My Journey to IISER

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The first concrete ambition I can remember having (pieced together from vague memories and anecdotes narrated by my parents) sprouted in my mind on the way back home from kindergarten. Scarcely had I stepped through the door before I imperiously declared that I would become a carpenter. My mother was flummoxed by my assertiveness, rightly so, but wisely did not contradict me, instead playing along. My career choices were flighty—morphing from carpenter to tailor to plumber in quick succession. The reason became clear to everyone at home when they found that I was learning about “People Who Help Us” in school.

Every year, I had to hear the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” multiple times from different people. Every year, I had different answers. From librarian to historian to singer to dancer—I truly believed at that point in my life that my future lay in those avenues. In ninth grade, I moved to a new school, and there began my fondness for science. Whenever I mentioned my interest in biology, I’d inevitably get the assumption—“Oh, you’ll make a great doctor.” I laughed these off, but I was quite sure medicine wasn’t for me; I just didn’t know what was. Around the same time, a close family friend dropped by on a chance visit. She was in her last year at IISER Pune, and had just gotten her visa for the United States. As she described the courses and the research, it felt too good to be true. She had given a name and a place to what was an abstract desire. 

Having made the decision of going to IISER, I promptly shoved it to the back of my mind. The next two years flew by, and it was mid-11th grade. The future beyond school loomed large on the horizon. Almost everyone I knew had already started discussing competitive exams and coaching centres, which heightened an already growing fear that I was being left behind. After multiple frenetic bouts of internet searches, my parents and I were armed with the requisite information. An Integrated MS degree at one of India’s premier national science institutes—I could feel the familial approval, despite the unconventional degree itself. Several ‘well-meaning’ words of advice floated my way—research is signing up for drudgery, you’ll have to deal with hundreds of failures, you might never accomplish anything in your life. I deflected those with bluster and reasoning, the former more common than the latter. Two failed attempts at KVPY dealt severe blows to my self-confidence, already waning from the incessant coaching classes and mock tests. 

By the time the IISER Aptitude Test rolled around, I was ready for the ordeal to be over. I emerged battered, bruised, but alive—just barely. My sister’s wedding was on the same day, and I couldn’t wait to get back and celebrate. Little did I know that the worst was yet to come – the waiting period. Refreshing the website over and over again, anxiously reading answers about ‘life in IISER’ on Quora, an agonizing month of uncertainty, as I secured “back-up admissions” in colleges I secretly dreaded going to. The day I got the mail from IISER was a bittersweet one, for it hit me that I would have to venture alone into fresh woods, and pastures new. 

However, having virtually no family background in the research world wasn’t much of a deterrent, because there were so many people willing to help. I learnt a lot about the sphere of academia in my first year—citing papers in an MLA format, applying to internships, keeping up-to-date with scientific journals, and balancing coursework and extra-curriculars with scientific reading of my own. So far, my experience at IISER, though cut short by this pandemic, has been marked by one word: freedom. Science outside the confines of a blackboard. Real-world applications, real-world consequences, and the reassurance that the research we eventually do is going to matter. 

A few weeks ago, I was asked by a small child, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” and it is with no small amount of trepidation that I replied: a scientist. I don’t know how the coming years will change this answer, but I look forward to the journey.

This Post Has One Comment

  1. Anish

    Great piece! Well written. I relate a lot from what you described.
    It seems a lot of IISER students share similar experiences – like coming from a family with little academic/research background or heavily browsing ‘Life in IISER’ Quora answers. Thankful now to be dreaming in the space of ideas.

    Cheers, from an IISERite!

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