by Dipanjana Dalui, University of Connecticut
Life to me is about the journey, because the destination is nothing but an illusion of stability. I have been on the move as far back as I could remember. Every time I think this is the last time, I am only lying to myself. I know the feeling of stagnation way too well. Even though my immediate reaction to the news of another move is frustration, I live for the thrill of the journey and the sheer excitement of not knowing anything or anyone. A clean slate. A new beginning. And let me tell you, it is an addictive feeling.
Before I delve into my story, let me tell you briefly about the last 4 weeks of my life. I flew from New York to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, on 27th May. The next day, I took a bus with 20 more enthusiastic biologists, and 4 faculty members, to Palo Verde – a wet forest, and wetland. After spending 5 days here, our team moved to a coastal site in the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific side, the CIRENAS station. After 6 days here, we moved again. This time to the cloud forests of Monteverde, at an elevation of 1100m above sea level. In about another week, we moved to La Selva Biological Station, on the Caribbean plains. La Selva is the Mecca for tropical biologists, a place of pilgrimage for everyone who has ever dreamt of the pristine rainforest. Among caimans and crocodiles, hummingbirds and quetzals, sloths and turtles, what was I doing here?
The Kanchanjunga range, Himalayas. Photographed from Darjeeling, WB, India.
Today I will not talk about the geographic journey, rather delve into the sequence of unpredictable events that led me to where I am right now, sitting and writing this.
I took biology in my high school out of lack of choice, and because I did not want to do computer science. Fast forward 10 months, and I was in love with the subject. I owe, even to this day, this shift in my life to Mrs Indrani Kailash, my high school biology teacher. I was fortunate to have a mentor like her, who went out of her way multiple times and never gave up on me. But I still loved mathematics, and made the conscious decision of doing my BS-MS in mathematics. I was again fortunate that the course structure at my university ensured that I did not have to give up on my love for biology altogether. So, to quickly summarise, I was doing pure mathematics, and taking biology courses on the side, and sobbing and crawling through the compulsory computer science courses.
It was a hot day in September, just after I finished my second consecutive summer working on Algebraic Number theory, and was looking to do a semester long project on it. I was sitting in the grad office, a small air conditioned cubicle, staring up at the ceiling, thinking about the theorem at hand. And that is when it struck me. Like a sudden flash, all I had worked for for the past 2 years fell apart when I realised that how small the proportion of people is who would actually understand what I do, and even smaller is the proportion of people who care about it. Then I tried asking myself if anything I do would ever be directly useful, in one last attempt to justify doing it. Maybe in another 100 years? Maybe 200? But there will be nothing left in 200 years if humanity continues on the path of exploitation we had been on for the last 100 years.
I couldn’t pretend to not care anymore. I tried to bury myself in the abstractions of rings and fields, classes and domains, but I kept growing restless with every passing day. I could not turn a blind eye to the burning world. I wanted to do something immediate, something more grounded, something that would help the planet and humanity. I finally approached my supervisor at that time, a pure mathematician. I told him about my conflict, and asked him very directly how can he do what he is doing day after day, year after year. Doesn’t he see that what the elite mathematicians do are out of the grasp of almost everyone, and other sciences aren’t catching up fast enough – our work will not see the light of day in any form or service in decades to come. The rainforests don’t have decades. The ice caps aren’t going to wait. The clock is ticking, and I cannot pretend to not care anymore. He respected my decision to switch my research focus, though I cannot say he was very happy about it. My department let me do my master’s thesis in an interdisciplinary field, but I still had to complete every credit requirement for a mathematics degree.
The transition was far from easy. Yes, I had some bachelor level biology courses, but that was in no way enough. My initial target was to work for the Indian Forest Services (IFS), for forest and wildlife conservation. But having an IFS grandfather, I knew the bureaucracy was not something that suited a person like me who has only trained to be a scientist. Ecology and evolution had always been my love, so I decided to take my chances. I soon realised that the best bet for me would be to embrace my quantitative skills, and find a way to apply those in a primarily qualitative science that is ecology and evolution. This required me to teach myself coding. Even though I had taken requirements, I was no good. And hands down, those were the most painful months of my career so far.
It was during the penultimate semester, and right about the time I was reconsidering a PhD as an option after having juggled with the idea and scraping it a few times, that I happened to get interested in disease ecology. It was also around this time that I stumbled upon the lab website of Dr Robert Bagchi. Dr Bagchi, or Robi, as he likes to be called, was advertising for a PhD student at the time, a student who would work on theoretical disease ecology – on transmission, evolution, and effects of climate change. It was a role that suited my interest and the lab complemented my expertise. The interview, proposal, and application went pretty smoothly. Another 8 months, and I flew halfway across the world to join my new Uconn EEB family.
The learning curve has been a very steep one. And I am grateful to the people in my department who haven’t still lost their patience with me when I ask something very stupid and very obvious. From identifying tiger beetles using morphology, to teaching introductory biology to freshmen, from Thursday seminars, to giving tours of our collection facility, I am slowly molding into an ecologist. And this is where the current OTS course becomes relevant. I am lucky to have a supervisor who shares my views that in order to become a true ecologist, I have to gain experience of fieldwork and learn skills of the field, and what better option that a course dedicated to just that. So, here I am, on the fourth week of a six week long Tropical Ecology course, three projects, two papers, one podcast, and one video later, writing about what brought me here.
A Milksnake, UConn EEB. University of Connecticut, Storrs, USA.
I will leave you with the following words from one of my favourite songs. I take it as a reminder that there is only one life we are given, and what we make of it depends on what we choose to do in it. Our actions will be the legacy we leave behind not only for our children, but for every other being on this planet.
“And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death”
– Time, Pink Floyd.