NYC Reality: The warrior of light – from dream to reality

My “Young Scientist Award” talk at MSKCC

I fell in love with NYC back in 2013 when I received the “Young Scientist Award” from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC). I was staying with my cousin at Rockville Centre, Long Island, but was commuting to the city everyday by LIRR. The music and art performances of MUNY built the first connection to my heart. Living in Dallas, TX, where good quality art and music were rare to find in everyday life, I immediately felt at home in NYC. The second connection was the public transport. I never liked the culture of “my car is my second home” and always wanted to be able to walk everywhere anytime of the day or night. The final connection was the biomedical research. There are 7 fantastic research institutes in the city itself who can collaborate with each other to carry out cutting-edge research. Since then I knew this is where I belong.

Only a fraction of awards received by my former mentor
Dr. John Minna, MD, at UT Southwestern, Dallas

But, the impediment to moving to NYC was two-fold. First, I needed to find a job where I could be
happy. Second, having worked with Dr. John Minna, one of the top 5 lung cancer researchers in the world, it was very difficult to find another equally good lung cancer research lab. For past 5 years I interviewed for 8 different positions in 4 places. But, to my surprise, I found even very famous scientists may have really bad lab culture and no appreciation for art. Then there always was the visa issue with international applicants like me.

Of course, there were moments, specially in 2016, when I felt like my NYC dream would never come true. But, overall, I kept pushing. And used my natural, magical power – keep building relationship with people in NYC during my short visits to the city and with people in Dallas who understood my interest.
I hoped one day an opportunity will come. And it did.
The PNAS feature article on my work

In 2017, Dr. Roger Malina, one of my unofficial mentors, directed a scientific writer to me. The writer, Dr. Esther Landhuis, a Harvard trained immunologist was looking for a story for PNAS where art and science of cancer could show promising results helping the mankind. My Cancer ARTSCI Network was the perfect fit. While writing this story, Esther asked around other trailblazers working in art and science hybrid projects about my work. One of them was Dr. Tal Danino, who without ever knowing me, said couple of nice words about my work.

Next, 3 important changes happened around me.
First, Tal found out from Esther that I’m the section editor of Leonardo Journal published from MIT press and contacted me with the interest of publishing couple of articles. Fortunately, I was in NYC during that time and I stopped by his lab. I found the research exciting and very importantly, the science- art hybrid projects interesting.
My favorite scene from the film “Call me by your name

Second, by sheer dumb luck, I watched an European art-house film named, Call me by your name, that broke my obsession for NYC and replaced it with pure love. As a result, when I met Tal and expressed an interest in interviewing for a position with him, I was not expressing an urge to move to NYC and was relaxed. Being a Californian, Tal probably liked my relaxed and creative personality.
My mentor, Dr. Tal Danino, PhD, talking about
art and science of microorganisms and
cancer in a TEDx talk

Third, a research personnel in Tal’s lab left and went back to China opening up a space for me in Tal’s lab in Columbia University. The moment Tal made me an offer, I told Dr. Minna about it. Of course, knowing me for past 10 years, Dr. Minna was aware of my friends, family and my heart’s connection to NYC. So, he immediately came on board with my plan so that I could finish up the work in his lab back in UT Southwestern, Dallas, before I move to NYC.

Some of my close Dallas friends
without whom I’ll be so lost

My Dallas friends, Jessica, Ranjula, James, Silvia, Emmanuel, Robin and my Cincinnati friends, Cristina and Caterina, my cousin Arindam and my aunties Beth and Cynthia in NYC were excellent support systems for me during this very long and dark journey of turning my dream into reality. I will end this post with a quotation from Paolo Coelho, that Jessica introduced me to:

“The warrior of light is a believer.
Because he believes in miracles, miracles begin to happen. Because he is sure that his thoughts can change his life, his life begins to change. Because he is certain that he will find love, love appears.”

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