The Ananya Factor

Ananya, is a Sanskrit word that means “unique”. And this is a blog about a not-so-uniquely named person that I met when I had gone for a conference.

Now, if you have been following my blog posts, you know two things about me, with absolute certainty:

  1. I am a PhD student and full-time introverted nerd with below average social skills.
  2. I am a woman in academia, who often complaints and feels very strongly about the striking lack of other women like me.

Oh, and also I always make lists. So you know three things!

And so, when I flew to California for this huge conference, I was hoping to meet a few like-minded female academicians, who felt as passionately as I did, about math. Except, I didn’t. But I did meet one female academician. And she was the complete opposite of me. And her name, much like her personality, was like-no-other. She was Ananya.

Now before you start wondering if I have some sort of girl crush on this woman, I must say that she definitely caught my attention… made me rethink a lot of my preconceived notions. So I was definitely curious to know more about her, because she was very different. And very unique. And I rarely bump into women of that sort. Or women of any sort, to be frank.

Also, in the same picture was another girl, also named Ananya, which was even more bizarre. There were two Ananyas. One that I met in person. And one, that I heard about from others, and whose paper I was a blind reviewer for. Now, the focus of this blog is the Ananya I-met-in-person (Ananya 1), but let me also give you a back story of the Ananya I-didn’t-meet-in-person (Ananya 2). So, I was a reviewer for this workshop that happened during this conference, and I was not-so-impressed by a certain abstract that I had received. I gave it a mid-level rating (neither Accept nor Reject) and for some reason, it was selected for Orals at that workshop. So Ananya 2 was definitely in attendance, and her name kept springing up from different corners. She apparently won a computer in a lucky draw. She was also endorsed by a huge company. She was everywhere, but nowhere to be seen. But I couldn’t care less.

Ananya 1 on the other hand, was everywhere to be seen. I kept bumping into her and she was extremely chatty. She was from one of the top colleges from my home country and she was also a PhD student here at the US. And she also worked in Machine Learning. So my initial guess was that she was a nerd. But she wasn’t. She had great social skills (well, maybe not so great, considering she hijacked my conversation with my professor)! And she actually looked down on me for being too mathy. I of course, took that as a compliment.

She was kind of a train-wreck. She was clumsy, but she really couldn’t care less about it. She was struggling with setting up her poster during the poster session, so I helped her. It came out printed the wrong way (and super pricey), so we had to tear the glossy paper off the hardboard to pin it up to the poster mounts. And I also accompanied her and two random dudes for lunch and beers at a brewery. I would have never done that on a normal day, but this was fun. I was hanging out with the cool kids. And they were nerds. I never knew that such a cross-breed even existed!

On the last day of the conference, during the closing reception, I ended up drinking a lot and I was accompanied by this very Ananya (because, of course, I bumped into her again). I also ended up meeting some of her friends from college and I had a really nice time, generally chatting with them.

Ananya said she wanted to attend one of the two sponsor after-parties that night, cause then she’d be at a solid number of 10 parties in the entire week. I told her that if she considered the closing reception as one party, she could attend both after-parties and claim that she literally attended a dozen parties. She bought into the whole idea a bit too easily.

She was also really interested in picking up a European guy that night and told me all about her boy preferences, both for one-night-stand and serious-dating purposes. She also tried to get me to dance while the band was playing, but I really couldn’t, specially not after I saw my boss’s best friend, right beside me. She was pretty turned off by that. At the end of it all, I decided to retire early at 7:30pm and four cups of wine down. I hugged her twice and I must admit, it did feel nice and warm and fuzzy. I’m guessing that had more to do with the booze. We then parted ways, cause she had two after-parties to hop to, and I had to get back to my oh-so-boring ways of skipping any kind of late-night stranger-filled partying-scenes. Cause, let’s face it. I find adjective-hyphening more fun than that.

But she was really fun to hang out with too. Cause, usually, when I hang out with someone as out-going, I find it hard to strike a fun, yet intellectual conversation with them. What’s worse is, I think I’ve developed a tendency of looking down on some people for not showing enough intellectual curiosity or passion. With her, I couldn’t do that! She was an overachiever. She was a PhD student. And she had worked with some of the best minds in the world. And yet, she had the ability to have fun. And it really amazed me. It opened my eyes up to everything I was not and I could be.

One of the biggest issues that I face as a female in academia, is the lack of role models. I can’t really tell what my breed is supposed to behave like. Do I have to be deeply immersed in research material to succeed? How do I employ my social skills? What kind of attention do I even want to draw to myself, in this extremely gender-skewed population? And, on the top of everything else, how do I overcome my own shyness, get over the fear of rejection and judgement, and interact more with people? How do I let my guard down, and yet be perceived as professional and serious about my work? So it was nice to meet a girl, who had the same background as I did, but was so different from me. Cause it means that I don’t have to conform to what I am, normally, I think there’s scope to grow, and incorporate more personality traits, while retaining some that I know are working well to my advantage.

And on that note, I’ll end this post, just as I ended my meeting with her. Hoping to bump into one such Ananya in the next conference that I attend.

 

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