I get this question a lot, from friends and colleagues and students alike. What made you choose to do what you do? What makes you tick? Why am I training to be an evolutionary biologist? The answer, as you might imagine, is complicated, but let me attempt to look at the source.
As far as I go back through college years or junior college or school, one common thread remains. I have always been encouraged to do things other than those that are required of me. In college we took part in and organized ourselves inter-college plays, sports, quizzes and international research competitions alike. If I look at my day now, in post-graduate school, typically my duties range from reading scientific journals, preparing teaching materials, conducting experiments, maintaining our live fish facilities [a glorified way of saying ‘plumbing and electrical work’], showing people around the fish facilities, helping build new aquaria, using computer programming to manage large amounts of data, attending various seminars and talks all around campus. Very few of these things are in our biology syllabus. These things are definitely related to work, but I can see that not everyone regularly indulges in a wide array of activities. I have gone from being told to do outside things to making myself do them regularly.
The question is, where did this become a habit? I think the first instances of me doing something outside of the norm, outside a textbook was at Ujjwal. I remember being encouraged to take part in countless competitions all over the city. To be frank, at some point, I felt this is fun, but not that useful to me later in life. After all, what impact could a speech on ‘My Flag’ given in 8th standard have on me, almost a decade later? Turns out, a lot! I have to give presentations on my work and that of others almost weekly. None of the classes in school or college taught me how to be a good public speaker, but the memories of trying to give speeches to a packed crowd of parents were a good primer. Nobody explicitly taught me to read a range of books but being given the chance to talk to the teachers in school like peers about things like reading made me feel I was doing something cool and now I can boast of being able to hold me own in almost any conversation.
I guess what I am trying to say is that the peripheral life skills that weren’t evident in any textbook we had all seem to have germinated in my time at Ujjwal. That’s where my curiosity and drive to lot as many new things as possible stems from, a drive to keep finding out answers to unknown questions while at the same time enriching life with as many different new activities as possible. I wonder if that would have been possible had it not been encouraged and almost made into a habit in my seemingly short, but life changing three years at Ujjwal. For this gift that has made me what I am today and will be tomorrow, I am very grateful indeed. Also, that is my answer to myself to the question I began with, why do I do what I do today. Simply because I was introduced to a way of life that balances work and fun, learning and enjoyment in equal measure at the right age in school.