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. Sanjeev Galande is a cell biologist at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi-NCR, and in this interview, he shares his YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.
Which YIMs have you been part of?
Besides YIM 2012 in Pune which I co-organised, I also attended the 2010 and 2011 YIMs.
Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2012.
This was the time I was exploring different model systems, and learned about Hydra. At the peak of the programme, we had six model systems in the lab: three invertebrate (Hydra, C.elegans, Drosophila), and three vertebrate (zebrafish, mouse and human). And the big question that we wanted to solve was, how did epigenetic regulation evolve? Everybody contributed in their different ways using different model systems to solve different parts of this big problem. So I was really expanding my lab, learning new ways of doing science, employing new techniques, managing new resources.
Tell us about where you are in your career & research today — how have things changed (in your life & in your area of work)?
Oh, it’s a big change, because after over two decades, I am no longer working in a public institution. Now I am a Dean at Shiv Nadar University which is a multidisciplinary private institution. Moving from NCCS, a primarily cell biology institution, to IISER Pune, had already broadened my horizons because I was able to talk to people in physics, chemistry and mathematics, as well.
At SNU, I am talking to people in arts, management, economics and am exposed to new things. This has completely changed my perspective of looking at science and other aspects in general.
We are also in the third phase of the Centers of Excellence Program, now at SNU. Once again, I had to create all the facilities required for research in epigenetics, which includes genomics, proteomics, and computational analysis. Further, there was no animal facility, so that too had to be built up from scratch. Once again I was back to the drawing board. We have created the infrastructure now, got the equipment and people on board. In less than two years, a new 30,000 sq ft facility is ready. And now the animal models are moving in. Things have moved pretty fast in two years!
Can you recall for us how you came to be involved with YIM?
Soon after YIM 2011 concluded, I got a call from Ron Vale. He had visited IISER Pune a couple of times and he knew that I was moving there. He wanted IISER Pune to be the organiser so he asked me to take the lead. To make it a team effort we onboarded Roop Mallik from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Mumbai, and Krishnaveni Mishra from University of Hyderabad. Having been to many YIMs in India and in the US, I was quite familiar with the format. By mid-2011, we started planning who would be the speakers, the panels and various sessions. Ron also played a role in calling leading investigators from outside of India; we couldn’t have got the Nobel laureates (Michael Bishop and Venki Ramakrishnan) without his help!
Tell us about one meaningful connection you made at a YIM?
Meeting young postdocs and investigators was quite enjoyable. Afterwards, many of them sent letters stating what they enjoyed, learnt, and suggestions about what could be done in future meetings. It was rewarding to see how much information they could gain during the meeting, and how much they could give back.
Interacting closely with Ron during those intense weeks showed me how efficient one can be as a scientist as well as an administrator.
I noted his attention to detail; everything from food, to how the participants should move from one end to the other end of the room, the way the scientific sessions should be distributed, who should be where, and all the minute details… And at the same time, he’s also an extremely influential and productive scientist. It was a big learning exercise for me.
Can you tell us one memorable behind-the-scenes story from your time organising a YIM?
As a part of the meeting, we had organised some excursions in and around Lonavala. Being from the Pune region, I knew that area well. I suggested a trip to picturesque Buddhist caves in Bhaje which was about a 30-minute drive away from the venue of the meeting. We reached early in the morning and climbed around 200 steps to get to the caves. There were hardly any other tourists there that day. It was so beautiful that nobody wanted to return to the hotel. So we unanimously decided to do the next session there itself. It was a breakout session where the entire group had to divide into three. Each sub-group went into an adjacent cave and the parallel sessions took place inside the caves. I have pictures of Nobel laureates sitting with folded legs on the floor of the caves addressing the young investigators! It went beautifully, because people were engrossed in discussing science, but amidst the serenity of the caves!
Describe for us one YIM session that made a strong impression on you?
There was a talk by Milind Watve about frugal science. Many complain ‘I don’t have this facility’ or ‘I don’t have enough money for consumables’. One can complain endlessly about what one does not have, but nobody talks about what one can do with what one does have. Even with meagre resources, you can do good science provided you think critically and in a completely new perspective.
Milind spoke about starting a “Katta” lab in Pune, where every evening, undergrads would meet over tea and discuss just about anything… any wild idea about science.
Generations of students have benefited from these meetings. His talk was so engaging that it was the only one that got a standing ovation. The audience would just not stop clapping! I think it was one of the most exciting and memorable talks of YIM 2012.
If you could pick the brain of any scientist from the past, who would it be and what would you ask them?
It would have to be GN Ramachandran, the Indian physicist who discovered the Ramachandran Plot, and also proposed the rather unexpected crystal structure of collagen. These were contributions worthy of a Nobel Prize, but unfortunately, he did not win one. I wish to ask him what made him choose this difficult problem, despite being in a place where there were hardly any resources. He was working at the University of Madras.
It’s amazing to imagine that Ramachandran was able to make a contribution so phenomenal that every person who does structural biology would have to use it.
Again it goes to show what Milind had said: you don’t need fancy resources to think about an important problem. These days anyone can do next generation sequencing, single cell transcriptomics, etc. because they have access to the gadgets. But that doesn’t necessarily mean such an approach helps in solving any big problems, generating path breaking results that would eventually enter textbooks or change a paradigm.
If you could add one programme to the next YIM schedule, what would it be?
I think there should be a session on student mentoring. Dealing with students is becoming an increasingly problematic area for young investigators, especially after the COVID pandemic when expectations about people, life and the profession changed dramatically. Young PIs usually do not have postdocs and other senior staff working with them. They only have rookies working with them, and mentoring and training the young new students to the level of proficiency required to run a competitive research program can be challenging.
Secondly, I think it would be a good idea to include a session on how to make the most out of a situation when funding is low. This is another major issue all of us are experiencing; it is becoming increasingly competitive to get grants. And even if one has grants, it’s becoming harder to spend them. Hence, we need to plan properly and that requires training. This is different from grantsmanship as it deals with what you do after getting the grant.
What message would you like to pass to someone who is attending their first YIM in 2024?
The networks that you establish here will really help steer your career especially in the early years when you need the maximum help and support. The relationships you build will really be helpful in addressing many key issues such as personnel, funding, deciding the right type of resource to use, and knowing whom to approach for specific advice. Proactively use this opportunity to make as many connections as possible.