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?

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