Friday, April 17, 2015

Depression in Graduate School

If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, there seems to be a strong co-relation between depression and graduate school. Just in the last year or so, I have known of at least 4 grad students who have been clinically diagnosed with depression and have had to either quit grad school or take a break from their research to undergo treatment. I got to know of the most recent one earlier this week, and this is what has inspired me to put my thoughts into words.

A vast majority of grad students at some point or the other would be frustrated by the progress of their projects. Therefore, given that stress is major trigger for depression, it doesn't seem too out-worldly to hypothesize that a significant number or graduate students could be depressed. I tried searching for any studies on this. I found a couple of relatively recent news articles on nature and science that addressed this. The articles quoted from multiple studies that weren't always consistent in terms of relative percentages. But both these articles seemed to agree that there definitely was a sizable number of grad students who had depression or anxiety related problems. Another constant theme was that the resources available to the students to overcome these issues was limited at best. 

Even when resources exist I have noticed that it is not willingly taken advantage of. One of the reasons is that stigma associated with mental illness is still pretty real. A lot of grad students are from countries where this stigma is even more acute. The story of the person of whom I heard earlier this week exemplifies this best. She is an Indian girl, who after completing work on her thesis at a foreign university, had an extremely tough time job hunting. This stress led to a breakdown and she was admitted to a hospital for a few days. Her parents came over from India and took her back home. Instead of continuing treatment in India, they chose to hide the problem as they were afraid of the stigma associated with depression. This was not limited to the parents alone. If anything, the denial of the issue coming from her sister seemed to be stronger. While all this was happening, from a neutral observer's perspective her condition only seems to be getting worse. She started posting extremely random and incoherent things on her facebook wall. I hadn't spoken to her personally in over seven years. Even at that time I was, at best, an acquaintance. Yet a couple of days ago she sent me these extremely random messages via chat that didn't make much sense. When I say the messages didn't make sense, they were not random letters typed out on a keyboard. They seemed to be something that she was definitely trying to communicate but written by someone who was extremely confused or disturbed. I spoke to her her friends after I got these messages and they gave me all the background information. The most saddening part of this is that the family is more concerned about the difficulties in getting her married if the news of her condition spreads rather than helping her fix the problems affecting her. 

Another thing of note is that of the 4 people that I knew who were diagnosed with depression 3 were people from India. Yes a decent number of my friends are immigrant graduate students, and that does bias the data. Making conclusions based on a small sample size is by itself cringe worthy. When you add the poor quality of this dataset it is completely abhorrent.  But, I do believe the circumstances of being a foreigner do contribute to this problem. The access to a support system is limited. Your family and close friends are halfway around the earth. Not finding a job when you graduate would mean you have to forcefully go back to your home country. The opportunities available in your home country may not match up to your dreams and ambitions. All these can definitely be genuinely stressful. A systematic study to understand the effect of these stresses on immigrant grad students would really be useful. Besides these stresses, therapists probably find it difficult to understand the problems faced by immigrants. Maybe, it was just a case of a bad counselor, but one of my friends was essentially shooed away by a therapist saying that there was nothing wrong with her. She went through a couple of years of insomnia and anxiety before she was able to push herself to see a different counselor who helped her get back on track. 

I tried looking up resources provided to deal with depression and anxiety by the international centers at the two universities that I am associated with. I could not easily find anything significant on the website of the University of Illinois. At UCSD there was a link to the counselling services center where they seemed to underline the fact that provide culture specific services. 

People who are suffering with depression are also usually very reluctant to take help. The first response is almost always denial. At this stage it would really help if there were strong peer networks where they can candidly talk about their issues. A group of students at UC Berkley did set something like this up. The fact of the matter is you don't have to be suffering from crippling problem before you seek help. Either from peers or from professionals. For the last few years I have been posting very rarely on my blog. But if any of my friends at UCSD reads this and would like to help me set up a peer network here please let me know. If there are groups that already do this, please let me know as well. I would be talking in person to a few more friends and the Counselling center and hopefully get the ball rolling on this soon.

Monday, October 6, 2014

To be or not to be (with India)

Haider is the first Hindi movie that tells the story of life during the worst phase of militancy in Kashmir and the equally strong response of the Indian army. The fact that Vishal Bharadwaj adapts Hamlet to tell this story is a testament to his skill. Every aspect of Hamlet from his quest of revenge, his stress induced insanity, the sexual tension with his mother was present in the movie. But what I loved the most about this movie was that the point of view of Kashmiri separatists was not mellowed down. In fact, it was so in you face, that I am surprised the sanghis and their goons haven't gone about doing their usual drill of throwing black ink at Vishal Bharadwaj's face or demanding that the movie be banned.

I have always held a view that people should have the right to determine their destiny and nothing should be forced upon them. I have never articulated this in the Kashmiri context and this is a nice opportunity to do so.

Living in constant fear is one of the worst ways to live. And for those ten odd years the Kashmiris lived extremely horrible lives. On the one side the militants were going about terrorizing people and to compete with them the Indian state basically laid siege on the entire state. Random ID checks, restricted movement, nightly curfews, rounding up of entire villages were the norm. People the army had the least amount of suspicion on would 'disappear,' with their families having no clue of what happened to them. And these were not isolated cases. Obviously the militants were no saints, but if torture and more violence was the only response the Indian state had, there isn't much to differentiate the two.

All these are pretty much old stories. But given the passive whitewashing our media gives the situation we never hear the actual narrative. Most poeple in India in this day and age of the internet still tend to believe that most most of Kashmir as depicted in the stupidly erroneous maps that we see in our textbooks or newspapers to be Indian territory and only a small portion is in Pakistan or China's control. The fact though is about 1/3rd of that territory has not been in Indian control since our independence. A fact that is not going to change by drawing maps as we wish. We even forced google to represent it in this way and not to even use a different legend to show the disputed borders. And all this to pacify a hard-line constituency that thinks that shouting out your opposition and taking other people's freedom is super macho. So even beginning to criticize our army or  our government for forcing our army onto Kashmir is just asking for trouble.

The only people who should have a say in all this are the Kashmiris including obviously the pandits. The pandits were a group of people who actually looked to us for support and we could not defend them when the militants began terrorizing the state. And unfortunately most pandits today don't see Kashmir as a home. Its associated with too much negativity and hate. If this changes,it would probably be a prominent silver lining to this fucked up situation.

Both India and Pakistan have obviously reneged on the promises made to the people of Kashmir. Forget a plebiscite, Kashmir continues to remain a heavily militarized state. When I visited Kashmir in 2010 this stood out clearly, especially around Srinagar. There would be armed personnel(I cannot remember if they were army, paramilitary or the police) every 100 metres or so. Compare this to the rest of India where even finding a pandu with just a lathi is not the easiest thing. If you let the military decide they are always going to say that we need greater control else we will go back to terror.

Unless there are huge causalities a military does not walk out voluntarily. The Indian army may be disciplined but armed forces by default exist to put fear into people. They are not some cuddly teddy bear that protects. And however disciplined they are given the power they enjoy there will be excesses. Also once you have the taste for power who will give it up? I mean why is AFSPA(Armed forces special powers act) even a thing. Even if somebody makes some crazy argument for it in Kashmir how can it be justified in the north east. Decades after insurgency has died down there it continues to give the army a free get out of jail pass. Its like we want to alienate people there. Every now and then a home minister will say we need to remove AFSPA from there only for the army and the defense ministry to say nothing doing.

The argument that Kashmir is a special case also does not hold. Punjab saw intense militancy during the Khalistan movement. K.P.S Gill did everything the army did in Kashmir and probably more to root the militants out. But once the extremists were rooted out thing went back to being normal. People in punjab don't live in the shadow of the gun. Why should people in Kashmir and the north-east have to.  Also we share a super long border with Pakistan. Why is it that only Kashmir is so heavily militarized?

Keeping the militarization aside for a moment a lot of people in India love to make the argument that Indian tax payers have funded a lot of development activity in Kashmir. How we have constructed roads and dams and bridges and the railways. I don't know if they pause to think once in a while. But these are classic arguments provided by colonial powers. The British provided almost the exact same arguments when they colonized us. Heaven, without the freedom of choice, is not heaven after all. A lot of people died to help us achieve freedom. For us to then turn around and use this freedom to colonize another set of people is extraordinarily fucked up.

Given the economic growth India as a whole has seen and the goodwill generated by the inflow of most tourists from India, all you know, Kashmiris, at least in the parts that have been controlled by the Indian state, will choose to throw in their lot with us. If people in India really think Kashmir is that important then we should convince them that aligning with us is the sensible thing to do. Subjugating the people by force is not how this should be achieved. This will only produce the opposite of your aims. Eventually, I submit, it is for the people themselves to determine their future.

Saturday, May 17, 2014

Sell dreams to win elections

When a movie is made about the current Indian elections, something that can serve as a great reference point would be a Chilean movie called No. This was nominated for the Best foreign film Oscars last year. The major theme of the movie was that you cannot fight a message of hope and happiness especially if you are running a reactive campaign. The movie, which was inspired by true events, was set in the context of the Chilean referendum in the late 80's to determine fate of the then dictator Augusto Pinochet. The campaign trying to defeat him was initially focused solely on the wrongdoings of Pinochet and the atrocities he committed in trying to win the battle. A lot of their efforts were being censored by the government and they were finding it difficult to get their message across. At this point they brought along a media expert to run their campaign who completely changed the face of the campaign. The focus of the campaign was instead changed to selling hope. This was their central campaign advertisement. It is nothing more than a catchy tune with happy people all of whom are saying if no is chosen, happiness won't be far behind. With this and the rest of their campaign they steered the imagination of their country to start associating a happy future with the No campaign. The No campaign eventually won the plebiscite.

While he didn't face the same obstacles of censorship and authoritarianism, Narendra Modi and the BJP in this electoral campaign did succeed in capturing the imagination of India's youth like never before. They succeeded in associating a message of hope with Modi. (Modi's campaign slogan Achche din aane wale hain even roughly translates to the song in the Chilean advertizement I linked which means Happiness is coming, Chile).  Doing so was an extraordinary feat for his marketing team. The man has been strongly associated with hate and anger since 2002. People who support Modi can claim that he has been exonerated by the SIT, but a stigma has remained. Removing that stigma and then refocusing his brand towards a positive image required some doing. And in the last 10 years or so they have been slowly chipping away at this. There are a couple of excellent truth v/s hype episodes on this subject. They systematically ignored even mention of the riots and slowly starting with the vibrant gujrat campaign they started selling Gujrat and Modi as destinations of development and progress. These campaigns were a mixed bag in attracting investors but definitely created an image of a state that is investor friendly.

After having created this image they decided to sell it to rest of the country. A great dish is never perfect without the last bit of tadka. And here is where the organizational efficiency of the BJP/RSS and the oratorical capabilities of Modi came into the picture. They kept repeating that they will bring progress at the top of their voices while using their organization to spread a message of cynicism and gloom against the current dispensation. It is not particularly difficult to do so, when the leader of the government, the prime minister, does not wish to speak and when the leader of the political party speaks, one wishes he would stop.

It is futile to fight a message of hope in a reactive campaign. If you start reacting with positive campaigns of your own you would be seen as a me too party. If you start defending yourself with your achievements you would lose anyway since you are now on the defensive. You will forever be answering questions and never relay your message. People may not even remember your answer as the questioner has already moved on to the next set of questions. If you try discrediting this message of hope with a message of gloom your loss will be complete. Now not only are you reacting and defensive but also associating your campaign with a negative message. I may not have studied marketing, but I can assure you nobody likes that. People will say let us at least give the other guy who is selling us dreams of heaven a chance. Especially when you have nothing to offer except scaring us about the dream merchant.The Congress and its marketing strategists decided that the third option was the best.

They could have started the campaigning with energy and seized the initiative with a positive message. They could have focused on their positives from the start and asked for an opportunity to improve upon this. They decided its not worth it. If a small state like Gujrat with a growth rate of 10% can sell itself so well, the whole country growing at 7.8% during the same time can definitely be sold. Both function on the same plank of free market capitalism anyway. How much ever the opposition might discredit them, there have been a record number of people who were propelled out of poverty in the last 10 years. Almost the entire country has been connected by roads. They could have talked about the fact that the entire nation has been electrified under their watch. They could have spoken about the fact that there are a billion mobile phone connections in the country. Yes, the BJP could have countered each of those by saying that the last three years the growth rate has been shrinking and the government is rudderless. They could have said the roads are in poor condition, and that while there might be a billion phone connections a billion gazillion rupees were stolen by corrupt officials in the process. But facts are irrelevant in a marketing campaign. In this scenario you are the message of hope and the BJP the message of cynicism and negativity. Especially given that the tadka of maligning the extreme right wing of the BJP and using that to gain a portion of the votes has already been applied.

The Congress did start on a disadvantageous footing, and this was completely of their own doing. After years of prostrating to a family instead of ideology, they reached an endgame where they were being led by the worst that family could offer. Given everything, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi were fairly efficient administrators with some amount of charisma. Their governance schemes mostly matched the Congress' original ideology as well. Rahul on the other has the charisma of a polar bear in the Chennai heat. He probably has the same amount of brain power too. Given the scale of this defeat hopefully they quickly shunt him out and start rebuilding ground up with a new set of leaders. Either that or a new force will quickly need to be developed to occupy the left of center space quickly. Given that a more leftist worldview would not be palatable with most of my fellow countrymen, the days of a polity with a more centrist worldview would be the days I would be personally hoping for. Here is hoping that the days till then are also achche din! 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Pirate - And Proud of it

This post is a rant. One that may get into trouble, given what they did to Aaron Swartz. But something I feel strongly about and would like to be recorded nonetheless.

This is about one of the biggest scams in the scientific world. One, which scientists are absolutely happy participating. And most are in fact proud of it. I am talking about the whole scientific publishing industry. To those who are unaware, most of this is industry is run by scientists who volunteer their time to edit and review scientific work, so that companies which eventually publish these works can make money. The initial purpose of charging money for viewing scientific literature was to cover the cost of actual publication. But with the advent of the internet it basically has become nothing more than an excuse to make money.

I may be a bleeding leftist who might believe that we could form a perfect socialist utopia but even I understand that in a pragmatic world making money is a great thing. But the way these scientific publishers try to cheat their customers gets to my nerve. And the fact that the people who are the avant grade of science are happy to let the publishers do this to the rest of their community is even more saddening. I say rest of their community because the avant grade sits cozily in their universities where they are able to get unlimited access to scientific literature thanks mostly to the public who funds their universities or research institutions.

Compare the scientific publishers to traditional publishers of news. These publishers have considerably higher costs as all the content they publish is either produced by them or purchased by them from news agencies. No one volunteers their time to edit the content in these publications. Yet, with the advent of the internet, these companies did not carry forward their models of subscription based access. A few do have pay-walls but even those publications allow a certain number of free articles before asking you to pay up. And when they ask you to pay, a publication like the New York Times will charge you $10 a month. Scientific publishers charge $40 for access to one article. A pdf file that occupies practically no space on their servers.  One might argue that the advertisement revenue for traditional publishers is quite substantial. But the cost of scientific publishing in comparison is so small, that the need for charging such ridiculous amounts completely defies logic.  I wouldn't be quite as angered if these publishers were not so greedy.

The mushrooming of several open access journals is a good thing. But, the struggles some of these journal have to undergo to attain legitimacy is also quite interesting to observe. I have heard even graduate students dismissing the work published in some mid-quality open access journals as nothing more than poor quality work that one pays to get published by an unknown publisher while not making any openly negative comments about traditional journals of the same quality.

I feel it reflects quite poorly on us a scientific community that free access to knowledge is considered to be worse than writing your work off to a third party so that he can make money just so that your ego is boosted momentarily.

Till this status quo exists I will happily download and provide copies of articles that my friends request.

P.S: I don't condone piracy in other industries. For example if I don't want to buy music, I listen to it on youtube. I avoid downloading them at least since I have started earning my own money.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012


A new batch of graduate students is preparing to leave the Indian shores. Only to be condemned to bad and unhealthy food. Paratha, pickles and Pizza. Now, if you have seen me, you may be wondering, given my big boned looks, who gave me the right to comment about unhealthy food. But given those same characteristics, I submit that I have the right to speak about bad tasting food.

It upsets me that people who have grown up eating their mothers' amazing food are actually ok with eating processed food stored in their freezer. And it makes me really angry when the reason offered is that grad school takes up too much of their time.

Now that I have insulted you enough, I will offer a solution.

Before you leave India, all you need to get  with you is a pressure cooker. Everything else is available here. However if you are willing to go half a mile extra, then get sambhar powder, rasam powder and garam masala.

Once you reach your destination buy a blender and a rice cooker.

And you are all set to make good meals in 30 minutes.

So typically a good meal is considered as something that has carbs + proteins + vegetables. The carbs are easy. As soon as you are ready to cook dinner put 1 cup of rice in the rice cooker and set it to cook.

Then come the protein and vegetable part. The easiest way to tackle this is to make kootu. I usually do this 2 - 3 times a week. The vegetables easily avalable in the U.S with which you can make kootu are - beans, broccoli, chayote squash, zuchini and cucmbers. The way to make the kootu is:

In a pot pour water and 1.5 cups of moong dal and let it boil. As it boils start cutting your vegetable of choice. Beans need to be cut into small pieces (2.5 mm length). The other vegetables into cubes. 10 minutes after the dal has started boiling, throw the vegetables in as well and let the vegetables boil. On the side you can make rasam if you would like additional flavour. Once the vegetables have boiled (which typically takes 10 more minutes, and is indicated by the vegetables changing colour and softening) you need to add the spice. You can make this spice mix in bulk or make it each time. If you are making it each time fry 5 pepper kernel, 2 spoons of urad dal and 2 dried red chilles. Blend them in a blender. If you want bulk to make it easy to blend pour 1 ladle of kootu into the blender as well. And pour the spice mix into the kootu. Add 1 -2 spoons of salt. Simmer for 5 minutes and you can eat.

( For making the spice mix in bulk dry roast pepper, urad dal and red chilles separately. These would be approximately in the ratio 1/4th cup pepper:1 cup dal: 1/2 cup red chilly)

Another easy way to get your daily protein and veggie fix is to make chole, rajma or kali dal. You will get all of these pre - boiled and canned. If you baulk at canned things, well you wouldn't have reached this far in this blog anyway. The fastest way to make these is:

Blend 1 medium sized onion in the blender. Heat 1 spoon oil in a kadai. Add jeera and ginger garlic paste. Add the pureed onions. And let it fry till the onion changes colour. WHile the onion is frying, blend 1.5 tomatoes. Add them once the onion has changed colour. You can add some water too at this step. Add 1 spoon dhaniya-jeera powder, 1 spoon garam masala and 1 spoon salt. Let it boil for 5 minutes. Open the can of your choice, and wash the beans as they may have chemical preservatives. After washing a couple of times, add the beans to the gravy boiling in the stove. Boil for another 5 minutes and voila your chole/ rajma is ready. The gravy is practically the same for any north indian gravy based veggie you are going to make. Only minor details vary. So you can use the same idea to make aloo matar, matar paneer, aloo gobi and so on.

Also if you are a fan of rotis I would recommend you buy uncooked rotis available in refridgerated section of the Indian store. These will make phulkas and taste better than the frozen rotis which are generally very maida intensive.

Maane, thene ponmane setukklam in both these. Which means in kootu optionally you can put a tadka of mustard seed, urad dal and curry leaves. You can garnish the chole with corriander(cilantro) leaves.

If you want to be more fancy then you can make sambhar and a stir fry curry.

For making sambhar, First boil 1 cup of tur dal in the pressure cooker. Make a lime sized ball of tamarind and soak it in hot water. Chop the vegetable of choice. Easily availbale vegeables are capsicum, onions, beans and carrot, and eggplant.  Take 1 sppon oil in a kadai. Fry mustard seeds.When these pop add urad dal and methi seeds. When the dal begins to brown add the vegetables and 1 spoon of turmeric. Extract the tamarind into the water and pour that into the kadai. Let it boil for 10 - 15 minutes. When the vegetables have started to change colour, add 2 spoons of sambhar powder and 1 spoons of salt. let this boil for another 5 - 10 minutes. By this time the pressure cooker would have cooled. Remove the dal and add it to the sambhar. Add some water if necessar. Let it simmer for another 5 minutes. Garnish and eat.

While the sambhar is boiling you can stir fry some veggie. You can do beans, cabbage, vendakkai (ladies finger, okhra) and vazhaakai (raw plantain). For beans and cabbage chop the veggies. Take about half a cup of oil. Fry 1 spoon mustard seeds. After they pop add 2 spoons urad dal and 2 -3 dried red chilly. Add the chopped veggies. Let them fry on med till they are cooked (typically 10 - 15 minutes). Add salt about half way through. Add shredded coconut/ desicated coconut powder at the end and turn of the flame. (If you have an electric stove remove from the stove. The stove takes time to cool and turning off stove is not equal to stopping heat).

For the vazhakkai and vendakkai, the procedure is similiar except that you do not need to add red chilly or coconut. For vazhakkai, you can add karamidhu powder if you have it.

And I will end this blog with the easiest thing to make. Rasam. Puree two tomatoes. Boil them in a pot with a small (1 cm) piece of tamarind and some asfoetida. When the tomato boils (3 - 4 minutes) add 1.5 spoons of rasam powder and 1.5 spoons of salt. Boil for another 3 - 4 minutes. Add boiled tur (if you have it on that day) and water and simmer for another 2 minutes and rasam is ready.

For those who eat meat, you can additionally derive you proteins from the whole gamut of italian, mexican ans chinese cooking styles. Vegetarians can also broaden their culinary skills by learning to make these, but that is not the aim of this post.

If I have the mood I will put another post in the coming weeks for slightly more fancy, but equally easy ways to make things like avial, rava dosai, badaam kheer and other deserts, other types of rasam and sambhar etc.

Hope just reading this blog inspires you to go beyond parathas and pizza!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012


The visual medium has the power to affect us in ways unimaginable. Movies can make you happy, sad, elated, queasy, disgusted and sometimes all of these at the same time. I still cannot forget how I felt watching Mufasa die, while watching my first movie, The Lion King. It was extremely powerful and definitely at least in a small way, a fire, signifying my love for cinema, was lit. To that fire, a lot of fuel was added today.

There are three types of good cinema. First, are those made with the aim of entertainment. Most of good Hollywood and Indian cinema comes under this category. Many of the movies I love fall into this category. I can probably watch Andaaz Apna Apna 'n' number of times and still love it. It ligthens my heart everytime I watch it. However these movies don't make your emotions go crazy. Then there are movies which tell a great story. Again, for most of these movies, I would have loved reading it in book form, then watching them. Case in the point being The Blue Umbrella. While the movie was brilliant, the book was just a notch higher as the aim of the movie was to faithfully depict the story in a visual form.

And then there are the powerful movies. Movies that churn your insides. The movie I saw today "A Separation" was a film that falls exactly into that category. Not because they have a great story, but the way the visuals are created takes it to the realm of brilliance. The underlying tension through the length of the movie cannot be described in words. If the director of the movie was at the screening I would have begged and pleaded to take me as an assistant and given up on my studies if he had said yes. The way the screenplay was written was just fantastic. Among the Indian movies, Siggappu Rojakkal is an example where the screenplay made you go Wow! 

But above the screenplay there were several small things that the director did that a lot of people would have noticed. The places where the scenes were cut. The use of the car rear-view mirrors for a different perspective. Brilliance! 

I watch a lot of movies and like a lot of what I watch, but rarely am I shaken. Today was one of those days. More power to cinema. May it continue to amaze us forever, and after that!



Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Action Potential

For Rhanor GIllette's course's final exam we had a bonus question where we could write a poem on any topic from the subject. I wrote this poem.

The membrane thought it would form a selective wall
Not let Sodium in at all
But along came acetylcholine
Sat on its receptor named after nicotine
And forced the beginning of a positive free-for-all.

And so was set the podium
For the opening of of the voltage gated channels for Sodium
But the neuron thought it would be unfair
For Sodium to have all the fun's share
And so opened the channels for potassium.

The results of this normalization
Was that the cell saw hyperpolarization
But the membrane thought it would be prudential
To return to its resting potential
Ans so soon it reached its native configuration.