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. Shubha Tole is a neuroscientist at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, and in this interview, she shares her YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.
Which YIMs were you part of?
I was a speaker and mentor at the 1st edition of YIM at Trivandrum, and co-organiser of the 2nd edition of YIM at Kolkata in 2010. In addition to this, I was a speaker and mentor at the 3rd YIM in Bhubaneswar, and a speaker at the 10th anniversary YIM.
Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2010.
I had completed 10 years since starting my own lab. All the wild ambitious ideas I had planted had begun to take fruit. I had papers that had been published in Nature Neuroscience and Science. I was back from a sabbatical at Stanford University which I’d funded with my Wellcome Trust Flexible Travel Award. It was a mid-career high, and it was time for me to start giving back.
Tell us about where you are in your career & research today.
Has it been 13 years? I’ve been fortunate to have had some amazing people join me.
My lab has never been flooded with students, because I don’t work on the kinds of things that Indian students know about from their undergraduate education. But I’ve attracted the unusual ones who are excited to explore new things, really creative people. For the first time, we have recently published an entirely dry lab paper. New directions! I think each student has taken the lab into directions I would never have expected and that’s been wonderful.
Another really rewarding angle to my career has been the student academic management portfolios I’ve had — from Student Matters Coordinator in my department (a portfolio I created when I realised we needed it), to Convener of the Subject Board of Biology, to the Dean of Graduate Studies in 2019. These allowed me opportunities to improve the students’ training experience.
I’ve made that the centrepiece of my deanship — to promote student satisfaction via improving academic procedures, making rules transparent, implementing surveys, committees that offer support and career guidance, clear FAQs on our website, the quality of student housing, even renovating the TIFR canteen, to name a few.
Can you recall for us how you came to be involved with YIM?
I first heard about YIM from Ron Vale, who created this forum in 2008-09. At the time I was Visiting Associate Professor at Stanford University, on sabbatical with my family. Somebody must have mentioned me to Ron because he phoned me from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). I immediately appreciated this amazing initiative and wanted to help right away. They actually flew me back from Stanford to Trivandrum to be a speaker/mentor! And I was absolutely blown away by the scope, attention to detail, planning and impact of the YIM. Ron and I wrote about YIM for the journal Science.
Can you tell us one memorable behind-the-scenes story from your time organising a YIM?
I think it was in the 2010 meeting that we introduced the new element of flash talks — where every participant had to present their work in 2 minutes and 2 slides. I remember coordinating it, and it was challenging to make sure 40 people could present their work in a limited span of time. It went off really well because we had a preview of every single poster.. This concept has become very popular now.
Tell us about any meaningful connections you made at a YIM.
It was wonderful to connect with Smita Jain the then Executive Director of IndiaBioscience at the 10th anniversary of YIM in Trivandrum. We hit it off, and together we even took on a sexist attendee who was exhibiting inappropriate behaviour at the meeting. That was actually a monumental YIM…
Describe for us one YIM session that made a strong impression on you?
It has to be the one at the 10th anniversary YIM in 2018. On the first day, I happened to have lunch with two amazing women. Both had dealt with sexual harassment and had stood up to their harassers. Speaking to them made me realise how difficult it is to discuss this topic with scientists. I asked the organisers to include a last-minute session. I made a presentation titled ’10 Steps to Sexual Harassment’ which described how small annoying actions and events escalate into something bigger. I spoke on behalf of these women, with their permission, bringing out their lived experiences.
The community has done a disservice to these young people who have spunk, courage and scientific brilliance. We can’t lose them but sadly, we often do. At the end of the session both the women, who had agreed to be identified, got a standing ovation from the audience. Later, I teamed up with LS Shashidhara, one of the co-organisers who had been extremely supportive of this event, to write a “meeting report” for Current Science entitled “Gender-sensitisation in Indian science: attitudes and action items” This report was signed by participants of the 2018 YIM from 47 different institutions.
If you could pick the brain of any scientist from the past, who would it be and what would you ask them?
Lilavati. She is supposed to have been the mathematician Bhaskara’s daughter and he named his treatise after her. There are stories about how she never got married because of a legend involving a pearl. We also hear about the couplets her father wrote to teach her the Pythagoras theorem. But what was her life like? She lived in a different era where girls were only supposed to get married, but that’s the only thing we know about her. What were her hopes and dreams? I would like to ask her that.
If you could add one programme to the next YIM schedule, what would it be?
A session on the responsibility of mentorship — maybe a workshop or role plays. We shouldn’t wait to learn how to be mentors.
While thinking about one’s own future research plans, young investigators should also ask ‘Where can I make the best contribution to the community I will work in?’
That is what is going to make their life rewarding down the road, not merely salaries and grants. If you’re going to take a job like this, it is really about how you train the next generation.
What message would you like to pass to someone who is attending their first YIM in 2024?
I find that when a Principal Investigator (PI) starts, they are naturally and understandably very focused on setting up. If you don’t set up quickly, you’re dead. It consumes their attention, their time, their focus. There’s so much to deal with, right? But I think there’s always room to know that now you have somebody else’s life under your mentorship, and it’s never too early to learn how to do it well. Remember, that you will have incredible power to impact the lives of a lot of bright young people. And that is actually where your contribution will be.