Sunday, October 29, 2017

Read like you are eating rice

As academics, we read a lot of journal papers. This is the foundation work that helps us understand what is happening in the field. Long before we start doing our own research, we need to know what has been already done and what needs to be done next. The same is for grant writing. The precursor to good, productive writing is plentiful, goal-driven reading.

Speaking in analogy, have you ever climbed atop one of the churches in Europe? You keep climbing the spiral stairways and every few floors there is a tiny window that looks outside. The lower you are, the less you see (whatever you see is also in a lot of detail). The higher you climb, the more you see (the level of detail also decreases). Learning about a field is just like that. You keep reading papers until you have a bird-eye view of the field. But in order to attain a bird-eye view, you have to start with the detailed view first.

Reading journal papers is time-consuming. Typically, they start with an abstract and introduction followed by a literature review, methods, results, discussion, limitation and conclusion. The order could vary depending on the field, but this is a general overview.

Abstract (a summary of the study)
Introduction (what you are going to read)
Literature review (what others have already done)
Methods (what the authors did and how they did it)
Results (what they found)
Discussion (interpreting what they found)
Limitation (what they could not find)
Conclusion (closing along with a note on what could be found in the future)

As a novice reader, it is easy to get caught up in the details of a paper until you realize that it’s been hours and you are still reading it. A good program or department offers a lot of classes that involve critically analyzing a paper. It’s an art you master with time and practice. Students read one or multiple papers beforehand and spend time in class critiquing singly or in groups. I used to find myself being caught up in reading because I would read very slowly and in a lot of detail. This is especially because I was not familiar with the methodology (another reason why I always recommend that PhD students take as many methods courses as they can, even if they might not seem immediately relevant or rewarding) and often wondered how to make sense of what the authors did. I would soon lose attention and start doing something else, not wanting to come back to the paper again. Then I got some great advice from my advisor.

Read a paper as if you are eating a bowl of rice. You do not eat rice one grain at a time. You do not individually chew the grains. You take a mouthful and chew until it is of digestible consistency before you swallow and go for the next helping.

Similarly, don’t read a paper word by word. Don’t get caught up in the mundane minutiae. Read the abstract very well. Skim through the introduction and directly go for the methods. If you are not clear about why they did what they did, come back to the literature review later, but do not spend a whole lot of time on it. After methods, go to the results/discussion to see what they found. Again, skim through it until you find the area that gets your attention. Read that well. Don’t get caught up in words. Skim until you see something interesting. Read that in detail. Repeat process. Don’t read word by word or line by line. Read idea by idea.

I found this advice very helpful. For my dissertation, I had to read more than 500 odd papers (some were not relevant, but how do you know they are not relevant unless you read a little bit of it?). I had attacked those papers like a bowl of rice. As a faculty, I read between 10-20 papers every week, and many more when I am writing a literature review. On an average, I give myself five minutes for each paper. I start with the title, read the abstract, and go straight for the research questions and methods. If the paper doesn’t make much sense to me, I do not put a whole lot of time into it. It is a skill you master with time. The more you read, the more you can get away reading lesser of a paper. You learn to directly attack the core, the meat.

Time yourself when you read. If you take 30 minutes for a paper, try reading the next one in 25 minutes. The idea is not to read lazily, but be able to find and attack the meat of the paper directly. Read fast. Read smart. Read purposefully. Good luck! 


Monday, October 23, 2017

"We are going to Kolkata!"

This is a vivid memory from my childhood. I must have been around 5-6 years old, definitely not more than 8. We lived outside Bengal, and once or twice a year, we boarded the Madras Mail (an overnight train) as a family to visit Kolkata during summer or winter vacations. There, I spent significant amount of time in my mamar bari (my mother’s parental home). We were all a “joint family” back then, a family where parents, children, grandchildren, uncles, aunts, nephews and nieces, everyone lived under one roof. They show a lot of that in Greek and Italian movies.

My dadu or grandfather had two elder brothers, Boro dadu (boro means bigger or in this case, elder) and Mejo dadu (mejo means middle). They all lived in one huge, two-storied house in Howrah with their spouses, children, and grandchildren. The house had a “dalaan” or an open central courtyard that led to the well. There was a large wooden table in that dalaan. The table was so high for me that I needed support to prop myself and climb it. It is the same table where every male member of the family ate their breakfast before leaving for office. The table had a deep gash on one side and a nail sticking out on another. Even when I close my eyes now, I can still remember the feel of the table. For it was my favorite spot to lie on my belly, prop my chin with my hands, and watch the ongoing of the entire household; my three didas or grandmas lighting up their stoves to cook, the smell of burning coal that still makes me cry out of nostalgia, the domestic help, “Mongola’r Ma,” scurrying around to get chores done, my uncles busy eating rice and fish curry before leaving for work (always finishing the meal with “ombol”), and the neighbors dropping by to spread or garner news. 

I was too short to reach the wooden table, so I would use the adjacent chair to climb. That chair had a history too. “Buri pishi,” our widowed grandma (grandpa’s sister) sat there in the mornings, the two of us (the oldest and the youngest) being the only ones not in a hurry to get anywhere. So we sat side by side, buri pishi on the chair and I, belly flopping on the table, both of us with all the time to observe the world around us. Buri pishi often tickled my feet, catching me unaware, a constant source of annoyance. Till date, I hate anyone touching my feet. Given my size and height, the table offered an excellent vantage point to keep an eye on the ongoing of the entire household.

Sometimes, boro dadu or mejo dadu decked up early in the morning, wearing a fancy dhuti (a garment tied around the waist), a smart, cream colored shirt buttoned all the way without tucking in (unlike trousers), and dab generous amounts of Pond’s talcum powder on their face and chest. My own dadu never wore dhuti on a daily basis unless it was a wedding. He mostly wore a lungi or pajama. Anyway, the dadus would preen themselves, put on their best shoes, tuck a huge black umbrella under the armpit, and sit at one corner of the huge table for brunch before leaving home. Still lying on my belly, my chin propped on my hands, I would ask, “Where are you headed, dadu?” To which boro dadu or mejo dadu would beam proudly, “I am headed to Kolkata. I will be back in the evening.”

These words always made me giggle. I found this conversation hilarious. What do you mean, I am headed to Kolkata? We were already in Kolkata, weren’t we? How could one go to Kolkata while living in Kolkata? Back in our home, my mother used to tell everyone, “We are visiting my parents in Kolkata for the vacation.” To me, everything was Kolkata. I now understand the difference. We were technically in Howrah, a twin city to Kolkata separated by the Hoogli river. When we visited Victoria Memorial, we were in Kolkata. Whenever we took a bus and crossed Howrah Bridge, we were in Kolkata. When we ate moglai porota at the Shibpur tram depot, we were in Howrah. But in my little mind, technicalities were irrelevant and borders were non-existent. Everything was Kolkata, a nice and big city we visited during vacations or family weddings and met all the long-lost first, second, and third cousins, a place where a lot of people lived in one big house. Specifics did not matter to me back then. Demarcations were but only in the mind.

I have somehow held on to the trait even now. I continue to believe that Harvard University is in Boston although I have been corrected many times that it is in Cambridge. Seattle and the eastside are the same to me, one big place I call Seattle (unless I am in Seattle and have to go to Bellevue or Redmond).

“Where in Seattle do you live?” I have often asked people, only to be corrected and told, “We live in Issaquah/Bellevue/Kirkland/Redmond.” I know the difference, and I always laugh out loud when corrected. Little do they know that sometimes, I even refer to Portland as Seattle, although it is “just” 175 miles away. To me, Seattle means all of these- UW (which is actually in Seattle), my ex-office in Redmond, Inchin’s Bamboo Garden, Mayuri in Bellevue, and the amazing waterfront in Kirkland. Mount Rainier is in Seattle. Olympic National Park is in Seattle. You get the point. It is not that I cannot tell the difference. It is just that when it comes to Kolkata or Seattle, peripheries become all-encompassing and borders become non-existent.


Sunday, October 15, 2017

The gas-pachu experience

The new city brought a new friend in my life, my first, real friend in bone and flesh and not an apparition from the virtual world. I am exhausted after my daily work where I am constantly either writing or talking or doing both. So, I cherish the silence that comes to me outside of work. As much as I enjoyed the silence this new city provided, with no social pressure of congregating during the weekends and making small (or big, or any) talk, my happiness at renewed real human contact knew no bounds.

And then, I got invited for dinner.

Like Anastasia Steele in the terribly written 50-shades-of-whatever, my inner goddess jived in excitement. I asked her if I should bring something too.

"Like what?" she asked.

It was a weekend, and I had made polao and chicken curry for myself. I could share some of that. I think I heard her mumble something incoherent on the phone. Something like, carbohydrate ... umm.. protein.

"Hello?" I asked, unsure.

"So you will bring carbs and proteins? Good. Then I will bring veggies."

Her comment left me a little surprised. Who dehumanizes food this way, reducing it to carbs, proteins and roughage on the same phone conversation where a dinner invitation was being extended? And what was this "I will bring veggies"? The Bengali in me only knows of kosha mangsho, mutton biryani, fish fry, roshogolla and pantua for dinner invitations.

We decided to meet at her place, not too far from mine. Even the prospect of eating roughage for a start did not dampen my excitement, the excitement of the culinary kind I felt every time I received a wedding invitation in Kolkata. It’s been years!

We met. I watched her take out some soup-with-a-funny-name from her Trader Joe's paper bag. There was a yogurt container with sour cream and some chips that looked like wood shavings to go with it. That's all that came out of the bag.

The optimist in me thought that surely, this must be the appetizer bag. A chilled soup with cucumber pieces floating was a rather bone-chilling sight for the unforgiving, wintry December (this happened last December). She heaped a huge tablespoon of cold sour cream as she offered me a bowl, calling it a healthy, summer soup.

"So what is this called again?" I asked.

"Gazpacho soup," she chimed with excitement. I took a spoonful and sampled it, starting to shiver as I did so. It felt like the soup had been sitting in Antarctica for a while.

I was about to take the second spoonful in my mouth when she blurted out another bone-chilling truth with innocence. "You know, I do not enjoy cooking as much as you do. So I cook in bulk and freeze it. This soup that you are having was made in August."

I froze and died a little bit inside. Cryo-preserved soup made in August being thawed and served with love in December? I was not even in this country in August. I was still in Germany, waiting to get a date for my visa interview. Was this soup made on my birthday? My sympathetic nervous system, the part that controls fight-or-flight instincts, had kicked in full on.

There is no way I was going to have this soup. Not that there was anything else to have. What I suspected as the appetizer was her contribution for a non-potluck dinner where she was the host and I had only volunteered to bring in something. What was that name again? I had never heard of it until today. All I could think of was gas and pachu (a term of endearment for the ass, usually in baby language, and by ass, I am not talking of ass-the-animal).

She happened to be quite enjoying the polao and the chicken curry, wiping away tears and her nose in the process. It must have been a tad spicy for the average American taste bud.

"The soup is fantastic," my fight-and-flight inner goddess finally found her voice. "Could I pack it and take it with me to enjoy at home? I'd love to have it with bread tomorrow. You are welcome to keep some of my food for your husband too."

She was thrilled. She even helped me pack the soup, blobs of sour cream and all, profusely thanking me for the food I offered her.

With the dilemma of food behind us now, we started to chat and chatted up for the next few hours. I didn't have any appetite for the rest of the evening though. We spoke of US politics, travel, movies, and a whole lot of nothing. The next day, she told me that the husband loved the polao and the chicken curry. Ever since, we have become good friends. As I get home from work, I see a box or a jar of something at my doorstep once in a while. A jar of turmeric. A set of pyrex bowls. Such random acts of kindness thrill me, to know that someone is thinking of you and offering you something. However, I never had the courage to finish the rest of the "manufactured in August and served with love in December" gas-pachu soup. Forgiving her for that one incident, I forged a new friendship in this new city.


Sunday, October 08, 2017

Being faculty: End of year one

This week, I completed one year of being faculty. Exactly one year ago, I had moved back to the US and landed here. My landlady, whom I had never seen before, had come to pick me up. This time, I celebrated my first anniversary with a goat that lay on my dinner plate as mutton biryani. That is one thing I will never grow tired of eating.

So what does faculty life mean to me after one year? It means no longer being able to play the "I am a new faculty and I don't know what I am doing" card. To say that time flew would be an understatement. Talking of time, I was reading about the research on biological clock that won the Nobel Prize in Medicine this year. Other than conceiving time as what we know, the lifespan clock and the biological clock, I have also come to understand what the pre-tenure clock means. I could fill an entire book with my thoughts and realizations of life as a faculty, perhaps some day post-tenure.

New currency

I have learnt many new things over the past year. Some of them were skills and the others, deep realizations. However, if I had to point to that one thing that has been my most important learning this past year, it is the concept of currency. We are used to thinking of money as currency.  But for the first time, I learnt that time and energy (and not money) are my new currencies. Time is non-renewable and it surely depletes fast. As a student, I spent a lot of time trying to earn some money. Now, I will happily spend money to earn time, which is what all the grant writing and making graduate students do the work is about. It also means learning money management. I protect my research money much more fiercely than my personal money. I am always bargaining and looking for better deals to buy stuff for my research group. I could not even bargain a pair of earrings for ten rupees less.

The power of “No”

I have mastered the habit of saying no. No, I cannot be a part of this committee, it will take away my research time. No, I cannot visit Seattle this month, I have a conference deadline. No, you cannot visit me either, because of the same deadline. No, I cannot attend this potluck or cook for twenty people, and no, I cannot go on a dinner date, no, not even coffee. I use my work as a shield to bail out of a lot of things I do not want to do. If you plot time versus "no", I think I have said no maximum number of times this past year.

Weird moments

Being faculty to me also means sometimes hearing, "How far in your PhD are you?" And I don't think it has anything to do with my youthful looks (or the lack of it, especially given the crop of grey hair I sport now). It comes from something called unconscious bias where women (especially minority women) are usually designated stereotypical roles with less power. Male doctor, female patient. Male professor, female student. Rich guy, poor girl. Older guy, younger girl. Such stereotypes not only penetrate, but also deeply cut through reality to make up fairy tale stories and Harlequin romances.

Being faculty also means getting some very strange emails sometimes. So far, I saw random strangers emailing me their GRE scores and asking what they should study and what university they should apply to. However, I recently got an email from a complete stranger asking to be my friend (with a few smileys following) and wanting to know how to get a faculty position and to also help their spouse figure out how to do their PhD and what prospects await the spouse after their PhD. Complete strangers from completely strange fields asking me strange questions. I was tempted to ask if their children also needed help looking for schools and while doing so, if I could also visit their home to help them fold the laundry.

What else?

It means looking at a potentially interesting guy and thinking, "Hmm... I wonder what his h-index and his citation number is." It means little joys like free textbooks (ask the publisher and they will send you a copy) and free bus rides. It means three months of freedom every year to go and work in any part of the world I want to. It also means "technically" not having to show up at work unless I have a class or meeting. It is an unthinkable idea to many working in other industries. I could show up to work every day at 3 pm and no one would care.

And it means sometimes hearing, "Oh, you are at this university? What does your husband do there?" (The assumption being that my fictitious husband is a faculty, not me, I might be a trailing spouse). It also means being asked "What do you teach?" all the time. Not all faculty teach, and not all the time. Teaching is less than 50% of my job. I have only taught one course so far.

But all this aside, one of the best things about being faculty is being able to chat with some very smart people. Only today, I chatted for an hour each with a space researcher who works on galaxies, a cancer researcher, and a NASA scientist.