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DebBurman Lab

D-Lab: Personal

My road to Ikigai

Although I live in the United States, my extended family resides in India. In Indian terms, I am very proudly an ethnic mutt of four distinct cultures that my four grandparents represent (Tripuri, Bengali, Oriya and Gujarati). My father’s family hails from the state of Tripura in Northeastern India (once an ancient Hindu kingdom). My mother’s family hails from the erstwhile province of Hindol (within the eastern state of Odisha). I was born in the capital city of Orissa, Bhubaneswar (also known as the city of temples).

Because my father worked for the Indian Railways, my culturally democratic childhood and schooling was spent over many towns and cities of eastern, central and northern India, including the memorable towns/cities of Adra (West Bengal), Khurda Road (Orissa),  Nagpur (Maharashtra), Guwahati (Assam), and New Delhi, India’s capitol. Since I came to the United States in 1987, I have lived in Springfield (Ohio), Evanston (Illinois), Chicago (Illinois), and Kalamazoo (Michigan), and Lake Forest (Illinois). Moving homes and schools and making new friendships was a routine part of life.

I pursued my K-12 education in India, but came to the U.S for my college education.  At the age of 18 after graduating high school from Delhi Public School (Mathura Road), I got accepted to top medical schools and engineering colleges in India. I did the obvious: pursue engineering at IIT Delhi. Almost immediately, I found engineering boring and was ill-suited for it. Yet, I stuck with it for nearly two years, because “quitting” seemed near-unacceptable.  During this time, I realized that I needed to pursue my true interests but I needed more time to discover them. The realization that I had broad intellectual interests that resisted a narrowing of focus drew me to the liberal arts, and to the U.S. Therefore, I did the unthinkable: dropped out of IIT.

I became an undergraduate student at Wittenberg University in 1987 because they offered me the most financial aid. Simple enough.  Serendipitously, my four years at Witt were nothing short of transformative.  I grew up, intellectually and personally. At college, I satisfied my urge to explore the humanities, social sciences and the natural sciences, which I partly achieved by majoring in biology and economics and minoring in history. More than that, I thoroughly enjoyed taking classes as varied as “Emerson”, “War & Morality”, “Neon Art”, “Electron Microscopy” and “Economics of Natural Resources”. I made some wonderful friendships with Wittenberg students and faculty that remain firm and strong even today.

My social and academic experience at college has navigated my professional path ever since and made me realize while in graduate school that I should become a college professor one day. My senior year, I became fascinated by the mysteries of the human brain when I took a course in physiological psychology, so I decided to pursue a PhD in neuroscience at Northwestern University, attracted partly by the vibrant bustle of cosmopolitan Chicago.

My PhD training taught me to be a discerning scientist and pursue questions that most interest me.  My postdoc years at the University of Chicago extended my ability to think broadly and make interdisciplinary connections. That’s where I discovered my long-term interest to understand the mechanisms of neurological diseases, including my current focus on Parkinson’s disease. During this training period, I gained two influential and inspiring professional mentors: my PhD advisor Marlene Hosey and my postdoc mentor Susan Lindquist.

In 1995, Noyna and I were married in Kolkata (India), knotting a bond that first began as childhood neighbors, and later as family friends. A new and exciting phase began in both our lives. Noyna specialized as a labor and development economist with research interests in the economics of education issues associated with U.S. immigrants, and she received her PhD in economics from University of Illinois-Chicago.

I deliberately declined a tenure-track offer at a national liberal arts college in 1998 and instead accepted a visiting position at Kalamazoo (K) College (MI) so that I could invest more time to become a teacher-scholar, practice and hone my own ideas, while adopting successful strategies at an institution known for science education. Just as I had hoped, I learned how to teach science, rigorously and effectively, and I discovered that what I most enjoy doing was teaching undergraduates, mentoring them in research, and helping them become scholars and leaders.

In 2001, we chose to return to our favorite city - Chicago.  I accepted a tenure-track in job at Lake Forest College, while Noyna accepted a market research economist position at a global firm based in Chicago.  I was drawn to Lake Forest College (Illinois) because of its diverse student body, proximity to Chicago, and its long tradition of intellectual success of its faculty that thrived as both teachers and scholars.

Over the past sixteen years, Lake Forest has turned out to be a stimulating and exciting academic setting for our family. I love what I am able to do with Lake Forest students, faculty, and community.  The welcoming environment within which I am able to explore my own professional and personal creativity has made “work” what it should ultimately be: a source of joy and fun.

Currently, our family lives in Lake Bluff (Illinois). In 2004, we became proud parents of our daughter, Shruti Kumudini, who blooms in our lives and completes it in incredibly satisfying and wondrous ways.


The way I know it, teaching and research are among the highest instruments of intellectual service to society.

My service interests stem deep from my childhood, watching and learning from my parents. They devoted and still devote so much of their energy in helping and improving the communities which they represent. They derive joy from simply helping others succeed, despite the considerable efforts it takes from their lives. They expect little in return. I am awed by the respect my parents command in these communities. Such respect is precious, rare. They have made an indelible difference in the lives of many. They are my role models.

I spent my undergraduate years away from home and at Wittenberg University (Springfield, Ohio), a small liberal arts college that I am very proud of. It holds strong commitment to developing a service-minded individual. College years were rich with opportunities to serve, which helped me develop personally and intellectually. I learned the value of responsible leadership through community service. One of the most meaningful rewards has been observing that ideas I initiated over 20 years ago in college to increase multicultural and interracial awareness continue to endure successful college traditions.

As a visiting faculty member at Kalamazoo College, I witnessed and learned firsthand the depths of personal reward and growth that service provides to faculty. I was awed by the incredible dedication and vision of my colleagues. One cannot easily measure the reward one derives by thoughtfully helping young individuals grow. I find this effort to be an extremely difficult endeavor, but a wonderfully satisfying one. “Making a difference” may be a cliche, but worthy of pursuit throughout our lives, no matter how small individual steps seem.

One of the most productive aspects of being a faculty member at a small college is that I get to explore and develop service interests that can be integrated into my teaching and research interests. I thrive in experimenting with ways to integrate what seem separate three separate parts of my job. I am deeply committed to issues that seek to improve science education efforts at the K-12 and undergraduate levels. I am able to practice my long-term commitment to rigorous recruitment and advancement of culturally and economically disadvantaged students to the sciences, and subsequently mentoring their academic success, and also promote global citizenship via international education efforts.

I strive to engage in service at several levels: to my department and colleagues, to students, to the college, to my profession, to my residential community, and to the world at large. During my career and lifetime, I hope to make significant contributions at many of these levels. I know that few things can be achieved without belief, dedication, time, imagination, collaboration, and respect for others. I look forward to this challenge every day.

The Japanese word Ikigai means “the reason for being”. In other words, what we look forward to each morning. Through lows and highs, twists and bumps, the road I have traveled so far has helped me discover my Ikigai. The work I do at Lake Forest College has become that perfect mesh of passion, mission, vocation, and profession; it has indeed evolved into play.

Four guideposts from Mahatma Gandhi:

“But all my life through,
the very insistence on truth
has taught me to appreciate
the beauty of compromise”
“Satisfaction lies in the effort,
not in the attainment
Full effort
is full victory”
“Life is an aspiration.
Its mission is
to strive after perfection
which is self-realization”
“As a splendid palace
deserted by its inmates
looks like a ruin,
so does
a man without character
all his material belongings