Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2017 with Sumit Biswas

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. Sumit Biswas is a biologist at BITS Pilani in Goa. In this interview, he shares his YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

YIM rewind Sumit Biswas titleimage
Rewind to YIM 2017 with Sumit Biswas. Creative credit: Ankita Rathore, Picture Credit: Sumit Biswas.

Which YIMs have you been part of?

I attended YIM 2016 in Manesar, co-hosted 2017 YIM in Goa, and then attended YIM 2018 which was the 10th YIM and kind of a get-together. So that’s a hattrick of YIMs for me!

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2017. 

I became a PI in 2010, and was an Assistant Professor at the time of the YIM. Till 2016, I think I was pretty uni-dimensional in my research; I was focusing mostly on structural biology, in which I was trained. The YIMs actually opened up my vistas and since 2019, my work has expanded a lot. 

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

Presently, I work as a full professor in BITS Pilani Goa. I should attribute YIM for taking away my apprehensions about diversifying into different branches, into things I wanted to do in the past when I started my journey in Indian science. Apart from continuing protein crystallography, I’m also doing work in marine sciences and biofilms.

One of the most important research questions that we are tackling since 2018 concerns horseshoe crabs. Many of us have heard of the LAL test which involves a component contained in these primitive animals (which are technically not true crabs or crustaceans, but arthropods). The LAL test is used to check for endotoxins in everything from medicines to the food industry. Unfortunately, horseshoe crab populations are at risk because of this extraction process and several other anthropogenic interventions. There is an Indian counterpart of the horseshoe crab living on our eastern shores, called Tachypleus gigas. The Indian horseshoe crabs have been very poorly studied, despite being extremely interesting. They date back to 350 million years ago, making them more primitive than dinosaurs! What our lab does is look into some of its developmental pathway genes, its life cycle, and its changing proteome. This is what takes up most of the time these days. 

The past six years have been really challenging. To start working on the crabs’, I had to overcome political and linguistic hurdles. But it’s been really enriching, and after the initial hiccups, now we are pretty much into it. 

Sumit (left) with the other co-hosts of the YIM 2017 at Goa: Praveen Vemula, Deepa Subramanyam, Smita Jain and Sudha Rajamani. Credit: Sumit Biswas
Sumit (left) with the other co-hosts of the YIM 2017 at Goa: Praveen Vemula, Deepa Subramanyam, Smita Jain and Sudha Rajamani. Credit: Sumit Biswas

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

The first YIM I attended was with the goal of having fruitful discussions with people in my area. During one such discussion with LS Shashidhara, we thought about having a meeting in Goa. What unfurled since then was a rather exciting journey. 

During YIM 2016, I had seen Sam Mathew and others working very hard to get the thing on the ground, but for me it was more of a learning experience. I still cherish those moments. 

Tell us about one meaningful connection you made at a YIM 

I have a lifelong friendship with Praveen Vemula, who was introduced to me by Nandini Rajamani and Smita Jain during the organising meetings of YIM 2017. He had a lot of ideas that motivated me to look at product-based or application-based aspects of research. Until then, I was more interested in basic science, understanding physiological or metabolic processes. I also became great friends with Deepa Subramanyam and Sudha Rajamani, and the four of us still meet every now and then. Meeting such people with such different perspectives helped me shape my future course of action. 

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

Back then, we were not supposed to repeat participants, since YIM used to cover their airfare, accommodation and other expenses, and we wanted to give new people a chance. However, when we were shortlisting participants for YIM 2017, we somehow included a person who had attended YIM 2016 with me in Manesar. So when this guy turned up, I was shocked. When we went back and checked, it turned out that he had used a different version of his name the previous year. That was a faux pas, and there were other challenges, but we put our heads together and sorted it all out. It ended up being fun. 

Sumit delivering the organiser's talk during the inauguration of YIM 2017 in Goa. Credit: Sumit Biswas
Sumit delivering the organiser’s talk during the inauguration of YIM 2017 in Goa. Credit: Sumit Biswas

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

I think the best sessions were the breakouts, where we put together select groups of people around a table with a mentor. This particular breakout was about hand-holding young PIs and taking their research aspirations forward. There were, I think, eight or nine young PIs and a few others who were more experienced. 

I started to get the feeling that the session was going in a one-way direction and views were not being expressed freely. We were also running late, and so some of us organisers went to three different tables, and we were trying to wrap up the session as fast as possible. 

Maybe I tried to micromanage things too much. That’s when one of the young PIs told me that this was not working out. Once I let go, that’s when the session really started. During the next 30 minutes, we got a real understanding of the problems that people were facing when they were setting up labs. It turned out that handholding” was never the correct word for the process. Handholding” can be a bit of a condescending term as it suggests you are trying to embolden somebody who doesn’t have the expertise to work. But here are people who do have expertise. Most of us understood then that a top down approach cannot work; instead, we need localised solutions and buddies in the community who we can confide in. 

It was that session, which taught me that it’s always better to allow folks to discuss things at their own pace rather than trying to hustle views together. 

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

Off the top of my head, Alan Turing. Initially, Turing was being sought after by everybody. He had developed those decoder machines for understanding German messages and formed the genesis of this artificial intelligence and biological computing. It all went fine as long as he was serving the interests of most people. However, later, there were some issues and he was subjected to punishment, enforced hormone therapy, etc. He died at the age of 41 and it was discovered that cyanide might have been the reason. 

I would like to find out how Alan Turing managed to be so creative, and not bogged down despite the hurdles. How was he able to create in the midst of multiple adversities — the World War, the lack of resources, the lack of understanding among his peers, and of course, the slander that was subjected to. I would like to pick his mind and figure out how he was able to handle that sort of negativity and still persist with so many creative ideas. 

Sumit, with fellow YIM alumni during YIM 2018. Credit: Sumit Biswas
Sumit, with fellow YIM alumni during YIM 2018. Credit: Sumit Biswas

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

There are a lot of transitions going on in the way we do research. Roadblocks to funding certain aspects of research have forced us to experiment with new avenues. try out things. As far as I know, these are rarely spoken about in public fora, though people do discuss this in small, private groups. 

I would expect the YIMs to help PIs make transitions. Unless you are in an environment that is encouraging, making these transitions are pretty difficult. 

There is still a lot of dilemma associated with a person transitioning into new fields of work. Speaking about this reduces the burden on a PI and enables them to exchange ideas with others. I think transitions are very important in Indian science right now and we should have sessions in YIMs to help us deal with them. 

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

I think the best thing that you can do is mingle with other people and form long lasting bonds. There may be a certain group that you want to meet, but I would advise you to try to find others who are not in your area of research, see how they work or how they can really make a difference to your own work. That’s the best thing that YIM offers.