So long MIT

 

Mens et Manus
Mens et Manus

This week marks the end of my time at MIT. When I leave on Friday, I will have been here for 10 years, 11 months, and 16 days. 4002 days. It is had to imagine that I have been here for this long. I remember showing up to Tang Hall and getting my room. Up in the corner of the 24th floor. Now, I have a PhD – 8 years in the making, three years of Post Doctoral work, and I met one of the most amazing people in the world, who agreed last year to spend the rest of her life with me.

Along the way, I have met some incredible people. Jarrett, who officiated our wedding and has been there every step of the way since our beginning. Kerry, who came with Lily and has been an amazing friend. Eric and Zary, fellow MITers whom I kind of brought together (at least that is the story I am telling). Charles, for those out there and realistic conversations on the pursuit of science and scientific thought. Peter, who I can always count on to get things done. Will, who has been a true and loyal friend for some long years now. John Essigmann, who has been a terrific mentor and friend to me. Joost, who always plied me with libations and conversation. And many, many more. Too many over the years to recount here.

Lily and I are leaving soon, and arriving later this month, at Masdar Institute a brand new graduate research institute in Abu Dhabi. I will be a Professor in the Chemical Engineering Department.I am excited about the opportunities ahead of me, but also mindful of the responsibility that comes with this opportunity. It will not be easy, but it will be very rewarding.

It is not a good bye, but a so long to MIT and Boston. We will be back soon.

Standing on the shoulders of giants

I was reminded of this phrase while at dinner this week. I recently became a Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Visiting Scholar at MIT. As part of this honor, I was invited to attend the Faculty of Color monthly dinner. I must admit I became more nervous as the day of dinner approached. Most of these Professors I interacted with while a student representative on a Faculty Committee in my role as a graduate student representative. Some I had only read about while studying the history of the Minority Community at MIT. All of them are leaders in their respective fields of research and contributors to the advancement of Minorities in Academics.

As I sat there listening to their stories at dinner, I reflected on how much they each gave in their own way to open doors for my generation. Reading their history paled in comparison to hearing the narrative in person. It is hard to gauge the thought process from the written word. To glimpse into environment from which decisions were made. Whether thirty years out, it was all worth it. Being there at the dinner, listening to the changes in inflection, taking in the hand gestures, and observing the shifting body language lent a sense of reality and depth to the narration that is absent in the written word.

I cannot imagine the strength and resolve it took to put up with spitting, cigarettes butts, sleeping in isolated conditions, or being ostracized from the academic community because of what you were not. All I know is that I am thankful to them for the road they paved for me.

Later that evening, while on the Red Line going home, I realized that at one time, they were just like me. A potential to be used. The choice on how that potential was to be used was mine and only mine to make. Only time would tell, but if I choose to do what I believe and do not compromise, it will all work out. Just then a song came into my head; REM’s ‘King of Birds’ lyrics, standing on the shoulders of giants, it leaves me cold. As I hummed the tune, I smiled knowing that although it is going to be a hard endeavor, it will not be impossible. They made sure that I have more than a fighting chance.

Padma Lakshmi opens the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research

The room was packed. We had received an invitation to sit in the special seating section and to attend the ‘after party’. Lily and I waited, in the third row, front and center.  Padma Lakshmi would be walking though those doors, stage left, momentarily. We’ve watched her on Bravo’s Top Chef for 6 seasons now.  Always so beautifully dressed, with her smile, knowing that she was ready to challenge the next set of top chef’s almost beyond their culinary limits. And for all but one, past that breaking point where they hit that wall and fell short of their gastronomic dreams.

Padma Lakshmi was at MIT for the official launch of the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research. This research center, the child of Professor Linda Griffith, is the first interdisciplinary academic research institute which brings together biologists, clinicians, and engineers with the goal of understanding the basic biology, physiology, and pathophysiology of the female reproductive tract.

Professor Linda Griffith began the afternoon by introducing Susan E. Whitehead, Lifetime Member of the MIT Corporation and Vice Chairman of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Ms. Whitehead remarked on the bold research initiative embodied in the center. Dr. Tamer Seckin, President and Founder of the Endometriosis Foundation of America (EFA), followed her and introduced Padma Lakshmi.

There she was, tall, beautiful, poised, radiant, and very much pregnant. Ms. Lakshmi began to share the account of her personal struggle and eventual diagnosis with endometriosis. This disease slowly wrestled control of her life and body away from her.  She recalled of how she suffered alone with this recurring, debilitating disease, learning to tolerate excruciating pain.  Scheduling her life around the monthly assaults by this unbearable condition. Living every day with this incapacitating disease, one which until recently had no name or meaning to her. Her pain was apparent in her heart felt rendering of how she had suffered through misdiagnosis and unnecessary medical procedures before a friend referred her to Dr. Seckin. Padma told of the relief she felt hearing Dr. Seckin’s words.  He understood what she was going through.  His life’s work has been dedicated to understanding the molecular underpinnings of this debilitating disease.  Now, almost three years later, Padma tells of how she has regained control of her life and her body.

Through out her talk, Padma emphasized how the lack of awareness and education regarding endometriosis had shaped the medical diagnosis, treatment and response to her disease. She spoke of how social taboos deterred her from asking the right questions and demanding answers regarding her body and her physical state. She also described how the people who were closest in her life at times misunderstood or played down her symptoms, leaving her doubting her ability to properly describe her symptoms to others. It was not until Padma met Dr. Seckin that she finally understood the impact that endometriosis had had on her life.

What can you do as a woman, a partner, a loved one, for someone who is suffering with endometriosis? Education and information are the best tools to help you understand and identify the symptoms of this disease. Awareness of your body is key.  For those of us who care for our close ones, understanding and believing that when they complain, the pain and the discomfort they feel is real.  Do not brush it aside.  For all of us, do not hesitate to obtain a second opinion on a diagnosis.

In her closing remarks, Padma extended her heart felt thanks to Professor Griffith and the other members of the research center for making the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research a reality. For more information regarding endometriosis or other chronic non-cancerous diseases of the female reproductive tract please visit the MIT Center for Gynepathology Research or The Endometriosis Foundation of America.  Also, please read the article that appeared in the Boston Globe on Friday, December 4th.

Thankful for being able to do what it is that I do …

This is what four days in lab looks like.
This is what four days in lab looks like.

It is 7:24 on the day before Thanksgiving. AC/DC is cranked up so loud my ears are starting to bleed and I have at least four more hours to go before I go home tonight.  There are papers and three lab notebooks strewn all over my bench top.  This is my fourth 18-hour day in a row.  A crazy look in my eyes and a five-day growth on my face.  A marathon set of experiments trying to decipher the growth curve of the community of deep earth microbes that I am trying to identify and characterize.

I started this morning over thirteen hours ago by coming in, turning on the gas to exchange the atmosphere in the anaerobic tent loading chamber, and promptly blowing out the seals in the CO2 regulator.  You know that when this happens at 6:30 in the morning, it is not going to be a good day.  I couldn’t find another one in the building (nor in friends labs in a couple of other buildings) so I settled in and waited until AirGas opened later that morning.  Needless to say, it was closer to 1:00 in the afternoon before I got the tent back operational, putting me at least five hours behind schedule for an already jam packed day.  So this is how I find myself with one more hour to wait while my microbial cells sit in the first incubation of many in a long protocol with which I will fix them in paraformaldehyde for later DAPI stain and FISH analysis.

Why do I do this? Why do I put in the long hours crazy hours?  Because I love it.  Plain and simple, that is the only answer I can give.   I delve into the unseen, the unreal, the unknown world of extreme microbes, and try to make it visible, real, solving the mystery of who lives where and how the hell they do what they do in those most inhospitable places in which they thrive.  I have to design an experiment with the full understanding that the equipment does not exist for me to do these experiments.  I cannot go to a shelf and just pick up one of these and three of those and have some technician come over and set it all up for me.  This is truly science driven by your capacity to design, invent, and assemble the equipment that you will need, while doing the experiments at the same time.

Sometimes I forget how incredibly crazy and out of this world what I do is.  I get reminded of this when I try to explain what it is that I do to friends and family.  I get this look of fear and awe when I explain that the things I study grow at 100-200 atmospheres, at temperatures between 50-75 degreed centigrade, and under acidic conditions so extreme it would peel the skin off your bones.  Like I said, this is pretty cool stuff.

Well, I got to go now, the next cell wash and incubation is about to begin.  While all this is extremely exciting, getting to that final answer is laborious, painstaking, and tedious.  Still, I would not trade this life for any other one.  This is what I am thankful for on this week.  I get to do what I love (and sometimes get a little frustrated at) every day.  Take care and have a great Thanksgiving.