A contribution by Harithaa Anandakumar
Do’s: study, score in the top 5 percentile, earn a solid Bachelor’s, complete multiple internships, excel in a Master’s program, get skilled at minuscule writings on Eppendorf tubes followed by a brilliant thesis, submit numerous applications and sort through PhD options, start a PhD and ideally finish it, continue with infinite Post-Doc’s while slowly entering a grey, murkily defined space… And then, one day, you might end up with the coveted professorship.
Don’ts: loose-track, give up on pharmacology or biochemistry (or whatever was your bothersome subject), loose motivation. But most importantly, do not clock the hours.
This was the roadmap I was presented with when I divulged my possible aspiration to pursue science.
So, I quasi-diligently followed it and found myself in Berlin, starting a PhD in a great lab with wonderful colleagues, 7,278 km away from home. And thus started my internal dissidence or disaccord with the shiny map that I was previously handed.
Why then was my trans-Middle-Eastern flight never drawn up explicitly in this master-blueprint? My naïve 21-year old self when packing for the flight accounted for the “first-class science” that would/could be done, but not the lack of rich mango-bearing fields, the sound of familiar languages, and the possibility of not-belonging. (To be fair, I moved out of my parent’s house at 14, to hostels and universities, adding more distance with each step. So, I understood that belonging is a weird concept.)
This haphazard movement through time zones is in no way an isolated incidence or experience. A quick search showed that in 2018, 20% of doctoral students in the EU, accounting for about 120k people in absolute numbers, were from abroad; a non-trivial proportion. It is safe to assume that these transatlantic or trans-European flights have never been easy, but the pandemic has made it worse.
My bachelor’s thesis was on the mechanism of how UV light could induce senescence in dermal fibroblasts. But even without the scientific reviews on ageing and senescence, I, like most people, had the rational understanding that death and dying is as natural as becoming pregnant or giving birth.
Yet, every time a long-distance video-call is made to my parents, I sometimes notice how my mom takes more gentle steps across the garden or how my father is a bit more forgetful. This is an odd occurrence as my brain has stronger memories from the time when I was personally with them or held them (which at this point is almost 3 years ago), and not from the static-ky images my 5-inch phone tries to show me.
This then is always a bit jarring, as I am no longer watching them slowly age, but perceive it in disjointed jolts. I long for the time I can responsibly fly-back and reframe my world view!
Luckily, the refuge to all this has been doing something that I love, which currently is learning, exploring, putting small pieces of scientific-puzzles together, and savouring the warmth of the people around. This communal sense of exploring something together is not isolating. I no longer ask for this to replace the ache of what I don’t have, but complement it, and hope to grow strength, resilience, and not lose my sense of wonder; which brought me here in the first place.
For a lot of people these days, being a scientist also means being an immigrant. I do not ask for pity or sympathy, but to bear witness to what is an everyday reality for the people amongst us. I am now starting to understand that this international, global, human undertaking is a truly wonderful thing! Slowly, I am also updating my internal map; it is no longer shiny and full of promised lands, rather the opposite – murky and frayed. It accounts for all the distances and flats moved, but most importantly, it has lost the itinerary. I no longer want to or have to beeline my way to any one endpoint. There is space for uncertainty, and in it, I find a haven.