to change the world by utilizing the tools of genetics
The gigantic, majestic Indominus Rex camouflaged itself like a chameleon in front of my eyes. "We have always filled gaps in the genome with the DNA of other animals," explained Dr. Henry Wu, talking of how this cool dinosaur wasn't natural, but a lab experiment.
Watching Jurassic World in the comfortably cool and dark confines of the movie hall, I was awed.
Though I did not precisely understand a lot of his words, 12-year-old me was mesmerized by the sleek lab equipment and the scientists in white coats, whom Dr. Wu credited with the creation of engineered animals. Life could actually be manipulated to man's will! To me, those scientists in the background were the real superheroes of the movie; and I dreamt of having a white coat of my own someday.
Even as a child, biology was my favorite subject. When we were introduced to genetics in middle school, I remember being the most eager kid in the class -always in the first row, unapologetically asking questions. As we learnt about glowing fish and transparent frogs, my imagination went into overdrive. I imagined DNA as a canvas where genes could be mixed, matched and rearranged to create new life. I would spend hours doodling crazy hybrids between dolphins and crabs or tigers and elephants.
I could hardly wait for the next few years when we'd be introduced to working in the school labs. But the pandemic dashed my hopes. With a lot of free time during online school, I dived into online channels like NileRed, Veritasium and Kurzgesagt and explored the world of research and science. The more I learnt, the more curious fascinated I became. Just a 0.4% variation in our DNA differentiates 8 billion individuals. The same atoms in one combination could yield the most fragrant substances, and in another the deadliest poison! Finding answers to questions I'd never once thought about propelled my curiosity, interest and love for learning.
After the pandemic, I finally got to adorn the cherished white coat and enter the hallowed confines of the laboratory myself. Joyously experimenting, making awful-smelling solutions or extracting silver by mixing copper in a silver nitrate solution after classes gave a very eudemonic happiness. I even convinced my chemistry teacher to allow me to make a ferrofluid.
But it wasn't as simple as I'd thought. I failed multiple times, but persevered. I learnt to record failures, tweak the protocols, change the methodology and work systematically. When I finally got the magnetite nanoparticles suspended in liquid solution, and the ferrofluid rushed towards the magnet, forming clean spikes, my joy had no bounds. In one brief moment, I had gone through a gamut of anticipation, delight and achievement. I knew I had found my calling.
Two weeks of working on a permaculture farm under the blistering sun introduced me to the opposite end of the research spectrum. The farm where I worked successfully converted a lime quarry in the second most arid district of India into a flourishing food forest, brimming with flora, animals, birds, and all sorts of life above and below ground. Spending time with Jedidiyah Alfred, a professional at the farm, I learnt that commercial agriculture extensively employs harmful herbicides. This made me think of how, although controversial, genetically modified crops that are more resilient to climate change and are more nutritional could potentially become a solution to the impeding world food crisis. This realization molded my aspirations for the future; getting nature to do its job better using genetic engineering - that is what I want to devote my future to.
I've come a long way from that mesmerized 12-year-old in the movie hall - but I still nurture dreams of being a superhero. With my white lab coat as my cape, I hope to change the world by utilizing the tools of genetics, one problem at a time- in the lab and on the field.