Monday, June 24, 2013

The Call of the Wild?

In the wide sprawl of Stanford, all devoid of inclines,
You'll find many green trees in too-straight lines.

One of the main things I miss about Berkeley is probably the surprising amount of wilderness within campus - Strawberry Creek supplied many beautiful places to sit and rest among the redwoods and to forget for a couple minutes that I was actually in the middle of a city. Here, there's almost nowhere on campus that is out of sight and out of earshot of roads and cars.

I want trees towering overhead, engulfing me in a cocoon of nature, providing me with the kind of scenery that my eyes and brain were made for, the kind of scenery that is easy on my visual cortex and doesn't require as much attention to take in. Fewer straight lines, fewer edges, fewer people and cars and brightly-lit storefronts.

I want to perch on a log among fallen leaves to read an interesting book, undisturbed by the noise of humanity, outside of the words in my hand and head. The susurrus of the wind through the trees, the gentle rush and bubble of the stream winding its way through campus, the occasional chittering of an agitated squirrel - just evoking those ideas in my own mind to write them out here is calming. It's peaceful. It puts my mind at rest.

Vampire worms!

I've got a post up at the Stanford Neuroblog about vampire worms and a cool comparative connectivity study. Check it out!

Friday, April 19, 2013

How do you justify your life?

One sunny spring morning, I walked along a road by the coast of Monterey. The lighter blue of the sky contrasted the darker of the sea, though the border between the two was difficult to make out in the distant horizon's haze. 

I soon reached my destination, the Hopkins Marine Station, where we were to have our annual neuroscience student retreat. I walked into the little conference building and immediately gravitated towards a cup of tea (though like Ikea furniture, it was not pre-assembled). I sat down, chatted with some of my classmates for a bit, and settled down for some excellent talks.

Alas, our first guest was unable to make it, so we moved on to a panel discussion with the five professors we had in front of us. Some smiled amicably, while others retained their normal, stern countenances. There would be curious questions, a little friendly banter, and perhaps some grains of wisdom about life after a PhD that some of us could incorporate into our sand castles of self-confidence.

Then the first question was picked out of a hat.

"How do you justify your life?"

How do you live with the path you have chosen? the question asked. You are obviously extremely hard-working, brilliant people. Why haven't you put these characteristics to use in a way that helps more people? Why aren't you doctors and directors of non-profits that seek to educate, heal, and bring people out of poverty?

Kind of a loaded question.

That day, my own answer to the question (though it was not asked of me), was simple. You need to hone a knife before you can use it to its greatest extent. My PhD will teach me skills that will allow me to do a whole bunch of things. I will discover something in my research that will help a large number of people at once, rather than just one or two for a short time.

But some days, I simply can't justify it. I spent at least a quarter of my college career doing a minor in Global Poverty and Practice. I rode the roller coaster through Ananya Roy's class on the hopes and challenges of trying to alleviate poverty.

The challenges, the factors that encouraged poverty were systemic. They were entrenched so deep in the laws and the culture and even the language that it seemed impossible to budge them. Austerity measures, neo-capitalism,  why couldn't people see how badly these things hurt the countries they were meant to help? Or did they, and did they persist because of the gain to their own? How could you possibly change the world when it looked like this and when people had purposefully made it so?

And then, hope, most often from the bottom up, from people who worked tirelessly in some small patch of the globe, focused on a simple goal. Getting clean water to a village, teaching the next generation of children principles of sanitation and hygiene and that disease is not always inevitable. Empowering a woman to establish a livelihood with a micro-loan and a way to keep her savings. Working with a constituency to design structures that fit their needs. Small things, perhaps, but each person involved was an agent of change. With so many agents in the field, that change added up, and society began to change in a positive way.

But then there were the moral quandaries, those that came with speaking for another population, with trying to change a long-held tradition simply because you thought it was for their benefit, with the patronization and the view that there was a single path to being "developed".

But again the fact that we were being trained to avoid many of those pitfalls, or at least to think deeply about the unintended consequences of our desire to help, reminded me that there was a chance things could work out.

Then I spent a month teaching, doing science experiments with kids in rural schools in India, and good god, that was frustrating! And exhilarating. And extremely rewarding. I prepared for that for a semester, and still I didn't know how to navigate the differences between what the teachers wanted out of me and what I wanted to contribute. But I muddled through it, and it felt like I had done something, something tangible, something to help the world. It wasn't just voluntourism, I had gone to my own country, to a place where my skills, especially my ability to communicate in both English and Telugu, were useful. I worked with the teachers, I tried to design experiments that fit into their existing curriculum, that were cool but taught essential scientific principles, that the teachers could continue to do after I was gone.

I could justify that.

I came home, and I dealt with the aftermath, with thinking about how to continue helping that NGO (the Rural Development Foundation, if you're interested), with analyzing what I had actually done, what I should have done, what my role was in the world.

And then I went to grad school to do basic research in neuroscience because that was what I had always wanted to do and because discovering the unknown was exciting! Perhaps I turned away from  because it was so confusing. I settled back into my comfortable life plan. I'd get a PhD, do some groundbreaking research, go on to win the Nobel Prize, etc. etc.  But I feel like I've abandoned a part of my life. I put so much time into thinking about issues of poverty, and my interactions with professors, classmates, and the people I worked with in India changed the way I thought about a lot of things.

Now here I am. I haven't followed through on the helping people part. I'm not working to alleviate poverty. Sure, I've helped teach some kids about the brain here, tried to get them excited about science, but I'm at Stanford, in the middle of Silicon Valley in California. Shouldn't I be helping where I am most needed? The vast majority of the middle and high schoolers in the immediate area are fairly well off, but then again, it's often difficult to see those who aren't. It's much easier to see and want to help spatially distant neighbors than spatially proximate strangers (I'm taking these words from this excellent GlobalPOV video at the bottom of the post). There's good for me to do here, so why have I narrowed my focus to grad school?

I was being selfish.

I am being selfish.

Do I have the right to be selfish?

How do I justify my life?

Some days, I think I have the right to do what I'm doing. Neuroscience is a passion. This is what I'm good at (when I'm not feeling the effects of imposter syndrome). My time is best spent where I have the most skill, and that is where I will make my contribution to society. I need to learn to focus on one thing, become a master of one trade rather than a jack of, in the end, none. I don't know where exactly my path will go, but I believe that in the future, I can still help people, whether through my work or outside of it.

Some days, however, I just can't quite justify my choice (because it is a choice). I guess this is one of those days.

Who Sees Poverty?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Salsa soulmate

Several weeks ago, for the first time since the month I got here, I went to the biweekly salsa social on campus. And realized that there's actually quite a few good leaders here (though nobody seemed to know the reverse cross body, alas). Why on earth have I been missing these events?! 

Dancing is like a high for me. If I'm dancing something I enjoy, the effect is like alcohol - loosened inhibitions, living in the moment, lots of dopamine reward. So I have no problem asking guys to dance. This has nothing to do with my skill level. I may be a fairly decent follower now, but even when I was first learning swing by going to the occasional Lindy at Night in Berkeley, I didn't care who I asked so long as I got to dance. 

So with this attitude, at some point during the evening, I went up to a guy standing near the door and asked if he wanted to dance before I realized that he had his jacket on and was probably about to leave. But he said sure, so I was happy to dance.

I don't think I've ever danced with someone so...effortlessly. I lost track of everything but where he was, where I was, and what his movements were telling me to do next. Without a basic in sight, he spun me through a variety of figures. And at the end, when we stopped, he just kind of quietly said, "Wow." And I was still kind of in shock, so all I could think of to say was "Thank you," like you say after any dance, and then he said thank you and we both walked away. Oops. 

I still don't really know what I should've said, besides telling him that I enjoyed that dance as much as he did, but I want to go back to the next salsa thing (which unfortunately will have to be 3 Saturdays from now because I'm going to Tahoe this weekend) and see if I can find him again. I wonder if he'll be there, or if he looked for me at the last social that I wasn't in town for. I'm hoping I can recognize him - I think he was handsome, but it was dark, and remember how I mentioned that dancing was like alcohol for me? Even if I can't recognize him by his face though, I think I can definitely recognize him by his dancing.

Saturday, December 31, 2011

Good Choice

And now we finally come to the last one on the last day of the year. I'll end this series on a sweet note.

Challenge 11: In fifty words write a love story with a foreigner and a bottle.

Good Choice
“What do I do with her?!” he asked, voice panicky.

“Just be natural,” came the tired reply. “She’s yours too.”

Dale glanced down at the crinkly-eyed, blanket-swaddled baby. For a second, she seemed so small, so strange, so…foreign.  But as the warm bottle arrived, he smiled, glad he’d returned.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Flying High

Only one more to go, but before I get there, a little taste of something slightly longer. This is the "Cheating" Challenge, and was supposed to be 200 words maximum. Maximum?! What is this craziness? It's supposed to be 200 words EXACTLY. So that's what I did.

See if you can spot the Tom Swifty ;)

Challenge: Write a short scene in which a character "cheats."

Flying High
As Dorian settled the helmet on his head, he could feel the adrenaline rush starting. One strong kick and the motor began to thrum. He looked out over the scene in front of him and grinned. This was going to be fun.

With a twist of his wrist, the bike growled and came to life. Dorian leaned forward excitedly as he sped down the slope and then up again off the ramp.

Yes! Finally, he was flying again!

The familiar black-robed figure appeared floating by his side. “This time, you really are coming with me,” said Death grimly.

The audience cheered for their newly returned hero, then gasped as the realization struck them: with this trajectory, Dorian would never clear the last truck.

Dorian had been waiting for this. The stadium fell silent, he pressed the button, and the release from the hidden canister of compressed nitrogen pushed him to safety. The tire spun in the air two inches from the edge of the truck, and he landed to an eruption of cheers.

Pulling off the helmet, he looked to his left. The reaper was gone, and he had once again cheated death. Now that was what life was about.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

When You Have Eliminated the Impossible...

Based on a great Sherlock Holmes quote.

Challenge 6: In fifty words, write a whodunnit.

When You Have Eliminated the Impossible...
Davis dug through the cupboard, searching for his carefully hidden box of Marshmallow Pebbles. Pouring them into the bowl, he noticed a distinct lack of the chewy, colorful title objects.

He considered the possibilities. Jimmy was on vacation, Barry couldn’t reach the top shelf, which meant…had he been sleepwalking?