As the clock struck 5:52 PM, I packed my bag and dashed to the bus that was bound homeward. It was too hot to be the first day of the spring quarter and the bus was empty. I flashed my bus pass at the driver who nodded with approval. I had a question for him and decided to ask him before he started driving. Here’s how the conversation went.
Me: Has bus no. 19 been re-scheduled? I happened to look it up on google maps and was unable to locate it.
Driver: No, it hasn’t. The new schedule will be out only in summer. I will keep you updated. I’ve seen you take this bus for two months now. Where do you work?
Me: Oh! Thanks. (Pointing to the building right opposite to where the bus had stopped) I work in that building.
Driver: What do you do ma’am?
Me: (Smiling) I am a Research Engineer.
Driver: Oh! That’s great to hear. You must be making a lot of money.
Me: Well, not really. You see, I just started working and am probably the most inexperienced on my team.
Driver: Okay, not now. But you will make lots of money in the future. Right?
I changed the subject to the sultry weather and walked to the seat by the window. Just as he turned the engine on and started driving, my mind went afloat.
Although becoming an Engineer was never an option that I had considered, I realized there wasn’t much of a choice if you had your roots in Andhra Pradesh. You either are an Engineer or a Doctor. I went to a school that taught me to be passionate about what I choose to do and to stick by it, the only sad part being you have no clue as to what you are passionate about when you are 15. It did not take me much to understand that ‘a doctor’ wasn’t something that was cut out for me. And if you studied pure sciences when you were in high school, you were given the benefit of choosing from a restricted group of various upcoming specializations in India like Biotechnology, Pharmacy, Microbiology etc.
So when I was ready to go to college, I had hundreds of people hovering over my decision. Sadly, these people were neither Engineers nor were they Doctors. Some of them were worried elders. The others were, however, a bunch of jobless people who chewed paan and gave free advice while flashing their orange teeth. When you choose something that sounds as fancy as Biomedical Engineering, you have to remember that you may turn out to be someone who is hanging in the air at all times. Besides, 80% of the people you talk to, your friends included, don’t even know what exactly you studied or you do. They think it is super cool to say BIO-%#*@^* and get away with it thinking you wouldn’t care. Well, how would you feel if I think Java, Oops, Pearl and Oyster are all same thing?
My memory remains crystal clear. The year was 2002. It had people telling me, “There is a huge SCOPE for this field. It is thriving in the U.S and the U.K.” Then they would dramatically turn to my mom and add, “My sister’s husbands’ brother’s wife’s brother-in-law’s paternal uncle’s daughter’s donkey has a degree in this field. The donkey is a Biomedical Engineer. They make all these huge fancy machines that people use in hospitals. You remember the time when Uma’s husband had his stomach scanned by a machine that is 10 times bigger than the X-ray? That donkey designed it.” Precisely, those were the days when Apollo Hospitals had purchased its first PET-CT.
I felt the first adrenaline rush when I fixed a BP apparatus during my internship. I later inclined to research and faced the ordeal of working with and breaking bones. I found definite passion in this and decided to stick to it. Why else would I help with sawing bones at 10 in the night in a building that was rumored to be haunted.
Life moves quickly and soon I found myself with a Master’s degree. It was only when I was out on a seriously tiresome job hunt that the word ‘scope’ caught my sincere attention. I wanted to ask all the advising scholars who bragged about the ‘scope’ of this field to stand in a line so that I could whack their asses hard. As hard as the job hunt was kicking mine. What scope? There is no scope. I know that there are thousands of sick people dying every day and that a few hundreds of diseases stand invincible. And yet there is no scope for young researchers. God alone knows why companies are either too less in number or too huge in infrastructure. With companies expecting you to walk out of graduate school with over 5 years of industry experience, the immigration services leaching on you to show employment proof within 90 days of graduation, the novel taxes on the healthcare system, very few jobs, and extremely high competition, I wonder, “Does scope really exist?” It probably will, only if you are a shark in this rat race.
Now everything said and done, you will eventually fulfill those dreams. But what the bloody hell is it with “lots of money” when you are an Engineer. That’s like saying “All pastas taste the same irrespective of their sauces, be it alfredo, marinara, or pesto with basil.” No, not all Engineers make mountain loads of money. To my knowledge, it is the people who work with computers that do. That could be the only reason the film Chintakayala Ravi had its tag line as Software Engineer. If the other Engineers did too, the film would have been called Chintakayala Ravi-Chemical Engineer. If there was money with every Engineer, our Indian Engineering college Deans would happily call Johnson & Johnson to recruit students. They wouldn’t promise 100% placement merely by throwing Biology students into Infosys or Accenture.
Being a researcher basically means you belong to a typical Indian lower middle class family. Your pay check sustains you. You cannot decide for yourself or promise your friend, a trip to a beach in Florida during a long weekend in summer when it is only spring. You feel the urge to work on Saturdays.You do not fancy a 500 dollar iPad. You might prefer a 99 dollar e-reader and contemplate on it’s purchase for one whole week before you actually make it. A broken laptop is close to a broken heart and buying a new laptop seems like an extra month of house rent. You know the difference between necessity and luxury and you abide by it. You make sure you get your weekly dosage of protein without fail by drinking soy milk even though you are aware that it is expensive. Shopping malls don’t catch your attention even if you are a girl. A take out from your favorite Chinese restaurant is something remotely close to a festival. If you decide to try a new brand of shampoo and it sucks, you do not throw it away even if it makes your hair look like crap. You use it until it is done. You are this espresso junkie who cares very little about crappy hair or papers strewn all over your desk. You keep your monthly expenses updated on an excel file.
Being a researcher also means you work like a donkey and like a donkey you enjoy doing it (Probably this is similar to the donkey my mom’s friend was talking about eight years ago). So who actually cares about being called a nerd or having less money when you have no idea what your friend is talking about when she mentions that she has Monday Blues? Undoubtedly, I love what I do. And nerds have proved that nerds have high life satisfaction scores.
Phew! I had to get off the bus now. I looked at the driver as I darted forward to pull the chain and thought to myself, “Mr. Driver, if I really had the time and the money like a regular Engineer, I would use them to take driving lessons and buy myself a car. You wouldn’t see me riding a bus.” I looked at him again, smiled and said “Thank you” and got off.
As I slowly walked towards home enjoying the weather with Adele singing in my ears, I saw my landlady outside the house. She asked me if she could have a minute. I took my headphones off and she informed me that she had decided to increase the rent by a 100 bucks starting next month. I stared for a second and nodded my head in dismay when she added, “I’m sure you will not find it to be a problem. You are an Engineer. You make lots of money, right?”
Adele resumed singing in my ears.