Columns @IndiaBioscience

YIM 2022 – Forging bonds (Part 2)

Suchitha Champak

The 14th Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM 2022) was held online from 4 – 6 May 2022. Sixty young investigators and an equal number of post-doctoral fellows enthusiastically participated and gleaned insights from several senior scientists, guest speakers, panellists and institutional representatives. This article is the second in a two-part series reporting on the proceedings.

YIM part1 feature

A chief mandate of the YIM 2022 was to hone the young researchers’ abilities in establishing their scientific careers. A considerable part of this endeavour vests in what they give back to the community and society. The seniors offered extensive insights on how YIs (Young Investigators) could contribute to forging the bonds they established with the community and carrying the legacy forward. 

At many touch points during the meeting, the experts emphasised how a YI could take responsibility, highlighting leadership, mentoring, and research communication as effective ways of giving back. 

Here are excerpts of the elaborate discussions that ensued on the topic.

Leadership and mentoring as means to contribute to the scientific community

The core principle that strengthens any community is building relationships and creating an environment of belongingness. Therefore, the discussions during the three days of YIM 2022 emphasised the importance of a holistic outlook to building a community. 

Megha (University of Trans-Disciplinary Health Sciences and Technology, Bengaluru), one of the event’s organisers, shared the meeting’s collective vision for community building and knowledge sharing. Based on the role in the ecosystem, the speakers discussed both perspectives that arise for YIs — as mentors and mentees.

As mentors

As a YI, one might do their best for the students in the lab’s purview. Still, it is imperative to remember that the students have independent journeys to navigate, advised the experts. Therefore, the first aspect that prospective students expect from a mentor is cooperation. 

Conduct yourself at the highest ethical level to set an example for the students. Your reputation has a higher impact than the impact factor of a journal for your students,” said Swati Patankar (IIT Bombay, Mumbai) during her mentor talk. She also discussed how roles evolve as the team grows. Suggesting scaling of mentorship inside the lab, she told how the YI would be able to cater to all the students who often have different needs.

A screenshot from YIM 2022. Left: Swati Patankar. Right: Megha

Concurring with Patankar, Manoj Prasad (National Institute of Plant Genome Research, New Delhi) highlighted the significance of a mentor’s contribution to their student’s success. He cited the example of how his students had fared. Some key takeaways from his talk were:

  • Allow students the independence to design and redesign experiments.
  • Involve students in the editorial process of manuscripts and any other activities that improve their writing skills.
  • Allow students free will to attend skill and network-building activities like conferences, fellowships, etc.
  • Encourage students to be proactive collaborators and never miss a chance to seek help from peers from other research groups.

Panellist Namrata Gundiah (Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru) advised the YIs to be unafraid to understand new concepts from various fields of study so they can be accommodative of students and collaborators from different backgrounds. Further, she encouraged the YIs to train themselves better at hiring, promotions, and collaborations.

Vishwesha Guttal’s (IISc) advisory on the essential auxiliary skill was that the YIs must start developing their philosophies early on about assuming responsibility in the academic community and mentoring younger peers. By involving yourselves in institutional activities in your capacity, you are improving the overall ecosystem of the institute,” he added. 

As mentees

When YIs shoulder so much responsibility as mentors, they often also need guidance and mentoring, turning them into mentees. In his mentor talk, Harmit Malik (Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, USA) discussed the qualities a mentee should look for while seeking mentorship. He hinted, Choose mentors whose trainees and people under them have gone farther; the ones transparent on the lab website.” In addition, he suggested paying attention to how invested and passionate their prospective mentor is about science. 

Harmit Malik, speaking at YIM 2022

Malik suggested an easy way to find a mentor: a mentor is someone in your network who is just one step ahead of you in your career.” He justified the hack by illustrating how such mentors will have had a recent and first-hand experience with all the problems the YI might be facing. Moreover, building a strong system of multiple mentor-mentee relationships knits the academic community together, opined the speakers.

Giving back to society — breaking the impregnable fortress of science

As the public is the primary stakeholder in all research activities, involving them in the scientific process with effective communication of the research is essential. The final session of the meeting sensitised the participants on that vital topic. 

In the last special talk, Pranay Lal, a natural historian, emphasised the importance of societal involvement for meaningful scientific discovery. He made a strong case for how science has divorced society, and the scientific community has become inaccessible. His message was clear: Good science raises more questions than answers. We hide failures and have jargon-filled conversations. It is our fault. Stop making science an impregnable fortress.” Adding to his view, Megha said that communicating science shouldn’t be a part of one’s job description, but an essential life skill every researcher should learn.

Further, Lal suggested an activity for the participants to break the ice and begin their journey as science communicators. He said, develop a dummy version of your work. Try telling about your work to a child, a janitor, a colleague, and a scientist not from your field. Write, rehearse, deliver, rewrite and evolve.”

While the inspired audience pondered these pointers, the next panel discussed how one could approach science communication in a structured way. The panellists, Arnab Bhattacharya (Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education, Mumbai), Sarah Hyder Iqbal (Foundation for Advancing Science and Technology, New Delhi), and Sudhira H S (Gubbi Labs, Bengaluru) shared their perspectives and experiences at different levels, and in different ways.

Panel discussion on Science Communication and Society. From top-left, clockwise: Shantala Hari Dass, Arnab Bhattacharya, Sudhira H S, and Sarah Hyder Iqbal.

Shantala Hari Dass (IndiaBioscience, Bengaluru), the session moderator, raised a question about allocating sufficient resources to communicate science. To this, Iqbal swiftly responded, Funding is essential to formalise and legitimise the field of science communication, in a way also to build more capacity.” Iqbal also suggested that systems should be set up to allocate separate funds for communicating science, instead of taking from the already insufficient and irregular research grants that the YIs receive.

Concluding remarks

YIM 2022 gave the participants the competitive advantage they needed to establish themselves as successful scientists in India. Anupam Sharma (Rutger’s University, USA), one of the participants, said, It has been professionally enriching (for me) here in the USA, but the personal satisfaction is what I want to fulfil by coming back to India.” YIM served as a reality check for the participants as they began their journey as mentors and leaders inspiring the next generation of researchers. 

Hari Dass concluded the meeting by thanking all the organisers and speakers. She also welcomed the participants to join the YIM network officially. I hope the YIMs continue to advocate for early career researchers and put forward recommendations and usher change in the academic ecosystem,” she said.

Rashna Bhandari (Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, Hyderabad), one of the advisory board members, gave the closing remarks. She highlighted the three ideas that reflected the ethos of the meeting, which she wanted the participants to take away — collegiality, ethics, and the concept of giving back to the community.