Traveling to the joint Indo-US X-ray crystallography conference in Mumbai
I traveled to Mumbai, India, for the first time to attend the joint Indo-US X-ray crystallography conference. This is the fourth blog in a series about the trip.
In this installment: Problems with WiFi, Science in India, A “Magical” Professor, and Great Food (of course)
I awoke at 5 am after about six hours of sleep. It was very comfortable temperature-wise. I spent a couple of hours writing the letter for yesterday, then I went to the conference center to send it.
The WiFi room at the center was locked. No problem. I thought that I could stand outside the room and get connected. But, apparently, someone has to turn on the modem for the WiFi. Frack. I just don’t understand the WiFi here. The hotspot has a radius of about 20 feet it seems, and the students are logging people into the network using their personal account passwords and usernames. Since I couldn’t get onto the WiFi right away I went to get some coffee and talk to folks. I’m starting to enjoy the coffee.
The morning talks were great, then I had some more coffee. Since the talks were running late again, the final morning speaker was bumped to after lunch, like me. Lunch was very good again. Lots of rice with various saucy dishes and bread for dipping/picking.
Kakoli gave her talk in the afternoon session. She’s picked a protein in the apoptosis pathway – Htr2/Omi – and has started examining its activation. She’s been at ACTREC about three years, and overall I think she has a good start. It’s nice to see my influence on the experiments she’s performing now. But when you hear her talk about the project, she really knows the system. She always did have the drive it takes to succeed as a professor, and I have no doubt that she will succeed. She’s really taken control of this project, and she appears adept at maneuvering through the bureaucracy here. The position she’s in at ACTREC is a government position (I found out at dinner). So, there’s not tenure, per se, but they get promoted like the government employees do in the US – e.g. G6, G7, etc. – and I presume the pay scale increases accordingly.
The grant system is interesting here in that the folks that read the grants and decide on funding know the researchers and vice versa. A couple of the readers are at the meeting, and I’ve seen Kakoli talking to them. My feeling is that scientific research in India is in its infancy, and the government is putting money into hiring researchers around the country. Kakoli already has a new investigator grant and appears to be submitting grants on a regular basis. Also, the government pays for an international trip every 1-2 years and pays for her holiday travel. There appears to be great government support for science.
Anyway, the rest of the afternoon was about the same – great talks, tea/coffee. I had a hard time staying awake the last two hours. I don’t usually doze during seminars, but the lack of sleep is making it hard to stay awake during the late afternoon.
The last talk of the day was fascinating. There is a faculty in the chemistry department here at IIT who performs magic tricks, so he did a magic show and explained the science behind the magic. He started doing magic a couple of years ago and shortly thereafter started performing for younger kids in area schools. He said that he became worried that the younger generation of kids has become automatons – doing things without really thinking about it.
One story he told is that a graduate student came to him with results, and the professor asked him why he did the experiment. The response was “because you told me to yesterday” rather than explaining the value of the experiment and the information that could be obtained. In one of the tricks he performed he talked about nanotechnology and etching. He’s developed a card trick where he will manipulate the audience member to pick five of spades (or one other that I can’t remember). He then takes a small round glass (sort of the size of a magnifying glass but without the handle) and blows on the glass, like fogging a mirror. The five of spades shows up on the glass. He explains it as: light refracts objects of a certain size. The glass was etched with dots of 40-50 nm in size, which is below the size needed to refract light. Therefore the glass appears transparent. When he blows on the glass, the water droplets stick to the etching, which is hydrophilic, and coalesce into larger drops. The larger water drops are above the size needed to refract light, so the etching is no longer transparent. Pretty cool.
There were lots of card tricks, dice tricks and a few other things. In another trick he had a black bag with five identical hollow tubes. An audience member put a rolled-up bill in the tube and put the tube back in the bag and mixed it well. The professor then opened the bag and pulled out the correct tube. As it turns out, the tubes are coated with a phosphorescent compound, so when the tube is out of the bag the compound gets excited by the ambient light. When the tube is back in the bag it glows. He passed around the bag so everyone could see, then he explains why fluorescence doesn’t work (too short lifetime) and why phosphorescence does work for this trick. Anyway, this professor was a very good performer, so I can imagine that his chemistry classes are very popular.
Dinner was the same as usual. Fantastic! We got on buses and went to the Ramada hotel. The dinners are sponsored by various companies, and I swear each one is trying to outdo the other. The drive was interesting because we passed through a market region that looked like a slum. It reminded me of Mexico in that there were rows of low buildings that looked like storage sheds, but each module held a shop selling food, haircuts, drinks, etc.
Then we got to the hotel compound, and it was like stepping into another world. It reminded me a lot of Hawaii but without the beaches. Large open grassy area with nice pool and large buildings with rooms and conference centers (sorry I don’t have pictures). The tables were set up outside again with two long rows of food. I don’t know what the stuff is, but I think I’ve tried everything. Kakoli has told me what everything is, but the names don’t mean anything to me. And, since I like everything, it doesn’t matter whether it’s a chicken dish or a tofu dish or whatever. There was one item that the locals really like. A rice flour batter, slightly fermented, that is cooked like a crepe (while you wait). The chef puts a mixture of potatoes, onion, and curry on the crepe. It’s folded and dipped in a chutney sauce. Very good. The problem is like with the family reunions back home where you get a little of everything and then your plate is overflowing. Plus Kakoli says “try this” or “you will like this.” Along with the large plate of food, waiters are walking around with trays of food and beverage items.
There was also a separate room with drinks, so I had another red wine. This one was good, but I couldn’t tell what it was because I couldn’t read the label. The beers offered were standard Asian style lighter beers, like Tsing Tao, so I skipped the beer. I need to find out if there are any local beers to try. Anyway, we talked for a while with other Indian scientists while we ate.
One of the old timers (an original crystallographer in India) has become fascinated with why Asians have small bums whereas Europeans and Africans have larger more shapely bums. And, he hadn’t been drinking. I guess its just something that an old man thinks about. His curiosity stems from the fact that Asians sit on the floor a lot, so he thinks that they should evolve with more padding, and the opposite for Europeans, who sit on chairs. Overall, it was a fun evening. I don’t recall a conference where the “legends” in their fields have been so open and inviting. I think part of it is their genuine niceness, but they also realize that they need help establishing the scientific community here in India, and collaborations are important.
I also found out that when Kakoli said that she “rented a car,” she meant that she hired a driver with his car to shuttle her and her colleagues. It was interesting to see the difference in how things work here and ways in which people make a living. Apparently she contracted the car and driver from some guy who seems a bit shady. He wouldn’t give her a receipt (which she needs to get reimbursed), so she and another colleague threatened to call the police, which apparently worked. Then he called asking for more money, because he found out that she is a professor and he thought that she could afford to pay more. It seems that you have to be careful who you hire here. Folks in the US who are against government regulations should come visit here and see what happens when the government won’t (or can’t) regulate. It’s really interesting to see the contrast.
I returned to the guesthouse at 10:30 or so, and as I suspected, the wireless still is not working. Sigh. I tried to read for a while, but I lasted until about 11 before I fell asleep.
Next Installment: Jetlag hits like a ton of bricks!