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Advice for Future India Fulbrighters

Sep 15, 2009 in Uncategorized

Thanks for visiting my web page. Archives of my experiences during my Fulbright Fellowship in India are available here, with the more recent posts directly below this paragraph and the earlier posts arranged by month to the right. You can also check out the tabs on the top of this page to learn more details about what brought me to the Aravind Eye Hospital. Click on the link below for details about going to India on a Fulbright grant from the Institute for International Education. In the second link below you can access to a video interview about my advice for future applicants. Good luck!

http://us.fulbrightonline.org/program_country.html?id=50

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m30Of7UJL-E

If you want to know more about what being a Fulbrighter is, check out this page by the J. William Fulbright Scholarship board. What it means to be a Fulbrighter

Farwell India

May 02, 2009 in Uncategorized

Farewell Party

The eight months I spent in India was probably the most enriching time of my life. I completed my corneal epithelial stem cell research project, helped out at eye camps, observed stem cell transplants, volunteered at an orphanage, traveled all over the country, and attended Fulbright and Asia ARVO conferences in Kolkatta and Hyderabad (respectively).  Above all, I got to see the real India. I have the Indian people I interacted with, and especially the Aravind family who were so welcoming, to thank for making my Fulbright fellowship as rewarding as it was. They helped me understand the value of service, demonstrated best by the words of the founder of Aravind Eye Hospital:

“Intelligence and capability are not enough, there must be the joy of doing something beautiful.” – Dr. G. Venkataswamy

I left my friends in Madurai in late April to return to the U.S. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much time to say farewell because of an urgent and unexpected medical problem in my family that prompted an early flight home. The wonderful people at USIEF helped me out again though, and I got approval from Fulbright to travel back home on April 25th, with only two days notice!

You can probably imagine that the past two weeks were exceptionally busy as I passed on my research and packed up my things for my return trip to the U.S. In all, I spent over 30 hours traveling back and am safe at home now. I was amazed at how, even with little time to prepare, the lab threw a great farewell party for me (pictures below).

One thing that people say about the Fulbright program is, “Once a Fulbrighter, always a Fulbrighter.” I left India with consolation that I will never really leave the program that was so good to me in India or lose contact with the wonderful people at the Aravind Eye Hospital!

Meenakshi Temple – Kumbabishekam

Apr 19, 2009 in Uncategorized

See the priests?I have been spending most of my time in the lab recently, but one time I did manage to make it out was on April 8th, for the Kumbabishekam, or consecration ceremony, at the Meenakshi Temple. Read a short news article about the ceremony. Basically, a bunch of Brahman priests stand on top of the gopurams (towers) on each part of the temple, and pour holy water on it at the same auspicious time. I didn’t manage to get tickets to be inside, as I think they are reserved for Hindu believers, but I could see from the outside. There were thousands of people who lined up to see the event and attend the temple afterwards. I read one report that there were over two lakh people there (200,000).  The event only happens once every 12 years, and it is a beautiful time to see the temple as it has just been cleanly painted. It was an especially great sight after being here for eight months, with it covered this entire time! The other good news is that an Indian Fulbrighter who works at Aravind has offered to give me and some friends a tour of the Meenakshi Temple before I leave in May. I can’t believe my time is coming to an end!

I’m happy to report some progress on the research front, although it seems like there has been one problem after another. Now I’m obtaining the corneoscleral rings I need, but there have been other technical issues in establishing In Situ Hybridization in the lab. The latest obstacle was to find adhesive microscope slides so that the cells I’m working with would stop falling off before I could take a look at them! Fortunately, Gowri came up with some special slides that an American had brought some time ago and that no one had needed to use so far. So I’m happy to say that the stem cells I am studying are nicely adhering their slides, and hopefully I’ll have some pictures from the confocal microscope soon. Now that most of the kinks have been worked out in our research technique, I need to teach it to someone else in the lab so that she can use it in her PhD research.

Spending time in Madurai – In Situ Hybridization

Apr 05, 2009 in Uncategorized

Pandian RestaurantThe last two weeks have been a little unusual as I’ve spent them entirely in Madurai! The main reason is that I am trying to get some good results with my lab work, which has proved to be more difficult than I thought it would be. The main challenge is getting enough donor eyes for my research. In a way it is good for the hospital, because so many of the globes are being used for transplant, but that makes it hard for my research to progress. 

Next week is also a big one in Madurai because there is a festival called the kumbabishekam coming up. It only happens once in twelve years, and apparently nearly a million people fill the Meenakshi Temple for this one! The temple has been covered for several months due to the renovation that was going on there, but will now be uncovered for this festival. Hopefully I’ll get pass from friends in the hospital and be able to go that day too, at least for some great pictures.

Other than that, I’ll be working in the lab trying to get my experiments working!

Fulbright Conference – Kolkata, Varanasi, and Kathmandu

Mar 15, 2009 in Uncategorized

Ghats of VaranasiTwo weeks ago I left Madurai for Kolkata (used to be Calcutta) for a Fulbright conference focused on expanding cultural exchange programs and academics in South Asia. It was a great opportunity to share the work I have been doing at Aravind with a ten minute presentation. Half of the time I talked about the stem cell research, and the other half I showed a clip from the video documentary that brought me to Aravind, “Infinite Vision. The other presentation that I gave was as part of a panel discussion about the essence of the Fulbright program, mutual understanding. In that panel I had a chance to show pictures of the outreach and community involvement that I have done in my time at Madurai. It is amazing how much has happened in such a short time!

The conference was fascinating, with people from vastly different fields discussing their topics. In one case there was a Fulbrighter who gave their presentation on the study of ancient Zoroastrianism manuscripts which was followed by one of my friends who presented on the marketing of deodorant spray to the increasingly independent population of Indian women. I can say there have been few experiences that have matched the enlightening time I had at that conference.

I was also proud to be chosen as one of three conference attendees to discuss my work with members of the Kolkata press. I’m not sure if any of what I talked about ended up in the newspapers, but I will post any articles that I find on this blog.

After the conference we had a day of sightseeing around Kolkata, which included the beautiful Victoria Monument, Indian Museum, Mother Teresa’s Charity, Tagore’s House (winner of 1914 Nobel Prize in Literature), and the planetarium. Kolkata is unique in that they have a lack of auto rickshaws, being largely outnumbered by taxis, unlike Madurai. Also, they have some proper rickshaws, where the drivers pulls you in a cart. I had to try it once!

The next stop after Kolkata was Varanasi (also known at Benares), which is considered by Hindus as the most holy city on earth, as well as the first city. It is the most famous place to dip into the Ganges River to have all of your sins washed away. It was quite a sight as we went in the early morning and saw the sunrise over the Ganges. Other than the Ghats, or steps leading to the waterfront, there was not much else to see there, but at least I was with other Fulbright friends who came along.

After traveling more than two days straight by bus, I reached Kathmandu. There are currently political tensions which made travel fairly difficult, especially when the bus we were on had to bribe students to allow us past more than a dozen road blockades they had formed. It was an experience, but the ultimate goal of seeing Mt. Everest was finally accomplished with a one hour mountain flight. It was a beautiful view, and at last I can say that I have seen the top of the world!

Indian Wedding in Madurai and trip to Bangalore

Feb 25, 2009 in Uncategorized

With bride and groomThis week I have been at work with preparing for the Kolkata (Calcutta) Fulbright conference which is coming up next week. It turns out I will give two presentations, one on a panel discussing “Promotion of Mutual Understanding,” a topic which I think I can add some value, comedic or otherwise! Haha. The other presentation will be individual covering my work at Aravind, with the title “A Vision from Madurai.” I’m looking forward to the conference, but it will be hard to get away from work just when things are beginning to get going again… after waiting more than a week for a reagent I needed for my next experiment!

Last weekend I went to Bangalore and Mysore. It was great to spend some time in cities that have some western flavour, by that I mean that at least I could get a decent slice of pizza. I guess that doesn’t exactly fit with my total immersion in Madurai, but I seriously can not get western food here! I also made it to my second Indian wedding last week when my senior’s (Gowri) sister got married. See below for pictures.

After the conference I will travel with some other Fulbrighters to Varanasi, the most holy city in India, which is located on the Ganges river. I plan to go on to Kathmandu and take a flight to see Mt. Everest. It should be an awesome couple of weeks.

Indian Pilgrimage – Thekkady, Munnar, Mahabalipuram

Feb 15, 2009 in Uncategorized

Meenakshi Temple, MaduraiIn the past couple of weeks I have split my time between medical research experiments in the lab and visiting various areas of Tamil Nadu and Kerala with a friend. Dave Pilgrim was one of my flat mates when I studied at Lancaster University in the UK. He expressed interest in coming out to visit when I stopped by his place about six months ago on my way to India.

As far as research goes, I have completed a few immunofluorescence experiments on my own now, and its good that I can do this without help as two of the four people in our stem cell group are leaving to get married in the next two weeks!!! I have also made p63 riboprobes, an important step as I’ll need these for my final In Situ Hybridization experiments.

Dave and I traveled to Thekkady, Munnar, and Mahabalipuram during his visit. The first two are in Kerala, west of Madurai. Thekkady is actually in a large tiger resereve, where there are reportedly about 46 tigers roaming around but unfortunately we didn’t see one, not unusually though, as one of our autodrivers said that although he had lived there for over 20 years he had only seen one tiger. Haha. Anyway, it was nice to go on a little lake safari and see some of the wildlife in the jungle area of kerala. We also checked out a Kalari show, which was some martial arts special to the Kerala area.

Munnar was much higher in the mountains, and we took what must have been one of the the most windy mountain roads on the planet to get there! It was certainly worth it though, as the views were amazing and there were tea plantations as far as one could see, it never seemed to end as around every hill was another large field filled with green tea leaves.

Finally, we visited Mahabalipuram. It was amazing to see these rock temples, which were carved out of single rocks between the 6th and 9th centuries. We had a great time discovering all the sites in the area and climbing on the giant rocks!

Asia ARVO – Hyderabad

Jan 22, 2009 in Uncategorized

With Seniors from Aravind at ARVOThe last two weeks have been busy with work and with travel. A group of ten of us from lab traveled together via two overnight trains to Hyderabad, stopping along the way in Chennai to visit relatives of my friend Ashwini and tour a Crocodile Park. There we tried our hands at snake and mini crock handling, as well as seeing how the professionals collect snake venom from cobras and vipers (used to make anti-venom by first injecting small amounts of the venom into an animal and collecting the antibodies they produce).

The trip to Hyderabad was for the Asia ARVO (association for research in vision and ophthalmology) convention. Along with students, several faculty attended the conference and gave presentations. In fact, Jayalakshmi, one of our lab mates, won a trophy for best presentation. The first evenings our group had dinner at the convention center preceded by Bharatanatyam (traditional south Indian dance). Another evening we had dinner at a Chowmahalla Palace, the former residence of the Nizam family, who are fifth on the Forbes list of all time wealthiest and were certainly the most weatly in the world when construction began in the 18th century. They were the Muslim rulers of a famous diamond empire.

The city of Hyderabad is very modern compared to Madurai, in fact the conference was in an area called Cyberabad. Unknowingly many people in the United States may have spoken to calling support centers for which Hyderabad is now also famous. The architecture is also impressive, not only for the new, but also for the old, like the Golconda fort. One morning I went with a friend to see the impressive fort and the nearby tombs that look somewhat like the Taj Mahal, only smaller and not made of marble.

In the end our trip to Hyderabad was a success, leaving us inspired and ready to get back to lab work! 

Fulbrighters come to Madurai, friends and I visit Dayspring Home

Jan 09, 2009 in Uncategorized

Ashwini and new friendsLast week five of us from the research lab at Aravind went to the Dayspring Home in Virudhunagar to donate some educational supplies and spend time with the children there. We also danced, played sports, and judged a coloring book competition. This time the children were well, and our orphan suffering from Impetigo on the last visit had fully recovered. It was nice to see Mercy again and help the orphans what little we could by supplying them with materials other students at their school have, but they couldn’t afford. They also got prizes for the coloring competition, they were toys and other items that my aunt Nola sent from the US.

The other major event this week was that three of my fellow Fulbrighters were in the neighborhood for a visit! They stayed for three nights, and I had a chance to show them all of the local sights, at least one of which I had yet to visit myself! It was a great visit, that also included Cailin’s birthday, and some quality Bollywood movie-watching time. It was a shame that I couldn’t travel with them to Kerala, but I will see them all again in Kolkata in March. It was an awesome time!

Birthday and New Year in Tamil Nadu

Jan 02, 2009 in Uncategorized

Gift from Dr. VRMIt was nice to spend my 29th birthday in Tamil Nadu! We had a small party in the lab, where I got ice cream cake (my favorite), and a gift from Dr. VRM. For New Year’s eve we went to a local movie theater to see a Tamil film (Kollywood). It was interesting, the plot was about a Tamil family who’s daughter fell in love with a man from Northern India, who spoke Hindi… the great thing is that the two families had to communicate in English, so I could actually understand some of it!

The other great news is that my work has progressed with almost no complications! I am happy about how the work is going, but obviously a little weary of sharing too much information as now that it looks like I might end up with something worth publishing, I don’t want to get “scooped”!

Next week three Fulbrighters will come to visit, and the week after that I am going to attend the Asia ARVO (Association for Research in Vision and Ophthalmology) meeting in Hyderabad. I am looking forward to both of these big events of January, and a wonderful 2009 to come!