Genetics in a gorge(ou)s town
Moving from Chennai to Cornell has been a transformative experience for Aravind Natarajan
Arriving at JFK airport, I was swept away by throngs of passengers from around the world, ensconced by the busy hum of chatter in several languages. The mental calculator constantly multiplying by 60 (the approximate exchange then) and contrasting prices of coffee, food, bus tickets, and so on, to those in India), started right away.
Ithaca, home to Cornell University, is a picturesque town, set amidst several gorges, the serene Finger Lakes and a waterfall at every turn, leading to the well-worn phrase ‘Ithaca is gorge(ou)s’.
Cornell University was a natural choice for pursuing my research interests in the area of bacterial genetics since it offered two well-funded faculty members in that area in whose projects I was interested. However, I was required to rotate — engage in 12-week projects — in three research groups in my first year before choosing a lab home.
My doctoral research has focused on genetically engineering Escherichia coli, a bacterium, for the cost-effective production of important therapeutics and industrially relevant enzymes. Further, I have constructed synthetic pathways that help us better understand important cellular processes in bacterial pathogens and mammalian cells. My experience in the DeLisa Research Group has been a game-changer, helping hone my skills in identifying impactful research questions, developing scientifically rigorous strategies to probe these, and to always be conscious of the societal impact of my work.
The shift in academic culture from India to the U.S. was apparent from the beginning. At the orientation programme, the University went out of its way to welcome us, help settle in and then pamper us, for good measure. Most endearing was when Dean Jan Allen walked up to our table at an ice cream social, offering us a ride to New York City because she appreciated company on her drives. Further, Cornell has consistently cared about my unique experience as an international student to inform its policies and strategic plans. I have been invited to participate in many committees, with the opportunity to speak with top administrators all the way up to the president and board of trustees.
The freedom to enrol in any course, including
ones on wine or sailing, was simultaneously exciting and anxiety-ridden. In my first year, I took courses that were required by the programme, learning how classes and tests worked here. I enjoyed the highly interactive nature of courses and found the joys and pains of continuous assessments. It became apparent that everybody was smart, driven, unabashedly nerdy, and passionate about their work.
It was also humbling to interact with professors whose books had guided me through my bachelor’s and masters’ degrees, and whose work is fundamental to my area of interest. I have also had innumerable intellectually stimulating conversations across a wide range of disciplines with peers and residents of Ithaca ranging from criminal justice reform and social equity to particle physics.
Ithaca and Cornell are constantly brimming with opportunities to experience culture from around the world. I have learnt the basics of Argentine Tango, tried Swing dancing, and I am a regular Contra dancer. Season tickets to the ice hockey games at Lynah Rink, and chanting and booing with the crowd make up for missing IPL seasons. Over the years, the melody of Simon Shaheen’s oud, Zakir Hussain’s tabla, live Jazz performances at local restaurants, and listening to the Cornell Chimes play the Alma Mater have added to the richness of my experience. I have grown to love all of Ithaca, including its quirky weather and hilly terrain.
Aravind Natarajan is a doctoral candidate at the Department of Microbiology, Cornell University.
Aravind Natarajan Cornell University Doctoral research, Department of Microbiology Name: College: Course: