Columns @IndiaBioscience

YIM2021 — A word from the organisers

Shreya Ghosh

The 13th Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM2021) is going to be held in a virtual format from 17 – 19 March, 2021. We asked the organisers of YIM2020 (Imroze Khan, Ashoka University, Sonipat; Karishma Kaushik, Institute of Bioinformatics & Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University; Vasudharani Devanathan, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Tirupati; Shantala Hari Dass and Smita Jain, IndiaBioscience) a few questions about the upcoming meeting. Here is what they had to say.

YIM2021Organisers

How did you decide to join the YIM2021 organizing team and how has your experience been?

Imroze: I received a call from Smita and the offer was too good to refuse. It has been an enriching and exciting experience to be a part of a fantastic team working closely to organize one of the most coveted events for Indian biology.

Karishma: Sometime late last year, Smita called me and shared plans for YIM2021. When she asked me if I would like to be an organizer, I was thrilled. Soon after that, we had our first meeting. As the planning started, we met every week and systematically tackled tasks one after the other. The organizing committee meetings were productive and focused, but fun at the same time, with lots of banter and laughter. When making decisions, the discussions and conversations were honest and positive, and everyone had a voice at the table. It was a wonderful experience organizing a big meeting like this in a planned and stress-free manner while working as a team that had each other’s back.

Vasudha: Around the beginning of November 2020, I received a call from Smita and was pleasantly surprised when she invited me to be a part of the organizing committee for YIM2021. Would anyone refuse such an offer? I had always wanted to reach out to IndiaBioscience, but there was usually some inhibition or lack of time which did not allow me to do so. I was really excited and immediately grabbed the offer. 

Shantala: It was through the YIMs that I first got to know about IndiaBioscience. When I joined IndiaBioscience in 2019, one of the responsibilities given to me was to be a part of the team organising the YIMs. While I got my toes wet with a smaller role behind the scenes last year, I am thrilled to be a part of the organising committee for YIM2021. It has been an exhilarating experience. Imroze, Karishma, Vasudha, Smita and I spent many hours brainstorming how to breathe life into our vision for a virtual networking meeting. As many of us had benefited from previous YIMs, we felt strongly about capturing the essence of the national YIM as best as possible in a virtual format for this year’s participants, who have already had to undergo a challenging year. It was a very rewarding process to work with a set of organisers who were completely invested in getting the outcome correct. We felt like giddy children when the announcement of the meeting went out in January. With the meeting right around the corner that feeling is back again!

Smita:YIM is the flagship networking meeting of IndiaBioscience and being a part of IndiaBioscience, my involvement was automatic :). Beginning with YIM2016, which was my first YIM, each YIM has helped me gain a richer understanding of the research ecosystem in India and the issues pertinent to young researchers. I have made some great friends over these years and grown my professional network manifold. We have also been successful in bringing many positive changes to the format of the meeting based on the feedback that we receive every year. YIM2021, being our first virtual meeting, has been a completely new experience with no template to follow, but very enriching. With excellent support from Shantala, my colleague at IndiaBioscience, and three energetic young investigators from diverse backgrounds — Karishma, Imroze and Vasudha — the journey of planning YIM2021 has been amazing and very fulfilling.

This is the first time that YIM is being held in a virtual format. Have there been any challenges associated with moving the meeting online? Conversely, are there any advantages?

Imroze: While figuring out ways to ensure effective and meaningful networking in the virtual format was a big challenge, the biggest advantage is perhaps the increased reach and participation that we could afford this time. We are delighted that we have more participants this time than any of the previous editions.

Karishma: The major consideration in the virtual format was recapitulating the in-person networking component of the meeting, known to be a huge factor in the success of previous YIMs. Given this, the YIM2021 program was designed to provide several opportunities for virtual networking, including breakout sessions, a virtual lounge, Slack and WhatsApp groups, and an informal networking session. We hope that these numerous channels will enable conversations among young investigators and PDFs, and lead to more connections and collaborations in the life science ecosystem in India.

While enabling effective networking in a virtual format is a challenge, the biggest advantage of the online medium was the ability to leverage it to increase reach, access and participation. Further, in the absence of logistic considerations of travel and accommodation, the virtual format has included a range of speakers, mentors, and panellists from all over India and outside the country.

Vasudha: The charm of YIM is its personal interactions, so I was a bit apprehensive about the virtual format. But after a few meetings with the team, I recognized its potential. Working with a wonderful team of organisers, the challenges were ironed out really well. We decided to put in our best efforts to make it as effective as an in-person meeting. There were also several added advantages, like being able to invite many more postdocs to be a part of the meeting, using newer virtual platforms like Slack and Wonder for networking etc.

Shantala: The personal interactions and networking opportunities are the hallmarks of the YIMs. It is a platform to build a supporting and fostering community for current and future Young Investigators in India. It was a tough call but after much deliberation, we decided to go ahead with a virtual meeting because such a meeting is much needed at this juncture. The challenge then was, of course, to capture the magic of the in-person YIMs. We designed shorter sessions to avoid Zoom fatigue’ as well as set up multiple avenues for participants to interact with each other as well as mentors/​speakers/​panellists. I hope that since this is a journey we are making together with the participants, they feel a sense of ownership for this platform and go the extra mile in making the most of this meeting!

On the other hand, a virtual meeting has eliminated a huge chunk of the logistical preparation that normally accompanies a YIM — venue, travel and finances. This stripped-down approach has given us a chance to revisit the basics of the YIMs. A virtual meeting has also enabled us to have more participants. With the ability to join the meeting from their homes/​offices, I think it might have thrown the door open for senior and mid-career scientists to participate more easily in the meeting. 

Smita: Any new exercise comes with its own challenges and pains! Moving YIM online has been no different. However, it has been a great experience. The pandemic has not only taught us many newer ways of working but also made us more resilient and capable of thinking differently. This definitely helped in bringing a mindset-shift that allowed us to conduct a networking and mentoring meeting like YIM in the online mode. I would like to add that the success of this meeting has always been in the hands of the participants. The same applies to the online meeting, where perhaps a slightly higher level of effort would need to be made by each participating individual to make the most of what the virtual platforms have to offer.

What do you think the participating Young Investigators (YIs) and Postdoctoral Fellows (PDFs) can hope to gain from this YIM?

Imroze: Undoubtedly, this is one of the best platforms to understand the research ecosystem of biology in India and become an integral part of it.

Karishma: I would give participants a 3‑part toolkit for YIM 2021.

  • Understand the science ecosystem in India from a YI perspective: Leverage YIM2021 as an opportunity to understand the rewards and challenges of being a YI in India. Be informed of what the road ahead might look like – it will be different from doing science in India as a PhD scholar or doing science outside India as a postdoctoral fellow. As a YI in India, you will need to find solutions that are specific to your situation. For this, the best place to start is to learn more about the ecosystem.
  • Network among your large community of colleagues: While the journey of a YI is undoubtedly exhilarating, it can also be a lonely path to walk on. For the first time in your scientific career, you are running the entire show! Know that you are not alone, but have a large community of YIs across India as colleagues. YIM2021 is an opportunity to forge networks with such colleagues. This will be hugely rewarding, for you and your research group.
  • Seek to build informal mentorships for yourself: The YI phase of our career is a time when we are not only learning to be mentors ourselves, but also a time when we ourselves need mentoring on various fronts. A wonderful way to get inputs is from the vast pool of more-experienced colleagues in the country. They have worked within the system to grow their research groups and build their professional paths. YIM2021 is an opportunity to get to know them and build relationships that can lead to informal mentorships.

Vasudha: For both categories, here are a few points to focus on during the meeting.

  • Excellent networking opportunity: I left India as a young graduate. When I came back, I noticed a vacuum in me, having no idea about Indian academia. This forum will help fill such a vacuum in any new investigator currently in India or planning to return to India. Participants will have the opportunity to directly interact with several academicians and learn from them. 
  • Informative sessions: Thoughtfully designed panel discussions on topics such as building research groups, funding opportunities and research integrity will help young researchers become experts in their field.
  • Mentor talks: Scientists from various institutions sharing their research stories will motivate young scientists. As a YI, there are a million questions that pop up in one’s mind every day. I am quite positive that the mentor sessions will answer a lot of those queries.

Shantala: My hope would be that both the YIs and PDFs attending YIM2021 would:

● Build a (supportive) community of peers 

● Forge and seek mentorships

● Better understand the diverse and changing landscape of the research ecosystem in India

● Develop a sense of belonging and ownership for the life science research ecosystem in India

● Find an ally in IndiaBioscience and our vast diversity of initiatives

Smita: The participating YIs and PDFs will get to virtually meet their peers coming from all over the world and India. This is a great way to grow their network, learn from each other, find collaborators, and importantly, make new friends for life. They will get not just an opportunity to interact with some of their future colleagues but also a chance to mentor them during the meeting and afterwards. The mentor talks, carefully planned panel discussions on pertinent issues, and breakout sessions will give them a chance to learn more about many new and relevant topics. It would also allow them to pick up some new skills, ideas, and practices that help bring a positive change in their own workspaces. 

Our PDF colleagues are preparing themselves to enter the research ecosystem in India in an independent role. YIM will provide an excellent platform to explore and gain knowledge about this ecosystem and the road that lies ahead of them. It would also give them an opportunity to meet YIs, mentors, institutional representatives and people from funding agencies. These interactions would give PDFs a first-hand perspective of the ground realities. Trust me, each interaction is helpful and one should make the most of it before, during, and after the YIM.

Have you attended a YIM before? How was your experience?

Imroze: Yes! I attended both as a PDF as well as a YI, and YIM has never failed to surprise me with its functional importance, positive and enthusiastic atmosphere, and wonderful people around. It is one of those rare platforms of Indian academia where people can freely forge academic links and build long-standing collaborations and friendships.

Karishma: Yes, I had the opportunity to attend YIM2019 at Guwahati as a YI. It was a turning point in my professional journey as a YI. The first year of my return to India journey (20182019) was tough and isolating, professionally. I left India as a doctor, and when I returned as a scientist, I felt like an outsider’ in Indian science. I knew no one and no one knew me. YIM2019 changed all of that. The colleagues I met, the networks I built, and the camaraderie I experienced, reinstated my commitment to do science in India. Due to circumstances beyond my control, I was also seeking a new host institute, and meeting a colleague at YIM2019 led to an interview and my current position. We have always heard of the importance of attending conferences in academia, but I have lived this first-hand. 

Vasudha: No. This is my first time both as an organizer and a participant. I am really lucky to be a part of the vibrant ecosystem and team.

Shantala:YIM2021 is the third YIM that I will be a part of. I participated in YIM2017 as a PDF, YIM2020 as part of the organizing team, and YIM2021 as a part of the organising committee. I have seen the YIM from different perspectives and the YIMs have seen me at different stages in my career. All the experiences, while varied, have left me with a similar feeling – the comfort of being amongst supportive mentors and peers who are genuinely interested in your career advancement. I have come away feeling inspired, motivated and more confident.

Smita: It is one of the most enriching meetings I have ever been part of or known in the scientific ecosystem. YIM2021 is my 5thYIM as an organizer and 6th as a participant. It has been a marvellous journey – I have made many new friends, met some wonderful people, grown my network and learnt a lot about the opportunities and challenges that the Indian research ecosystem throws at researchers. The most rewarding part is to know how a large number of researchers have benefitted from the YIMs as well as the IndiaBioscience platform and how this has served as a stepping stone for them to get into their desired career paths. It feels truly satisfying to be part of this journey.

Which session (s) are you looking forward to the most?

Imroze: While I look forward to all the sessions, Panel Discussion 4 is something that I am eagerly waiting for. The discussion on DORA might be extremely important for what the future of Indian biology would look like. Stay tuned for this session!

Karishma: Most certainly, the mentor talks across all three days. The mentors are not only well-known for their professional achievements but also their contributions to the wider science ecosystem in India. Importantly, their stories represent the challenges and gains of doing science across diverse situations in India. They exemplify the fact that while the path of an independent investigator in India is not easy, it is most certainly possible to build world-class research groups in the country.

Vasudha: Since I have never been a part of YIM previously, I am both an organizer and a participant this time. There is no favourite session for me; I am super-charged to listen to each one of them! In general, I am curious to learn more about DORA (Panel Discussion 4) and excited about the Building a research group” discussion (Panel Discussion 2), being a YI myself.

Shantala: As an organizer, the question almost feels unfair – it’s like trying to pick a favourite child! On a more serious note, while I am genuinely looking forward to seeing how the entire package comes together, I am also really looking forward to the sessions where the participants get to interact with the mentors/​panellists. These include the breakout session, informal networking sessions, or even the many Q&A segments. If a lot of conversations get initiated on Slack or in the Lounge, that would be the icing on the cake!

Smita: The entire course of three days of deliberation at YIM2021 – new people, new interactions, new ideas and a new format (this year)! I am not only curious about how the event will unfold but also confident that it will be a successful meeting. A lot of effort has been put into bringing the best to the participants of this meeting, and we are hopeful that everyone will feel enriched at the end of the meeting. 

Do you have any advice for the participants for making the most of this YIM?

Imroze: More than anything else, make friends and try to captivate people with the cool stories that you have been brewing in the lab all these years. 

Karishma:YIM is the opportunity of a lifetime! Speaking from personal experience, it can prove to be a turning point in your career journey. To make the most of this YIM, I would say being proactive is the key. Reach out, discuss, ask questions, make connections, build relationships, and be present. Make every minute of the meeting count.

Vasudha: Attend every session, because they are all different and feature carefully selected mentors, speakers and panellists. Stay tuned and participate actively. This is a rare opportunity to gain a highly beneficial start-up kit for kickstarting an academic career in the life sciences in India.

Shantala: An advice my PhD supervisor gave me before I left for my first conference was, Be the first at breakfast and the last to leave at night”. In short, make the most of the meeting. While we have set up multiple opportunities for interaction and networking, the onus to make the maximum use of them lies on the participants. I would say attend all the sessions, strike up conversations with your peers, ask questions, discuss with mentors/​speakers/​panellists, share your journey — do all of this even if it means stepping out of your comfort zone! But also remember to enjoy the meeting. From my experience, it is a rare opportunity to have a meeting where you have scientists from across career stages who are passionate about science at large and who have come together to support and celebrate the next generation of Young Investigators.

Smita: It is very easy to get distracted in a virtual meeting. My very sincere advice for the participants of YIM2021 is to make the most of this carefully curated meeting by not only attending every session but also by engaging effectively. This is a great platform to connect with several bright minds of the life-science research ecosystem in India. IndiaBioscience and the organizers have tried their level best to bring to you a program that would offer you all the flavours that the traditional YIM has to offer.

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Program Manager - Science Communication