Getting creative

Over the past year, I’ve been experimenting with a new art medium – fluid acrylics. My friend Nihar introduced me to this method which uses paints mixed with pouring medium. The paint can be combined in different ways and then poured using different techniques onto canvas or is poured directly onto canvas. The canvas is then tilted to stretch the paint in different ways to obtain the desired effect. Below are a few videos that illustrate the pouring and stretching steps. Subsequent posts will show finished pieces with brief descriptions.

The Ocean Series
The Aqua Series

A Farmer’s Daughter

I recently shared  this story at a Seattle Art Museum & Tasveer event in celebration of the “Migration Series” by Jacob Lawrence

I was born in Punjab, India – the eldest daughter of a Sikh farmer and housewife, and the granddaughter of a retired colonel and former sarpanch of the village. Life was great!

My grandfather wanted to make sure my sister, brother and I had bright academic futures and every opportunity – both were threatened by the violent political unrest in Punjab in the 80’s before and after the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. When the immigration papers arrived for the family, my grandfather didn’t waste a minute getting us on a plane headed west. We landed in Cleveland, Ohio during the cold early spring of 1987, the year I turned 10.

My family just after leaving India. Top left to bottom right: mom, dad, little brother, me and little sister.

Without a doubt, the first few years were tough. To save money in our first year in Cleveland, our family of 5 lived with my aunt’s family of 4 in a 2 bedroom apartment. My siblings and I spent the first summer in Toronto to make things less crowded, away from our parents with our aunts and uncles.

While both my parents worked blue collar jobs – sometimes more than one at a time – to make sure we all had what we needed, I was busy trying to fit in at school. I couldn’t stand out more if I’d tried – I had waist-long hair, a dad with a turban and a mom with colorful clothes. Sadly, I didn’t appreciate the value and beauty of being different until I was much older.

I excelled in school fitting the South Asian stereotype and got made fun of for having a slight smell of curry from my mom’s cooking. Curry wasn’t as popular a smell in the 80’s as it is now.

Growing up, I teetered between two worlds – the one at home with desi food, tight family structure, traditions and rules and the one at school, with its promise of freedom, individual self-expression and new way of life. Both were at odds with each other. My American friends didn’t understand why I wasn’t allowed to cut my hair. And my parents didn’t understand why I wanted to go over a friend’s house or a party.

My dad would later tell me that he and my mom didn’t know what was right or wrong so they just said no to everything to protect us. I guess I get it.

Beyond the struggles of my parents trying to make it in a new country and my own personal identity crises, things weren’t too bad. We never felt like we weren’t wanted or perceived any threats.

That all changed on 9/11. I had just moved to Seattle for Graduate School and suddenly I felt very brown and had a sudden, strong urge to display the American flag wherever I could – my apartment, my car, etc – to make sure people knew I belonged.

We heard the news of a Sikh man being killed in Arizona in a hate crime. Not long after that, a man approached my dad at a gas station and said, “You look like Osama Bin Laden.” Without skipping a beat, my dad responded, “You look like Timothy McVeigh.” The other customers inside the store cheered.

At the Migration Stories event at Seattle Art Museum on April 13th. 2017. Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series panels can be seen in the back.

I always laugh, with pride, when I tell this story to my friends and talk about how hilarious my dad is. But we weren’t laughing when it happened – knowing that my dad was an easy target with his turban.

The thing about my dad is that he’s a proud man. Though I was worried about fitting in with my long hair, he never considered cutting his hair and removing his turban. He still defiantly, and maybe a bit dramatically, says, “I’d rather have my head cut off than cut my hair or remove my turban!” Maybe it’s a bit extreme, but I really respect and am proud of his decision to determine his own identity.

And now, with recent political events and a renewed climate of hate, I worry again about my father. He’s now a real estate agent and sometimes does open houses for his clients. The idea of my dad being alone in a house in the county with some sign outside with his picture on it scares the hell out of me. I actually don’t even know if his picture is on the sign but that’s the image that’s in my mind.

I talked to my brother and sister about it and both of them responded defiantly that we can’t live in fear. We have to live our lives and continue doing everything we do, which I agree with in principle. Both of them changed their tune after the recent violence against South Asian’s in the Pacific Northwest and other parts of the country.

My dad on the other hand, stands strong with his identity as a proud Sikh American. As do I – with my own identity as an immigrant, an American, an optimist and proud daughter.


Fifty Nifty United States: A Citizenship Story

As of September 3, 2015, I am officially an American! Laila Kazmi, a producer at the local PBS station KCTS9 asked me to write about my citizenship experience for their Borders & Heritage: Stories of Immigration project. I’m sharing the piece with you here. You can read the original post on the KCTS9 website. You can also listen to my reading of a version of this piece as part of KUOW 94.9 (NPR)’s Storywallas, a storytelling event inspired by the Moth. The recording also has other stories shared that night, with mine appearing in the last 15 minutes of the recording.

Fifty nifty United States from the 13 original colonies ….

This is the song that was stuck in my head as I stood in the FedEx office putting together all the required materials for my United States Naturalization application. The giddiness and excitement had caught me completely by surprise. I had resided in the country for 28 years and had felt like an American for at least half of that time, despite being a green card holder. I had viewed getting my citizenship as a formality for “officially” becoming an American, and of course, gaining the right to vote. Yet I felt so excited that day that I sang the 50 states song all the way to work from the FedEx office. Perhaps getting my citizenship was more than just a formality and I couldn’t wait to get my U.S. passport. Reflecting back, it was a long journey getting to this point though.

I was born in India and moved to Cleveland, Ohio when I was 9 years old. I had known for about a year that my family was going to move to “Amreeka” but I had no idea what that actually meant. I knew that my grandfather was worried about the political climate in Punjab, India at the time. The fallout from Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguards and the ongoing separatist movement in Punjab had made India unsafe for Sikhs in the 80s. My father’s farm was on the other side of the city from our house, and I remember we would all wait by the window until we saw him pull up in the tractor and breathe a sigh of relief, especially on days when curfew had been enforced due to shootings or other unrest.

My family a few years before our move to the US

My dad’s sister had been living in the United States since the mid-70s and had filed paperwork for us to immigrate since the early 80s. After anxiously waiting for the better part of a decade to receive our invitation to the U.S., it took only a few months for us to leave the only home we had ever known. Despite the dangers in India, I know it was an incredibly difficult decision for my parents to leave everything familiar for a new country with very different customs and ways of life.

Within a few days, I went from being one of the popular kids in my grade and school to being a complete outsider with a strange accent and strange way of doing things. Over time, my accent slowly disappeared and I made lots of American friends, but those changes didn’t alter that feeling of not belonging.

It wasn’t until my first (and only) trip back to India 11 years later that the feeling would change. I had just finished college and decided to go on a trip with my dad. I was so excited! We spent the first two days in the hustle and bustle of New Delhi before going “home” to Punjab.

Though reconnecting with family we hadn’t seen for years was great, the experience was far from the homecoming I had expected. The place that I had expected to feel so familiar, didn’t feel like home at all. And though I dressed in a traditional Punjabi salwar-kameez, people treated me like a foreigner. Sadly, my once fluent Punjabi now resembled that of my ABCD, or American-Born-Confused-Desi (“Desi” is a slang term referring to people from South Asian countries) friends, with a healthy interjection of “Okay” and “Yeah.”

Once again I was an outsider with a strange accent and a strange way of doing things. When I questioned customs pertaining to religion or the roles of women in the household, I was seen as rude or disrespectful. On the opposite spectrum, people thought the questions I was asking were cute or funny — I just couldn’t say the right thing. I missed the openness with which we can talk about almost anything in America. Though I enjoyed the trip, the culture shock I experienced was completely unexpected!

After returning home to the U.S., I went through a sort of identity crisis — confused about where I belonged and how I saw myself.

It took me a while to understand, but I finally realized that accepting a place as home was more about a decision I needed to make and less about others accepting me or making me feel at home. I had spent my youth hanging on to India as home — I hadn’t realized how much of an American I had become. And despite its imperfections, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in the world.

My need for holding on to my Indian identity was borne out of living in a close-knit family, and as is the case for many immigrants, a fear of losing integral aspects of a cultural heritage.

The turning point for me was moving away from home to Seattle for graduate school soon after that impressionable visit to India. It was the first time I only had to worry about myself, which felt selfish at first, but I soon learned to call it “self-loving.“ I loved the taste of American independence that accompanied a focus on individuality! I wasn’t afraid of being labeled “too American” anymore. I was proud of it. I soon learned that I didn’t have to choose to be one or the other — I was a good mix, loving my American individuality with a healthy appreciation for the close familial bonds of my Indian culture. I finally could stop questioning who I was or where I belonged.

As I sat in the auditorium along with people from 15 other countries at the Seattle Office of Homeland Security, waiting to take the oath to officially become an American, I felt an enormous tide of emotion well up inside me. President Obama came on the screen and talked about the hard work and sacrifice it took for us to be there and how we should feel not only pride but a sense of duty to our new country. It might sound overly sentimental, but I felt it. I also registered some sadness at not being an Indian anymore, but most of the emotion I was feeling was indeed pride! I couldn’t wait to pull out the small American flag in the packet I had been handed and wave it at the end of the ceremony. The official told us that the only office higher in the land than President was that of citizen. “We the people,” begins the Constitution. We the people, indeed! I had finally come home.

Schedule for 3rd Annual Seattle Genetic Instability and Cancer Symposium Announced

SGICS LogoWe organized the first Seattle Genetic Instability and Cancer Symposium (SGICS) three years ago as a means to bring together local (Seattle-based) scientific talent focused on, as the title implies, genetic instability and cancer. The objective was to learn about local (unpublished) research and meet the researchers in an effort to increase dialog and collaboration. This year, marking the 3rd year of SGICS, will feature 14 short talks and 22 poster presentations selected from submitted abstracts. The talks and posters will focus on the following areas of research: Genetic Engineering & Cancer Biology, Chromosome Metabolism, DNA Damage Response, Genetic Instability & DNA Repair Disorders.

Dr. Aziz Sancar, Sarah Graham Kenan Professor of Biochemistry and Biophysics at the  University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, is this year’s Keynote Speaker. Dr. Sancar will be talking about his extraordinary work on ‘Genome-wide analysis of human global and trancription-coupled excision repair of UV damage at single-nucleotide resolution.’

SGICS is a grassroots event organized by a team of graduate students and postdocs from Fred Hutch and UW School of Medicine. SGICS will be held on June 15th, 2015, from 8:30am to 6:30pm at the Orin Smith Auditorium at the South Lake Union Campus of the University of Washington. Check out the website for the final schedule and more information.

40 Years of Research at Fred Hutch

40year pic

From Left to Right: Dr. Matthias Stephan, Dr. Denise Galloway, Dr. Fred Appelbaum, Dr. Kathi Malone, and Dr. Kiran Dhillon

September 2015 marks the 40th Anniversary of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center (Fred Hutch). How has science and the environment in which it’s conducted changed over the last 40 years. I recently got invited to take part in a conversation with some very talented scientists at the Fred Hutch to reflect on these questions. Here‘s a link to excerpts of the conversation that were published in the 40th Anniversary edition of Quest Magazine.

Diversity Series: Solutions for the STEM diversity problem at the University level (reblog)

Lack of hispanics, blacks and other minorities in the sciences is a well-documented problem. What is at the root of this problem? At what level of training or education should the solutions be targeted at? These are some of the questions individuals working in this area grapple with constantly. Here is an interesting piece from the Huffington Post that discusses the problem and possible solutions at the level of higher education.

As a side note, we’re excited to host Dr. Maggie Werner-Washburne, one of the contributors to this piece, in February 2015 for a seminar for Hutch United, a group committed to fostering diversity in science at Fred Hutch.


Hutch United Logo 4

Personalized medicine changing what it means to ‘do the best we can’ for patients

The Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle held a conference this week that focused on systems biology and cancer. Experts from all over the country were brought together  to share their work on how biological and clinical data derived from a single patient or big data derived from thousands of patients can be analyzed, integrated and, ultimately, used to treat that patient or others like him or her. The technological developments of the past decade and half allow us to generate large amounts of data from any given individual. These data include the individual’s genetic sequence, the levels of different genes being expressed in their cells, and other clinically relevant information. A big challenge for physicians is how to bring the benefits from these technological advances into the clinic to benefit patients.

During the conference, Dr. Tony Blau, a physician scientist from the University of Washington, described how having access to large amounts of data has changed what  ‘doing the best we can’ for a patient means since he first started treating cancer. He urged that it is time to bridge the enormous the gap between the rate of growth of current technological advancements and the rate at which these advancements are making it to the clinic. He discussed some of his own efforts toward this goal in a TEDx talk earlier this year. Check it out for yourself!


Adapted from Dr. Tony Blau's TEDx Tacoma talk and presentation at the ISB Systems Biology and Cancer Symposium, April 2014
Adapted from Dr. Tony Blau’s TEDx Tacoma talk and presentation at the ISB Systems Biology and Cancer Symposium, April 2014

Sharing Our Stories – Diversity Series

This is the second post in the Diversity in Science Series where I reflect on some of my own early experiences as a person of color and the first in my family to enter a PhD program.

The first time I noticed the lack of diversity in the sciences was as a young graduate student as I listened to a seminar and noticed that I was one of only a few people of color in a full auditorium. I distinctly remember feeling both intimidated and conspicuous. I’m sure I wasn’t the only new graduate student who felt intimidated. It was common feeling among everyone in our class, regardless of color. We had even learned there was a name for what we were feeling, ‘impostor syndrome.’ The thing for me was that the feeling of being an impostor wasn’t just because I’m brown—Indians aren’t underrepresented in the sciences.

Feeling like an impostor came more from my personal background. Everyone seemed so familiar with the research scene. I didn’t even know what a ‘PI’ was when I first arrived since I had never done research in a lab. (FYI, PI stands for Principal Investigator—in other words the boss of the lab.) My classmates seemed to be so comfortable socializing with other students and faculty. The only PhD’s I knew before grad school were my professors from undergrad. And, it seemed like everyone else’s parents were professors or doctors or other types of academics. I came from a blue collar family. My dad was a farmer in India and worked as landscaper in the US before becoming a real estate agent. My mom was a house wife in India and then worked at a farmer’s market and a macaroni factory in the US.

I felt out of place—and I didn’t want anyone else to know. So, I faked it.

I didn’t ask questions but instead paid attention and stayed quiet until I learned what I needed to without letting anyone in on my secret, for a while anyway. It took me about a year to start to make friends—who eventually became really good friends and got to know the real me, and my family. As time went on, I realized that I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. A lot of folks had come from different backgrounds, and I don’t just mean color. But nobody ever talked about it so we went around thinking we were alone in feeling out of place.

We were all faking it!

Why was there the need for secrecy? The thing about being different in any environment is that it can make you feel very conspicuous. No one has to say a single word to you for you to feel this way, you just do. I didn’t want to seem to others like the outsider I felt I was, so I kept my little secret. And so did everybody else.

Would things have been different for me in those early years had I met someone who came from a similar background? Definitely!

I am so proud (and always have been) of my family’s ‘blue collar’ background and how hard my parents worked in a country that was foreign to them so my siblings and I would have the best opportunities available to us. I’m ashamed I didn’t talk about it openly, or even hid it in an effort to fit in. Maybe if we share our stories more openly, we can help reduce the pressure of fitting in and being different for aspiring young scientists from even the most humble backgrounds.

It’s been many years since that day in the auditorium, and I still find myself thinking about diversity in science. The difference is that now I openly talk about my ‘different’ background, especially to the younger scientists. It’s time to celebrate the diverse backgrounds we all come from and use this diversity to launch us forward, and not hold us back. As a few friends and I endeavor to find solutions to the diversity problem at our own institution, we’re starting by sharing our own stories. Everyone has one. What’s yours?

Why is diversity in the workplace so important?

Diversity in the sciences is a topic that is close to my heart and something I keep coming back to over and over. It’s not something we strive for just in the sciences but probably all work places. I’ve always taken it as a given that diversity is a good thing without feeling the need to justify it. But, why is diversity so important in the workplace?

What diversity means to me

For me, diversity refers to cultivation and celebration of ideas from and individuals from different ethnic, national, social, economic, political, physical, mental and sexual (orientation and identification) backgrounds and ways of thinking. Yeah, it’s a cumbersome definition but it’s inclusive, just like the word it defines. And notice, I didn’t write ‘tolerance.’ For me, true diversity means respecting and celebrating differences, not just tolerating them.

Getting back to why diversity is important

An obvious reason is that cultivating a diverse work force allows ‘equal’ opportunity for folks from different backgrounds, some of which come with challenges that can be roadblocks to success. But I think the strongest argument for diversity is that we ALL benefit from working in an environment with people from diverse backgrounds, ideas and experiences. Working with folks with different experiences, different sets of assumptions and approaches to problems not only has the potential to lead to more creative solutions but also forces us to challenge our own assumptions and ideas.

Lack of diversity in the sciences is a problem

Despite the potential benefits, the sciences still struggle to be sufficiently diverse. We have a really nice representation of international scientists (which is great!). However, there’s a glaring and well-documented under-representation of African-Americans, Native Americans, Mexican-Americans, mainland Puerto Ricans and Pacific Islanders across academic and research institutions nationally. The problem gets worse the higher you go up the ladder, from undergrads, grad students, postdocs, faculty, and all the way up to higher administration. The reasons behind this are complex-involving circumstances that have basis in history, economics, social and racial conditions and politics-and we won’t explore them here.

What we can explore here are some possible solutions. Through a series of posts I’ll conveniently call ‘The Diversity Series’, I’ll explore different solutions some of us are implementing locally to foster diversity. The next post in the series will be ‘Sharing Our Stories.’


FDA Halts 23andme ‘Personal Genome Service’ Sales

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent notice to 23andme co-founder and CEO, Ann Wojcicki, to stop selling the company’s direct-to-consumer genetic testing kits because the company was acting “without marketing clearance or approval in violation of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act” (See full letter from the FDA). As the company seeks to provide medically relevant information to consumers, it is being required to seek FDA approval for the test which was first released in 2007.

The letter from the FDA sites that the federal organization has been working with 23andme to resolve many issues related to marketing and clinical validation of PGS (Personalized Genome Service) so several years without receiving the requested information and data, while 23andme has continued to expand marketing and the uses of their product.

I’ve previously written my opinion about personalized genomic testing like  what’s offered by 23andme, cautioning my friends to see it as entertainment only. Personally, I believe this new action by the FDA is a win for the consumer. Any test being marketed directly to the consumer (without a physician ordering the test) that claims to provide information that can be used to inform medical/lifestyle changes should be regulated. One would assume that most folks would consult a physician before making lifestyle changes based on genetic risk information from tests such as that offered by 23andme. However, I fear that operating under that assumption is probably not very wise. With expanded clientele through television advertisement, the chances of inappropriate use and interpretations of genetic tests outside the realm of physician and genetic counselor consultation are likely to increase.

Here are some other reports on FDA’s action on 23andme:

Scientist, Communicator, Innovator

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