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In conversation with Minhaj Sirajuddin

Harini Barath

A young researcher from the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), Minhaj Sirajuddin has recently been selected to join the EMBO Young Investigator (YI) network. This highly competitive three-year grant offers—among a host of other benefits—a range of grants, meetings and courses, access to facilities at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL), and an opportunity to network and collaborate with other YIs and EMBO members. India became the an EMBC Associate Member State in March this year, enabling life scientists working in India to benefit from the full range of EMBO programmes. Sirajuddin is the first researcher from India to be awarded the grant. He tells us about his work and how the grant will help him take it forward.

Minhaj Sirajuddin
Minhaj Sirajuddin   (Photo: Minhaj Sirajuddin)

Can you tell us a bit about your research?

We are interested in understanding how cytoskeleton assemblies mediate biological motion. The cytoskeleton is a microscopic network of protein filaments and tubules in the cytoplasm that gives shape and coherence to cells. Be it muscle contraction or even complex cellular cargo transport, biological motion involves cytoskeleton assemblies. We want to understand the molecular details of how they achieve these biological motions.

What are the techniques that you employ to study these cytoskeletal assemblies?

The techniques we use are evolving. I am beginning to realise that I want to understand the biology of the cytoskeleton, not just employing one technique to understand one aspect. For the most part, we use structure, function and biophysical methods. More recently, we began collaborating with a human geneticist, Dhandapany Perundurai, who is also a researcher at inStem. Most often, these proteins are the ones which are mutated in diseases because they perform such an important task. This is true in heart diseases, for example. We would like to really expand into that direction and extend our understanding to study disease biology. The hope is that at some point of time, if we understand enough, we can design certain therapeutic interventions—either a drug-based molecule or better management.

You have just been awarded the EMBO  YI grant. Why did you choose to apply for this grant?

I have been in touch with a lot of YIs who were formerly part of the EMBO  YI program (YIP), including senior colleagues from previous labs. They have benefited from the programme in many different ways. One of them recently advised that this would be the right time for me to apply for the grant, and as it turned out, India became an EMBC Member State earlier this year. The timing was so perfect! I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.

Can you tell us about the process of applying for the grant? 

The application deadline was in April and the outcome was announced in mid-October, so it is a fairly long process, but there is not a lot of work involved. For the preliminary application, you have to check to ensure eligibility and simply send in your CV and an abstract of your work, along with recommendation letters from your mentors. If you are shortlisted and invited to submit a full application, you have to write a two-page summary of your research program and how being an EMBO  YI would benefit your work. The interview was in the first week of October. The committee has EMBO members and former YIP members. The interview involves a 10 minute talk followed by 10-15 minute discussion. 

How do you think this grant will take your work forward?

For starters, we could benefit simply with the increased interaction with other EMBO members. As I mentioned earlier, many of my former labmates are now members, now we can collaborate more easily; I can send my students to get trained. I’m not sure yet how much I will avail of the EMBL facilities, but it is something I’m thinking about since I now have access to the facility. Additionally, the grant allows me to organise meetings, so at some point of time, I would like to have a cytoskeleton meeting here in India.

In what other ways do you expect to benefit from being a part of the EMBOYI network?

It’s a great way to get in touch with some of the best young minds in science. Just like my interactions with colleagues here have opened up new lines of investigation into diseases, maybe I will discover something else in my interactions with YIs in the EMBO network. I don’t know yet, but I’m looking forward to it. 

Any advice for other Indian researchers who wish to apply in future?

One concern that came up during the process was about the facilities available to carry out the research I proposed—it helps to bear in mind that reviewers may not be familiar with the research environment here in India. If you encounter that, you need to talk about your institute, the facilities and the general research scenario in India. Maybe it would also help if, in their recommendation letters, your mentors could also write a little bit about the Institute you work at.

Written By

Harini is a physicist by training. Her research uses spectroscopic techniques, including Raman and neutron scattering, to reveal the structure and behavior of materials under extreme physical conditions. More recently, she has developed an active interest in communicating the excitement …