What’s in a name?

When this year’s bloggers were announced on the Grad Life website, my name was listed as VasNath Ramamurthy, as opposed to VasAnth Ramamurthy.  A minor typo that I actually didn’t even notice until a friend pointed it out to me three months later. So, what’s in name? Vasnath or Vasanth, does it really matter?

When I moved here from India almost 10 years ago, I had my first encounter with this whole concept of a name. As is typical of any foreigner, I had an accent, which I realized very quickly during frosh week. When meeting lots of people at once, the last thing you want is to have to keep repeating your name. I would say “Vasanth,” and people answered “Va-what?”

Thinking a nickname would be simpler, my new friend Joe decided people should call me Big V. Incidentally, many years later, I discovered that Joe’s “real” name is Giuseppe, so he knew what he was doing when he renamed me. I was a scrawny kid and didn’t think “Big V” was the right choice. So, “V” it was for almost five years of my life, until I completed my undergraduate degree. That didn’t stick either. When I moved to Montreal, my supervisor started calling me Vas. He said “V” was too short, and that he could at least attempt to say the first three letters of my name. He thought it sounded more professional. So I have now become Vas.

I have been thinking about this for two reasons. First, I am in the process of submitting an article for publication. Something that came up in a discussion with my supervisor is the fact that a search for Vasanth Ramamurthy on PubMed (the Google equivalent for academic research) returns at least a dozen results. I may have a unique name here, but among the billion people in India, Vasanth is far from rare. He recommended that, if I plan to pursue a career in research, I should come up with a middle name to make myself unique on PubMed. This is actually mainstream practice. People with common names try to distinguish themselves from the lot. A recent article in Nature magazine addressed this issue, and even suggested the use of a number identification system, much like social insurance numbers, to get around the situation.

The second reason names have been on my mind is that I recently watched the movie The Namesake. The protagonist is an American teenager, the son of Indian immigrants who chose to name him Gogol on a whim, after a famous Russian author. Wanting to fit in and deciding that nobody could pronounce his name in the USA, Gogol considers changing his name to something “easier” and more Western, much to his parents’ disappointment. The plot line has more to it, of course, and explores cultural differences between immigrants and their children. But it did get me thinking about my own name.

My parents don’t like this “V” or “Vas” business. It would be interesting to see how they would react to Vasnath Ramamurthy or, say, Vasanth Zack Ramamurthy.

My dad named me after a character from an Indian (Tamil) detective novel series. On a good day in the lab, I do feel like a detective, if maybe a geekier version. So, I think I will stick to Vasanth from now on.

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