inspiring.

(Outer Banks, North Carolina)



For the longest time, I have wanted to do a cross-country road trip in the US, all by myself. Learning to drive back in 2009 was an ordeal for me, but a few thousand miles and a few speeding tickets later, there was no looking back. I think I have read up all the literature blogs that exist about cross-country trips. I know some people who are crazy about bike trips in South America (A Ghost of Che: A Motorcycle Ride Through Space, Time, Life and Love by Mauktik Kulkarni being one such book based on that). Consider a cross-country trip being one such dream.
            I have often interacted with cross-country drivers, getting some very humorous takes about their journeys. A friend once called his mom on the phone and said, “I am about to embark on something and you have to promise that you will not say a no, and you will bless me”. I would be thinking that my boy has decided to elope with someone from a different race and religion and marry, and I am sure the mom thought the same too. She was delighted when she was told that it was “just a cross country road trip” and she willingly gave him her blessings.
            I have a friend who did a smiley road trip, starting all the way from Boston, dipping down to Texas, and then going up until Seattle, creating a pattern of a smiley on the US map. Then I have another friend who has driven cross-country thrice. I recently came across a travel blog where the guy decided to do a road trip, touching all four corners of the country, from Florida to Maine, to Washington, and all the way to Southern California. I could only raise my eyebrows in amazement.
            I have briefly brushed over the chances of a potential road trip, but things have never worked out. When I moved to Virginia in 2010, I decided to drive all the way from Seattle. A month before the proposed trip, I tripped and injured my left leg on the streets of Sicily in Italy. It was a miracle making it back to the US, being in a wheel chair most of the time. The road trip never happened, and I had to ship my car.

Come summer, I get a little jealous of all these people who move across coasts and drive there. The most I have done so far is driving as far as Rochester, a 500-mile one way trip. Surely I have driven about 30,000 miles in the last three years of driving, but a cross-country has never happened. I hope that next year this time, I have graduated, have a job waiting for me in the west coast, and I can drive all the way. Fingers crossed. In the meantime, I have been driving all over the east coast this summer, and am especially looking forward to the trip to Maine in a few weeks. After having touched the southernmost tip of the country in Florida, the northwestern most tip near Neah Bay (Olympic National Park), and the westernmost tip of Europe (near Sintra in Portugal, see picture), this might be another “cutting the corner” trip. Next week this time, I will be celebrating three years with my car, my single most expensive and dearest materialistic possession I have had so far (the next one being my camera).
            Long live summer !

A PhD Post

Mentorship is a two-way process, where you shape your adviser as he shapes you. I am living proof of that. The last few weeks have been the turning point of my PhD. For those of you who do not know, I am at the fag end of my second year in the PhD program. This is when you are done with your coursework, and are beginning to think of some nice ideas, one of which could potentially turn into a dissertation. In my field of research, we usually do two kinds of studies- qualitative and quantitative. There is a third kind, the mixed-methods approach, where you mix both qualitative and quantitative data to validate each other. Quantitative studies heavily rely on data analyzed through statistics and number crunching, while qualitative studies rely on making meaning of the experiences of people through observations, interviews, focus group discussions, ethnography studies, et cetera. One approach is not necessarily better than the other, and you need to understand both methods in order to address a research question well.
            My research group is heavy on quantitative analysis. There are a couple of reasons for that. Your sample size can be way larger in a quantitative data set (tens of thousands sometimes), the sophistication of the statistical software can make you run analyses in less time, and overall, your rate of publication is higher when you do quantitative work. Clearly, the numbers speak for themselves, and that is why my group has always relied on quantitative dissertations.
            I was expected to do a quantitative dissertation from day one. My adviser is a hard taskmaster and makes you takes every possible course on methodology. It is hard, doing all that work, and I have seen myself screaming through semesters when I was taking four methods courses at a time. In graduate school, taking four courses per semester is a challenge; you can imagine what taking four methods courses would be like. I have taken the entire 3-series qualitative coursework, 5-series quantitative coursework, and various other courses related to item response theory, multilevel modeling, and so on. I have had to learn using Stata, SPSS, Genova, NVivo, and Atlas Ti from scratch. Anyway, I ended up taking a lot of these quant courses, and realized my heart was not really in there. I could run regression models and stuff, I could learn to live with that, but not love that. On the other hand, I took the qualitative courses and loved them.
            The first time my adviser learned about my newfound love for qualitative analysis, he asked me to change advisers. Clearly this is what none of his students had done before, and he was skeptical. I would be crazy to change advisers at this stage, I love this research group, so I assured him that I would do a quantitative dissertation. We were collecting a lot of qualitative data for an NIH funded study, and with my background in the biosciences and public health, I found myself attracted to that data. I would randomly do some preliminary analysis, while still looking for a quantitative research idea. This went on for a few more months. My adviser was supposed to go to an annual conference in California, a big one for sure, and I asked him if I could come. He said no, and then gave it a thought and asked me what I would do there. I said I had done some preliminary analysis and could present it to him, so that he could decide. I told him that it was qualitative data analysis. I just wanted to attend the conference and visit California, hoping to make some contacts there. I did not hope for anymore.
            The adviser gave me an evening, and asked me to present my data to him the next morning. I had an evening, which is nothing when you have to present your findings. People spend days preparing their presentations. He said that I could come with him if I could impress him. I spent that evening putting some more thought and rationale into my data analysis, and presented it to him next morning sharp at 10 am. He had some thoughts, he asked some questions, and told me to do some more. He was about to leave when I asked him if I could come to California. He told me I am on board.
            I was thrilled. I spent more time into this analysis, aware that I will have to soon go back to my quantitative dissertation idea. I kept working hard at this and showing him my analysis, knowing that I had a very limited amount of time with this dataset. I still did not have a dissertation idea.
            About 2 weeks ago, my adviser approved of me doing either a wholly qualitative dissertation, or a mixed-method dissertation. He told me that I have changed his opinion about what his graduate students’ dissertation profile should look like, replete with quantitative data analysis. He reminded me of the risks I am taking being the first one in his team to do qualitative work. This has been the single most pivotal moment in my PhD career. From the day when he asked me to change advisers because I liked qualitative work to this day when he said I will be the first one in his team to do something new, I have come a long way from where I was. I never really had any expectation of him changing his mind. However, I kept doing something I am good at, and things unfolded for me serendipitously.
            I have secured a place in the California conference. I have finally decided on my dissertation topic, after 6 months of banging my head against the wall. Most importantly, I have realized that although there is a prescribed route to success that everyone before me has followed, there is also value in determining my own way based on my interests without taking the road stalwarts have taken before me. I will carve out my own niche, doing something my group has never done before. It may or may not be kick ass, like Eric Cartman would say. However, that for me is the true essence of education- authenticity, uniqueness, and doing something different with all my love.