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The stuff of dreams

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Being a Fullbright scholar at Harvard is certainly a prize, but the route to it is not simple.

Fulbright and Harvard can form a heady mix for any academic. September 3, this year, brought both. Journey to this day was not easy, but littered with hours of toil not only in developing a project that would be state-of-the art and relevant; but also crossing multiple stages of selection over a few thousands of applications from all over the country.

Having undergone postdoctoral fellowships in Molecular Genetics and Genetic Epidemiology at Stanford and University of Chicago respectively, I really did not want another gruelling stint in academic medicine. But the USIEF staff and its country director Adam Grotsky who I met with in a workshop, showed me the utility of a pathway called Academic and Professional Excellence Program, designed especially for experienced researchers. This competitive and prestigious pathway allows one to teach and/or conduct research in one of the U.S. universities, in a current and emerging area of interest gaining skills that are portable to the home country.

Since my primary specialty is Public Health, and environment is an important determinant of health of communities, I decided to work at the interface of both at molecular level, with an idea of being able to build evidences to guide public policies in India. The next step was to develop a research project that would stand a strong peer review and hold the attention of cutting edge mentors.

As I was searching for the literature for my project I came across one name quite frequently — Dr. Andrea Baccarelli who is the Mark and the Catherine Winkler Associate Professor at the Harvard School of Public Health. I requested him to be my host if I got selected as a Fulbrighter, and he accepted, barely two days before the deadline for application!

About three months after the submission of my application I got the news from USIEF that I had been shortlisted for the interview at New Delhi. The interview panel bombarded me with questions ranging from my work to feasibility of the proposed project once I returned home to my opinions on the growing violence against women in India. I honestly do not remember what answers I gave, as my only agenda at that moment was to finish the interview not bothering too much about the outcome. They said the results would be announced in one week.

It was on November 6, as I was busy organising a National conference which was happening the next day, that I got the long awaited email from USIEF. I was selected in the interview for the Fulbright fellowship! Things progressed fast from then on, and I got matched at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Destination Harvard

Harvard, established in 1636, is a name that would inspire any academic. With 47 Nobel laureates, 32 heads of State and 48 Pulitzer prize winners, the person beside you in the cafeteria with a casual T-shirt, and jeans might well be one of them.

My lab at the Harvard School of Public Health, for instance, is a mix of interesting multi-ethnic people with varied expertise At the moment, I am the sole Indian. My mentor Dr. Baccarelli is one of the finest persons I have met so far — ever-smiling and pleasant and always soft-spoken with a fine sense of humour! He blends high standing in his profession with humility.

I work as a visiting scientist in the Exposure, Epidemiology and Risk programme in the Department of Environmental Health. This system sans boundaries is unique to the U.S. Where can one see a School of Public Health with divisions in Immunology or Genetics of complex diseases and health policy together? In my opinion it is one of the critical determinants of their success. This was seen in the classrooms too. The “students” were from different age groups and backgrounds as well. I started auditing courses in Environmental Epigenetics. We need to study the reading materials that are circulated ahead and if we were not part of the active discussion in the class, we would stick out like a sore thumb. There are weekly assignments which are more application-oriented and the students are evaluated based on their assignments and the discussions in the class.

I am enjoying the rich quaint New England neighbourhood where I live, and Fall is almost here with a riot of colors all around me!

The author is an Associate Professor in the Department of Community Medicine and PSG Center for Molecular Medicine at PSG Institute of Medical Sciences and Research, Coimbatore. She can be reached at sudha@psgimsr.ac.in.

For further details on Fulbright-Nehru Fellowships, visit: >http://www.usief.org.in/

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Printable version | Jan 24, 2020 4:17:18 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/education/the-stuff-of-dreams/article6578347.ece

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