The Witless Twenties
Nishanth M J
It’s almost 8 a.m.… time is in abundance now. I retired from my work last week, after teaching for thirty years at a school. I think thirty years are long enough for our brains to erase many memories; but some stubborn ones seem to stick around. Last night, memories of my earlier life came alive vividly for some reason that I can’t comprehend.
During my mid-twenties, I was a graduate student at Cheezland Institute, doing neurobiology research under the supervision of Professor Amy. Neurobiology always interested me, and I took up the subject during my graduate studies. In Professor Amy’s lab, I was involved in three research projects that focused on different disorders of brain. The projects required team effort, individual researchers working on specific experiments. It was a relatively large lab, with as many as thirty researchers - some graduate students and some senior scientists, all working in teams. In the first project, my task was to fine-tune a procedure of measuring certain hormones and chemicals in slices of human brain. The aim was to specifically identify and quantify a number of hormones and other chemicals in the brain, to study the differences between healthy individuals and those having migraines. This was a crucial experiment for the progress of the project. Initially, it was assigned to Daniel, another member of the lab. Three months into the experiments, Daniel got hospitalized for a month, following a car accident. Amy transferred the hormone-measurement task to me. Building on Daniel’s work, I was able to quickly complete the experiments. Towards the completion of the work, Amy said that she was really happy with my performance and would often fervently praise me. She also sent me to a number of conferences to present the research findings. Soon, I became “Amy’s golden child,” and Amy became my guardian angel.
Amy seemed to be a kind mentor. She would often say, “My mentees are no different from my family…” and so on… and so forth, at length. She also often spoke to all of us about the importance of being extremely righteous in all walks of life. She would quote from the Bible and say “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” In her office hung an impression of Michelangelo’s “The Last Judgement,” and on the door of the lab was inscribed the “Lab Motto”: “Exploring Brain, Unravelling Truth, Improving Healthcare…” She would often tell us that teaching, research, and contributing to the human intellectual understanding were noble vocations. As a new student in the lab, I would often be in awe of her mesmerizing passion and dedication, and the apparent kindness towards her mentees.
Then came the second project that I was involved in. This time, my task was to examine if a new medicine could be beneficial in epilepsy treatment. The project was more demanding, and I worked harder to complete the experiments. There were several analyses to be done using laboratory animals. After a year of testing the medicine, we found that it was not a suitable drug, as its side-effects outweighed the therapeutic value. As a result, we had to close the project. Though it was clear from the beginning that the medicine may or may not be suitable, Amy now seemed to be oblivious to that fact. There was a sudden and intense change in her temperament. Had the drug been proven effective, Amy’s professional achievements would have reached new heights. I could see that somehow I became the face of the medicine’s side-effects. I still don’t understand how. By this time, Amy and I had grown familiar to each other. The dichotomy between Amy’s speech and actions seemed to only grow with time. It also became clear that only those who produced experimental results that benefitted her professional progress, and those who agreed with her on her opinions could work in the lab. After the second project, Amy told me to design another research project for myself and work on it so that I could quickly conclude my research and “move on with my life.” Thus, implicitly conveyed was the message to move out of her lab. My focus at that stage was to do something; do anything, to conclude my work, which I barely remember now. There was a growing indifference towards the work as well as the life-lessons that Amy continued to give with an eternal passion. This was a strange time; Amy started to clearly contradict her own statements. The rights and wrongs, blacks and whites were completely contextual, inter-changeable, and subjective. An action would either be an immoral and unruly deed or an act of God, depending on who does it. What was according to her the extreme north two years was now the extreme south. More intriguing was the ferocious intensity with which she would defend her changing viewpoints. Any attempts the students made to put forth their thoughts on the experiments would result in thunderous rebuttals from her, following which she would insist that her students be open-minded and listen to her. For a short period, it seemed like a labyrinth of science, human behavior, and profession. Amy seemed to be an embodiment of how fragmented and capricious the human personality could get. I could see that the “golden child” status was a fleeting privilege given to anyone benefitting her professional progress at the moment. Eventually, I completed the project I was supposed to work on, and left the lab with some understanding of neurobiology and human behavior.
I then started teaching at a school located far away from Cheezland Institute, and I moved to the new locality. After a few years, I happened to meet Professor Amy at a restaurant near the Institute. When I told her that I was teaching at a school, she told me how immensely she admired school teachers. She also told me about her fifth grade science teacher who “kindled her interest in science.” She said her school teachers were the reason behind her success as a neuroscientist. Amy spoke with the same magical passion with which she would give us life-lessons in the lab; but I was unable to respond to her words. I think an informed indifference had engulfed the witless awe that such words would once elicit. She was what she was, and I have been what I have been. Through my teaching years, it was interesting to see how behaviors take roots and some naive kids turn into competitive little Amys in the making by the time they complete school years, while others would revel in the bliss of a benign ignorance. As Arthur Schopenhauer says, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.”
Nishanth M J: “I am a PhD student working in the field of Molecular Biology. I currently live in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu.”