Columns @IndiaBioscience

YIM 2020 – Musings from Mahabalipuram (Part 1)

Shreya Ghosh

The 12th Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM 2020) was held in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu, from 14 to 18 February, 2020 and was attended by nearly eighty young researchers, in addition to several senior scientists, institutional representatives, guest speakers, and panellists. This article is the first in a two-part series reporting on its proceedings.

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Beginning in 2009, Young Investigators’ Meetings (YIMs) have been bringing together young researchers, senior scientists, and institutional representatives on a common platform to discuss the ground realities of doing science in India. Drawing on various learnings and outcomes from the last decade, the 12th YIM allowed opportunities for mentorship, networking, and in-depth discussions on various factors that influence scientific productivity in India. 

YIM 2020 was held on 14 — 18 February in Mahabalipuram, Tamil Nadu and organised by IndiaBioscience in partnership with the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras. Forty Young Investigators (YIs) were selected from across the length and breadth of India to attend the meeting, along with forty Post-Doctoral Fellows (PDFs) poised to kickstart their own independent scientific careers. 

This year’s organisers were Athi N Naganathan (IIT Madras), Aravindhan Vivekanandhan (University of Madras), Smita Jain (IndiaBioscience), and Vaishnavi Ananthanarayanan (Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore).

Inaugural Session and Keynote Lectures

The meeting began on 14 February with a welcome note by Athi N Naganathan, who outlined the overall structure of the meeting — the first three days would include keynote lectures, mentor talks, panel discussions, breakout sessions, poster sessions, and special talks, while the final two days would consist of the PDF Satellite meeting, wherein PDFs get a chance to directly pitch their science to institutional representatives.

Naganathan also urged the attendees to say no to plastic” during the meeting. In keeping with this theme, the organisers opted for paper badges, cloth bags, and reusable water bottles in an attempt to minimise plastic usage during the conference. 

The first keynote lecture of the meeting was delivered through a video message by Renu Swarup, Secretary, Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, who could not be physically present at the meeting. Calling the YIM a very interesting networking opportunity, she discussed the overall ecosystem of science and technology in India and where it is placed with respect to the rest of the world. She laid particular stress on the vibrant innovation ecosystem currently coming up in India and how young investigators can be instrumental in driving this forward.

The second keynote address was delivered on 15 February by K VijayRaghavan, Principal Scientific Adviser, Government of India. Taking a bird’s eye view by discussing what the world might look like in 2050, VijayRaghavan encouraged the participants to think about their work in the larger global context. Touching upon the themes of artificial intelligence, big data, and climate change in the context of the future, he emphasized the importance of investing in high-quality non-elitist education to raise problem-solving capacities across the population. 

Special Talks

LS Shashidhara, Dean of Research and Professor of Biology, Ashoka University and Professor, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune, delivered a special lecture on integrating research and teaching in higher education. Outlining some challenges that today’s students may face tomorrow (including poverty and inequality), he pointed out some approaches that we can immediately implement to counter these issues. Some of these are better-equipping students to solve problems through analytical reasoning and developing inquiry-based and research-based undergraduate and graduate education programs. It is also important to pay particular attention to pedagogy and training the next generation of teachers. 

Anna Akhmanova from Utrecht University, who was also one of the mentors, conducted an informal session on publishing in science, drawing from her experience as Deputy Editor of the open-access journal eLife. She discussed how the basic format of scientific publishing has remained unchanged for over a hundred years and how this needs to change to reflect 21st century needs and values. She mentioned a few innovations in the field of scientific publishing, including preprint servers, collaborative and open peer review, and review commons.

Bhavna Mehra from the Infosys Science Foundation delivered a special lecture on the Infosys Prize, which has been awarded to outstanding achievers in the fields of Engineering and Computer Sciences, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences and Social Sciences since 2009. 

Smita Jain provided an overview of IndiaBioscience and its various activities, spread across its five mandates (networking, communication, skill-building, education, data/​policy). She discussed some new and upcoming initiatives as well as existing resources that the participants can take advantage of. 

Some moments from the meeting
Some moments from the meeting

Mentor Talks

Ten internationally acclaimed researchers were invited as mentors for YIM 2020, three from outside India and seven from various national research institutes and universities. Hailing from a plethora of scientific and socio-economic backgrounds, the mentors discussed their journey with the participants, including the lessons learned along the way. 

This year’s mentors were — Anna Akhmanova, Utrecht University; Elizabeth Knust, Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics; Gautam Menon, Ashoka University and Institute of Mathematical Sciences; Guhan Jayaraman, IIT Madras; Maitrayee DasGupta, University of Calcutta; Mónica Bettencourt-Dias, Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência; Munirajan A K, University of Madras; Shakila H, Madurai Kamaraj University; Sudipta Maiti, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai; and Usha Vijayraghavan, IISc, Bangalore.

Some key insights that emerged from these talks are mentioned below.

1. Venture out of your comfort zone

    While it can be tempting for a young researcher to stick to a field or a scientific problem they are familiar with while setting up their lab – perhaps something they worked on in their PhD or postdoc – most of the mentors present cautioned against taking this easy’ approach. Usha Vijayraghavan urged the participants to have the audacity to venture into new areas”, a sentiment that was echoed by Elizabeth Knust, Guhan Jayaraman, and Monica Bettencourt-Dias.

    2. Use the early years to learn and grow

      The importance of keeping an open mind and using the PhD/​postdoc years to learn and explore was driven home by multiple mentors. Maitreyee DasGupta and AK Munirajan stressed the critical role that having good mentors and teachers in their early years played in their scientific journeys, while Sudipta Maiti humorously commented on the fact that his most intensive period of learning came right before his PhD qualifiers. In addition, Bettencourt-Dias encouraged young researchers to take risks during this early period and expose themselves to ideas from many different sources.

      3. Early failures are helpful

        When Anna Akhmanova moved from Russia to the Netherlands in the early 1990s in order to begin her doctoral research, things didn’t exactly go according to plan. Everything was a complete disaster,” says Akhmanova. However, upon looking back, she feels that this was the most useful part of her career. Nothing is more terrible than a very, very successful early career,” says Akhmanova, pointing out that everyone has to face obstacles at some point and if one hasn’t learned how to deal with it early, things can become even more difficult. Bettencourt-Dias and Knust also agreed on this point, emphasizing how important it is to stay excited and keep going even when things don’t work. 

        4. Your first steps would determine the culture of the lab

          Bettencourt-Dias pointed out that it is the responsibility of the PI to institute practices like regular lab meetings, journal clubs, feedback meetings, retreats etc. This will eventually percolate and become a part of the lab culture. 

          5. Build the right team

            Vijayraghavan and DasGupta both emphasized the importance of building the right team and nurturing the next generation of scientists, given that the success of the lab depends upon them. Bettencourt-Dias recommended leadership courses and books as being helpful in learning how to manage a lab and its people in the early years. She also suggested allowing postdocs or PhDs to supervise younger people in the lab, thus training them to be better mentors, in turn.

            6. Choose an environment that is right for you

              It is very important to choose the right institution and location to do the kind of science one is yearning to do, as Jayaraman pointed out in his talk. For this, Bettencourt-Dias recommended talking with other PIs, students, and postdocs in the institute one is planning to join to understand the culture of the place. At the same time, it is important to remember that each institution comes with its own advantages and challenges. For example, both DasGupta and Munirajan pointed out the challenges of establishing a lab in a state university system, while praising some of the unique opportunities for growth that this provides, including a stronger focus on teaching. Bettencourt-Dias also suggested looking into the lifestyle one is likely to have after joining the institute – housing, child-care etc. as these are important determinants of long-term satisfaction and happiness.

              7. Ask the right questions

                Asking the right question is much more important than finding the answer,” said DasGupta during her talk. Jayaraman also identified choice of research problems’ as one of the factors that drive scientific productivity. This includes figuring out whether the project is fundable and publishable, whether adequate infrastructure is available, the depth of the problem, and sustainability over a long time.

                8. Tools and training from other fields can be applied to understanding biological problems

                  Three of this year’s mentors ventured into biology after training in very different fields – Guhan Jayaraman (chemical engineering), Gautam Menon (theoretical physics) and Sudipta Maiti (experimental physics). For those coming in from other fields, it is important to harness one’s quantitative understanding and unique perspective while accepting the inherent complexity and noise of biological systems. Maiti also pointed out the importance of paying attention to the art of writing papers, given that life science papers tend to be written quite differently from papers in other fields. 

                  9. Collaborate with intention

                    With growing interdisciplinarity and expanding scales of scientific questions, collaborations are something which almost every young researcher would have to navigate at one point or the other. Maiti suggested finding collaborators with complementary expertise to drive projects forward. Bettencourt-Dias recommended setting an initial frame of time to explore collaborations and to share human resources in addition to ideas. The importance of proactivity was also stressed by various mentors when it came to building and maintaining collaborations.

                    10. Stay connected

                      The importance of a sound and diverse professional network cannot be overstated, and several of the mentors pointed this out in their talks. Vijayraghavan spoke of the importance of expanding one’s network beyond academic circles to avoid thought traps and echo chambers. Reminiscing about the influence of late neurobiologist Veronica Rodrigue on his career, Maiti pointed out how lucky he was in getting some extraordinary individuals as his support system.

                      11. Don’t sacrifice personal growth while chasing academic milestones

                        It is important to retain space for individuality while doing one’s science. For Shakila, this was achieved through several grassroots-level outreach efforts as well as paying attention to the needs of her family. Even within the confines of the lab, it is important to pay attention to one’s intellectual growth. In this regard, DasGupta quoted her postdoc mentor – Choose whether you want to be a scientist or a scientific worker”.

                        12. Learn to say no

                          In the early years after setting up one’s lab, it is very easy to become caught up in hundreds of projects and administrative tasks which can quickly become overwhelming. Many of the mentors, including Knust and Bettencourt-Dias, pointed out the importance of figuring out one’s priorities and learning to say no to things that are unimportant. 

                          13. Provide service to the community

                            Academic freedom comes with responsibility,” said Jayaraman. While administrative tasks are often looked down upon by young scientists as distractions from their research, these tasks need to be performed for an institution to function efficiently, and in their absence, the entire machinery of research can grind to a halt. Vijayraghavan pointed out that it is the duty of a researcher to take responsibility and step up to such tasks. Knust also pointed out other routes of providing service to the community including training, supervising, and mentoring students, engaging in peer-review, serving in committees, and disseminating one’s research. 

                            Launch of Disha: A Career Resource Book for Life Science and Biotechnology Students in India

                            YIM 2020 also saw the launch of Disha: A Career Resource Book for Life Science and Biotechnology Students in India. Written by Suman Govil, former senior adviser, DBT, Disha provides comprehensive guidance on navigating the landscape of life science careers in India. In addition to compiling information about multiple career options open to life science and biotechnology students in India, this book discusses strategies for professional development, job search, and higher education. It also provides an overview of the Indian biotechnology industry and features interviews with leaders in various science professions. 

                            The book was formally launched by Satyajit Mayor, Centre Director, National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore, Meenakshi Munshi, Scientist G, DBT, and Shahid Jameel, CEO, Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance, each of whom praised the initiative and said a few words about it. The book can be freely downloaded here.

                            In the second part of this report, we shall discuss the various panel discussions that took place during YIM 2020, takeaways from the two breakout sessions and a special international grant awareness session conducted by IndiaBioscience and Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance for EMBO grants and fellowships, as well as proceedings from the PDF satellite meeting that followed the YIM.

                            Written By

                            Program Manager - Science Communication