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  • Writer's pictureOindrila Ghosh

Starting my journey in India (2010-2017)

I completed my higher secondary education (often identified as high school in the US) after clearing the XII standard Boards in 2012. I started my career in science in 2010 soon afterwards. My parents never imposed anything on me but I always felt a little nudge from everyone around me that made me feel that choosing science is a safer option. While I was aware of my creative instincts that made choosing the Sciences over the Arts a little difficult always, it was only natural for an introvert like me to follow the guidance of ‘elders’ who knew better. At a time when my own reasoning skills were not as developed, I was less informed about all the existing options as most kids are at that point in their lives. The choices I made since then, contributed to my present career in Science as a PhD student in Environmental Engineering.

I have been wanting to write this series for a long time now. The job hunting phase in the last few months of my PhD has made me ruminate about my career choices and I realize there is no better time to get those ideas down. So, here I am, writing the story of my journey and the lessons learnt in the process. As the first chapter in this journey, I wanted to share some background about the culture of getting into an engineering field in India and how I got into my current PhD program. I will be using several terminologies throughout that might not be familiar to you or intuitive. I will try my best to define them as they come. If I miss anything I would be happy to clarify them in the Comments section.

I did my Bachelors in Chemistry at the University of Delhi, India which was not ‘Engineering’ but ‘Basic Science’. It was universally understood by families who had to make this choice together with their kids about the future of their career, that only those who did not get into engineering institutes, went the basic science route. It was always the Plan B; the second choice. Everyone around me was preparing to get into the best engineering colleges around the country by clearing several competitive entrance exams at the end of their 12th standard boards. My father came home one day suggesting that I take admission in one of these coaching institutes that would prepare me for the entrance examinations. He was more than willing to pay for it. Over the two years of 2011 and 2012, in addition to my school hours, I had a total of five home-tuition teachers and the coaching institute. I had two teachers in each subject, one who taught me advanced level Math/ Chemistry necessary to clear entrance exams and another who helped me understand the fundamentals. I had one Physics teacher who was renowned to be the jack of all levels of teaching, fundamentals and advanced. He taught 100 students in one batch. The lecture was held in the living-dining area of my house and lasted up to three hours. By the end of the 3 hours, students were cramped and tired with their heads bursting from all the condensed information delivered. Weekends were spent at the coaching institutes. We would pack our bags and lunch, much like school days, for an entire day of more science lectures. Whatever energy was left at the end of attending these lectures throughout the week was then utilized to prepare for weekly tests at school. After all, the grades received at the preliminary school tests were a qualifying step deciding if we would pass the Boards eventually that would allow us to graduate to the next level. At the end of 2011, I quickly realized how unsustainable the entire plan was. My grades at the coaching center exams, school exams and home tuition quizzes only showed how terrible my overall growth was and the reason was, I had no time for myself to process all the information and revise. I decided to quit the coaching class and bring down the number of tuition teachers to four instead of five. I let go of the Chemistry advanced level tuition because I felt that was the least I learnt anything from. In 2012 I performed reasonably decently in my XII standard Boards and was among the top 1% performers of merit in my school. I found myself getting admission in Chemistry in Miranda House College, which was one of the top three colleges at the University of Delhi. Chemistry was not my first choice at the time, I always felt Physics was my favorite. But admissions at the best colleges within the University of Delhi system happened through the cutoff percentages in your Boards. The top colleges required a % cutoff in Physics that was higher than what I secured.

In an ideal world, I should have been elated with my admission at one of the best universities in the country. But that was not the case. Apart from the fact that I was stepping outside of the house for the first time and was terribly homesick staying alone, away from my family and friends, I ended up feeling rejected instead of accepted. I felt as if I ended up with what I deserved after percolating through the education system. In addition to my Boards exam, I wrote a bunch of entrance exams for national and state level engineering institutes, but my performance/ rank was never good enough to get admission into the decent engineering colleges in the country. Several of my friends got through and for what it looked like, they were getting rewarded for their hard work, except me. I did get into several private engineering colleges but my family would not be able to afford my tuition fees if I actually attended them. I would need an educational loan which I was never thrilled about. So there I was rejected by these engineering institutes around the country with no option but Basic Science to choose from, or that’s what I felt! Thus, I ended up completely ignoring the fact that I was admitted into this great program, also because of my merit, and kept focusing on the negative side of things. After spending the three years of my Bachelors mourning about all the places I could have gone and did not get into instead of what I already had, it was soon time to prepare for competitive exams once again, this time to get into a decent Masters program. I was attending coaching classes after an entire day of attending lectures and labs in college. After nearly 10 failed attempts at competitive entrance exams, I found myself lost without further opportunities. I came to hate competitive exams. I felt anxious in exam halls imagining what it would be like if I failed another exam!

A lack of self worth and confidence shook me from the core. I was ready to give up. I remember traveling to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of the South Indian state of Kerala, to write an exam. Coming out of the exam hall, I remember feeling almost certain that I would not clear it. I had never been more certain about anything in my entire life. The results came out in the afternoon and I was right. That evening I had a melt down in front of my father who was accompanying me in the trip. I told him that this was not for me. I wanted to do something totally different; maybe Fine Arts or something that made me truly happy. That way, even if I failed, it would make me happy because I would have at least tried to give a shot at something I truly wanted. It was the evening where I came out about my deepest insecurities with a career in science. That was the first and last time I went to Kerala. I have heard it is a paradise state, and I am willing to experience it the first moment I find. But that was how my first trip to Kerala was.

After returning from the trip I think I attempted a few more competitive entrance exams. But meanwhile, I also started venturing out into other directions and looking for more applied positions rather than core Chemistry Masters options. One email from my Inorganic Chemistry professor at DU stood out. This was about the Environmental Studies program at the recently revived Nalanda University. (Nalanda was a renowned Buddhist monastery in ancient India that served as the greatest international center for learning between 427-1197 CE. It was destroyed in the 1200s by a suspected Turko-Afghan invasion by a conquerer named Bakhtiyar Khilji. In 2010, the Government of India passed an Act to establish the contemporary Nalanda University after the 11th Indian president Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam proposed an idea for reviving the ancient university. It was listed as an "Institute of National Importance" by the Government of India with Dr. Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Laureate in Economics, appointed as the first chancellor of the university.) In 2015 the new Nalanda University had only one batch of students passing out from two departments: The School of Ecology and Environment Studies (SEES) and The School of Historical Studies (SHS). The SEES curriculum at the new Nalanda University seemed different from the existing curriculum set by the other university programs in the country. It was interdisciplinary providing the students an opportunity to choose from courses ranging from the qualitative sciences like Environmental Sociology and Environmental Law and Policy to more quantitative sciences like Hydrology and Nano-materials. But in all honesty, what stood out to me in that phase of my life as a student of Science who had lost her way in the world and thrived in self doubt and lack of motivation, was that there was no entrance examination! An application packet comprising of a Statement of Purpose and Resume was all that I had to submit that would be reviewed by the professors to decide if I was fit to receive a call for interview. I received a call for interview, which went well and I was admitted to this innovative interdisciplinary program at Nalanda University of the new age in the small town of Rajgir, Bihar.

When I arrived at NU, the scenery was very different from what I was used to, back in Delhi. I took a Patna Rajdhani express from my hometown of Durgapur, West Bengal up to Patna, Bihar which was an overnight journey of about 6 hours in comparison to a 16 hour journey to Delhi. At the Patna railway station, the university had arranged for a carpool service that would take at least four students per car up to the university campus in Rajgir. Three hours of a car full of exciting stories and two snack stops later, we arrived at the campus. Rajgir is a town where the main mode of conveyance was horse drawn rickshaws, often called tangas. The make-shift campus and the student hostels, which were rented hotels from the Bihar government at the time, were located in the middle of the hills. I hear things have changed now and with the new campus being built (the new architecture is reminiscent of the ancient Nalanda), students have moved to the new campus. When we got off the car and entered the seating area of the hostel, it was the most energetic but humble group of people I had ever met in my life. One among them was a Chemistry undergrad at DU before this. She sat on the chair in front of me, talking about her experiences about getting admission in the DU system. She mentioned how frustrating it was when they kicked her out of the hostel when her grades did not hit the cut-offs required to live in the student hostels. Student hostels at DU were cheaper than the Paying Guest (PG) hostels. I got sucked into the conversation immediately and shared my experiences of being rejected an admission in the Physics department of the college of my choice, because of the high cut-offs. I mentioned how I had to choose to stay happy with Chemistry. I also told her how I chose to stay in PG from the very beginning. Soon, I learnt that this student was here to pursue a degree in History that had nothing to do with her past training in Chemistry. I was surprised to hear that because Environmental Science was a closer cousin to Chemistry than History ever was. I was skeptical about my career choice to move into Environmental Science with a background in Chemistry but her bold choice made me feel validated and I realized venturing out was not so bad after all! This realization instantly relieved me because I quickly found out that everyone in this room had very similar stories to share. In a way, we were the rejected lot! We were a group who did not fit in the conventional education system and wanted to do something completely different from where we started our journey. Staying away from home was going to feel a lot better, I figured.

Soon the lectures started and I realized, for the very first time in my life, learning was fun! We chose our majors and minors based on our interests and inquisitiveness to learn new topics. History folks attended Environmental guest lectures and I found myself attending art history lectures asking interesting questions that often got applauded! There were rigorous reading and writing assignments in almost all the courses we took. Lunch and dinner tables were places where students from both departments met and discussed about their viewpoints on lecture topics. In spite of staying in a very remote town like Rajgir, where the main mode of travel was horse carts even in the 21st century, it was the best two years of my academic life. I felt liberated and less suffocated with a looming examination to appear in. I felt alive. My hostel room had enormous windows that overlooked the Rajgir hills and my mind was occupied with the thought of learning something new each day. I could not wait to go back to class and back at my room to read the assigned papers and get on with writing. Exams were take-home and lasted for 24 hours. During those 24 hours, we would sit together in groups, discuss the problems and find solutions to them together. Once the discussions were over, we would head back to our individual rooms to finish writing the exam on our own. It was at that time that I read Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In yet another reading assignment I was reading about the pertinent issue of Arsenic heavy metal pollution in my home-state of West Bengal in eastern India and the plight of the people undergoing the implications of it, often ignorantly. Learning, just for the fun of it, without the element of unhealthy competition to pass a common exam for all, involved group discussions instead of one-dimensional lectures, that opened the platform for discussing controversial topics. I was living in the moment for the first time without having to worry about constantly standing out by proving my worth.

In 2016, the first summer after starting my Masters, I was offered a paid internship at the Department of Earth Sciences in the Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), Kolkata. One of the tasks here was to perform literature review and examine the trends in reported pesticide levels in human milk. Other times, I was performing laboratory assessments of water quality parameters, to check the efficiency of an artificial aquifer recharge technology. This internship was a great stepping stone towards learning the skills of working in a lab environment and data analysis. In the last year of my Masters, I started an independent study under the supervision of Dr. Prabhakar Sharma, who taught us Geohydrology and Nano-Particles in the Environment. For this, I synthesized nano-sized biochar particles by pyrolysis of rice husk and sugarcane bagasse in a muffled furnace. One of the campus staffs, brought us some rice husk from his village rice mill and I went out with a jute bag myself collecting sugarcane bagasse from the juice cart in the local market. I would collect the biomass in small glass crucibles with lids and heat them in the oven, come in the next day to grind, dry-sieve and wet-sieve them. For the wet-sieving process I would prepare an aqueous solution of the dry-sieved biochar particles and pass it through a 11 micron nylon filter fitted in a glass suction filtration unit. This nylon filter was a special one that my advisor got from a visit to his prior lab at the University of Washington, USA. We had only a scrap piece of the filter left, possibly only a 4x4 in piece, and I could cut out only 3 circles out of it for my experiments. So I synthesized all my biochar particles for my Masters dissertation using that one scrap piece of nylon filter. One day I came to the lab early and decided to discard the old filter and install a new one on the filtration unit. I searched our inventory but could not find the last scrap piece of the nylon filter from which one last circle could be cut out. Worried, I asked for some help from the two lab assistants and one of them mentioned that we had some filter papers with the same mesh. So I decided to carry on my experiments with a new 11 micron Cellulose filter (also known as paper filters)! My advisor dropped by and when he heard my plan, got furious! He threw away the cellulose filters and asked us to keep looking for the nylon filters. I found the nylon mesh later and was able to conduct my experiments. Cellulose filters would introduce background contamination to our biochar and it was a stupid move on my part! That was the first and last time I saw my advisor, Dr. Sharma lose his temper! He was the kindest person with positive feedback every time and he made the entire journey of conducting research with limited resources a great learning experience. I continued working on the same project for my Masters dissertation and studied the stability of the synthesized biochar particles in various salt concentrations and pH when passed through different collector grain sized saturated porous medium by column transport mechanisms. Along with the nylon filter, Dr. Sharma had got us one 6 inch long glass column of 1 inch diameter that I was using for the column experiments. The day I finished all my experiments, the glass column slipped and broke. I kept thinking months later, about what would happen if the incident happened in between my experiments! Since that was the only piece existing in the lab, I glued up the broken pieces together and also replaced the defective piece with a new one when I left the lab.

A lizard almost prevented me from graduating my Masters in the summer of 2017. One day I came to the lab and started running my column experiment samples on the Agilent UV-Visual Spectrophotometer. I switched on the instrument and ran my first sample when the Mrs. Jha who was in-charge of the lab, entered the room and switched on the lights. There was a snap sound and the instrument shut down almost instantly. We reached out to the Agilent customer care over the phone and asked for an on-site initial inspection. I remember the day the Agilent folks arrived to the Campus gates on a Tanga. After taking the instrument apart, they announced that the motherboard was short-circuited by a lizard that got into the system. The carcass of the lizard was recovered later. The body and the head were separated and only the skeleton remained. I was not sure if the university would pay up for the repair; the quote for replacing the motherboard was close to 12 lakh rupees. So I decided to ship my samples to Bidhan Chandra Krishi Vishvidyalaya (BCKV), Kolkata. My father was an ex-student there. His friends were professors now and I had done a short internship back in 2013 with one of the professors. When I reached out to them for help, one of the professors mentioned they did have the instrument and was willing to let me use it for a couple of days. I asked one of the staff members on campus to help me out with packaging my samples and was ready to leave. But then, in the very last minute, the university decided to pay up for the replacement of the motherboard and got it fixed. I finished analyzing my samples and defended my Masters thesis in June 2017.

In the last year of my Masters, my GPA was the highest in my department and I figured I enjoyed research. I wanted to pursue my Doctorate studies abroad and adopt a career in research. I was planning to apply to different schools in the USA . Aniruddha, my boyfriend at the time (now husband) was applying for PhD positions in Computer Science to schools in the USA as well and we were secretly desperate to move abroad together. But since we were applying simultaneously, it was hard for us to coordinate the schools we were applying to and there was a huge uncertainty of where each of us would end up. The general protocol for my PhD applications was something like this: first I would shortlist the names of potential PhD supervisors based on the research I was following during my Masters and points of reference of my Masters advisor, Dr. Sharma (and other professors at NU). After this, I would go deep into the lab group websites of the shortlisted professors, read some of their work and write a draft email curtailed for each professor asking them if they were accepting students for the Fall of 2017. Rarely did professors reply to my emails. But sometimes they did. Most professors would end up informing that they were not accepting students for that term. Some were even kind enough to redirect me to professors in other universities working in similar fields, who they thought might be taking in new PhD students. Once, I remember I went through the entire process and submitted an application to a school. I was happy and almost certain that I would get a chance to talk to this professor or get an interview at least. However, I received an email where he mentioned that he was not aware that the department would not accept students without an engineering background. This was a little demotivating at those early stages of application but I soon realized that this was part of the process. Sometimes professors were very straight forward and mentioned that they did not have the funds. From the publications listed in the profiles of my list of professors I would find new names, dig deeper into their websites and learn about their research and if I found something that matched my interests, I would shoot out an email to them asking the same question. Soon I was getting efficient in digging out the names of professors or departments that were suited to my interests and I was sending out several emails in a day. In the end I remember applying to total of 7 programs in different schools. My current school was not on my list at the time but Aniruddha received an offer from the University of Maryland Baltimore County (UMBC), Baltimore, Maryland. I received PhD offers from two schools: University of Tennessee and Texas A&M University (TAMU), College Station, Texas. I decided to accept the offer from TAMU.

The decision and what came after accepting the offer is what comes in the next chapter. So, stay tuned!

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  • Writer's pictureOindrila Ghosh

As a real example of what becoming more worldly wise and responsible is going to be like, the month of my thirtieth birthday was loaded with a bunch of difficult news from home. My grandmother had to be hospitalized with a sudden event of high blood pressure. (My father’s parents came to stay with us since 2020. Their deteriorating health with age and the travel bans during the pandemic made my father take the decision of bringing them close so that he could take care of them easily.) My uncle, the eldest brother of my mother, was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer late last year. I met him early this year when I visited India and he was still trying to be very strong about his condition. However, it seems things have gone downhill in the last couple of weeks and quite sadly, he does not recognize his family members anymore. As if this was not enough, my mother had to be suddenly hospitalized with a ruptured appendix on 10th August, two days after my birthday. Staying away from family in these trying times has been difficult. I have no siblings and my parents have been brave to never stop me from pursuing what I wanted to do in life. But at this moment, I feel helpless not being able to stand by them. I constantly think about ways I can make myself useful. Can I say or do something? Are there places I can go or people I can talk to who can then directly or indirectly help my parents deal with all of this? I felt maybe I should just put my PhD on hold for some time, go to India and deal with this for a moment. But then again, will my being there be an extra thing on their plates? Will I be able to actually help much? The dilemma with the guilt of not being able to help in a substantial way was too real to handle on some days.

The first time I came to the US, getting used to the difference in culture was difficult for me. But the longer I stay here, I realize, I am slowly adapting to this culture and going back to India does not feel the same anymore. My therapist identified this symptom as a reverse-cultural-shock. It means I now dwell somewhere in the middle; not very much like the Americans by heart, but also not quite Indian in my ways. But in the real world, this dwelling in the middle is challenging. I can drive a car, but only on the right side of the road. And since I learned driving after coming to the US, I can only drive the cars with automatic gear arrangement. I cannot think when two people talk at the same time. My brain shuts down at the first sign of disagreement and aggressive attitude from anyone I communicate with. I find it hard to respect ‘elders’ with non-evolving mindsets about society and women. These are real things that I would have to deal with if I choose to go and actually help. I would have to rise above these concerns and meet my discomfort with non-agreeable situations in the eye. But how long will I be able to do that? Disregard my mental health for accomplishing something that probably could be achieved even without me being there, in the first place? What should be a priority for me now? Is it necessary to do something all the time? Or is it okay to step inside a shade and wait for the storm to be over? But then again, my instincts of being a people-pleaser and growing up with very Indian values, I question my approach. Am I escaping the hard bit? Am I not performing my duties as a child of my very giving parents? What would people think? Are they already talking about me? Do they think I am not being responsible here? Do they think I am having the time of my life abroad, leaving my old parents in deep trouble? I believe, in the end, it is all about what problem we choose to prioritize and resolve.

Sometimes, I think about the fact that my mother and her brother being sick at the same time says something about the bond they share. I never had a sibling and maybe I would never understand that. My mother will be released tomorrow from the hospital. And from all the feedback, her operation went well and she will be recovering over the next couple of months. As for my uncle, the doctors seem to have tried everything that can be done. My grandmother was released from the hospital last week. She, in her late 80s now, needs some extra care but is doing better than before. In the end I think we are exactly where we are supposed to be. I guess, it is times like these that make me believe in destiny, that there is a script where it is all written down and that we are mere actors in a giant play. We can try to alter our course of actions, but will we really change anything? I could have paused my work here and gone to India to try and help everyone like I wanted. But it would not increase the rate of recovery for my mother, my grandmother or my uncle. We would all invest a lot of time, energy and money to accomplish something in a game that is already working at its own pace and own agenda. Maybe sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to not do anything and wait.



If you ask a PhD student if feeling guilty for not working enough is a thing, I bet 90% of the time the answer is bound to be, “Hell yeah!” And most of the time, the reason is not because they are not actually working. It is a matter of the relative amount of work done in their perspective and the standards being very high. These standards are often results of expectations imposed upon them by their immediate environment.

My first acquaintance with the feeling of guilt for not working enough, was at the end of the first semester after joining my PhD program at UMBC when my advisor called me in his office for an intervention. He was concerned about what looked like a lack of interest. He was not happy with how distracted I was checking my phone in the middle of meetings, barely showing interest in what was going on in the lab and leaving early every day. He mentioned, “There is a new gas chromatographic instrument in the lab that needs to be set up. If I were you, it would be my new toy and I would be very excited to get to know how it works from all the materials available.”

After coming from India to the US in 2017, relocating from Texas to Maryland in 2018, was a lot of change for me to handle. I spent a year learning about mapping tools and how meandering rivers change environmental landscapes. And now, I was joining a lab that studied harmful chemicals, how they move about in the environment and the risk they pose to living organisms. In spite of some relevant and common core courses, it meant I had start from scratch. New skillsets, new courses, new people, new rules, new campus and a very new personal relationship status. I moved in with my long-term partner after almost four years of long-distance relationship, which came with its own set of adjustments. I would come to the lab with low energy levels. I would get tired very easily reading research papers to familiarize myself with this new research area. My lack of dexterity in the lab would make me angry at myself and I would prefer to stay away from lab chores.

The intervention made me feel terrible. I wanted to be more aware and inquisitive. This was an opportunity for me to learn and I felt I was not utilizing it and taking things for granted. I felt guilty of not working enough. Feeling anxious about having to prove my worth was not something new for me. But this time I knew I was not functioning most efficiently and that there was truth in what my advisor had pointed out. So, after a lot of hesitation, I sent him an email explaining my side of the story. He appreciated the fact that I shared the story with him and was willing to help me in any way possible to get back on full steam. I kept struggling to make things work in the lab. My experiments kept producing weird results that did not make any sense and my research was not going anywhere. Over the next year and a half, in the midst of the COVID shutdown, for the first time, my modeling experiments showed some promising results. The excitement of working experiments after a hard struggle over several weeks or months, is something that can make you forget about anything wrong that is happening in your life. I felt the first thread of trust, to resolve a problem, grow within me.

But guilt and lack of confidence in your instincts is like a parasite. Once it gets in your system, it is bound to come back and attack your subconscious when you are weaker than usual. The moments of success come very rarely in one’s lifetime. Days of failure happen more regularly and most days, you are weak, searching for what went wrong. It is during those times that these parasitic instincts of guilt and low confidence creep up on you and make you lose trust in your judgement. I realized that I had made rules for myself that I was trying to live up to and failing which I was beating myself up. I would have to convince myself to take a break from work. And every break would be followed by a lot of justification in my head and extra work to make up for the lost hours resulting in burn outs. This would lead to fatigue, followed by an average low energy for work and we were back in the loop. Every burnout almost felt worth it when the success came afterwords. It is an intoxicating cycle that is always hard to break out from. My father once told me as a kid never to say NO to opportunities. I have followed that mantra for too long to realize that every opportunity to prove my worth to the world need not be adhered to. Saying NO to responsibilities that I am doubtful of undertaking, often takes greater courage than agreeing with a half hearted YES. For the first time in a long while, I was making peace with my limitations as a human being. The moment I gave myself the permission to be only human, the people around me understood my worth and both parties realized that the foundation to build trust has already been laid. Unfortunately this realization usually comes to me after many iterations of the toxic guilt-overworking-burnout cycle in every sphere of my professional life.

In my last year of PhD, I am working simultaneously on multiple projects. I am trying to balance writing manuscripts while finishing experiments on the side. There are always little side projects that need quick processing and delivery that we try to help with. With time, juggling with these responsibilities and deliverables is getting less overwhelming. But managing my time and distributing equal attention to multiple projects simultaneously still throw me off-guard. In those days, I have been transparent with my advisor. I have either asked for more time and he managed to get an extension on the project for us or simply stayed away from taking more responsibilities. Once he told me, “ Regardless of who pushes you to get things done, you set your priorities at the end of the day. Do not get sick.” I think that advice suits me better because it is not as extreme as not having the freedom to say no to opportunities and lets you choose your limits. Accepting my limits, I feel liberates me in a way to focus on problems I can and want to solve. Quite contrary to what I seemed like before, I am interested in almost everything and most days it is hard for me to choose what to prioritize. But choosing the right problem to solve is an ever-evolving process. There are always days when I am not working and I feel guilty. On those days I try to kind to myself and give me some time to recover from a burnout. Other times when I am in full-form, you might find me working in the lab with a smile on my face, a BBC Nature podcast blasting my headphones. On those days, it is hard to distract or demotivate me.

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  • Writer's pictureOindrila Ghosh

Updated: Aug 16, 2023

- Oindrila Ghosh, Jada Damond

Over the period of my graduate studies, I developed a liking for environmental modeling of contaminants. However, spending all my time on the computer, I have developed a Vitamin D deficiency from the lack of sunlight – a very common phenomenon for people these days due to our sedentary lifestyles. My doctor noted that not only is seafood a great source of Vitamin D, it is a heart-healthy food also rich in omega 3 fatty acids and riboflavin, among other nutritional benefits. So, I started to incorporate tuna in my diet. I perfected a tuna salad sandwich, which my husband and I enjoy for breakfast – the two of us share one 5-oz can of light tuna over at least two days.

It came as a shock to read this recent Consumer Reports (CR) article which states that about 20% of the 30 tested tuna cans across several brands had mercury (Hg) spikes over their reported average, although they did not go into the details of the actual concentration levels. CR say that these spikes would change the FDA's recommended consumption limit. Fish is well-known for posing a risk of Hg poisoning to consumers. When Hg pollutes body of water, it is microbially transformed into methylmercury and subsequently taken up by aquatic wildlife. Methylmercury is very bioaccumulative; levels in certain fish increase going up the food chain, as predatory fish eat contaminated prey. Consequently, prolonged heavy fish consumption can lead to adverse neurotoxic and neurodevelopmental effects (among others), particularly posing a risk to developing fetuses, breast-fed babies, and young children. This risk was a reality for this victim, who discovered his loss of balance, numbness in his lips, and tingling in his feet were attributed to Hg poisoning after increasing his fish consumption in attempt to adopt a healthier diet.

The CR article raises an important question: “Is Tuna a good dietary preference? If yes, how much is the safe limit of consuming it?” The type of fish consumed certainly determines one’s risk of Hg poisoning. For example, the larger (and more expensive) Albacore tuna was reported to have almost three times more Hg levels than the smaller light tuna (including skipjack). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) posted fish consumption guidelines which recommend how much of certain types of fish consumers should stick to and what fish to avoid. These guidelines are based on a reference dose (RfD) reported by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) above which adverse effects can occur – specifically, neurotoxic effects in babies and young children exposed in utero or by their oral consumption. The EPA RfD, which incorporates a 10-fold uncertainty factor for pharmacokinetic and pharmacodynamic variability, is 0.1 µg methylmercury per kilogram of human body weight per day. From this RfD, the FDA calculated the safe amount of fish to be consumed, based on average Hg levels in several types of fish. Considering the serving size for adults as 4 oz (113 grams) the FDA recommends at most one serving of albacore tuna and two servings of light tuna per week. This informs me that I should not eat more than 8 light tuna or 4 albacore tuna sandwiches (from de-watered tuna cans) per week.

Risk assessment is a well-known concept among environmental scientists and engineers defined by the EPA as the process of ‘characterizing the nature and quantifying the magnitude of health risks to humans and ecological receptors from chemical contaminants and other stressors that may be present in the environment.’ Risk communication is the real-time exchange of this information of the potential risk between experts and public, in the form of advice and opinions. Thus, risk communicators are an essential link between the scientific world and the people exposed to the imminent threat from the stressors in the environment. Any form of ambiguity in the language from the risk communicators at the supply end of products can make it difficult for consumers to take the right decision. Taking this deep dive raised another important question about communication to consumers, “Are we, as consumers, getting the true picture of the risk associated with having chosen can of tuna?”

The EPA RfD and FDA consumption guidelines are based off average measured Hg levels in fish, which can vary from site to site and even fish to fish, leading to the Hg level spikes observed by CR. Many tuna companies do not test every fish they sell, which in their defense is an expensive endeavor. It is up to the consumer to be informed about the risks of their fish consumption. However, although EPA’s RfD (and subsequently FDA’s fish consumption guidelines) are partially based on exposure to fetuses in utero, because of the variability observed across tuna cans, CR also recommends that pregnant women avoid canned tuna altogether.

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