Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2018 with Smita Jain

Nandita Jayaraj

In this new series, leading up to YIM 2024, attendees of the past YIMs 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. Smita Jain is an Associate Director at Cactus Communications, and previously the Executive Director of IndiaBioscience. In this interview, she shares her YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

YIM 2018 Simta Jain updated
Rewind to YIM 2018 with Smita Jain. Creative credit: Ankita Rathore, Picture Credit: Smita Jain.

Which YIMs have you been part of?

I joined IndiaBioscience in January 2016, and was kind of thrown into the climax of the YIM 2016 preparation. That was the first YIM that I attended. I was not so involved in organising it as I had just joined a month before. But I understood the structure of YIM well, thanks to support from the team. It was in 2017, for the Goa meeting, that I took the full charge. Then in 2018, we had the 10th year anniversary YIM. In 2019 and 2020 we had meetings in Guwahati and Mahabalipuram. And that’s when the pandemic struck. YIM 2021 was an online meeting, and my last as an organiser. By 2022, I had already moved out of IndiaBioscience. I was supposed to participate in one of the panel discussions, but I came down with COVID and had to miss it. 

In YIM 2023, I was again invited to the Gandhinagar meeting, also the first YIM to take place in an institutional setting, for a panel discussion on science and society. Until then, YIMs were always organised in a remote location away from any academic campus. 

Tell us about where you were in your career back in 2018. 

I was involved in a plethora of activities at IndiaBioscience. It is a giant task to lead such a programme, but super fun. 

One thing was definite when the planning for the next YIM started: YIM 2018 should not just be a replica of any other YIM. 

We were finishing 10 years of the meeting so we wanted to reflect and examine the kind of impact YIMs have made over the decade. How have we contributed? What is the feedback from the community? How can we chart the future? Keeping these in mind, there was a lot of brainstorming we were doing to decide the structure of YIM 2018. 

Besides the YIM, I distinctly remember that this was the time the Career in Science’ programme was starting to take shape at IndiaBioscience. Until then, we were mostly focused on people who are either postdocs or have independent faculty positions in India. I was very keen on a programme for masters and PhD students that would help them craft their careers. The team wholeheartedly supported this idea. So we were working extensively on the Crafting Your Career’ workshop, the structure, the curriculum and all that. The first workshop was in RCB in 2018. 

Organisers of YIM 2018; Smita Jain, Sharmistha Banerjee, Piyali Mukherjee, Debasree Dutta (R to L) Credit: Smita Jain
Organisers of YIM 2018; Smita Jain, Sharmistha Banerjee, Piyali Mukherjee, Debasree Dutta (R to L) Credit: Smita Jain

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

At IndiaBioscience, I learned a lot about leadership skills, working with teams and with the large extensive, diverse community. I gained a lot of experience, maturity and I’ve definitely evolved as a person. I gained an understanding of the life science ecosystem, its gaps and challenges. At CACTUS, my role is very different compared to what I was doing at IndiaBioscience. It has more to do with developing the right strategies for business growth, numbers, sales and marketing, something I was always interested in. 

When I joined CACTUS, I participated in a six-month long workshop on conscious entrepreneurship. During this time, I did a lot of introspection and realised that the purpose of my life is to empower researchers. I understood why I enjoyed my previous roles as each gave me the space and opportunity to follow my purpose of empowering researchers. Acknowledging this has given me a lot of clarity in terms of the kinds of roles I take up. It has really helped me stay on the course.

At a personal level, I have become a much more balanced person. I have learned to say no, not just to others but also to myself when required. Now I take up projects more judiciously. 

With my kids having grown up, I get more time for my own career and I’m able to maintain a work-life balance really well. I have got a voice of my own and I’m able to articulate things better, with more confidence. 

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

Getting to lead the programme at IndiaBioscience, I was sure to be involved in YIM. The board made it very clear to me that I was to direct all my focus towards YIM to start with; it was the biggest responsibility that was given to me. It turned into one of the most beautiful things that have happened in my life because it gave me a chance to connect with such a large community and understand its nuances. 

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

Honestly speaking, I will treasure each and every connection I made through YIM for life. I still maintain the relations and friendships I developed over the years of being an organiser. I was lucky enough to get the chance to be mentored by people like LS Shashidhara, Shahid Jameel and Satyajit Mayor. Then there are others who became friends, people I can just pick up the phone and have long conversations with. 

A panel consisting of Shahid Jameel, Suman Govil, Meenakshi Munshi, Vandana Gambhir and Arabinda Mittra (R to L) discuss funding challenges. Credit: Smita Jain
A panel consisting of Shahid Jameel, Suman Govil, Meenakshi Munshi, Vandana Gambhir and Arabinda Mittra (R to L) discuss funding challenges. Credit: Smita Jain

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

Behind the scenes, before, during and after, a lot of things happened at YIM 2018. The planning was exhaustive, as I said earlier. Yet, there were last minute incidents that caused some panic, but once the meeting started, things fell in place. I remember Ron Vale met with an accident during the YIM. I was just getting ready for the session in the morning when I got a call from Satyajit Mayor that they needed help. These things were, of course, emotionally draining, but one had to keep calm and go on. 

There was also an instance of someone behaving inappropriately to a woman colleague during an evening dance party. For me, that was one of the first times to witness such an incident happen at such close quarters. We did not just let this go. We called for an impromptu session to address sexual harassment in academia, and confronted the perpetrator. Shuba Tole was extremely vocal about the topic. Later, she and Shashi wrote an article about it that was published in Current Science. 

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

It was the last session, where all the thoughts were put together and presented. This was the product of careful collation of thoughts by each table leader at each session. These were later compiled so that we could publish a report in Current Science. 

This open session with participants and board members was where many new ideas were churned. The whole concept of regional YIMs came up then, as did the idea of the IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant (IOG). Both these were later brought into fruition and are running very successfully. We also discussed the future of funding for IndiaBioscience, and gradually built the foundation for bringing in the private money to IndiaBioscience. The end of that session was a mixed, emotional moment for me. It was overwhelming to realise how beautifully it all went, after all the effort we put in. 

Smita with Sharmistha Banerjee and Jitu Mayor. Credit: Smita Jain
Smita with Sharmistha Banerjee and Jitu Mayor. Credit: Smita Jain

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

I want to understand the thought process of people like Homi Bhabha and Vikram Sarabhai. Yes, the Rocket Boys! Those were really difficult times, yet they stayed motivated towards their vision of starting a nuclear program or starting a space programme for a country like India. So, if given a chance, I would really want to dig deeper into their lives to understand how they managed to contribute to the growth of those sectors in India in spite of all kinds of challenges being thrown in front of them. 

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

There could be a session on upskilling. It could be any topic of interest — outreach, science writing, social media… Most importantly, there could be a hands-on workshop on leadership, which talks about what to do, what not to do, negotiations, conflict management, human resource management and other nuances of setting up a lab etc. All the participants are or are going to be independent leaders of a lab, so this is very critical.

EMBO runs a leadership program, but that’s a very restricted program in terms of the number of participants. If YIM starts a similar programme, participants could get trained in skills that are needed to run their independent labs. It can be a structured training program, but in an informal setting. 

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

Visionaries like K. VijayRaghavan have been saying very openly that it’s not enough to expect a change, you need to be the change. The way I see it: we have one life to make the best and most out of. Many participants come from outside the country with very high expectations from the ecosystem. However, it is important to understand your own ecosystem, and tackle those issues without getting bogged down by them. You have to know your country and what it has to offer. 

Once you start feeling that you belong to this community, you are no longer an alien. You should be able to make or inspire those changes. And that is a very happy space to be in.