This is the first in a two-part series reporting on the proceedings of the 11th Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM), which was held in Guwahati, Assam, from 6 to 10 March, 2019. The meeting brought together young researchers, mentors, post-doctoral fellows and institutional representatives for five days of talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions and poster presentations.
The 11th Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM) was held in Guwahati, Assam, from 6 to 10 March, 2019. The meeting was attended by ~40 young investigators selected from all parts of India, as well as the same number of postdoctoral fellows, over 50% of whom hailed from Indian research institutes. The meeting also brought together eight senior scientists in the form of mentors, several guest speakers and panellists, and the directors of nearly 25 research institutes and universities.
This year, the organisers of the meeting were B Anand (Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Guwahati), Richa Rikhy (Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune), Dipyaman Ganguly (CSIR — Indian Institute of Chemical Biology (CSIR — IICB) Kolkata), and Smita Jain (IndiaBioscience).
The meeting began on 6 March with a welcome address by B Anand. Noting that he is a YIM alumnus himself, Anand stated that the YIMs have enriched the perspectives of many young investigators. “When it comes to science, most of us celebrate the impact of scientific outcome,” he said, emphasizing the fact that scientific outcome is actually determined by a number of processes occurring ‘behind the scenes’ – developing ideas, conceptualization, mentorship, etc. which do not receive as much attention. He urged the participants to make full use of the opportunity to interact with the mentors and develop these attributes “to naturally elevate the quality of science that we do”.
Smita Jain from IndiaBioscience also addressed the audience during this session, explaining the aims and key mandates of IndiaBioscience. Touching briefly upon the 11-year history of YIMs, she spoke about the overwhelmingly positive feedback received from YIM alumni of the past ten years about the usefulness of this initiative. Jain also shed light on the many other areas and projects IndiaBioscience is presently engaged in, including workshops for career development, enabling undergraduate biology education, an active communication program, and the recent launch of Spoorthi, an eBooklet celebrating Indian Women in Science.
This was followed by a short talk by Sahaj Uddin Ahmed from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, who explained the various schemes and programmes introduced by DBT to attract and retain scientific talent in India, and answered questions about funding mechanisms at DBT.
The first keynote address of YIM 2019 was delivered by Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT). Addressing the participants via a video message, Swarup discussed how the YIMs have become a wonderful platform for investigators to interact with each other and get connected. She touched upon four things that researchers need to be successful: 1) Good job opportunities, 2) Good mentors to help them move forward, 3) Strong infrastructure 4) Enabling environment.
The second keynote lecture was delivered by K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Advisor (PSA) to the government of India. VijayRaghavan focused his talk on some of the most pressing global challenges we face today: climate change, environmental degradation and the data revolution, and the role that Indian scientists must play in this rapidly changing scenario. He spoke of the disconnect between what scientists are doing and the problems that the world faces, and how India must emulate, but not imitate the revolutions that are happening in the rest of the world.
Over the first three days of the meeting, the participants had the opportunity to interact with and listen to talks by a number of senior scientists from both India and abroad. Here is a brief overview of these talks:
Ron Vale: Currently a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Ron Vale was recently elected the executive director of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s (HHMI) Janelia Research Campus and an HHMI vice president. Vale has been involved with the Young Investigators’ Meetings and IndiaBioscience since their inception. In his talk, Vale reminisced about how the first YIM was born out of a dinner conversation he had with a few junior faculty, and how it was designed to “instil a spirit of leadership among young scientists”.
He encouraged the participants to think about some ‘big’ questions — Why do we do science? Why is it important? How can biology in India prosper? The emphasis of his talk was on the importance of scientific culture and how young investigators can play an active role in establishing it at various levels, starting from their own laboratory, and going up the institution level, then the country and finally the world itself. “Establishing the right scientific culture can be really fundamental to success,” he said.
DN Rao: The second mentor talk was delivered by DN Rao from the Department of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, who has been an enzymologist for the last 40 years. In his talk, Rao delineated his scientific journey, beginning with first setting up his lab in the late 1980s with its focus on type III restriction enzymes, followed by broadening of his interests to encompass DNA mismatch repair and Restriction-Modification systems in the gut bacterium Helicobacter pylori. He mentioned the many collaborations he has been a part of over the years, and advised the researchers to keep their focus on the science during the first 5 – 6 years after setting up their labs. He ended with an appeal to all young investigators to teach at least one course. ““You learn a lot when you are teaching,” he said.
Dominique Bergmann: Bergmann, who is a Professor of Biology at Stanford University, spoke about her transition from a C elegans developmental biologist to a plant cell biologist studying the development of stoma. She listed five key strategies for sustaining a successful lab — 1) embracing new (and old) technology 2) developing a supportive lab culture 3) identifying unique local resources 4) reading and revising classic studies, and 5) becoming the missing link in order to carve out a niche.
Amitabh Joshi: The next mentor talk was by Amitabh Joshi from the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), who switched gears and spoke about the ‘poet’s way of science’, a phrase which he asserted describes his own journey rather accurately. He spoke about the many random factors which have affected his choices at various stages in his scientific career, including his choice to pursue science, the decision to study evolutionary biology, and his choice of graduate school. He also emphasized the importance of embracing conceptual and theoretical approaches to life sciences, in addition to the more common ‘descriptive’ approach. “Theory is too important to be left to theoreticians,” he ended.
B Ravindran: An emeritus professor at the Institute of Life Sciences (ILS), Bhubaneshwar, began his talk with an appeal to the participants to “Go set up your own laboratory under a banyan tree.” In his talk, Ravindran touched upon this approach through his own example of studying nitric oxide synthase biology, and spoke about how many years of fundamental research ended up translating into druggable targets, even though that wasn’t the aim to begin with.
BK Thelma: A professor at the Department of Genetics, Delhi University, BK Thelma was the next mentor to address the participants. Through her work on familial genetic diseases during the last 30+ years, Thelma has seen first-hand the technological evolution of gene mapping in human disorders, which progressed from linkage scans to candidate gene studies to genome-wide-association (GWA) studies to next-generation sequencing methods. She also spoke of the many projects that have arisen out of this work, including a SERB funded initiative on newborn screening for inborn errors of metabolism, and a DBT funded project on Ayurgenomics.
Boris Reizis: Boris Reizis, Professor at NYU Langone Medical Center, spoke about all the different mentors and role models who have played a strong role in his own scientific journey over the years, including Garry Abelev, Irun Cohen and Philip Leder. Taking a slightly different approach, Reizis focused his talk around the ‘mistakes’ he made along the way, and the things he learnt from each. The ‘mistakes’ included dealing with space issues, hiring the wrong people, and experiments taking inordinately long times to work. “Only thing that makes your life worth living is the young people who come into your lab,” he said, adding that to be complete, one has to be a good human being in addition to a good scientist.
Saman Habib: The last mentor talk was delivered by Saman Habib, from CSIR-Central Drug Research Institute (CSIR-CDRI), Lucknow. Habib spoke about how the discovery of a plastid-like organelle (the apicoplast) in the malaria parasite led significant revelations in the understanding of host-parasite evolution processes, and how her lab has pushed forward the understanding of apicoplast biology. She also gave examples of some ingenious ways of overcoming obstacles in the early years of setting up one’s lab, including setting up a PCR machine powered by a PC which ‘worked from home’.
Day 2 of the meeting (7 March) began with a special talk by LS Shashidhara, IISER Pune, on the importance of integrating education and research. Shashidhara explained how teaching and research feed each other — teaching can lead to new ideas for research, and research can improve understanding that helps one teach better. He emphasized the disparity in the quality of undergraduate education across the country; with over 18000 science colleges in the country, there are only a few true centres of excellence. Educational reforms, therefore, need better planning and execution. He suggested a few ways in which young scientists can contribute to improving the quality of education in our country, including developing inquiry-based and research-based undergraduate as well as graduate science education programs, paying attention to pedagogy, training the next generation of teachers and participating in science outreach by going out to schools or colleges in their locality. He also spoke about the funding opportunities that are available for undertaking these efforts.
Another highlight of the meeting was a special lecture by Arvind Gupta, an engineer-turned-toymaker. Gupta, a Padma Shree awardee, left a corporate job to indulge in a lifelong passion for making science fun and enjoyable for young children. For the last 40 years, he has been working at the grassroots level, conducting workshops and producing videos that have been viewed by over 70 million children worldwide. Using a table full of toys made out of ‘trash’, Gupta left audiences enthralled with a demonstration of how instilling scientific thought and temperament in children requires innovation in thinking rather than a surplus of money. “Ideas live much longer than people,” said Gupta during the talk, which received a standing ovation from the audience.
The final special lecture was delivered by Anitha Kurup from the National Institute of Advanced Studies (NIAS), Bengaluru. Addressing audiences on 8 March (International Women’s Day), Kurup spoke about the paucity of national-level data on women in science, particularly statistics on how many women complete their PhD, even though over 30% of those enrolled in PhD programs are women. Based on a decade of study, she strongly contested that the usual reasons given for women not being represented in science, i.e. that they make a personal choice to leave science due to domestic/family burdens, or that they are less productive or less capable, do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. Rather, it is the lack of opportunity and hostile institutional atmospheres that tend to push many promising young women off the academic path. She strongly emphasized the need to bring visibility to the success stories as well, so that both women and men can learn from those who survived the system. The discussion following from the talk touched upon various issues still prevalent in academia, including the practice of asking women about their family lives during job interviews, and the low representation of women in decision-making positions in institutional and national committees.
In closing, Satyajit Mayor, Director, NCBS and IndiaBioscience board member summarized the key highlights from the three days and thanked the participants and organizers for making YIM 2019 an interactive and enjoyable experience for all concerned.
The last two days of the meeting were given over to the post-doc satellite meeting, wherein the post-doctoral fellows attending the conference each presented a summary of their scientific work as well as their future research plans to an audience of directors and representatives from ~25 Indian research institutes. Each participant only had 5 minutes in which to communicate the crux of their research experience and goals. These ‘lightning’ talks were interspersed by presentations by institutional representatives and directors on the ideology, recruitment practices, and recent successes of their respective institutions.
Poster sessions for both young investigators and post-doctoral fellows involved active engagement with mentors and directors as well as many interactions between YIs and PDFs. Both YIs and PDFs had an opportunity to present their science in detail to their peers as well as to receive direct feedback from the mentors. The five days also held no less than four panel discussions, a breakout session, several open interaction sessions and discussions based around the recommendations made during the 10th YIM at Thiruvananthapuram. The second part of this report (coming soon) will elaborate on the outcomes of these sessions.