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Rewind to YIM 2020 with Aravindhan Vivekanandhan

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. Aravindhan Vivekanandhan is an immunologist at University of Madras in Chennai. In this interview, he shares his YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

YIM 2020 title image
Rewind to YIM 2020 with Aravindhan Vivekanandhan. Picture Credit: Aravindhan Vivekanandhan.

Which YIMs have you been part of?

Quite a few. It started with YIM 2013 in Jodhpur. Then I went to YIM 2015 in Kashmir, YIM 2018 in Trivandrum, and then I coordinated YIM 2020 in Mahabalipuram.

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2013 when you attended your first YIM. 

My career has taken a lot of turns. I did my postdocs at the National Institutes of Health in the US, but had to come back to Chennai for personal reasons. I landed at Madras Diabetes Research Foundation. So I was an immunologist forced to work on diabetes — I really was a fish out of water. The first time I attended a YIM, I was a scientist at Anna University — K. B. Chandrasekhar (AU-KBC) Research Centre. I had established a hypothesis based on the discovery that people infected with the disease filariasis are actually conferred protection against diabetes. Back then, I didn’t have too many facilities and there was hardly a possibility of networking. I generally feel Tamil Nadu is a desert for biotechnologists, compared to other places. 

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

Many foreign labs have started working on our filariasis-diabetes hypothesis. Now they are trying to use filarial antigens as therapeutics for diabetes. They are even exploring if we can develop a diabetes vaccine based on the filariasis antigen. 

Since 2020, we have also published many papers on the interface of metabolic disease and infectious disease. We identified something very unique to the Indian population: an antagonistic relationship between insulin resistance and latent tuberculosis. Recently, we also had our first patent granted to us, for a diagnostic test to detect early gestational diabetes.

The YIMs played a very important role in shaping my career, especially with regard to scientific networking. 

For example, my first PhD student just finished. For this we had to invite three examiners from Tamil Nadu, three from rest of India and three from other countries. All should be working in a field directly related to the candidate’s PhD thesis. It was no problem to identify people in Tamil Nadu, but to find others from India was difficult. This was the time I felt that the networking at YIM helped me a lot. I was able to contact them and they immediately agreed. Usually, it’s a lot more complicated. 

Aravindhan, with Sunil Raghav from ILS, Bhubaneshwar, on a sightseeing trip in Srinagar during YIM 2015. Credit: V. Aravindhan
Aravindhan, with Sunil Raghav from ILS, Bhubaneshwar, on a sightseeing trip in Srinagar during YIM 2015. Credit: V. Aravindhan 

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

The YIMs started in 2009 and a colleague of mine had participated in that one. She recommended that I apply. I applied for a number of years but kept getting rejected. That’s when I wrote to a senior scientist associated with IndiaBioscience saying that if YIM wants to promote young investigators, I should be considered too. He immediately responded and at the last minute, my name was included for YIM 2013. At YIM 2015 in Kashmir, I pointed out to Nandini Rajamani, the then co-director of IndiaBioscience, that YIM had geographically covered most places in India except for Tamil Nadu. And Tamil Nadu really needs events like YIM. The biotechnology field is very shrunken. Maybe she spoke to Smita Jain, because one fine day, Smita approached me to coordinate YIM 2020 which was being planned in Chennai. I said I’d be very happy to do it. 

Tell us about one meaningful connection you made at a YIM 

I met SC Lakhotia from Banaras Hindu University at YIM 2018 in Trivandrum. It was a very, very productive interaction as he is a very senior person who had worked extensively on heat shock proteins. Though he was retired, he was able to give me some good advice about the dos and don’ts during the early stages of one’s scientific career.

He told me that doing science in universities demands a lot of patience. He advised me never to lose my cool. The moment you antagonise someone, it may endanger the future of your project. 

Can you tell us one memorable behind-the-scenes story from your time organising YIM 2020? 

Organising YIM involved such little stress that at one point I wondered if I really was organising it or if I was just attending one. IndiaBioscience is totally devoted to it and they have been doing it for so many years. So they know exactly what they want. The only time I remember being exhausted was the time we sat with Smita at IIT Madras and did the selection process for the participants. But apart from that, it was smooth sailing.

Describe for us one YIM 2020 session that made a strong impression on you?

I have always been very interested in discussing difficulties in science. I believe that unless we open up, there will be no solution. Initially, the participants were very reluctant; it was a heterogeneous crowd with senior scientists. But once we broke the ice, everybody started sharing their experiences. It went on and on and Smita actually had to enter to say that the next session had begun. 

Aravindhan (left) speaks on a panel with representatives of funding agencies such as (left to right) Balachander from SERB, Shahid Jameel from India Alliance and Meenakshi Munshi from DBT, at YIM 2020 Credit: V. Aravindhan
Aravindhan (left) speaks on a panel with representatives of funding agencies such as (left to right) Balachander from SERB, Shahid Jameel from India Alliance and Meenakshi Munshi from DBT, at YIM 2020 Credit: V. Aravindhan 

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

I’m a geneticist to start with, so it would have to be James Watson and Francis Crick. I would like to know their personal motivations and struggles as they went ahead deciphering the biology of DNA. It was a monumental thing! 

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

I would restrict the number of talks and have more interactive sessions. A direct interaction with funding bodies is an absolute must. If the YIMs are to be really useful to the scientific community, it must include policymakers and allow participants from various sectors to interact with them. The kinds of problems I face at a university will be very different from those faced by someone from IISc or an IIT, or someone from the industry. There is a huge communication lag between the policymakers and the end users. Only IndiaBioscience can bridge this. 

One more point: right now at the YIMs, you have the young investigators and then the seniors. But they do not cover a huge group, the mid-career scientists, who are between 35 and 50. There could be a provision by which mid-career scientists who are interested in mentoring have an option of applying as well. 

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

Go with an open mind. You may be shy or a little bit confused in your first YIM as you don’t have any idea what to expect. But you must come out of your shell at the first opportunity. 

It may be because of language skills, but I personally feel that there is no language barrier in science. If you are good in science, you will be able to convince people and get their inputs.