In this new series, leading up to YIM 2024, researchers who have attended YIMs from the past tell us about what it was like for them back then, what they took away from the experience, how things have changed, their ideas for future YIMs, and tips for the newest generation of life scientists gearing up for their first meeting. Swati Patankar is a molecular parasitologist at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, and in this interview, she shares her YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.
Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2011.
I was an associate professor, and getting ready to apply for a promotion. Research wise, the lab had just started getting some nice data from our project on the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum. This parasite has a relict chloroplast (a plant-like organelle), even though it is a human pathogen.
This was also the time I was dealing with a student who had committed fraud in my lab. The student had to leave my lab as an outcome of this. I was at a point in my career where I felt that I should talk about these things, even though it’s difficult to do so and not very pleasant. I recall having a long talk with my department colleague about the need for a course on ethics, on reproducibility, and lab management. So my talk at the YIM was about my lab research as well as these other issues that were important to me.
Tell us about where you are in your career & research today — how have things changed?
I was getting really frustrated with the Plasmodium falciparum projects, because genetically manipulating the parasite is quite difficult, and it was not very reproducible in our hands. So we switched over to another parasite, Toxoplasma gondii, which is very similar in many aspects of biology. After getting insights into the biology of both parasites, we have also started doing some drug discovery projects. It’s been a really nice evolution, because in the beginning it was much more basic stuff, and now we are moving in a direction where we can think of applications!
Can you recall for us how you came to be involved with YIM?
Shuba Tole, who I have been friends with since we played in the sandpit in the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) campus as children, called me and asked if I’d like to help organise the 2011 edition of YIM which was to be at Bhubaneswar. I tried to figure out what it would involve and it sounded really nice, so I said yes.
Tell us about any meaningful connections you made at a YIM.
I remember Ron Vale was in full swing. He was very much involved, which was really terrific. Along with Mrinalini Puranik and Saima Aijaz, we did all the planning through email. We organised the whole thing without ever meeting each other! I landed up on the day before the event and when I heard their voices I knew them instantly. I’d talked to them on the phone so many times.
Other than that time organising a YIM, I haven’t attended any of the other ones. By then I had also built my career and network in parasitology by attending parasitology conferences in India. That way I am probably a bit of an outlier because YIM hasn’t really been a huge networking thing for me.
Can you tell us one memorable behind-the-scenes story from your time organising the 2011 YIM?
Actually, Ron Vale being so hands-on made it quite easy. We had conference calls almost every two weeks. He was very clear about who will take care of what. So it was remarkably smooth. I don’t remember anything terribly painful or torturous happening [laughs]. Last year I met Ron at a lecture and I asked him if he remembered me. He said ‘Of course, Bhubaneswar, Mayfair Hotel!’. That was really nice! Organising YIM is a pleasant and happy memory for me.
Describe for us one YIM session that made a strong impression on you?
Bonnie Bassler’s session was superb. She spoke about quorum sensing in bacteria and she worked on luminescent bacteria. It was so much fun to listen to her talk. She gave a history of her lab and that was really good. I loved that she started with this weird phenomenon of luminescent bacteria and quorum sensing and from there she took you to a mechanism used for biofilms and for all these clinical applications. She never focused on just the applications though — it was just nice to see this real love for wacky science.
I also remember hearing Bonnie’s partner say at dinner that even someone like her comes home sometimes feeling she is not good enough. That statement stuck with me because she is so phenomenal.
If you could pick the brain of any scientist from the past, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Maybe Ronald Ross (the British scientist who is credited with the discovery of the malaria parasite and its mode of transmission), because I work on malaria, and I’ve read Amitav Ghosh’s Calcutta Chromosome. There are so many imaginations of Ronald Ross’s life so I would like to talk to him about his remarkable discovery and the reality of it.
If you could add one programme to the next YIM schedule, what would it be?
Coming from an institute where there’s a lot of interaction with students, I think we need more focus on diversity, equity and inclusion. IIT Bombay has many support systems in place for students and we can do even more, for sure. For example, I had an engineering student come to me after the class and inform me that they had a visual disability [so they were having trouble comprehending]. I wished that the institute’s academic office had told me this before the class started so that I could have planned better. Luckily, this student really liked biology, so it was possible to help him out.
Similarly, it made me sad that the IITs had to be forced to do mission-mode recruitment for reserved categories. As for the number of women faculty in the IITs, this is also low. Institutionally, we could do a lot better. We focus a lot on equipment and funding, which are important, but we have to realise that the world is changing.
What message would you like to pass to someone who is attending their first YIM in 2024?
For many postdocs, the YIM is the first formal place where they get to meet a lot of people from the Indian science community.
Job hunting and networking is all important but once you land up in an institute, it’s never easy. I remember what a shock it was coming back to India, where things are relatively slow. Something has to keep you going. For me, it was a feeling that I am back in India, and I can actually make a difference. I strongly feel that there has to be something a little bigger than ‘me, my papers, and my success’.