The Times They Are A Changin’….

It is quite incredible how time flies by so quickly here at Stanford. Maybe it’s the Quarter Academic system or simply the fact that we are having a lot of fun. It certainly is a very packed time and we are learning new things every single day. Beyond the classes that we are enrolled in, we have the opportunity to attend everything that is happening on campus. In fact, this deep immersion into the Stanford Community is expected of us and our own keenness to do exactly that may well have been a factor in our securing admission to the DCI Fellowship. Let me share two recent highlights of the events calendar that I have relished, even while there remains so much more I have not yet had the bandwidth to attend.

One such amazing event was a Colloquium curated by our Dean about recent innovations and discoveries in medicine. The lineup of speakers was from multidisciplinary specialisations ranging from Neurology, Biochemistry & Bioengineering, Genomics, Regenerative Medicine and Law. Each of these giant minds was incredibly passionate, articulate and hugely inspiring. Listening to the speakers and the discussion was a surreal experience for me, kind of like being in a parallel universe. Once again, I felt that I was discovering another frontier. 

The session on aging started poetically with a quote from Shakespeare’s “As you Like it”:

And so, from hour to hour, we ripe and ripe,
And then, from hour to hour, we rot and rot;

As this morbid description seeped in and the presentations progressed, I introspected on the important distinction between life-span and health-span: Do we really want to live a 100-year life without physical capability and mental alertness?  A related profound question posed was: Can the aging clock be reset? Several speakers presented and explained different ways to extend the health span (reverse aging). Beyond diet and exercise, these include single gene mutation, anti-aging drugs (that facilitate DNA repair), medical procedures such as heterochronic parabiosis, and stem cell transplant. As my brain soaked in these wondrous medical developments to renew life, I ruminated on how mankind is attempting to mimic nature. Computer architecture and neural networks are being inspired by the human brain.  Medical innovations are copying the simple but miraculous process of human birth, when an adult sperm fertilises an ovum to form an embryo! 

This colloquium was particularly fascinating to me due to my personal experience with some of these medical wonders just a couple of years ago. In fact, during my autologous stem cell transplant, I was actually used as a teaching example! This was when the doctors harvested my WBCs (to be frozen outside for a week, while I underwent intense chemotherapy, before being transplanted back into me). While I lay in a special hospital room in Singapore in a semi-comatose, highly drugged state, I could sense high energy chattering and excitement around me. Earlier in the week, I had willingly given permission to be used as a specimen not realising exactly what it entailed. My eldest daughter was with me, having taken a half-year sabbatical from her life in New York to look after me during my treatment. 

Later that day, she enlightened me that the usually quite spacious room was rather cramped with half a dozen enthusiastic medical interns watching the apheresis procedure (akin to a dialysis machine with a centrifugal process to spin out the WBCs from my blood). I missed witnessing a good ‘event’ even though Sharmishtha regaled me for several days with stories about the wonderment in the students’ reactions and other medical critique as they observed me. Given the rich content of the entertainment over the next several weeks of my daughter’s nursing care, I am rather suspicious that there was considerable fiction in her confabulation. But I needed the rejuvenation and she needed content – guess all’s well that ends well! 

It is certainly a privilege to be surrounded by brilliance. The university is home to 17 living Nobel laureates, all in the field of Science and Economics. So when there was an opportunity to listen to a Nobel Literature winner, even a philistine like me grabbed it with both hands. Bob Dylan was to perform at Stanford. On a nippy October evening, escorted by the youngest daughter, I was sprawled on the sloping tree-lined lawn of Frost Amphitheater eagerly awaiting my youth idol. The excitement was palpable and I recognized a certain skunky smell blowin’ in the wind (not out of place at a rock concert in California, I’m sure…). I looked knowingly at Madhulika, and imagined her reply: “It ain’t me, Babe.”

Impersonating my idol circa 1984 (@ IIT Powai)

The music started off with a gruff voice, one I struggled to recognise. Was this wizened ol’ Zimmerman really the soul I had spent countless waking hours adulating, imitating, getting stoned to in my IIT hostel room? Listening to Dylan’s croaks, I couldn’t help but ruminate on the sad and inverse relationship between the deteriorating quality of his voice (I was an expert in aging!) and the vastly improved technology with which it can now be captured. We have come a long way since the rudimentary TDK cassette. 

Soon enough, the familiar baritone set in with unmistakable timbre and remarkable voice control. The band, too, was excellent and had the audience enthralled. As the evening progressed, I felt there was a lot of harmonica, perhaps to give his vocal chords a rest. Disappointingly, he brought out too few songs recognisable to me.

Anyhow, his poetry and music remain timeless. I bow to the genius and imagine his response to my rather harsh observations:

“Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin….
The Times They Are a-Changin’!”

I implored him, “Hey Mr. Tambourine man, play a song for me……

Take me disappearing through the smoke rings of my mind
Down the foggy ruins of time….
….Circled by the circus sands
With all memory and fate
Driven deep beneath the waves
Let me forget about today until tomorrow.”

Overall, it was an amazing performance and a memorable evening, transporting me back several decades. Was it the college environment or the power of his music & lyrics that made me do the heady time-travel?

The answer, my friend, is…

…in the next edition of the memoir. Stay tuned!

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