Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2013 with Kavita Babu

Nandita Jayaraj

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. Kavita Babu is a neurobiologist at the Centre for Neuroscience at Indian Institute of Science (IISc),Bengaluru. In this interview, she shares her YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

Kavita Babu YIM 2013
Picture Credits: Kavita Babu. Art Credits: Gangotri Tekam and Moumita Mazumdar. Creative compiled by Ankita Rathore.

Which YIMs have you been part of?

I was at the 2010 YIM in Kolkata as a postdoc, and then at the 2013 YIM at Jodhpur as an organiser.

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2013. 

I had joined Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Mohali in August 2011, but it was only in April 2013 that we got our lab space. It was an overwhelming time for me. 

Our lab works on the small free living nematode called Caenorhabditis elegans. One of the questions our lab was asking (and still is) was how the cell surface molecules allow for functioning of the synapse. These molecules are known to bring cells closer together, but they could also be involved in regulating neurotransmitter release from neurons or maintaining postsynaptic receptors on muscles. We could start working on worms fairly early on, even before we had a lab, but since it was a small space that many people shared, we had lots of problems with contamination. It was quite a trying time. Moreover, around then, Chandigarh had a big power outage. You can keep C. elegans alive indefinitely at ‑80℃ but because of the power outage, we lost everything! At the time, it was very worrying, but looking back, I realise these things happen. 

When I was asked to help organise YIM 2013, I was worried because our first set of experiments were taking off, and things were tricky. 

Thankfully, I did not have to do very much. It was largely the IndiaBioscience team that was most involved. It felt like I was just a part of the program committee. I think it worked out well. 

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

Around four years ago, I moved from IISER Mohali to IISc. We still work on C. elegans, but apart from looking at cell surface molecules, we also look at circuits. We ask questions like how do neurons talk to each other” by using small molecules called neuropeptides. We look at how these neuropeptides allow one neuron to communicate with another one that is some distance away from it. This is something that my first graduate student, Ashwani Bhardwaj at IISER Mohali decided to follow up on after he saw a very nice phenotype. I had convinced him to look at cell surface molecules, but after a few years, he decided that looking at neuropeptides was more interesting. He used to show me the data, and it was so interesting that I could not tell him to stop working (laughs). He went on to do very well, but most significantly, he managed to influence a lot of people around him to recognise how interesting looking at circuits could be. So this is something that we work on now.

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

I remember this very clearly. It was thanks to Sandhya Koushika. I had met Sandhya at a Gordon Research Conference in 2008. She had just started a lab and she told me about the YIMs. At the time I was a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital. Sandhya suggested that I apply for the next YIM if I was serious about coming back to India. I know she has tried really hard to get more C. elegans researchers back to India. Now we have quite a few of us here!

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

During the 2010 YIM, the postdocs were rooming with the young PIs. My roommate was Madhulika Dixit from IIT Madras. I remember asking her a lot of questions. She gave me a lot of information about what to expect when setting up my lab. It was a very, very useful experience.

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

To be honest, I don’t remember much from 2013. I do remember, the venue was very beautiful. And I remember speaking to a lot of postdocs, and it seemed to me that they all found it extremely useful. We had a very nice cohort of people from all over the world to give talks and share their insights. I think I was just really stressed out at the time as a very new PI whose lab wasn’t yet set up. 

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

In 2010, there was a wonderful talk by the neurobiologist Susan McConnell. Her presentation was fantastic. I loved the way she talked about her scientific journey. After that, I actually went and read up on some of her work. She even has a talk on ibiology on how to make good presentations. I talk about her work when I teach developmental neurobiology. 

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

Genetics is one of the few things I really enjoy, and I finally get to teach it at IISc. So it would probably be Gregor Mendel. No doubt his work was interesting, but I would love to know if his results were actually so clean! What did the numbers really look like? 

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

I think the funding situation is becoming very different now than when I started. I think it would be useful to know what kind of problems are going to get funded. I know that in the YIM that I attended, most of us were from basic sciences. Since then, I’m wondering if there has been a massive shift to more technology-driven or medical-driven work. Is this the kind of work that is getting more funds these days? Even if you are a basic scientist, how can you start collaborating with people who can enable you to go from the bench to the bedside… a session that would allow for some sort of crosstalk, I think. Maybe it’s already happening. 

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

My message is for the postdocs attending: Talk to a lot of people, and especially to the young faculty.

This will give you a very good idea of what to expect and how long the application process at different institutions may be. These are the people who have just been through that process. For me, at least, it really helped to know what I was getting into. If I hadn’t gone to the YIM, I would definitely not have had a decent picture of what to expect. I think YIM helped me get a lot of clarity on how to expect the application process and the lab set-up process to be as a starting PI in India.