How a dinner meeting between a cell biologist on a sabbatical in India and three young faculty members at the NCBS sowed the seeds for what is now IndiaBioscience.
It would have been just another dinner a reputed cell biologist from the US was having with three young life sciences faculty members, on a typical Bengaluru evening in mid-December 2007. But that dinner sowed the seeds for the setting up of IndiaBioscience, which has now evolved into a platform for scientists and educators in the life sciences to meet and discuss ideas and challenges.
Ronald Vale was on a sabbatical at the National Centre for Biological Sciences – Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (NCBS-TIFR) in Bengaluru from the Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California at San Francisco. Joining him at the dinner table at a trendy Chinese restaurant in the city were three faculty members of NCBS-TIFR – Mrinalini Puranik, Uma Ramakrishnan and Sandhya P. Koushika.
Koushika, an Associate Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, TIFR, recalls that the dinner-table conversation covered a gamut of issues – about how to get a lab up and running, what were the kinds of challenges that people face and what had to be done to improve the lot of young scientists.
Having a wider conversation
“After that dinner,” says Vale, who is now Director of the Janelia Research Campus at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, “it struck me that the need was probably greater than these few individuals I had dinner with. There were probably similar conversations that needed to be held all over India.” The question was how to do them. If India was going to be successful and its ambitious life sciences programme was to move forward, the future was these young faculty members in different institutes in the country. The success of these young faculty was paramount to the success of the life sciences programme, and mentoring was critical for their success. The challenge was to have these mentoring sessions on a large enough scale nationally and empowering the young scientists.
He broached the idea with two others – K. VijayRaghavan, who was then Director of the NCBS and is now the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India, and Satyajit Mayor, who was the then Dean of NCBS and is now the director at NCBS. Both of them immediately jumped at the suggestion.
Vale, says VijayRaghavan, is an unusual person. Apart from being a top class scientist who publishes fantastic work, he is also deeply connected to the purposes of doing science and the different cultural contexts. What Vale suggested, recalls VijayRaghavan, was a series of meetings where young, starting faculty members from India as well as finishing post-doctoral fellows from all over the world and the best scientists from across the country talk not about what scientists had done, but about establishing laboratories and getting started.
“Apart from those at the dinner and a handful of others (who found the idea attractive), there was uniform opposition to this,” recollects VijayRaghavan. The whole opposition stemmed from, who is this person (Vale) to come from abroad and tell us how to organise our sciences.
“That was 2008-09. And today, more than 10 years later, all those critics have done 180 degrees,” says VijayRaghavan. The sceptics became believers. Typically, none of them seemed to remember their initial opposition to the idea.
An opportune period for science
It was also a period when a lot of things were happening globally and in India. Western Europe and the US had been devastated by the collapse of their financial and banking systems. A lot of Indians abroad, especially young post-doctoral fellows and those looking to land research jobs, were actively contemplating returning home. India was investing in and setting up institutes of science teaching and research. It was an active time, a lot of things started around 2009 – C‑CAMP (Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms), an initiative of the Department of Biotechnology of the Government of India; India Alliance (the DBT-Wellcome Trust India Alliance), a public charity that funds research in health and biomedical sciences; and the IISERs (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research).
It was in this context that Vale’s initiative that was actively encouraged by both VijayRaghavan and Mayor gained significance. After VijayRaghavan and Mayor endorsed his idea, Vale sent out emails to the faculty members of NCBS broaching the subject of organising a meeting of young investigators.
Sandhya Koushika and her colleague Mukund Thattai sent out mails inviting participation at the first Young Investigators’ Meeting, which was held in 2009. They did all the hard work, including selecting the venue in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala for hosting the meeting. “We picked the location, we had done all of that work. I had gone and visited it in advance to make sure it would fit our needs. We didn’t know until three days before whether we had the money or not,” recalls Koushika. The NCBS-TIFR became the mother organisation for conducting the meeting.
A successful first meeting and the birth of IndiaBioscience
The first meeting, in what is now referred to simply as YIM, was a resounding success. There was a mix of young scientists, post-doctoral fellows and accomplished mentors, each being paired with the other. All those associated with the event have fond recollections of the event, even after all these years.
If the Young Investigator Meeting started with a dinner, IndiaBioscience started with a social hour at the first Young Investigator Meeting. – Ronald Vale
According to Vale, the meeting included 40 young investigators, or junior faculty, from all over India. There were about 20 post-doctoral fellows, most of them from abroad as there were very few postdocs in the country then. “That was another part of the experiment. We mixed the junior faculty and the postdocs. It was a very successful experiment,” says Vale. On one of those social evenings during the first YIM, Vale asked a few of the postdocs for their feedback on the meeting. Should it be held again? The answer was a unanimous yes. The postdocs, Vale says, felt it was an incredible meeting. Many of them had been outside India for long. For them, it was hard to find any credible and relevant information on India and the first young investigators meeting was a big eye-opener. They really got a sense of how things work in India, says Vale.
Mayor says Vale and he had talked to people independently over breakfast asking for their feedback. Then there was a goodbye kind of gathering when they threw up the question whether such a meeting should be held again. “To be honest, I was hoping everybody would say, this is a great idea, but let good things come and go, because many other good things will happen.” “But,” he adds, “everybody said it should continue.” That is when he realised that a permanent structure would be required if the Young Investigator Meetings were to become a regular feature.
The obvious solution was to create a website that will provide all the information that those pursuing a career in the life sciences or intending to pursue could access. Vale recollects starting to work on developing a website with NCBS right after the YIM; it was meant to be a portal of information. This, he adds, they named IndiaBioscience. “If the Young Investigator Meeting started with a dinner, IndiaBioscience started with a social hour at the first Young Investigator Meeting,” points out Vale.
IndiaBioscience was born out of a desire to keep this Young Investigator Meeting going and create a structure that would knit the community of young investigators in India together. – Satyajit Mayor
The recipe that made the first YIM a success has been adopted for all the subsequent meetings. There was a mix of reputed international scientists, some bright young scientists who were looking to break out into a career in the biosciences or set up their own labs, and established scientists from India, who would not only mentor the young scientists but also walk them through the process of establishing institutions in the country. The senior scientists would talk about their struggles and how they overcame them. There were panel discussions that covered topics such as how to manage personnel in the labs and how to apply for grants. The young scientists engaged in lively discussions with the senior ones and their mentors. It was an honest and good conversation. “A lot of these ingredients from the first meeting proved to be so magical that we kept them going,” says Vale.
According to VijayRaghavan, there was a fear at the first Young Investigators Meeting that since it was being organised by NCBS, the YIM would be an NCBS-centric activity and that it would not be inclusive. As subsequent YIMs have proved, this fear was misplaced. However, he says, there is a lesson whenever anything new is attempted: inclusiveness is important for any initiative to succeed. A lot of ice was broken at the first meeting.
There is nothing like textbook material for mentorship and leadership. – L. S. Shashidhara
He points out that the YIMs have expanded in structure and grown so well that a large number of people have benefitted from it in their careers. The first meeting itself was impressive as people, including Mukund Thattai and Sandhya Koushika, put in a lot of effort to make it succeed. Since then, the YIM has expanded in size and scope, becoming much bigger and better in terms of the quality and quantity of participation. It has become better managed and is absolutely stunning, says VijayRaghavan. The Young Investigator Meetings are now held in different parts of the country, making sure that there is greater institutional involvement.
Building the community and fostering partnerships through IndiaBioscience
The success of the first YIM sowed the idea for a website that would have a lot of information of relevance to the life sciences community – information on job openings, details about grants, articles by scientists and the like. As the website grew in depth and breadth, it morphed into a full-fledged organisation named IndiaBioscience, under the NCBS-TIFR. The community has grown over the years, as also IndiaBioscience’s activities. The YIM continues to be its flagship event; scientists, young and senior, look forward to participating in it and rubbing shoulders and brainstorming with the top brains in the field.
“IndiaBioscience was born out of a desire to keep this Young Investigator Meeting going and create a structure that would knit the community of young investigators in India together,” says Mayor. The young investigator was defined clearly as somebody who had landed his or her first job in India, one who was beginning to discover the ropes of doing research and science in the country. It was not defined by age.
From 2009 till about 2012 – 13, the NCBS and a few other academic institutions supported the whole initiative in terms of funding and functioning. By this time, IndiaBioscience had even recruited its first full-time employees. One of them, Swetha Suresh, who joined IndiaBioscience in May 2011 as its first employee and was with it for almost three years, says the initial years were exciting. Her mandate was to get the activities going before the organisation could look for longer term funding. There were targeted attempts to reach out to academic institutions in other parts of the country to build a strong life sciences community.
Around 2013, a proposal was sent to the Department of Biotechnology for funding, which got approved. This was the next stage in the development of the organisation.
L. S. Shashidhara, Dean of Research and Professor of Biology at Ashoka University and who joined the Board of IndiaBioscience in 2013, has been instrumental in establishing a strong community around IndiaBioscience. He says he has learnt mentorship skills simply by listening to people and that has been possible only because of IndiaBioscience. “There is nothing like textbook material for mentorship and leadership,” he says and adds that these have to be done only through dialogue.
The next stage of growth
It was in 2017 that IndiaBioscience saw its second phase take off. With funding from the DBT, the organisation’s focus, which till then was mainly networking of young investigators and mentoring them, expanded. The funding allowed IndiaBioscience to add a skill-building programme to its growing repertoire of activities and work with students and young researchers for their career development. The communication vertical grew leaps and bounds over the years bringing out the latest news, columns and opinion pieces along with relevant resources and skill building activities. With additional funding from the Human Resources Ministry, IndiaBioscience started working with educators, helping them hone their skills and build networks. With a plethora of new programmes and establishment of partnerships with both national and international organisations, IndiaBioscience established its niche well in the community.
IndiaBioscience has provided the ideal platform to help young investigators understand the wider life sciences ecosystem in India, according to Smita Jain, Executive Director of IndiaBioscience till June 2021. The YIM, which is still the organisation’s flagship programme, remains one of its kind initiatives in the world, says Jain. The YIM has moved from city to city, roping in many more institutions as partners, has set up regional networks to facilitate greater participation, and enlarged its outreach activities. Shantala Hari Dass, Associate Director, IndiaBioscience, says there has been a noticeable increase in the organisation’s work in the last two years. The conversations have also moved beyond the cities.
The growing number of perspectives and expertise has helped IndiaBioscience both increase the number of initiatives and diversify the initiatives that it drives. It now has five verticals – networking, communication, skill-building, education, and data and policy.
An objective assessment
Aurnab Ghose, Associate Professor, IISER Pune, says IndiaBioscience was an intervention on the brain drain and may have also helped encourage some amount of diversity. He participated in the first YIM in 2009 and presented his work in the form of a poster. “I was put next to a physicist from Bengaluru. He was interested in similar things, but from a different perspective. We have written papers together. That collaboration and, networking would have probably happened, but the YIM speeded it up by five years,” he says.
He agrees that IndiaBioscience’s contribution, although not much talked about, is to help break the silos in which scientists tended to work and bring about greater collaboration and networking.
We hope we will be able to build this community in a much more inclusive and wider manner. – Smita Jain
The YIM also helped postdoctoral researchers identify potential employees. Hari Dass is one such example albeit with a twist. She attended the young investigators meeting in 2017, when she was a mid-level post-doctoral fellow. She says her conversations at the meeting, especially with institutional heads and senior scientists helped clear her mind as to what she wanted to do. Later, in 2019, Hari Dass moved away from academics and joined IndiaBioscience as its Associate Director.
If Shashidhara were to assess IndiaBioscience’s impact, what more would he have liked it to have done in the last 10 years beyond being a networking and mentoring platform and providing a website with relevant information? He says that while the organisation is friendly and collaborative, what it has not been able to do is having an influence on the policymakers. He feels that IndiaBioscience’s expertise should have been used to communicate all developments regarding the Covid-19 pandemic to the general public. “Dissemination of information is easier for an organisation like IndiaBioscience. It was not used as a medium for disseminating news as much as possible. Or, even to conceive what kind of research can be done, how data can be generated from all parts of the country, how biologists right from undergraduate students can get involved. COVID was a glaring example that we have not been able to be so much in the consciousness of the authorities that they should think of why don’t you ask IndiaBioscience to do it,” says Shashidhara.
What next for IndiaBioscience?
VijayRaghavan says the organisation has definitely grown the footprint of life sciences in the country. But his concern is that it is a closed loop and it has to build substantial connections with the broader society. While it may not be IndiaBioscience’s remit, in the larger interests of the life sciences field, it will have to take up this role. His suggestion would be for IndiaBioscience to broaden its footprint without compromising on quality. Besides, it has to make sure that communication improves, that language and context are not barriers.
Should it change its structure to attract funding from private trusts and corporate sponsors? VijayRaghavan says it definitely is a possibility, but the institutionalisation of funding is both a value and a problem. The value comes from the stability it brings to the organisation. But, he adds, the problem arises because unless you are directly connected to the user and dependent on that, it is almost a guarantee for decline in quality. Complacency sets in, yet without that security you cannot go forward.
In the coming years one of the top priorities should be to establish IndiaBioscience as a sustainable, long lasting entity. – Shantala Hari Dass
Mayor says the last five years under Jain’s stewardship and an excellent team, IndiaBioscience has taken a lot more activities, added more dimensions to its work and also become a major motivator of science communication. Creating networks, creating advocacy and communication have been established as the foundation stones of IndiaBioscience. In future, he hopes it will be instrumental in building the careers of young investigators – help them hone their skills or assist them in thinking to promote collaborative and interdisciplinary science among the research community along with promoting the meaning/joy of doing competitive research in the Indian context. One also needs to create a structure where IndiaBioscience begins to look at itself as an independent organisation. “That is where we are headed,” he adds. He says the organisation has just started looking at private funding.
The third phase of growth
The third phase of growth, according to Jain, may see IndiaBioscience raise funds from private and corporate trusts. It may consider changing its structure for this, without taking away the nature of the work it does. The additional funding will give greater stability to the organisation, help it increase its activities and enlarge the scope of work it does. As it is, IndiaBioscience has tie-ups with international organisations such as the European Molecular Biology Organisation (EMBO) and Human Frontier Science Programme (HFSP). There is exchange of ideas and workshops being conducted. “In phase three, we have asked for more resources. If we get that, we hope we will be able to build this community in a much more inclusive and wider manner,” says Jain.
“In the coming years one of the top priorities should be to establish IndiaBioscience as a sustainable, long lasting entity,” says Hari Dass. Diversifying monetary support, partnerships and stakeholders is one way to achieve this, she adds. The other things that are high on the to do list are to scale up operations in a manageable way so that one can continue the momentum that has grown over the last decade, and to continue to grow the community by making inroads into newer territories (physical and conceptual). “For both of these we must draw upon the engaged community that we have grown over the decade,” Hari Dass concludes.
Engaging communities, Enabling change
There were sceptics who questioned the need for creating something like IndiaBioscience. However, over time, even these sceptics were won over, thanks to the wonderful work done by the organisation, which functioned with its own staff on the supporting and nurturing campus of NCBS-TIFR.
It has got a beauty to it, an aesthetic, which is combined with a deep culture and content. – K. VijayRaghavan
VijayRaghavan attributes the success of IndiaBioscience to a couple of factors, including the culture of the organisation and the leadership. The culture had to be established early, which was done in the case of IndiaBioscience. Thanks to the leadership, the organisation grew beyond the physical boundaries, started imbibing the views of the community at large, people from the community contributed a lot of time and effort to it, and all of this completely transformed the organisation. “It has got a beauty to it, an aesthetic, which is combined with a deep culture and content,” says VijayRaghavan.
Having established a solid foundation in the second phase, IndiaBioscience is all set to expand the scope of its activities across verticals. The vision and mission of ‘engaging communities, enabling change’ continue to stand tall and will continue to stay so.