Columns @IndiaBioscience

Rewind to YIM 2023 with Dhiraj Bhatia

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. Dhiraj Bhatia is a DNA nanotechnologist at Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar. In this interview, he shares his YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.

YIM 2023 Dhiraj Bhatia
Rewind to YIM 2023 with Dhiraj Bhatia. Photo Credit: Dhiraj Bhatia

Which YIMs have you been part of?

My first YIM was as a young faculty in 2019 at Guwahati. Then COVID hit, and I participated in the online YIM 2021 and YIM 2022 as the representative of IIT Gandhinagar. Further, I was one of the co-organisers of YIM 2023 at Gandhinagar. 

Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2023. 

I had finished four years at my institute and thankfully, I was tenured. I was in a stage of transition between Assistant and Associate Professor, moving on from the early-career to mid-career phase. By then, the scientist in me was craving exposure to the broader community. So when the opportunity came to organise a YIM in our campus, I took it. 

I was actually still setting up a new stem cell lab. Though I started in 2018, it took me two years to do this and then COVID hit, which delayed grants. Things had just started resuming and I was in the process of setting up my BSL 2 lab when YIM was happening. IIT Gandhinagar really supported me. They offered me flexibility, and since the event was on our campus, and it was teamwork between the four of us organisers, it didn’t take me away from my lab or teaching too much.

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

First of all, I got promoted to Associate Professor. YIM helped this happen because when we are evaluated, they also look at your experience hosting social networking events. The IITs consider not just what you contribute to research or your institute but also to society, or at least the scientific community. My students are graduating, my publications are coming out. 

Another impact of the YIM has been the collaborations and the networks it has built with my peers. 
Participants at YIM 2023 express their science through art. Credit: Ankita Rathore
Participants at YIM 2023 express their science through art. Credit: Ankita Rathore

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

I did my PhD from National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) from 2007 to 2013 with Yamuna Krishnan. That was the time when the seeds of IndiaBioscience and the YIMs were sprouting. Yamuna took part in some of the initial YIMs and she used to narrate her experiences to us. I used to wonder when I would get to be at a YIM. At the time there used to be these DST-supported YIM-like meetings in Cambridge and other European countries. I took part in one such, as a postdoc, in Barcelona in 2017. That gave me a good boost, and I understood what the bottlenecks in India were. It enabled me to move back to India the next year. When the YIM at Guwahati was announced shortly after, I applied and got to attend my first YIM. 

Tell us about one meaningful connection you made at a YIM 

As a postdoc, I was a Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) fellow. Funding agencies like HFSP give awards at different levels. If you are a postdoc, you can go abroad with this fellowship, and then when you return, you can apply for the HFSP career development award. If you’re a mid-career fellow or experienced faculty, you can also apply for international HPSP grants. I was not so aware of the requirements of those kinds of fellowships. So to have people like Tamal Das from TIFR Hyderabad and Thomas Pucadyil from IISER Pune as mentors at the YIM was really helpful. This gave people like me crystal clear ideas of what these funding agencies are looking for, how we should present our stories and stories to these different organisations like HFSP or European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO).

Can you tell us one memorable behind-the-scenes story from your time organising YIM 2023?

YIM 2023 was a huge experiment-cum-adventure. Until then, YIMs happened in places that were a bit isolated from the city, to enable more in-depth discussions, but this was the first time it was happening at an academic campus. 

IIT Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad University were chosen to host it. The main motivation for this was to give the participants (young investigators and postdocs) a first-hand experience of what academic institutes look like, how labs are arranged, and address many questions they may have while transitioning into academia. 

It was an adventure, but eventually, YIM 2023 was successful. I must give credit to people in my own department and institute. Though it was our faces on the website, we were just the monitors and there were many others who helped make it happen. Many of the faculty members had been to YIMs before and were super excited. 

IIT Gandhinagar, being close to the airport, has a very robust system for booking the guesthouse, food, airport transits, etc. So it was not a very big struggle for us. Rather, it was a good learning exercise for students who came in as volunteers.

One of the breakout sessions during YIM 2023. Credit: Dhiraj Bhatia
One of the breakout sessions during YIM 2023. Credit: Dhiraj Bhatia

Describe for us one YIM 2023 session that made a strong impression on you?

I was on a panel discussing work-life balance with Rashna Bhandari and some others. This was extremely important, especially coming after COVID when we were returning from work-from-home to the labs and the real world. As scientists, we are passionate about our jobs and we tend to put so much effort into setting up our labs. These are, of course, important, as are getting grants and publications, but it’s equally important to look after our families and health. We discussed how we need to take breaks whenever possible. The world will not end if the proposal is submitted after two days, or a manuscript takes another week. The key is to start early and not wait to do tasks until the last moment. 

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

My academic journey began at one of the best schools in India, NCBS. This is where many people like Obaid Siddiqui, Veronica Rodrigues and KS Krishnan worked. I got to spend some time with Veronica Rodrigues and she really left a mark on me. She always stood like a mother, a guide to us, whenever we needed help. There was so much to learn from her, not just the science but also managing laboratories and sensitive issues at the institution. I found her to be a very, very mature person. Sometimes, we get anxious over small problems in the lab, or a manuscript rejection, but Veronica would stay very calm even in the most turbulent situations. I wish I could have had more time to learn from her but unfortunately, she passed away soon after I started my PhD. . 

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

I’ve realised something over the last five years of my journey. As academics in elite institutes, we tend to complain about small things such as delayed flights. However, there are regions for example, in Jammu Kashmir, Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the northeast, Jharkhand, where academics face more fundamental problems. They may have ideas, they may even be much better scientists than us, but they don’t even have offices, electricity, clean water… I think IndiaBioscience should reach out to these remote places and bring in people from there. Perhaps we can empower them, support them and get them connected with the rest of the country. 

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

I would advise young investigators and postdocs to ask questions, no matter how trivial, and no matter how senior the mentors are. 

Even if it is a matter of how to order a reagent, I am sure people like K VijayRaghavan will answer. At YIM 2019, I admired how Karishma Kaushik was so open-minded and asked so many questions, regardless of who it was in front of her — whether it was the director of an institute, a minister or secretary of a funding agency. 

There is one more thing: Now that YIMs are happening in institutes, I would caution young postdocs from applying to the host institute after they get selected for the event. This is not a good practice and is not the way the system works.