Columns @IndiaBioscience

YIM 2015 live blog, Day 3: Highlights

Anjali Vaidya

The third day of YIM shifted between talks by experienced faculty with many years behind them, each discussing their research as a journey through academia, and young investigators just starting out in faculty positions. All of the speakers had faced their own hurdles, but many of the lessons learned showed a certain convergence.

One commonality between all of the experienced faculty, brought to YIM as mentors: none have followed a linear, risk-free path. Upinder Bhalla (NCBS, Bangalore) compared his career that straddled the boundaries of computer science, physics and neurobiology to a “random walk,” following the trails of intriguing research problems. His main piece of advice for young researchers: “Go out and do things that don’t work.” Only by tackling problems that have a chance of yielding nothing can we discover anything unusual. Michael Eisen (UC Berkeley) agreed. “Thinking in a linear way, planning your career like that, is antithetical to success in science,” he said. Eisen himself had moved from mathematics to biophysics to genomics, starting the open-source journal PLoS Biology along the way.

The theme of non-linear thinking that allows for the possibility of failure being vital to science resonated across the day. Rohini Balakrishnan (IISc, Bangalore), who studies cricket acoustics, spoke of the journey that took her to her second post-doc in Germany, which were two of the most rewarding years of her life. As each application for funding to work with her lab of choice in Germany fell through, Balakrishnan was close to giving up. Her mentor encouraged her to still come. “Why should we like money get in the way of doing the things we like in life?” she said. And so Balakrishnan flew to Germany and did the research she wanted to do, finding money as it came.

How can senior faculty act as mentors for rising researchers, when there is no fixed track that leads to a satisfying and stimulating career? One answer that many faculty provided: give students the flexibility to follow their own path, while still providing advise and support. “If you tell your students exactly what to do, you’ll get exactly what you told them to do, which is rarely the most interesting thing,” said Eisen. Upinder Bhalla was more blunt: “Unleash your students,” he said.

Talks by young investigators again returned to the idea of veering from the beaten track, this time from the perspective of individuals just starting out with independent labs attempting unusual paths. Anindita Bhadra (IISER, Kolkata) spoke of her research on cooperation and conflict in stray dogs, a model system that has been seldom used in India despite its relative ubiquity. “Just walk around, you’ll find my lab everywhere,” she said. Garga Chatterjee (ISI, Kolkata) spoke about his work on the visual memory deficits that accompany prosopagnosia or face blindness, with an addendum about his new research that uses data crowdsourced from the internet.

Break-out sessions through the day opened dialogues between mentors and young investigators, where lab management and the role of mentorship in science were discussed in greater depth. Here many young investigators and mentors agreed that the recruitment and promotion processes lack transparency in Indian academia, making it difficult both for younger researchers to progress in their careers and for older faculty to advise them. Dinakar Salunke (RCB and THSTI) suggested that in India, more informal mentorship initiatives between researchers work better than an institutionalized mentor system. “Identify your own mentors and reach out,” was his suggestion to young investigators. Ideally, mentors should be in the same field, and could even be collaborators.

When talking about lab management in detail, many mentors emphasized that PIs must be sensitive to lab dynamics and the inevitable stresses that students face in their twenties. Giving students a free hand did not mean never stepping in. Ron Vale (UCSF) suggested solving rivalries between students by having them work together. “Turn competition into collaboration,” he said. Elizabeth Hadly (Stanford) spoke about the need to act against imposter syndrome: some students need that reassurance that they do deserve to be where they are.

How do young investigators motivate incoming students even as their labs are starting out, and lack resources, maybe even space? Shahid Jameel (Wellcome Trust/DBT India Allaince) emphasized the importance of communication with students at that stage. Showing an interest in their work would help with motivation. “Create an atmosphere that is intellectually rich even in an environment that is resource poor,” added Ron Vale (UCSF).

Maria Leptin (EMBL, Heidelberg) ended the day recounting the life-long journey that took her from a dance academy to immunology to developmental genetics, raising a family along the way. “I’ve had a lot of fun in my career, and I think it’s important to have fun,” she said. “I’ve had hard times too, and I think it’s important to work through them.”