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Ujjwala’s Quest for Health and Science

Ujjwala Singh, who hails from Patna, India, is known for her Northern-style Indian cuisine. Over the years, she has added fusion touches to her cooking repertoire as influenced from her travels around the world. Her kid-friendly toddler recipes are a hit with parents and kids alike! –KRISTIE HANG

Can you tell us more about your background as a scientist and what has inspired you since you left your day job to stay home with your child? What made you share your cooking process with viewers on YouTube?

Ujjwala: Before I left my job, I was actually working as a neuroscientist at City of Hope. I did my master’s in biotechnology, and the two years of my study [in India] made me sure that I could see my future in the lab doing some interesting life science experiments. Very soon, I realized that’s one job that can give me complete satisfaction, because I [loved] the smell as well as the feel of the lab, and overall excitement of getting new things there every day, unlike other repetitive jobs. It used to be just my own world. It [gave] me personal satisfaction in the sense that from its conception to execution, everything [was] mine. You understand? This was something I always wanted to do.

From India to Europe

I actually got a PhD position in India, at a reputed institute called JNU, but then, I gradually realized that maybe to expand my horizons, because I didn’t want to limit myself to one place, I wanted to explore the world. So I started looking for positions outside [India]. But then I realized a PhD in the US takes 7 years, 8 years, and honestly, I’m an impatient person. I wanted my PhD to finish early. And I had [read] really great reviews about European universities, that they were doing some cutting-edge science. You finish your PhD quite early there, with really nice papers (research papers) so I started applying in Europe. Luckily, I was chosen by a program in Switzerland and ended up working at the University of Fribourg there. I did my PhD in biochemistry, but it doesn’t limit me to biochemistry. I also worked in cell biology, classical genetics, biomedical science, so I have a vast area of expertise, but the degree was assigned to me in biochemistry.

I finished my PhD in 4 years, and I got married in my last year. I married a guy who was getting his PhD in mechanical engineering in America so I moved to America, and then I started to look for postdoc positions. I was selected for Harvard, Boston Medical School, Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, but then finally, I chose to work for Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York as a virologist. There I worked with AIDS and HIV patients.

Moving to America

The only family I have in this foreign country is my husband, and he also moved [here] from [India]. Most of the time, I was lonely and depressed. Sometimes I think I should give more importance to my career, but I always kind of sacrifice it. I had a really great career in Switzerland, I could have easily gotten other high-profile jobs, but I left because my husband was in the US and I wanted to move here. Similarly, when he moved from New York to California, I started getting sort of depressed [without him]. I left my job in New York to join him, but I was very lucky to never have a break in my career because before leaving one job, I always got another. Once I moved here, I immediately joined City of Hope, where I worked as a neuroscientist on neurological problems like brain tumors, Alzheimer’s, Canavan disease, etc. I worked on three projects and I was lucky to get through all three of them very nicely. But then, I got pregnant. You know, being a woman, it’s our biological clock that starts ticking, no matter how interesting a turn of career you are at, you have to think about these things as well. Because these things cannot wait for you … and I was 32 already, so I thought, ‘I should start thinking about having a baby.’ Also, my emotional quotient was looking for a baby. In our minds, my husband and I both, we were missing something, so we planned for a baby and I got pregnant, as per my plan. Everything was going with the plan; I worked until the last day of my delivery.

I got disability leave for 4 months, which was paid. For 4 months I was at home taking care of the baby, because my mother was here [from India] so everything was a little easier for me in the beginning, and then after 4 months, I went back to the lab and continued for another 6 months, but in those 6 months I used to feel very emotionally harassed. In the sense that though I was working, my whole concentration was on my baby. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not doing good on his part because he’s too small right now and I should be with him.’

Staying Home

My mother [took care of him during the day]. He was very well taken care of by her. While I cannot imagine myself taking care of Aadish any better, I was still longing to spend some more precious time with him. I was very happy he was cared for, but my personal satisfaction was missing. Being a [new] mother – I wanted to take the whole load of it. Somehow I let it drag on for 6 months, thinking about my projects and everything I could not leave that easily but one day when the stress at work got to be too much in my head, and I wasn’t able to cope, I kind of decided ‘I will quit’. I quit immediately and took a trip to India. Now I’m at home spending all my time with baby.

Since he turned 2, a few months back, this lockdown happened, and I started getting more free time because my husband [was] also staying at home so he gave me some time off. Then, I started thinking about doing something for myself, because I loved cooking during the whole lockdown period. I was making different dishes, and I felt, ‘I do have some hidden liking for cooking!’ I just explored it, honestly, in this lockdown. Everyday, I was thinking about making something new and it always came out quite nice, tasty too. Just out of my interest and the happiness I felt when I [saw] colorful plates on my table, I wanted to click them [with my camera]. Once I had many pictures on my phone I thought, ‘Maybe I don’t want to delete them all just like that, I want to post [them].’ So I started posting in my social handle – actually, I made a separate handle for it, and started getting appreciation from people and this kind of encouraged me to do more. I also made a YouTube channel to get another viewership.

Zine: As a newly launched You-Tuber, what kind of feedback are you getting from your following?

Ujjwala: My family back in India. Whoever has a new child [in the same age group as mine], they’ve already started using some of my recipes to feed their babies. Some of my friends on Facebook have told me [my channel is] actually very helpful. Even on Instagram, different dishes I make whether Italian or Indian or Chinese or whatever it is, people write me and ask for details about how [I made it]. I could share more with them, but due to lack of time, I’m not able to make more and more videos. Of course, after this, when I get some more time to myself, I will definitely try to do more. I love the way people appreciated it. If I were to have done more, I would obviously have received even more [feedback] but I’m not treating it like employment. When I first started doing this, it was a passion for me. Every morning I would check to see how many subscribers I got and how many followers, but I was going mad with it. I was getting addicted to my phone and realized this was not a good thing, because I don’t have control over that [my subscriber count]. I cannot force people to follow me. If they find me interesting, then they will [follow]. So let them, and I will go at my own pace. I am quite content with whatever I have achieved now.

When asked whether she might turn her passion cooking into a business, Ujjwala was not opposed to the possibility but stated that her first love is the science laboratory, and that she hopes to eventually return to her previous career.

Recipes and photos courtesy of Ujjwala Singh.

Workshops and the zine are organized by Slow + Sustain through the volunteer efforts of our contributors. Funding comes from both the contributors and the public.

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