Aravind Natrajan, Cornell University, Doctoral Candidate, Department of Microbiology

Aravind-NatrajanMy 6-year experience in the small town of Ithaca in Upstate New York has been transformative in many ways.

Transition: Arriving at JFK airport, I was swept away by throngs of passengers from around the world, ensconced by the busy hum of chatter in several languages. The mental calculator constantly multiplying by 60 (the approximate exchange then) and contrasting prices of coffee, food, bus tickets etcetera to those in India started right away.

Ithaca, the home to Cornell University, is a picturesque town, set amidst several gorges, the serene Finger Lakes and a waterfall at every turn, leading to the well-worn phrase 'Ithaca is gorge(ou)s'. The shift in academic culture from India to the US was apparent from the very beginning. At the orientation program, the University went out of its way to welcome us, help settle in and then pamper us for good measure. Most endearing was when Dean Jan Imposter Syndrome Allen walked up to our table at an ice cream social, offering us a ride to New York City because she appreciated company on her drives. That a dean could be so approachable, as would be many other professors and administrators, was novel. Further, Cornell has consistently cared about my unique experience as an international student to inform their policies and strategic plans. I have been invited to participate in many committees with the opportunity to speak with top administrators all the way up to the President and Board of Trustees.

Academics: The freedom to enroll in any course, including ones on wine or sailing, was exciting and anxiety ridden. In my first year, I took courses that were required by the program, learning how classes and tests worked here. I enjoyed the highly interactive nature of courses and found the joys and pains of continuous assessments. It became apparent that everybody was smart, driven, unabashedly nerdy, and passionate about their work. Inevitably, many of us had our first tryst with Imposter Syndrome here, and it was reassuring when the University constantly reminded us that we had earned our place in the program. It was also humbling to interact with professors whose books had guided me through my bachelor's and masters' degrees, and whose work is fundamental to my area of interest. I have also had innumerable intellectually stimulating conversations across a wide range of disciplines with peers and residents of Ithaca ranging from criminal justice reform and social equity to particle physics. This intellectually charged environment with riveting conversation at every corner has been extremely rewarding.

Research: Cornell was a natural choice for pursuing my research interests in the area of bacterial genetics since it offered two well-funded faculty members in that area in whose projects I was interested. However, I was required to rotate - engage in 12-week projects - in three research groups in my first year before choosing a lab home. In addition to these two labs, I took the opportunity to rotate in Professor Matthew DeLisa's group, whose work was very different from my previous experiences and offered the opportunity to learn new skills. Turned out, I loved my peers in this group, enjoyed the nature of work and liked Matt's advising style, and have since had the privilege of working here. My doctoral research has focused on genetically engineering Escherichia coli, a bacterium, for the cost-effective production of important therapeutics and industrially relevant enzymes. Further, I have constructed synthetic pathways that help us better understand important cellular processes in bacterial pathogens and mammalian cells. My experience in the DeLisa Research Group has been a game changer, helping hone my skills in identifying impactful research questions, developing scientifically rigorous strategies to probe these, and to always be conscious of the societal impact of my work. Importantly, the research group has been incredibly welcoming, providing support and a sense of home away from home.

Culture: Ithaca and Cornell are constantly brimming with opportunities to experience culture from around the world. I have learnt the basics of Argentine Tango, tried Swing dancing and am a regular Contra dancer. Season tickets to the ice hockey games at Lynah Rink, chanting and booing with the crowd make up for missing IPL seasons. Over the years, the melody of Simon Shaheen's oud, Zakir Hussain's tabla, live Jazz performances at local restaurants, and listening to the Cornell Chimes play the Alma mater have added to the richness of my experience. I have grown to love all of Ithaca, including its quirky weather and hilly terrain.

My experience at Cornell has been tremendously educational, both in the classic sense of intellectual growth, and in terms of cultural exposure and personal discovery.


This article was sourced by Education USA and published in The Hindu.

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