Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2016 with Sam Mathew

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. Sam J Mathew is a biologist at Regional Centre for Biotechnology (RCB), Faridabad, and in this interview, he shares his YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

YIM 2016 Sam Mathew
Rewind to YIM 2016 with Sam Mathew. Creative credit: Ankita Rathore, Picture credit: Sam Mathew.

Which YIMs have you been part of?

As a postdoc, I attended YIM 2012 in Lonavala, and then YIM 2014 as a young investigator. I was one of the co-organisers of YIM 2016 in Manesar.

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2016. 

When I joined Regional Center for Biotechnology (RCB) in 2012, it was located in a rented building in Gurgaon, in the midst of factories. We worked there with relatively rudimentary labs and facilities. There was no possibility for an animal facility. Thanks to my India Alliance grant, I could go abroad for a few months every year to do my animal work. I would ship samples back to India, so my students and postdocs could access them. Back home, we were doing work on Drosophila, which doesn’t require an animal facility. The majority of the work was using cell cultures. There were limitations, but there were also opportunities to overcome those limitations.

The planning for YIM 2016 started in 2015 itself, and this was the time we were shifting to our permanent campus. So there was a lot of turmoil as we relocated our labs and arranged new accommodation for the students. A lot of things were happening, but as a young faculty at that point, it was definitely an enjoyable journey. Co-organising with me were CV Srikanth from RCB and Jagreet Kaur from Delhi University. We kind of tag-teamed and managed it.

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

Settling into the new campus was very difficult. Internet, phone connectivity, were all problems. By 2017, things improved dramatically. Now we have an animal facility, and it’s probably one of the best in the country. From having very few resources, we are now comparable to any good institute in India. This was the combined effort of the leadership, scientists, administrative staff and everyone. 

We work on animal development and regeneration. We are mainly interested in a family of proteins known as myosins. These are motor proteins important for the contraction of the skeletal muscle. We need them to sit, to perform any kind of locomotion, to maintain our posture, apart from many other functions. Mammals like us have multiple myosin proteins, so the question was why we need them all. What are the specific functions of each of these myosin proteins? We study this by deleting one myosin at a time in mice, and observing the effects. We have just scratched the surface, but we have already found a direct connection to human diseases. This gives us the opportunity to generate disease models to understand many of these diseases. 

In the past six years, I have been able to take most of my planned projects close to completion. Of course, new directions have come up, old ideas have evolved, and it’s been very exciting.

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

I don’t remember how I heard about it, but I remember taking a lot of effort while applying to attend YIM 2012. I didn’t really expect I would be selected, but I was happy when I did. As a postdoc for close to five years, it was really an eye opener for me. I was at that point in my career when I had started wondering if I should stay back in the US or return. I had no real idea of what I was getting into when I went for the YIM. But an amazing thing happened. Back then, the CVs of all the postdocs attending the YIMs would be circulated among institutions. RCB had just started hiring around then and I received an email from the then-Director Dinakar Salunke asking if I would like to come and give a talk. Later, I met him at the YIM.

That was the first time I heard of the institute, but I had nothing to lose so I went ahead and gave the talk. As it turned out, I ended up joining RCB and that’s where I still am! 

Regarding organising YIM 2016, I think Ron Vale had already planned for RCB to be anchoring it. Somehow, I ended up being asked, along with my colleague Srikanth. It was definitely a great opportunity.

Sam delivers the introduction session on the opening day of YIM 2016. Credit: Sam Mathew.
Sam delivers the introduction session on the opening day of YIM 2016. Credit: Sam Mathew.

Tell us about one meaningful connection you made at a YIM

Back then — I don’t know if it still happens this way — a young investigator and a postdoc would share a room during the YIM. My roommate was somebody called Madhusudhan Venkadesan, a faculty at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) at that time. He was an engineer, into physics, and he was looking at how our gait has evolved. This got me thinking about the proteins that help us move, like myosin. I went on to visit him at NCBS and he actually put me in touch with others at institutes around there. 

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

In 2015 – 16, I think there was some problem with the issuing of visas. One of the speakers couldn’t make it because of this. Similarly, the virologist Ari Helenius wrote to us one day before his flight saying his visa had not yet been approved. We tried a lot of things, but ultimately thanks to Satyajit Mayor and K VijayRaghavan, something worked out and Ari made it, though he had to postpone his flight. A couple of other scientists from abroad encountered problems too, so I distinctly remember the last minute scramble. 

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

There were these sessions where they would put young investigators and the postdocs together in a room, and all the senior faculty would just leave. I was a little sceptical of it, but it was a big success. I think Ron was considering dropping it in 2016, but we insisted on keeping it.

This is an opportunity for people to speak freely without being judged or fearing for their job prospects. 

I also remember the EMBO keynote lecture by Ian Baldwin in 2016. I could really resonate with what he was saying, and more so today as my career is moving ahead. He spoke about how scientists should be addicted to knowledge, how you should choose the right people for your lab. He felt it was important to ensure that PhD students come up with hypotheses and are given the opportunity to test them as they go along. Another very interesting thing he brought up was the difference between scientific English and regular spoken or written English. He said that often those who call themselves native English speakers are not great at scientific English. These were all great insights. 

Sam (top left) along with the volunteers from RCB, IndiaBioscience staff and Ian Baldwin (bottom right). Credit: Sam Mathew.
Sam (top left) along with the volunteers from RCB, IndiaBioscience staff and Ian Baldwin (bottom right). Credit: Sam Mathew.

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

I’d choose to speak to Barbara McClintock. Like many other scientists, she made a discovery that was well ahead of her time. She discovered mobile genetic elements, which are also known as transposons, or jumping genes. She showed this very elegantly in the late 1940s and early 1950s. She used maize as a model plant and the colour of its kernels as the readout for her studies. But people at that time did not believe her. So much so that McClintock was asked to stop publishing this work in the 1950s. Only with time did people start appreciating her findings. She won the Nobel Prize in 1983, more than 30 years since her discovery. I would ask her what motivated her to keep on continuing despite criticism from many corners. Also I’d love to hear how she came to choose this particular model system. 

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

One of the things that we did in 2016 was to involve PhD students at RCB as volunteers. There was a lot of logistics to take care of, but instead of outsourcing this to an event management company, we circulated an email in the institute and picked five PhD students to help out. They had the best time. Getting to listen to all these great speakers, seeing postdocs who have done work abroad, and meeting young investigators from various other Indian institutes were perks for them. I think they gained a lot from this. 

So one of my suggestions would be to have a method or a modality by which PhD students can also benefit from this. 

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

I would echo Ron’s words and say that people should not be seeing YIM as a job fair alone. Yes, certainly, people should be looking for jobs, but this is more than that. I would advise them to try to build networks with the young investigators and Indian institutes to get realistic ideas of everything from the funding situation to the working environment, how much administrative responsibility to expect, mentoring students, etc.