Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2009 with Anil Challa

Nandita Jayaraj

In this new series, leading up to Young Investigators’ Meeting (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. 

Anil Challa YIM 2009
Picture Credits: Anil Challa. Art Credits: Gangotri Tekam and Moumita Mazumdar. Creative compiled by Anuja Vartak.

Anil Challa is a molecular geneticist with a special interest in education and outreach. He attended the first ever YIM in 2009 and shared his experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

Which year did you attend your first YIM?

2009, Trivandrum

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back then. 

Personal reasons had led me to return to India while pursuing postdoctoral research abroad. I was supposed to go back, but I didn’t. It was kind of a murky situation. In the midst of it, an opportunity arose that got me to start a small biotech company with a couple of friends. After a couple of years of getting the company off the ground, I joined the Institute of Life Sciences (now called Dr. Reddy’s Institute of Life Sciences) in Hyderabad. It was a new institution, and I was probably hired because of my experience with zebrafish as an animal model system. The idea was to establish a fish facility to enable research in drug discovery.

Career wise, I was very green. I was a not-so-successful postdoc, a not-so-successful entrepreneur, a co-founder of a company… I was clueless about where I would stand.

Tell us about where you are in your career & research today — how have things changed? 

Today, I am at the Shiv Nadar Institution of Eminence, Delhi NCR, and also have an adjunct position at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). I do a little bit of research, some amount of undergraduate education, outreach, curriculum-related work, and I also provide research services. Just over a decade ago, I started a new position as the Assistant Director of a transgenic and genetically engineered core facility at UAB providing research services to several investigators and groups within and beyond the university. From then on I have not had an independent lab of my own. In addition, I also focus on research with undergraduate students both in the US and in India. 

Can you recall for us how you came to be involved with YIM?

IndiaBioscience didn’t exist at that point. I believe I found out about YIM from an email message and I applied. The meeting sounded interesting to me. If I got selected, everything was going to be paid for. Initially I was not selected. But close to the meeting date I got a message that I could participate. I’d never been to Kerala before, so I thought why not, let’s go!” There were many people visiting from the US, and a lot of postdocs, and they were all my peers. 

This was the first meeting of its kind. Everybody was either very high energy or apprehensive or confused… so it kind of suited my mind space. 

Tell us about one meaningful connection you made at a YIM. 

Early one morning, we were on a bus to the Padmanabhaswamy Temple as part of one of the cultural visits. A lady was sitting beside me and we hit it off in our conversation. She introduced herself as Maithili Jog, a teacher at a college in Pune. As I mentioned, I had — and I still have — a very serious interest in undergraduate biology education. I feel very strongly about undergraduates being involved in research. Meeting Maithili started off a very productive exchange with respect to improving undergraduate biology education. This connection took me back to Pune several times. In 2012, we conducted a workshop for college teachers in the city. I still have an association with Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune (IISER Pune), Centre of Excellence in Science and Mathematics Education (CoESME) and Maharashtra State Development of Educators and Enhancement in Delivery (MS-DEED).

The poster I presented at YIM also spoke about my interest in UG education. During the presentation, Bruce Alberts dropped by and he was very glad to see that somebody dedicated space on their poster for undergraduate education. Bruce and I had a long conversation about innovations in Indian undergraduate education. Somebody like Bruce showing interest concretised in my mind that this is valuable, and that the community values it. 

Can you tell us one memorable behind-the-scenes story from your time at a YIM? 

I remember Ron Vale was saying something about creating a website which caters to the Indian biology ecosystem. That was the beginning of IndiaBioscience.

We kept in touch and he invited me to write an article about education. I believe that my contribution to IndiaBioscience was their first article in science education. It actually still comes up once-in-a-while during their Throwback Thursday’ posts.

Describe for us one YIM session that made a strong impression on you?

Just the whole experience of interacting with peers and the leadership was a good thing. So was the inception of IndiaBioscience as a portal. I think IndiaBioscience is a very good idea. It’s become kind of mainstream right now, so maybe people don’t recognise it. I value it, and I use it when needed. 

If you could pick the brain of any life scientist from the past, who would it be and what would you ask them?

I would like to go back to the 60s and 70s to meet people like those featured in the book SPACE LIFE MATTER: The Coming of Age of Indian Science by Hari Pulakkat — young scientists who were trained in Europe or the US, and came back to India knowing that there was nothing much here. They could all have found places to work outside and done really well, but something motivated them to come back. I think it’s extremely adventurous to do that. I would probably go back to those times to have a conversation with them about their motivations, their challenges, their dreams. And then probably, I could connect what they tell me with what I’m experiencing now. 

If you could add one programme to the next YIM schedule, what would it be?

I really would like to see a dedicated education programme. Perhaps a 2 or 3 hour session on how an institution — small or large — can enhance the quality of the undergrad space and benefit from it. It could comprise a panel discussion, a little bit of chit-chat and a lot of conversation which can trickle over dinner. 

What message would you like to pass to someone who is attending their first YIM in 2024?

It’s a very vulnerable time in a young investigator’s life, right? It’s a marathon of sorts. I think we have to keep our spirits high. I’d advise them to be positive, innovative, and work on not getting disheartened. Take pleasure in the small things, and just keep contributing. 

There’s a lot that young investigators in privileged institutions can actually contribute to the larger landscape of India. You don’t have to go into a village and set up shop there, but maybe pay a visit. Or maybe let those in villages and small towns visit your labs frequently. 

I think individual contributions are still very important and valuable in the Indian context.