Confessions of a Postdoc (21): When Research Throws a Curve Ball, Take Solace in Philanthropy

(October 14th, 2014) Since 2010, Anjana Nityanandam has shared her inner thoughts, experiences and feelings that come with being a postdoc. Here are her latest insights into the world of a research scientist that many are probably all too familiar with.

Philanthropy is huge in the United States. Everywhere you look, someone is raising money for something, whether it’s helping rehabilitate a family, whose earning member has been debilitated due to sickness or accident, or to provide foster children with books and toys and new clothes. Here, when you go to the supermarket to buy your weekly groceries, nine out of ten times you will be asked if you wish to donate just a few cents, either to fight breast cancer or ALS or Autism, you name it. In Universities and Research Institutes, there are active programmes aimed at recruiting students and postdocs to volunteer for philanthropic causes. In my Institute, practically every month we receive an email inviting us to participate in giving back to the community - serving lunch to the homeless, providing shelter to fellow employees, who got affected by the devastating wild fires that wipes out thousands of homes each year, blood donation campaigns, collection and distribution of food to the poor and destitute, volunteering at fundraising events for humanitarian causes, ranging from child abuse to mistreatment of animals to raising awareness and funding for multiple sclerosis, and many, many others.

Research is not a profession of instant gratification. It is all about having patience and hoping that what you are doing in the lab right now will make a speck of a difference in someone’s life fifty years down the line. Not to undermine the importance of this line of work but if there is one thing that we learn to give up on at the very beginning of our careers, it is that deep feeling of joy and accomplishment you get when you know you’ve changed someone’s life for the better, in however small a measure.

It’s a powerful feeling, too. I remember this one episode of ‘F.R.I.E.N.D.S’ where Phoebe has to defend the concept of a truly selfless act, while others argue there is no such thing. The entire merit of an act of benevolence revolves around the assumption that you are going to be feeling very good about yourself following such an act. The reason for my rant is that the feeling of accomplishment is a strong motivator. It will lift you out of the deepest of holes, it will inspire you like nothing else can, it will energise you like nothing else can. Not to sound too philosophical or even cynical but to fully comprehend and experience first-hand that there is a meaning to life, beyond slogging in the lab for hours on end when, most times, there is no real end in sight, is salubrious. When research throws a curve ball (a baseball reference I picked up form living here in the US), it is imperative to know that there is more to life than the lab.

As scientists, we have dedicated our lives to improving that of others. As noble as that may seem to the people around us, the job of a scientist is also a thankless job. Aside from the abysmal pay (that I have talked about in a previous piece), we seem to be taken for granted. Indeed, you never feel more useless than when you are stuck in a project for longer than you would like to believe and all your efforts, no matter how diligent, seem to be futile. Turning to philanthropy during those moments of helplessness can be immensely therapeutic because it can guarantee you instant results. You can see yourself making a real difference in the real world. Even if miniscule, it still is something; the ocean, after all, is made of nothing but the tiniest droplets of water.

How many of us started our careers thinking and knowing that research is a bit of a gamble; how many of us were realistic about what we could and could not accomplish in this profession? I wasn’t. I was confident I was going to find treatment for an awful disease, change the world for the better. I am not done yet, so that may still happen, but I am certainly a lot more pragmatic about things now. In any case, when things do get real, it is important to remind ourselves that there is no need to feel dispensable; the world can still be a better place because of us, irrespective of whether we are successful at research or not. I realise I sound too cynical, which is not my intention. Our work is very important. There will be no medicine, no healthcare without basic research, and I have not forgotten that. But I guess, I know now, better than before, that I could leave a mark and make a difference in someone’s life in a million other ways than what I set out to do careeristically nine years ago. That I don’t need to feel any less good about myself because research is not giving me the gratification I was hoping for.

A few years ago, I started sponsoring a child’s education and continued doing so for seven years. Whether I succeed in my scientific endeavours or not, I will always know that I helped give a child born into unfortunate circumstances, a real good shot at a decent life. A dear scientist friend of mine recently confided, “All I ever wanted to do was help people.” He liked doing experiments, so decided to become a life science researcher but as life would have it, things didn’t turn out the way he intended and now he is stuck in a job he doesn’t want to do, struggling to find financial security, and feeling like he achieved nothing in life, did no one any good. To him, and to thousands others like him, I say this - no matter how time-constrained you think you are, get out there and start making a difference that is tangible and inspire others to do the same. If you have ever done something for someone in need out of the kindness of your heart, not expecting anything in return, you have achieved more in life than many others. You have made someone happy.

Anjana Nityanandam

Last Changes: 11.22.2014

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