Sunday, July 1, 2012

Researching Happiness

Its mid April, 1992. No more snow in Zurich, Switzerland. The tree in front of the window in my lab at Institute for Biotechnology, ETH, Honggerberg, does not look desolate any more. It has started showing some life; as if it is saying guten Tag. I remember Kathryn, program coordinator, telling me that when spring arrives in Zurich, I won't believe how the scene will change. It was hard to believe that when I arrived on 21st Feb with 6 foot snow on the streets and temperature being -12 degrees C at noon. Spring has still not sprung, but I definitely see a bit of green. I have spent a lot of time staring out of that window. Except for four days in London, I have been in the lab all days including weekends and Easter break. I am keen to get some good results but the yeast strain I have brought from my lab in India somehow, does not respond to my coaxing in the Swiss Lab. Perhaps it would like to go skiing!! I have worked with this strain for a long period now and know when it should start secreting citric acid in a cycle of 10 continuous days of cultivation. I could get up to 80% conversion efficiency back home but here the values have never gone above 25%! I am worried that in this prestigious institution people will feel I have cooked up my results to get a free trip to Zurich!! That and the fact that I have very little time left. All along at home, I have worked with absolutely rudimentary facilities and had no hope of producing data that I can do here with the world class facilities.

My frustration was sensed by Kathryn who suggested I go back to my original experiments; something that I did last week, without any luck!! I am not seeing any solution and decide to go back to basics. That evening I take a photocopy of a few review articles and go for my dinner at the Cafeteria at the ETH Central. It was at a walking distance from my residential quarter at Maximillianeum on Auf De Maur. I don't remember what I picked for the food; there was nothing vegetarian available but by now I had got used to eating whatever meat "delicacies" that were available. The cafeteria is at a lovely location, high up and Zurich's lights towards the Banhoffstrasse and river Limmat light up the glass windows on the western wall. However, my mind is too occupied to note the enchanting sight. When I performed carbon (C) balancing for my experiments, I realized that a lot of C was being lost as CO2 rather than being fixed within my product. I decide to revisit the TCA cycle and associated  biochemical pathway of CO2 fixation called anaplerotic reaction. As I pore over the carbon, hydrogen and oxygen rearrangements in different steps, I realize that the critical enzyme Pyruvate carboxylase needs biotin as a co-factor. Suddenly something hits me!! I realize that I have ignored the effect of trace elements like biotin that influence various biochemical reactions in microbial systems; indeed in all live forms.

I know this is getting a bit technical. Please stay with me, just for a while....

I suddenly realize that there is one significant deviation in my Zurich experiments, as compared to those back home. I was using corn steep liquor (CSL) which is a cheap and industrial source of organic nitrogen and also rich in various vitamins/amino acids that act as trace elements. I had not brought any CSL from India; instead I was provided that in the institute from a branded American manufacturer. Apparently there must have been a significant difference in the composition of the two. Suddenly I am itching to get back to the lab; it seems as if all the doors that were closed, now suddenly start opening. A small ray of light, a mere pinpoint, seems to be growing. Am I at the end of the tunnel? And almost as if I get out of my trance, I check the time....almost time for the cafeteria to close!! The massive dining room is empty but for a couple of customers. I was there for over three hours, but no one disturbed me nor came over to suggest that I either buy something more or empty the table. Perhaps being a cafeteria of a teaching institution, they were used to this or just the normal Swiss hospitality! I walk back to my residential quarter. There is a spring in my step. I don't feel the cold; instead I can sense a warm blanket of exhilaration. I know this feeling. Often I have lived 364 days in a year of negative results for that one day when everything falls in place. Hope brings adrenalin, vigour, happiness. Small happiness it may be, for me it is the world.

That night, high on the adrenalin, I find it extremely difficult to go to sleep. The realization that I had missed something obvious was to dawn upon me later, when my experiment of injecting some quantity of biotin in the fermentor resulted in a significant jump in the productivity. It never reached the high levels that I obtained in my lab in India, but it more than doubled the initial yield I got in my experiments at ETH. While it was very satisfying to confirm that I had not cooked up my data and provided a spike of real pleasure at understanding the complex mechanism a little better, I realized that I had really not achieved much....only something that I could have avoided and in fact utilized my time at Zurich better and even generated some data worth publishing only and only if the initial success to me had not come so easily!!

There...that's the crux of my  narrating this story. When we get something very easily in life, we do not bother to look at the mechanism of success. I presumed a little prematurely, that I had obtained a mutant of yeast strain that was genetically superior. My continued success did not force me to look for the minor factors that were critical. To be honest, I obtained quite high yields even when I scaled up the process from 100 ml to 400 Lts! Consequently, it was difficult to argue to look at mechanism of success when the emphasis was on commercial exploitation of the research. Often we do the same thing with bigger successes in life only to be undone by some small failures. Learning through failures, is a fail-safe way of learning. What you learn through your hard knocks, will never go away. When gold goes through the fire to be molded into a beautiful piece of jewellery, it's value increases many folds.

I can equate this episode with a lot of things in my life. Having been born and brought up in a middle-class, high caste family, I never bothered about what challenges are faced by many, even for basic things in life, like education. I was so fortunate to get a good job after my post grad studies, lived in my father's house, never had to set up my home even after I got married and even when had two children. All was presented to me by life on a platter. First time when I realised what life could be, was when my parents went to USA in 1990 and we were left to manage our lives with two children. First time, life looked a bit challenging then. For the first time, I realized what my parents must have gone through when they moved away from their parents and set up their new life in Mumbai in  late 1940s. We, all three of their children, were brought up way way away from their family support system in Vadodara. And they did a damn fine job of that. I never got that benefit of learning through failure, till we migrated to Australia. Often, easy success satisfies you quickly. We get used to easy targets and consequently, quick gratification even with low level of achievement. There is one wonderful saying in Gujarati, which has become my motto for life.."નિશાન ચૂક માફ, નહીં માફ નીચું નિશાન". Translating; "Missing a target is forgivable, what is not, is setting a low target". Easy success conditions you, to set easily achievable targets, since you get used to success. A small failure, often looks like a major one; mole hill becomes a mountain. And you give up easily on scaling it. There is no fire burning within, for you to strive a little bit harder. Success, as the world calls it, requires ambition, often fiercely burning within. And ambition comes with necessity. Often ambition is made to look bad. I have been brought up in a culture, in times when "simple living and high thinking" was a mantra for life. While it is remarkable in its simplicity and changes the definition of happiness than what the world defines these days, it can also be a trap. It is my experience, that if you get satisfied with whatever you get in life, you may miss out on many good things. And I am not talking about "material" good things. For me, the real thing we will miss under such condition, is not realizing one's full potential! Never knowing what you could have done had you been put to adversity. Missing out on a sense of satisfaction to know that you are good enough to stand with the best in the world. Missing out an opportunity to EARN happiness.

Potential is a wonderful word. Looking at human history, one is amazed how we have reached from cave-men capabilities trying to light a fire with stones to reaching moon. At one point in the history, if some one had said that in future, humans will fly in metal cylinders and the globe can be traversed in less than 24 hours, he would have been lynched. Thanks to some amazing humans in our history, we are where we are today in terms of technological successes. These people may have been ambitious, greedy, or indeed, plain damn curious. Their aim may have been a personal glory or bucket full of gold or a burning desire to quench their thirst of knowledge. They were the ones who refused to let the soft and easy successes let them sit back on their laurels and continued to strive to search for better solutions to anything and everything. As a researcher, I found that often I was happy even when instead of getting successful resolution to a problem, I was thrown a curly question. It didn't matter, how small the question was, in terms of the larger picture. For me, if I didn't understand something, it was big enough. It was another peak to be scaled, something that will test those untested, hidden capabilities within me. And when I resolved it, however small the happiness, it was the world to me. Ever since, every challenge to me, is an opportunity to earn happiness..

During my initial years as a researcher, when I had just started my career at Sarabhai Research Centre, Vadodara, one dream used to come to me often. I am standing surrounded by million doors, and all can open if I have correct key to them. Beyond the doors is a maze leading to a pot of happiness. I do not know where the door I pick to open will take me. I can get some help but eventually, I must open those doors myself to take me to my happiness. I open a door; one leading to the another and with the success giving me an adrenalin rush, I open a few more. Bang, bang, bang, bang...and I hit a wall!!  I track back to find another route and I get back to where I had started; back to square A. I get disheartened; failure has a way of getting on top of you quickly. However, I suddenly realize that while I strain hard to succeed, it is lot of fun. And now I KNOW where NOT to go!! Hope....I get back to opening another door, tracing another path and before I realize it, I am immersed in search for the next key; that sense of failure is a distant memory now. When my dream breaks, I am still deep within the maze, who knows how far away from that elusive pot of happiness. But why this strange feeling of contentedness? More than the feeling of failure, why is there a sense of satisfaction? And why do I look forward to tomorrow night for the same dream to start again? It's almost as if at every door, there is a pot of happiness; even if a small one, but there is one. Before long it dawns upon me that searching for happiness, is happiness, in itself......


  1. Fantastic Dad! :-)

    I started realizing many of the things you mentioned only after moving away from you and mum. As hard as that was for me (and sometimes still is for both Sonia and I) I am glad that i took that step, otherwise i never would've known how to do and solve things on my own!

    I actually remember the time you were away in Switzerland quite well, it was during the '92 cricket world cup and I would get up early in the mornings before going to school to watch a few overs and used to miss you every time as you weren't there watching the matches with me!!

    Wonderful Post, enjoyed reading it! :-)

    1. Deepak, I enjoyed your son's response as much as your words. Jay has defined what it truly means to be successful--a young man whose life is a reflection of his father's. A young man who misses his Dad when they are separated. Who will never enjoy a cricket match in the same way without his father. Now that's a life well-lived. For both of you.

    2. Thanks Susan, for your nice words. Glad you enjoyed. Jwalit was only 9 at that time so I was also surprised at his reollection; but couldn't have been any better appreciation..

  2. Good one Deepak! A very interesting read...keep it coming.

  3. Thanks Jwalit. Glad you liked it.
    Thanks Vrinda for your appreciation.