by: Neem Patel
I knew when I realized I was capable of being more than a spectator. In all honesty, deep down, tucked away in a small, dark crevice of my subconscious mind, I had always known. Science is my purpose. It is an essence of my existence. My journey to discover this - was achingly long and ironically circular.
I was raised to be a MD. My parents, immigrants from Gujarat, India, adamantly believed this craft marked true success. The most prestigious profession a child can achieve. Perhaps it is then that a child is rewarded with the one phrase they’ve waited their entire, bicultural, life for - “I am proud of you beta.” Any deviation from this path - arts, philosophy, or even the natural sciences - was an abomination, disrespectful and ungrateful. Possessed by the fear of losing their dignity and status within their communities, my parents would accept nothing less of a MD. My adolescence was greatly burdened by these expectations. They had sacrificed so much for my brother and I. As the elder sibling, it was my duty.
With my purpose in mind, I’d prioritized a science-heavy education my entire life. However, it was never with even an ounce of resentment. I found salvation in science, in spite of my parents verdict. I was fascinated with the mitochondria and chloroplasts - microscopic powerhouses which create the currency of life - acquired through friendly cellular cannibalism, or simply endosymbiosis. Organelles that all eukaryotes possess, which were once free-living prokaryotes - whoa. I was captivated with evolutionary radiation events and the complexity of life that exists today. It was all sparked by some small catalytic events in a once, even more, tumultuous world. Unfathomably beautiful. I was enamored with this world. It was my escape, regardless of how I came to find it.
The years passed and I began honing in on the medical aspects of my prescribed education. While in high school, I participated in organizations such as the Health Occupation Students of America and earned certifications as a first aid and CPR provider and a nursing assistant. I landed a job as a nurse at the lab in the local hospital. I was on the right path and would continue on my pre-medical trajectory in university.
It was during my last year of high school that I began to realize that I was not made for the world of medicine. This became more apparent during my first year of university. In this new setting, distanced from the reality of my cultural duties, I felt liberated, my academic world was full of endless opportunities. I guiltlessly enjoyed courses in the arts, social sciences, philosophy and languages. I was so happily distracted with everything that I had always been bullied against, I completely ignored science. I finally rebelled. I began a cycle of self-discovery - what do I want? what am I passionate about? - I “declared” my major four times: art and photography, anthropology, philosophy and finally landed on Italian studies. Despite these dramatic declarations, every semester was always garnished with a science course. My homage to my undying essence.
As I was nearing the end of my Bachelor of Interdisciplinary Studies in Italian Studies, I was becoming increasingly involved in various activist movements. Most significantly, I was organizing and leading a number of environmental activist groups. In April 2010 one of the worst - unnatural - disasters in petroleum history took place, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
Times had changed. Instead of organizing, making signs and taking the streets, I knew I could do more. I could lean on my passion for science and make a real contribution. I was moved by my resolution to solve environmental woes. A path I’d secretly been pursuing my entire, academic, life. My experience had taught me that science was more than just a gateway to becoming a MD. It, itself was and is a future. During the Fall of 2010, I joined the lab of Dr. Kuk-Jeong Chin. We studied how anaerobic microbial communities, native to the marsh sediments off the Louisiana coast, utilize biological mechanisms to degrade toxic, crude oil contaminants resulting from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
I am now nine years deep - my parents have been on board for about eight years now. I suppose they got over it much quicker than I’d thought. However, I am still waiting for that, one, phrase.
Found among a collection of old essays from a science communication workshop in 2016. An art I aim to pursue more in 2019. The art of science communication, not the art of talking about oneself.