Wednesday, August 23, 2017

New school year

For as long as I can remember of my childhood, spring used to be the most exciting time of the year. This is because spring to me also meant new academic beginnings. The next grade. The smell of new books and notebooks. Baba painstakingly covering each one of them with brown paper and then writing my name and class in all of them with his beautiful handwriting. A new grade meant a new class teacher, new subject teachers, a new classroom, a new seating nook, and experiencing all the newness of the world with old (and some new) friends. There used to be a vibrant energy about week one, everyone wearing new school uniforms and looking ready to take over the world. And then, there would be new things to learn. New chapters, new knowledge, and new ways of making sense of the world. I used to be most excited about my math and science classes. Through those, I made sense of my world, fueled my imagination, met people in textbooks who inspired me, and nurtured my dreams (I had plenty, one of them was being an astronaut). My textbooks opened the doors to new and exciting worlds that existed mostly in my imagination, but were very real for me.

You can tell that I am a lifelong academic, and in a way, I am so glad that I never left school (rather, school never left me). For that is the only life that I have mostly known. This week has seen one more round of excitement, with the new academic year beginning. It might not involve smelling new textbooks this time, but there will be other things new. I am teaching a new online course, and this one is way outside my comfort zone. I have neither developed, nor taught this course before. The first semester, I was so scared of teaching that every week after class I would go and check if someone had dropped out. This time, twenty-five odd students will be spending their time and energy learning with me, and I am excited about facilitating their learning and leading this class.

I am also excited about starting a brand new research study I recently got funding for. I will be presenting at a key conference in Boston soon, and I am looking forward to a restaurant that serves Bengali food in Boston. I am also excited about kicking out those new papers and proposals that I have worked over this summer. You can tell that I never really got over my love for school. I hope that you are as excited about school (if you are in one) or about anything you are pursuing right now.

Cheers to new beginnings, learning and exploring new things, making sense of the world we created around us, and to a brand new academic year. 


Thursday, August 17, 2017

Love is color blind

A grandma was fondly showing me pictures of her newborn grandson.

A professor grandma. A researcher grandma. A grandma who has spent many years working on feminism. Black history. Black feminism. 

I don't even know half the names of Black writers and activists she talks about. Excited, I scribble down the names. I am going to look them all up.

Between such conversations, grandma fondly shows me more pictures of her newborn grandson.

I am willing to overlook the fact that she just reiterated, rather unnecessarily, that her grandson is a US citizen. Others do it too, the ones who need constant validation that they fit in, but she is different. She is a professor grandma. She has somehow earned my respect. No human is without biases. I have mine too. 

And then, the unthinkable happens.

She says, "Look at my grandson. He has different colored hair than all of us. Since he was born in the US, he has brown hair. Isn't that amazing?"

My make-believe world of role modeling professor grandma comes crashing down. I look closer at the picture. Not a wisp of brown hair. I also happen to know the parents. Not a wisp of brown hair from there either. Is it my ageing eyesight? I wonder what other strange ideas brew in grandma's imagination. Grandma does not live in the US by the way. Grandma lives in Kolkata. Is love that "color blind"?

Genetics died a mocking death that day.


Monday, August 14, 2017

Sans Antonio, not sans love

San Antonio, Texas.

shut the alarm at 5:30 am and went back to sleep again, getting late for day one of the conference. When I finally left the hotel at 7:30 am, I looked like a mess, feeling as if a train rode over me. I had to attend an award ceremony and looked like I was going to be late for my own ceremony. It was a bad start to an important day.

However, my 64-year-old Uber driver showed up looking like a total diva. She wore a cute flower hat and had other floral hats and decorative paraphernalia in the car. There was a carnival going on and she was returning to work after a night of revelry. When I complimented her about how cute she looked, she even got off the car and posed for me before writing me her number, in case I needed a cab again. A true diva she is. I named my Uber driver the flower lady. She had brightened my morning on my first day in San Antonio.

Some of you also know about my love for biryani. Whenever I visit a new city, the first thing I Google is [name of the city + good biryani]. I did find one restaurant with good reviews, but the trip involved three bus changes and an hour and half of a ride one-way. It was 15 miles away. So I let go. Looks like I was not going to have my biryani in San Antonio.

But then, I was texting the flower lady's pictures to her, since she had scribbled her number, in case I needed a ride again. That is when I had an impulsive idea. I did not want to eat my biryani alone. I asked if she likes Indian food and she said she had never eaten Indian food before. So I asked if she would like to join me for a meal, and she readily agreed, much to my surprise (we are complete strangers, we only know each other's names). She even asked me if I would wear a dress or trousers. When I said that I did not bring a dress since this is a conference, she said that she will also wear trousers, like me.

"Why?" I asked.

"It's a girls' outing. I love to wear dresses for an outing, but I want to wear what you will wear."

I found her adorable.

So we met up on one of my freer afternoons. She picked me from my Airbnb and gave me a flowery headband that she had handmade for me. We went to the restaurant, I had my biryani (it was quite good) and packed some back, she had her first Indian food, we chatted for many hours, and she dropped me back home. We even wore our flowery headbands at the restaurant. I did not know that I had so much to talk to a 64 year old Spanish-speaking lady I have nothing in common with. By the way, she wears an Apple watch, and was getting her phone calls on her wrist. I've never seen a more fashionable and tech-savvy dida/diva. Dida is grandma in Bangla.

It feels good, having that human connection in a stranger city, someone to share your meals with. She offered to drop me at the airport when I was leaving town. While leaving, she said, "Take care. Maybe we will meet in Vegas again."

I wanted to wear the flowery headband for my conference talks.  

I got a ride, I got great company, I got my biryani, and I got a headband too. It's a win-win-win-win situation. 

A few days later, she took off from work to drop me to the airport. She refused to activate the Uber meter and did not take any money. At the airport, she took my address so that she can write me hand-written letters. And she got on her tip toes and planted two kisses on my cheek before driving away.

There is something about sunny places. I think it makes people way more nice, warm and friendly.

On that note, if you could live anywhere in the US, where would you live? Other than Seattle, I would live in Puerto Rico. It is truly my kind of place.


Sunday, August 13, 2017

Craving Seattle

I was in Seattle recently. While leaving, I had the same feeling of sadness that I have experienced every time, no matter how nearby or faraway I live. The invisible and intangible umbilical cord keeps me tied to this place.

I took some time off during this trip to do what I love doing- reflect while passing some of the familiar streets and neighborhoods that were an integral part of my twenties. A bus ride from Green Lake to Fremont, Dexter Avenue, the troll, all the way to downtown. A walk from the Montlake Bridge to the university avenue. A drive through my previous workplace in Redmond. A trip to the Lincoln Square Mall in Bellevue. I do it every time. Yet, I never tire of it. 

Somehow, in the process of a laborious and complicated rubric cube solving exercise that lasted me seven years, I was able to find my way back, at least somewhat near Seattle. When I had left Seattle seven years ago, I had no idea about where life is taking me. Had someone showed me a crystal ball and told me that in seven years, I would move to the east coast, actually finish the PhD that I did not finish the first time, move to the mid-west, move to Germany, complete two postdocs, and come back, I would have only stared at them in disbelief. Yet, it all happened. And I was able to slowly inch back as close as I could.

Seattle to me is like falling in love with someone and never getting over them. This time, the people I met talked about skyrocketing real estate prices, worsening traffic, racism in the backyard, the rapid expansion of greater Seattle, and other such things. Yet, I am oblivious to these vices. In my time capsule, I am spending my 27th birthday at midnight, climbing the troll and digging its nose for a goofy picture. I am a graduate student absconding from work and spending the day at the Gasworks Park, feeding ice cubes to the ducks and seeing how long it takes before they realize it. I am eagerly waiting for my Husky sticker to arrive so that I can start taking free bus rides again. And I am that poor student who is walking down the halls of the health sciences building, meticulously reading every advertisement to see if there is an experiment I could qualify for and earn a few extra dollars, cheap free goodies, or even a slice of pizza for my time. Sensitive teeth experiments where they alternatively squirt warm and cold water on your teeth and gums, sleep experiments, nutrition experiments where they feed you some liquid everyday for three weeks and monitor your blood sugar, respiratory experiments where you run on a treadmill and they monitor your forced expiratory volume, or ergonomics experiments where they ask you to type on a bunch of different keyboards and ask for your feedback. Someone asking for my feedback used to be novelty back then. That is why I did it all, with full gusto. 

I am insanely happy with where I am right now. Yet every time I leave Seattle, I do so with a prayer on my lips. That someday, someway, I find my way back to Seattle. That is my happily ever after dream.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Building on an abundance model

The first recommendation letter I ever wrote for someone was under extremely ironic circumstances. An international colleague I had briefly worked with wanted a letter of support for their green card/permanent residency application in the US. I was a postdoc in Germany then, trying very hard to find a faculty position in the US. I applied for innumerable positions, almost a few every week, got Skype-interviewed by some, but never heard back. I never got invited for campus interviews. It was one of the darker times in my career when I was constantly engulfed in worry, self-doubt, and fear that the situation would never change and I might run out of my postdoc time without a faculty position. To write a letter vouching for someone about why they should be able to stay and work in the US long-term was ironic.

I did write that letter, a stellar one too. My situation was independent of their situation, and as colleagues, we support each other in our careers. But this was not before I emailed them back asking why they were considering me as a potential referee. What I did not ask directly was, "Why should people reviewing your application believe me when I myself have been unable to find a faculty position in the US?" I asked if a letter of support coming from someone outside the US would be effective at all. What they said was eye-opening.

“Are you kidding me? You are an international scholar who has worked in both the US and Germany. A letter from you would be incredible.”

The revelation was eye-opening. As intuitive as it is, I was not viewing myself as an international researcher. I was viewing myself as a researcher who was struggling to find a position in the US, and was hence working in Germany. Rather than approaching my situation from a position of abundance, I was approaching it from a position of deficit.

In life, reality is subjective, not single, and there are often multiple perspectives to it. The fact that I was struggling to gain my foothold in the US was a reality (more real for me). And the fact that I had work experience in multiple countries as a result was also a reality (more real for my colleague).

It made me wonder how often had I undermined myself similarly. How often I had focused on the “don’t haves” and not on the “haves.” I grew up in a culture where highlighting one’s accomplishments was considered bragging or showing off. And I now work in a culture where it is not just necessary, but imperative to highlight one’s accomplishments. We do that in conferences and meetings. We create websites to show the expanse of the work that we have done. It’s a cultural shift that takes some time and experience getting used to.

I often tend to think, “Shit! I have no experience running structural equation models.”

However, I usually don’t think, “I have some good grant writing and collaborative experience now.”

This email exchange taught me to position myself from a perspective of abundance and NOT from a perspective of deficit. I started enlisting every achievement I should have highlighted earlier. The list wasn’t spectacular, but not bad either. Along with being my own critic, I also became my own champion.

My colleague eventually got their permanent residency. And I got my faculty position. The department told me how excited they are to have a colleague with international experience. People started viewing me in a certain way only after I started viewing myself in that way.    


Wednesday, August 02, 2017

What would you get rid of?

I was recently at a leadership workshop where they talked about attaining consensus with your team so that everyone is more or less on the same page. It brought to fore our personal values that we bring to the table at work, and how it varies across people. It was a fascinating conversation. The group activity we did was even more fascinating. I am sharing it here, hoping for some interesting conversation.

Imagine you are on a cruise ship in the Mediterranean. Due to bad weather, your ship is sinking. You, along with 15 other people, quickly collect your valuables, evacuate the ship, and get on a lifeboat. But soon, you realize that the lifeboat can only hold so much before sinking. You need to quickly discard things. You have no idea how long it will take for help to arrive, if at all. Rank the items in the order that you would discard first (number 1 is discarded first, number 16 is discarded last). Their respective weights and value is provided too.

We first took 7 minutes to do this exercise on our own.

Then we got into groups of 4 where we took 10 minutes to arrive at a consensus about the order in which to discard things. What it meant was that at the end of those 10 minutes of conversation, everyone had to agree.

Then, we got into groups of 8 and did the same. The point was to arrive at a consensus by discussion, without coercing people to agree with you. How quickly and effectively can you convince people about what goes and what stays in the lifeboat? Here is the list. Prices and weights follow the US convention, so apologies if some of them do not make sense to you. For me, many did not. Pounds and ounces really do not make any sense to me. 
1. Deluxe emergency preparedness kit (30 lbs; $200)
2. Case of bottled fruit juice (27 lbs; $75)
3. Cell phone with video camera (5 oz; $500)
4. Service dog (50 lbs; $22,000)
5. Marine handheld GPS with compass (2 lbs; $450)
6. High power flashlight (8 lbs; $55)
7. Emergency hand crank radio (12 oz; $45)
8. Suitcase filled with clothing (40 lbs; $500)
9. Box of gold/diamond jewelry (40 lbs; $1,000,000)
10. Personal laptop with family photos (5 lbs; $300)
11. Five life jackets (15 lbs; $200)
12. Two bottles of whiskey (6 lbs; $100)
13. Irreplaceable cancer research samples (13 lbs; priceless)
14. Swiss army knife (10 oz; $35)
15. Cabana umbrella (12 lbs; $250)
16. Two bottles of SPF 15 sunscreen (2 lbs; $15)

Remember, there are no right or wrong answers. It was eye-opening to hear what some people said. It also put me in touch with some of the assumptions and values I bring to the table. I look forward to your thoughts. I am not sharing anything from the fascinating conversation we had at the workshop so as not to bias or influence you. I might share those in the comments as we start talking.