Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2014 with Rashna Bhandari

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. Rashna Bhandari is a cell biologist at Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad. In this interview, she shares her YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

Rewind to YIM 2014 with Rashna Bhandari
Rewind to YIM 2014 with Rashna Bhandari 

Which YIMs have you been part of?

I had attended the 1stYIM in 2009, and I took a lead on organising the 2014 one in Hyderabad. In 2018, I became part of IndiaBioscience’s Board, and I’ve attended every YIM since.

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2014. 

At the Lab of Cell Signalling, we work on phosphate-rich small molecules. In 2014, I was six years into my independent career. Around that time, we had just set up to be able to start using a mouse model. Getting there was a big struggle for me because CDFD moved campuses a lot. Things were finally chugging along and we had published our first few papers. Having established myself, I felt it was the right time to start engaging more with the rest of the community. 

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

Some things change and others don’t. Seeing new students coming in with their enthusiasm to take up new challenges is rewarding — it’s what keeps me going. Now that I’ve completed 15 years as an independent PI and reached the level of Professor, the number of responsibilities increase. I’m on many, many committees — some very interesting, some very annoying (laughs) — so that takes up a lot of my time. Saturdays are the only day without any administrative work so this is when I make time for the lab and academic work.

Rashna and her husband Raghunand Tirumalai at the 2009 YIM. Credits: Anil Challa
Rashna and her husband Raghunand Tirumalai at the 2009 YIM. Credits: Anil Challa

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

Back in 2009, the community of young PIs in the life sciences in India was not very large. We were part of the wave of postdocs who had done well abroad, and were looking at India to set up our labs. A bunch of us came back, and we were connected by email. This is when NCBS organised the first YIM in Trivandrum. I think it was by invitation at the time, so I signed up. 

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

It was at the 2009 YIM that I exchanged notes with Sagar Sengupta, who was at the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi, at the time. This resulted in my first collaboration and the first paper to come out of my lab. I was the corresponding author, Sagar was the collaborator, and my PhD student Rathan Singh Jadav was the first author. This was the first of many collaborations to come.

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

IndiaBioscience was in a churning at the time (early 2014). The director who was there at the time I joined as organiser left midway, and the Associate Director took over. We had already begun the organisational work with the team in Hyderabad and Bangalore, when the new Co-Director was appointed, Nandini Rajamani (who is now at IISER Tirupati). Nandini was late to the party and she had to take on a lot. She had many new ideas and so we changed many things such as the poster design and the logos at the last minute. And she was right! 

The stuff we had designed wasn’t so aesthetic and the final poster turned out really beautiful. But at the time, we wondered what was going to happen. Would the abstract book be printed on time? As it turned out, the books came on the morning of the meeting, still smelling of fresh glue. And I think some of the books did fall apart later (laughs).

The initial and final versions of the YIM 2014 poster. Credits: Rashna Bhandari & IndiaBioscience
The initial and final versions of the YIM 2014 poster. Credits: Rashna Bhandari & IndiaBioscience

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

The icebreaker social in the evening of the first day comes to mind. I felt that if you want it to be a meeting of young people, it cannot be like every other conference with a sitar recital or whatnot. So we put in extra into the budget to get an emcee to organise games for participants. She was very lively, and everyone joined in and had a really good time. 

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

Arthur Kornberg, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on DNA polymerase. What many don’t know is that Kornberg spent a large part of his career working on polyphosphates, something that was considered a molecular fossil’. Polyphosphates are simply a string of phosphates. It used to be dismissed as something that emerged from the prebiotic soup and coalesced into chains, discarded by life and not really very useful. Kornberg, however, thought that there’s more to these molecules, and being a biochemist, he set up methods to assay them. He worked on bacterial polyphosphates until he passed away at the age of 90. 

He was actually alive at the time I started working on polyphosphates. When I was a postdoc in the US, he still had a lab of two people. I had spoken on the phone with his postdoc, but never had the chance to speak to him. Now that we have been working on this molecule so much, I wish I could have had the opportunity to at least listen to a talk by him, on this part of his story. Nobody really cared about his polyphosphate work back then. Even today, polyphosphate biology is still an emerging field. 

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

Like it or not, academia is an extremely competitive profession. And like all competitive professions, we do sometimes climb on top of each other to reach the top. We also impose a lot of ethical restrictions on ourselves, for example, our personal ambition should in no way overtake the sanctity of our data. But ambition should not subliminally influence our students to take shortcuts. There is the pressure of time, being expected to produce data, produce papers, keep showing progress, graduating students on time, all while doing something for which you have no guarantee of the outcome. 

I think we need to have discussions around ethics more often. 

Added to that are the frustrations associated with doing science on the Indian budget and restrictions. With all this, it’s very difficult to walk straight and narrow. There are lots of grey zones associated with ethics in science. And I think we need to discuss that a little more, have open discussions as we have had in the past about gender and inclusivity. 

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

I wasn’t aware how competitive attending YIMs has become. As much as I feel YIMs should not be exclusive, it’s so hard for that to happen. The number of outstanding people is increasing, but the number of seats cannot. I would just say, please keep applying, even if you weren’t invited the last time. 

YIMs are inclusive, they are fun. They make you feel that you’re not in this alone. There are many people with you who share the same joys and the same frustrations. So, please apply. It’s worth it.