Schistorian


2017-05-22 16.53.26I love puns–good ones (if there are such things) and bad with almost equal affection–and can never resist the opportunity to use them. Especially here in this blog since no one will cut them out. But really, how am I expected to resist this one ? After all, the reason I’m here in Madison is to work at the archives on the papers of the scientist Howard Temin, and his work will be the terminal event in my book. But other coincidences abound. Witness, for instance this photograph that I snapped my first week here. No one told me it was here… but as I was walking  from the Steenbock library (where the archives are housed) to the Memorial Union building, what should I encounter but this plaque! The walkway is a beautiful lakeside path along the north edge of campus on the shores of Lake Mendota, one of 3 (or 4) lakes that grace this town. It gives me a special feeling knowing that as I walk along this pathway the destination are the papers of the very same person.

A quick biographical note on Temin (since this post is marked as a schistorian entry). He was an American virologist who received a third of the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for his discovery of reverse transcriptase, the enzyme that makes DNA molecules from RNA templates. Even before this discovery, Temin had made waves by suggesting while still a graduate student that such a thing might be possible. Since the suggestion flew in the face of what was then the Central Dogma in biology he was not taken too seriously. Nevertheless since he did excellent work in the laboratory, he got his PhD, and a few years later proved himself right. Why he features in my research is that the model or subject of his speculations was the Rous sarcoma virus (RSV) which is one of the two viruses whose tale (à la Dickens)  I’m trying to tell in my book. More on the book in a future post. Now I need to get to actually writing it.  (#52)

Finally I have some good news – make that great news – on the job front. But as often seems to be the case with me, things have been moving rapidly and in the last month, I’ve interviewed twice (via Skype – Hurray for modern technology) and received unofficial and now mostly official confirmation, again via the net, of the offer. And (drumroll please) the new job is in…

A place called Yonsei University. In Seoul, S. Korea! And it’s a tenure track position in the history of science to boot. Am I thrilled or what?

Talk about out of nowhere, I swear, Korea wasn’t even on the horizon of considerations even as a tourist destination but then a job ad floated my way in late October (Thanks to my fellow post-doc and scientific thinking colleague Brandon for first bringing it to my attention) and I added it to the growing list of applications. An interview in December led to a Christmas present (bright and early when I powered on the computer in Doha at Yasir and Suf’s place) in the guise of an email from the search committee chair that I was the chosen candidate, and while vacationing in India I had a second interview, also on Skype, with the higher-ups, which was followed a few days later with an unofficial offer. Its been a whirlwind naturally, but for the most part in a good way (the not-so-good is the prospect of good-byes to dear friends here in Cairo) and over the next few weeks I’ll be packing up and leaving for the school year and new semester in Korea begins in March! Meanwhile another interview, at MIT .. THE MIT in Boston .. went reasonably well also and more importantly went a long long way in bolstering my greatly flagging morale. Results for that search won’t be out till later, and besides, its a WAC (writing across the curriculum for the uninitiated) position not History of Science, but hey! I get to say that I interviewed at MIT. It’s a cool feeling.

But enough bragging. I’m delighted, thrilled, ecstatic and all those other words, besides being grateful for this opportunity, to travel yet again and learn about an entirely new world and culture. And the job seems fantastic for me as well. And as more than one friend has mentioned, the foodie in me is going to have a very interesting life indeed.

So watch out for changes soon, as the pyramids will recede to give way to Kim-Chee or some other Korean icon (or Hello Kitty whom I understand is immensely popular in Japan & Korea). Until I learn some Korean words then, its Sayanora everyone. And good night.

Does it bring another tear?

No not really, although 2010 was a tough year on my morale on the professional front. I can’t think of a month when I wasn’t filling out some application, or interviewing for a job that I didn’t get and worst of all, getting that dreaded reject letter. How I hate those things. I do so hope 2011 will be better on that score…

Meanwhile, I’m in India with family and friends. Rang in the New Year in a reprise of 2008 with Prathima and Rad at the Bangalore club with dancing and music and fun, having just the previous week celebrated Christmas-eve in high and ultra-decadent style with my ‘engulfed’ former Cairo-maniacs Sufia & Yasir. And this morning did a lovely nature walk in Lal Bagh, one of Bangalore’s hidden treasures, at least in terms of the wealth of information I received about it from our walking guide. The gardens which were formally established in the 18th century under the reign(s) or Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan – the latter being quite an avid, even fervid collector of plants – sits around an outcropping of rock (granitic gneiss) that is 3 billion years old. Talk about being half as old of time! And hey what a coincidence, there is a red connection here as well (the other one being the rose-red city i.e. Petra)

As usual I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Backing up… I’ve been hearing about the early morning botanical walks at Lal Bagh led by Vijay Thiruvady for my past couple of visits to India but circumstances surrounding the last two trips (mainly that they were too short!) prevented me from taking the tour before this. In one of those odd coincidences that happens to me so often, it was around the same time, that sitting next to an interesting guy on an airplane (we got talking because of my Kindle) I heard about Bangalore Walks for the first time, again something I never even investigated further because of the lack of time. Having experienced various London Walks earlier this year (God knows I wrote a lot about them!) I went online yesterday to find out more and possibly sign up for one for later in the week, when I found out that the nature walk I’d signed up for was part and parcel of the same. Go figure!

Anyhow as I found out today, Lal Bagh is what is called an exotic botanical garden in the truest sense of the word because it houses various plants and trees from pretty much all the five continents and a variety of ecosystems and habitats. Somehow despite having vastly different native habitats these various plants have managed to survive and even flourish (flowerish to make an atrociously bad pun out of some hapless Kannadiga’s poor pronunciation) here for upwards of 200 years in some cases. I’ve taken pictures of course not many but some great ones, but they’ll have to wait until I’m back in Cairo to appear on this page. In addition to plants it also has other transplants that have not only survived but outlived the original, for example the replica of London’s Crystal Palace from the 19th century where they now host horticultural shows. I also found out that tamarind, the name for which comes from tamr-el-hindi the Arabic phrase meaning Indian date, is neither Indian nor a date, (well I knew the latter, but was not aware that the plant was not native to India but came here from Senegal!). Meanwhile,  fu’ul sudanee or Sudanese beans as peanuts are called in Egypt, hail from the Americas.

This and many other fascinating bits of information were planted into my receptive ears (and into those of my at-the-outset-slightly sleepy comrade in walks, Krithika)  and some 2 dozen others for nearly 3 fascinating hours of a ramble through the red garden during which time we also munched on some derivatives of the botanical examples we had viewed like figs (we saw many different species of Ficus trees though none of the edible variety) and peanut-brittle with palm sugar (Indian brittle come in marble-sized urundai’s rather than sheets) and spiced buttermilk (my choice) to wash it down. But these nibbles were just a teaser. At the end of the tour we were marched off to MTR, Bangalore’s historic Mavalli Tiffin Room for a well deserved and by then much desired breakfast of piping hot rava idlis (invented there during a famine that caused a shortage of rice), and then equally hot dosais both accompanied with chutney and potatoes, some crisp pastry-like confection in an almond milk, all topped off with coffee served in pairs of sterling silver tumblers; you have to have a pair to pour it back and froth (deliberate spelling error that!) to dissolve what sugar you might add and make the temperature manageable. Not my usual cup of tea, granted, but a great treat once in a way.

I meant to reprise my year, but the post as usual took a life of its own and became a ramble about a ramble. Oh well, at least I got in a blog post bright and early in the year. Apparently, according to the message I received from WordPress (the host site for this blog) I’ve had a reasonably good blogging year. You’re doing awesome is what they said actually. Happy New Year everyone. More from me when I can.

Silver linings would not exist if there weren’t dark clouds that needed them to begin with. Earlier this week, I shared the good news about my latest publication. That was the silver lining. Today I was doused with the reality check from the cloud. A rejection. The first of many no doubt, since I have already submitted 14 (and counting) new applications just since returning in September. The rejection today was actually for an application I had already worked on before the beginning of the term. It was the reason I was ‘Ulm-inating’ for the better part of the summer.

So am I heart-broken? Not really, Disappointed yes, but the summer had already taught me that perhaps Ulm was not the place for me. Meanwhile, I got to expand my professional network by a tad, and add a new referee to my list. Plus I put in some solid hours thinking about a new topic, which I’m hoping will have positive outcomes. Certainly it helped me formulate better proposals for other universities.

But disappointed I certainly am. The von Humboldt is a great award to get and a good family to become a member of. Getting it would have given me better bargaining power should I ever get an offer. I am soo… tired of this application business. WHEN oh when will it be my turn to get that nice job? But worry not, my long-suffering readers, I am not going to play that stuck record at any length … at least not today. Italy is waiting and with that prospect for tomorrow, next year and it’s troubles seem far away at the moment.

Yay again. Back in May I’d received word that my paper was accepted. Now it’s published online. Fully citable and everything. Here’s the reference/full citation:

“The Bacteriophage, Its Role in Immunology: How Macfarlane Burnet’s phage research shaped his scientific style.” Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. (2010) doi:10.1016/j.shpsc.2010.10.012.

Meanwhile the publication that was accepted last year in the Journal of the History of Biology is now in a print volume with bona-fide page numbers and everything.  Here’s the updated reference on that:

“Mutant Bacteriophages, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, and the Changing Nature of ‘Genespeak’ in the 1930s.” Journal of the History of Biology, 43 (2010): 571-599. (First published online 18 August, 2009; DOI: 10.1007/s10739-009-9201-4.)

Oh yeah, actually the complete citation would have my yours truly on there first. Neeraja Sankaran, or Sankaran, N., depending on preferred style. Either way, that’s me. And now awaiting results on another submission to Oz.

It has occurred to me recently that the most fitting metaphor for my attempts to find a job are to be found in the ancient Greek myths of Sisyphus and to a lesser extent Tantalus (I think I’m not the only one who had mixed these two characters up with their specifics). Or rather the myth of their punishment for as far as I know I haven’t committed any acts of unspeakable horror as at least one of those men did. And yet I feel like I’m on the receiving end of a punishment, just don’t know from what quarters.

Before I explain, a quick refresher on the classics. Sisyphus is the guy who was condemned to pushing a boulder to the top of the mountain and nearly reaching the top only to have said boulder roll to the bottom again and beginning the task anew. Tantalus – from whose name the word tantalizing derives – had an even more diabolical punishment for he was made to stand knee or waist-deep in a pool of water with a fruit laden vine hanging above him but was perpetually hungry and thirsty. Every time he bent his head to drink some water to attempt to quench his thirst (his hands are not mentioned but they were evidently of no use in his predicament) the level would recede and he never got to so much as moisten his lips or tongue, and the grapes hanging a perfect ripeness just over his lips would similarly move out of reach every time he attempted to bite into one of them.

And how or why do I feel comparable to these wretched men? My job search that’s why. I’ve lost count of the number of applications I’ve written and submitted over the past year and a half. These letters (and statements and etc. etc.) are my personal equivalent of the Sisyphean boulder – except that sometime the boulder rolls down before I’ve even made it halfway there. And when on the rare occasions I break free of that myth and do manage to reach the top – er land an interview – it has been followed even more heartbreakingly with a punishment to rival that meted out to Tantalus. I can view the fruit in all its juicy perfection and even feel the water in its cool comfort but am ever denied the pleasures of partaking either.

I won’t bother to go into specifics and am not asking for sympathy. In fact I’d go so far as to say I’m actively discouraging any well-meaning comments about hanging in there, something better around the corner, not taking it personally etc. Am just having a public fist-shaking and rant session to relieve my frustrations and  intense discouragement at the job market and my situation. Having suffered what I view is a personal defeat by having to spend a 4th year at AUC when my original fellowship was only for 3, I feel like I’m entitled to a public rendition of the opposite of a victory dance. Just before I am led to the altar of Scientific Thinking like a bleating sacrificial lamb to the slaughter.

As for that last metaphor, heck, I’m in Egypt, it’s Ramadan and Eid is fast approaching. baa...

Amid all the grief and travails of job hunting (Status: still uncertain and tearing my hair out playing the waiting game. It SUCKS bigtime 😦  ) there are genuine personal triumphs that serve as consolation prizes and actually have long-term repercussions. Another paper was accepted.. Yay!

In a different journal and on a different subject (slightly) than past one. I mean it’s still about Burnet and bacteriophages – that isn’t about to change for another couple (of papers, years)  I think – but this time it is about the impact of the work on his immunology. In some ways this was perhaps the most original aspect of my dissertation so I’m glad its gone to press. This time the journal is Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, part of a series out of Cambridge University. With one paper in each in journals in Oz, US and  UK, my publications are proving as peregrine as myself it seems.

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