How Indicorps Taught Me How to be a Good Scientist

Alumni, Fellowship

January 14, 2013

Sonal Singhal was an Indicorps 2006 Fellow and is currently a member of Indicorps’ Board of Directors. Sonal is currently pursuing her PhD in Integrative Biology at UC Berkeley.

At first glance, the two most formative experiences of my life in no way inform each other. The first – a year spent in rural India reforming rural education with Indicorps, a program that supports the youth of the Indian diaspora as they engage in grassroots development – and the second – five years spent as a graduate student at UC-Berkeley studying evolutionary biology – are literally and figuratively worlds apart. Yet, as Indicorps discontinues its fellowship program and embarks on a new leg of its journey as an organization, I am moved to reflect how Indicorps influenced the way I live my life, which includes the scientist that I have become today. And, I am surprised to find that my current pre-occupations of managing my international fieldwork program, collecting large data sets, and analyzing my findings have been indelibly (and positively!) influenced by my year in India.

One of my favorite scientists – Bill Nye, star of a 1990s television show that popularized science – once remarked that ”Everyone you will ever meet knows something you dont.” Nothing has taught me this lesson of humility better than my year with Indicorps. I had big dreams when I arrived in India of how I would single-handedly fix India’s educational system. This delusion lasted just one day. I quickly realized I knew very little, and in order to make progress, I would have to listen to the collective wisdom of my community. I had to release my ideas of what was best in theory to appreciate what was best in reality. This same humility helps me now, because the scientific enterprise revolves around sharing one’s ideas and having others respond. I have found it challenging to be responsive and constructive when others critique my work, but remembering that everyone has something to teach me – as I so quickly learned when I arrived in India – has helped.

I distinctly remember the day I realized that I was at home in India. I was on an open-air truck, when a goat-herder boarded with his stock and I found myself sharing my seat with a goat-kid. I certainly did not expect this to happen, but I was not fazed. Through Indicorps, I had become used to the world surprising me and was more comfortable accepting the oddities thrown my direction. I brought a sliver of this attitude home, and I constantly find myself reaching towards flexibility when my research goes awry, as it certainly does. Leech on my eye? Hard-earned tissue samples stuck in a shipping warehouse in Nowhere, America? Hard drive crashes two nights before grant due? Sinking realization that one of my hypotheses cannot be tested? These bumps in the road are never welcome, but I have become slightly better at handling them with some grace and a bit of humor. Learning how to deal with overly friendly goats provided good training.

Perhaps the most important lesson Indicorps taught me was the lesson of community. Living in an isolated village, distant from the life I knew both in miles and in perspective, I spent the first months in India feeling lonely. But, as I learned that many of the differences I perceived were superficial and that my new neighbors could feel like my family too, I began to realize the tremendous potential of thoughtful, generous connections to others. Indeed, it was only through the strength of this network that I achieved any success in my project. Today, this lesson continues to resonate. Some have an archetypal view of scientists as solitary beings, spending late nights alone at their lab bench peering at beakers. But, in reality, science is best when researchers work together. I am thankful that I can rely on my fellow researchers for their thoughtful advice, challenging insights, and supportive friendship, and I thank Indicorps for helping teach me how to foster healthy and collaborative relationships.

When I decided to defer graduate school to join Indicorps, many people in my life were concerned; to them, a year spent in India seemed like a distraction from my academic and professional goals. And to be fair, a small part of me worried the same. With the benefit of hindsight, I can now see that my year in India prepared me in unexpected ways for a productive, fulfilling, and meaningful

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