Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2019 with Dipyaman Ganguly

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. Dipyaman Ganguly is a cellular immunologist at Indian Institute of Chemical Biology (IICB) in Kolkata. In this interview, he shares his YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

YIM 2019 Dipyaman Ganguly titleimage
Rewind to YIM 2019 with Dipyaman Ganguly. Creative credit: Ankita Rathore, Picture Credit: Dipyaman Ganguly.

Which YIMs have you been part of?

I’m kind of an outlier, because the first and only YIM I attended was the one I co-organised in 2019 in Guwahati. Apart from this, I have attended two regional YIMs in Kolkata.

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back when you attended YIM 2019. 

I joined IICB in 2013, so when I took up the role of organising YIM 2019, it had already been over five years since I started my independent career. I’m a cellular immunologist primarily working on autoreactive inflammation with a major focus on an innate immune cell called plasmacytoid dendritic cells. In 2016, we discovered that this innate immune cell was involved in metabolic diseases in human patients. The following two years were really exciting, because other groups from different parts of the world started confirming our findings through their own genetic validation studies. So at the time of YIM 2019, I was feeling confident about my independent career. 

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

After our revelation that this plasmacytoid dendritic cell was involved not only in autoimmune diseases but also in metabolic diseases, our lab began exploring other clinical contexts where the same innate immune activation event was happening. We also ended up discovering interesting regulatory pathways in these cells, including how mechanical cues were playing some role in them, involving the Piezo1 mechanosensors. This was then explored by other scholars in the lab for other human immune cells.

The year after YIM 2019, the COVID pandemic struck. Being in a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) institute, there are emergent mandates that we also have to take care of. As I was one of the few immunologists in CSIR then and also had a clinical background, the then-DG of CSIR Shekhar Mande asked me to run a randomised control trial. And so my lab suddenly got involved in leading a clinical trial on convalescent plasma therapy as well as doing immunological studies with COVID-19 patients. That was a small detour we took during the pandemic. 

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

Smita Jain called me up to ask me to be part of YIM 2019, and I readily accepted. I was at a career stage where I could devote some time to help younger investigators. My co-organisers Richa Rikhy and B. Anand were also at similar career stages, in terms of when we started our labs in India. I knew that a whole lot of postdoctoral fellows were trying to come back to the country and they should get the proper guidance. I was really motivated towards that.

I was initially apprehensive that Guwahati was chosen as the venue. I wondered if more postdocs would turn up if it was a destination where more academic institutions were located. Ultimately, so many people became involved that our fears were proved untrue. I think it may have a lot to do with the speaker line-up! 

The YIM 2019 organisers and mentors, (left to right) Roop Mallik, Rashna Bhandari, Smita Jain, Richa Rikhy, B. Anand, Dipyaman Ganguly, LS Shashidhara, Dipyaman Ganguly. Credit: Dipyaman Ganguly
The YIM 2019 organisers and mentors, (left to right) Roop Mallik, Rashna Bhandari, Smita Jain, Richa Rikhy, B. Anand, Dipyaman Ganguly, LS Shashidhara, Dipyaman Ganguly. Credit: Dipyaman Ganguly

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

I met many fantastic young investigators. Some of them I’m still connected with. I remember meeting Imroze Khan who is now at Ashoka University. We had a lot of interests in common. Similarly, I met Saravanan Palani, and tried to convince him to join IICB. He eventually joined IISc and is doing well. Many of the YIs who came to YIM 2019 have proven themselves as independent investigators in India, and that gives some kind of satisfaction. 

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

I was on the same flight to Guwahati from Kolkata as two of our speakers, Dominique Bergmann and Boris Reizis. It was Dominique’s first time in India, and I remember her being amused and overwhelmed by us having to take a bus from the airport to the flight. Boris had heard about the Kamakhya temple in Guwahati and insisted that he wanted to visit. I remember being unsure, but we organised a trip for him anyway. I remember when he came back, he was so overwhelmed, after witnessing the animal sacrifices. However, this made for some interesting conversations at the event. It took us into a philosophical discussion of the impact of witnessing such rituals on Indians’ approach to science and rationalism. 

Dipyaman Ganguly with Boris Reizis. Credit: Boris Reizis
Dipyaman Ganguly with Boris Reizis. Credit: Boris Reizis

Describe for us one 2019 YIM session that made a strong impression on you?

I’ve always been very interested in public communication of science. We wanted to incorporate this in YIM 2019 so we had Arvind Gupta come over for a session on his toys developed from trash. This session gathered a lot of traction among even the young investigators. Though they were still looking for jobs, they were motivated to also contribute to the ecosystem in other ways.

Suddenly the childlike inquisitiveness in all of us came out. Even the senior speakers like Dominique were really moved. 

After all, science is not only about getting funds, data and getting published, right? It is a way of life.

We wanted all the young people, the new torchbearers of Indian science, to understand that science is something to be shared. It’s not just about celebrating your own success, but those of all people. Science can influence anyone’s life, not just that of scientists. 

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

Definitely, Erwin Schrodinger. I have read his work, What is Lifeand tried to understand his idea about automatons. I wish he could come back and look at the developments that are happening in artificial intelligence today, and then revisit his own ideas about what life is. We have progressed to a great extent in terms of understanding the randomness of biology that underlie the architecture of life. Now, this is being replicated by computer scientists into developing artificial intelligence. I’m not sure whether Schrodinger ever imagined this would happen.

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

I would include a session on digital health, big data and the implications of AI tools in health sciences. Someone who actually works in that area should be present. There should also be panel discussions that enable a crosstalk between basic science and health sciences. Thirdly, I would include a session on public communication of science. We still have a long way to go with public communication of science in this country. All Indian scientists should take up responsibility for this and this sensibility should be inculcated in such fora.

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

The crux of these events are meeting seniors and figuring out what to expect when you get to start a lab, but it is also about making new friends. Look at your peers and seniors as people you may be friends with very soon. These kinds of connections are very important, not only for oneself, but also for the scientific ecosystem. 

Friendship goes a long way compared to professional relationships, and the YIMs actually provide such opportunities.