The journey of my scientific career started in the alleyways of a small Punjabi village in India. For generations, my family has been primarily involved in farming. Although we never struggled for basic needs, life was not a bed of roses. Amid the daily struggles, it would be a challenge to even think of working in the city, leave alone working in one of the best laboratories in the USA trying to engineer antibodies.
Though from a rural background, my parents-unlike people around- showed a massively liberal mindset. They gave immense importance to education. Likewise, I studied in whatever best options of schooling were available locally. Just to mention, I changed schools five times during the first twelve years of my education. I did my initial training mainly in the Punjabi language.
However, until now, the only conversations I ever had were in Punjabi. I had never uttered a word of English. However, given the rise of globalization, everybody had started realizing that English was the way to go ahead. Consequently, I tried to join an English medium school and applied for admission to a well-known school around (many celebrities are alumni of that school). But the meeting with the then principal was more of a humiliation. I was straight away rejected because of my prior education in Punjabi medium. I was told it would be impossible for me to cope with the heavy English coursework. I was shattered, but did not lose hope. I kept on looking around, and ultimately I got admission in a decent English medium school around.
Though I was thrilled, I knew the road ahead wasn’t easy. I worked hard- day and night- to finish what I had started. The hard work paid off, and I passed with flying colors. With all the celebrations and happiness around, I felt proud and immensely grateful to my parents. Those smiles on the faces, the spark in their eyes, the laughter is what has stayed with me forever. I was always short of words that could appreciate the amount of support I have got from my family, especially my father. Despite having minimal exposure to the stream I chose, he left no stone unturned to help me in my endeavour. He assured a continuous supply of information from whatever resources he had and arranged contacts of people I could talk to for guidance.
I wanted to get a medical degree afterwards but sadly could not get admission to any medical college. Given the limited resources that my family had, I knew it would be difficult for me to afford the highly expensive medical education. I was even hesitant to apply for many colleges since even the application forms were expensive. All seemed dark; something in me felt lost. However, these are the situations when life brings its own plans, which you only realize years later.
I talked to my parents- who as always were supportive- and started looking for places where I could study life sciences. I took admission to an undergrad course with a specialization in Biotechnology. But the struggle did not end yet. The connectivity to my college was terrible and I had to change three buses to reach college and then back home. But with hard work and guidance, I got a first-class degree. I followed it by a Masters from Bangalore University.
It was during my master’s training that I got interested in research. Initially, I thought of going for a Ph.D. abroad but given the lack of exposure, I could not get a position. Eventually, after struggling a lot, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in India. I started the preparation by studying whatever I could get my hands on. The social media was a significant rescue since I could not afford many of the expensive books. I collected lots of ebooks from Facebook and made a schedule for the next few months. I started studying about ten hours a day and gave multiple mock tests. All the hard work paid well as I cleared the National fellowship Test with an All India Rank-27.
I followed it up by applying for multiple Ph.D. positions and finally got selected at IISER Mohali, Punjab. But my lab was new, and I started the work from scratch. I learned a few things from my boss and mostly from colleagues in other labs. I finished my Ph.D. in 5.5 years. Everybody was elited when I reached back home. I explored my interests and applied for postdoc positions.
I joined the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and am working on engineering antibodies. The work might help me realize the dream to help the ailing people globally. Had I been a medical doctor, I would have been limited by the amount of work I could put in. As I said, life has its own plans which you realize years later. It’s just that you need to support the plans with perseverance and grit and most importantly, hope.
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