Ajay and Sonal are sitting face-to-face on a train heading to Raipur. Ajay has recently joined as a Project Associate while Sonal is a lab veteran in the final phase of her Ph.D. at the DC Lab.
Staring out the window, Ajay asks Sonal, “Why are we going to Raipur?”
Sonal replies sarcastically, “You are going on an official trip, and you don’t know what it’s about. Great!”
Ajay instantly exclaims, “But how would I know?”
Sonal snidely comments, “I am seeing how strictly Debo evaluates candidates for project positions!” And then explains “It’s a 3-day trip with an itinerary mainly including meetings, workshops and field visits associated with the clinical trials project for Sickle Cell….
Ajay cutting her in between, “Yeah! Yeah! And what about other things, the fun stuff? The extra-curriculars!”
Sonal replies, “I don’t think we can make any time for leisure on this one. You need to realize the importance of a research project like this. India has a major SCD burden with tribal populations, particularly having very high incidence rates and carrier frequency. The lab has developed an editing protocol that could result in permanently curing patients of the severe condition.” Ajay showing a lack of interest, smiles and nods.
She then adds, “The project can be a game-changer for all parties involved. Scientists will be receiving worldwide acknowledgment while the investors would find this deal quite profitable. The government would gain a lot of support with the successful execution of the project. And the students involved would reach even bigger places from here.”
After a few hours of munching on homemade poori chole and some junk, Ajay starts the conversation again, “How has your Ph.D. journey been so far?”
Sonal shuts him down, “Let’s just not go there! I don’t want to cry about my thesis on this trip”.
Ajay with glistening eyes goes on and on, “I love research work, the OCD of doing every step perfectly otherwise hours, days, or months of effort can go waste. I like how a research idea is driven by curiosity. And how our field is so fast-paced. New discoveries every week!”
Sonal responds sarcastically, “Wait for another 2 years! And we might be discussing how you seriously need to see a shrink. Ph.D. sucks for most!”
Ajay not believing her in his own head thinks, “She ain’t passionate enough!” And then says, “Maybe! But it’s just that I can’t picture myself doing anything else professionally, like on a daily basis.”
Sonal replies sarcastically, “Yes! You would definitely not be able to do anything else during your Ph.D. I have had countless sleepless nights, felt disappointed with my progress, and faced rejection on my ideas. By the end of year 3, an ever-lasting feeling of when will all this be over came. And the vibe stayed”, added Sonal.”
Sitting next to her, Adah was patiently listening and pondering. Ajay really wanted to feel enthusiasm about research as a profession. So decided to ask the person who he had only noticed smiling when in the lab or elsewhere. He considered Adah to be happy with her journey so far and having a lot of potential as a scientist.
So, he asked Adah, “What about you didi? You seem quite chilled out. I don’t think you have any plans of dropping this career anytime soon.”
Sonal exclaims, “Don’t call her didi! We are all colleagues here!”
Adah smilingly starts explaining “I have been quite satisfied with how things have been so far. I do like research but after a point, anything repetitive could get boring.”
“And frustrating!” Sonal exclaimed rolling her eyes. “I seriously don’t understand how you have stayed so motivated Adah.”
Adah replies, “My goals have been different from yours yaar.” Yes, this journey began with a curiosity for research, and I also found the perfection needed to conduct everyday experiments quite fascinating, Ajay. But after a few months, especially during COVID times when we were developing Feluda kits, testing samples day and night, something changed.”
She added in an optimistic tone, “For me, it’s the impact one can make through translational research. A therapy could potentially cure millions of people, children and relieve their families of the psychological trauma associated with painful symptoms, expensive treatments, unaffordability, and inaccessibility for better care. Even release them from the fear of death of a loved one which I tell you can be the biggest fear of all.”
She further asserted, “We don’t realize the power we hold as researchers, especially while working on clinical topics.” Seeing Ajay not being able to relate much, she added, “This trip might change your outlook.”
Sonal brought up something she found more relevant, “I just feel fortunate that our PI is nice. We would at least be able to finish our project in time with a good recommendation.”
The next three days went by in a flash. On their journey back to IGIB, Ajay seemed quite enthusiastic. There was a smile on his face just like Adah’s. He felt like he was in the right place.
Seeing him with a much more positive vibe, Adah started the conversation again, “It seems like you had fun. I saw you being the most excited when we visited that temple.”
Sonal instantly added laughingly, “And the party that followed!”
Ajay smilingly replies, “Of course that too! But I think the trip has been a revelation for me. And I should credit you for that,” he says looking at Adah.
To which Adah replied, “Oh Really? That’s nice!”
Ajay replied, “Yes, you talked about the impact. Now I can actually relate to it. A picture of a mother and son I met at the Anganwadi is still flashing in front of my eyes. She was holding her 2-year-old in her arms. She tried to smile for the camera. But her eyes couldn’t lie.”
Ajay went on, “I explained to her how we are researchers developing therapies for her child’s condition in the laboratory. She was almost going to break into tears when she said, the only wish she had was that Monu, her son’s health gets better. She had to visit the local hospital several times when Monu experienced a pain crisis. With barely making ends meet, she told me even if we devise a medicine, she might not be able to afford it."
“The kids were petrified of the syringes. If one started to cry, all started crying. If you comforted one, the other started crying. The Anganwadi too was barely standing. The doctors there would be waiting for months to get approval simply for fixing fans,” added Sonal in a frustrated tone.
“Similar was the story of most others I met,” Adah replied looking at Ajay. She said, “Their suffering seemed unparallel, only in some eyes I saw hope.”
“See, that’s the motivation I have sought, added Adah. There is no denying that working in a lab like this is a privilege Ajay, not just because of the facilities, the support, and the reputation counts as well. Of course, CRISPR is so intriguing, and the skills we learn here would make a major difference to our CV. But it’s the difference you make beyond your experience that matters. This kind of outreach work truly adds to our potential in making an impact through our translational research. So, look at this as something that can add to your dedication and make your purpose more meaningful.”
Sonal exclaimed, “Ahh, relax Adah. Stop being the Guru! You cannot deny we ain’t paid well for the work we do,” to which Ajay started giggling.
Adah smiled and started gazing through the window a beautiful lake the train was passing by. She thought to herself, does it really matter! Of course, it would be amazing to be richer but that would be so relative. The satisfaction from working in this domain and developing such life-changing curative therapies holds so much more value and is what I should be focusing on…. For now!