Ge­net­ics in a gorge(ou)s town

Mov­ing from Chen­nai to Cor­nell has been a trans­for­ma­tive ex­pe­ri­ence for Aravind Natara­jan

The Hindu - - EDGE -

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.

Mul­ti­fac­eted in­ter­ac­tions

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:

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