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Exploring Alternative Careers in Science — A Personal Account

Savita Ayyar

This is a time of tremendous expansion in Indian science and the mood is one of optimism, change and opportunity for scientists. It is important to appreciate that India today has tremendous possibilities not just for science per se, but for the extended range of activities that are now needed to sustain cutting-edge scientific research.

I started my career as an active scientist and at some point turned towards scientific administration, merging my scientific training with professional management skills to do so. In writing this blog, I hope that junior researchers will be able to see that a career in academic science is but one end point of scientific training. There are many other paths one could adopt, with a bit of patient seeking of opportunities, planning, training, honest assessment of one’s interests and above all- mentorship.

I started my scientific career pursuing Biochemistry at the undergraduate and Master’s levels. Those years gave me the breadth and depth of training in several areas of modern biology such as molecular biology, immunology, physiology and structural biology. A Cambridge Commonwealth Fellowship then took me to Cambridge for a wonderful period of learning about developmental biology in model organisms. This was also the time when my son was born. Confronted with the responsibility of parenthood, I paused to seek honest answers to some difficult questions: where could I find a self-sustaining career that would allow me to integrate my various interests in life. At that point, I realized that a career in academic science was perhaps not for me. I wanted a job that would make use of my scientific training, be people-oriented and leave me room to develop in other areas aligned with my own inherent interests.

Consequently, I joined the Wellcome Trust in London as a Science Program Officer within the Cell and Developmental Biology team. This was a focused role, looking after scientific aspects of grant administration within my area of expertise. This was when I first encountered the idea of facilitation” and what flexible funding could do to further good scientific ideas. This was also when I was introduced to the inner workings of several other activities of the Trust including their phenomenal investment division, public engagement team and meetings office to name a few. My mentors at the Trust coaxed me out of my comfort zones and within a short span of time, I expanded on the range of scientific interests, started administering Fellowship schemes, organizing scientific meetings, looking after research institutes and above all- engaging with the larger scientific community. As part of my career development at the Trust, I also had opportunities to train in new areas such as process mapping and business planning. These sessions were not intended to make me an expert in any particular area, but rather to see what a difference professional management could make to any activity. And I realized that this new career actually worked for me.

Around this time, my family and I decided to move back to India from Cambridge. I was unsure of what career opportunities existed in India for a scientist with my skill set and was prepared to take an initial career break, assess the job market and to then make an informed choice about my work. However, the timing of the move coincided well with new developments on the NCBS campus in Bangalore. NCBS were looking for a scientific administrator to set up and run a grants office and this suited me perfectly. Following a series of interactions, much like new Group leaders starting at Indian institutes, I accepted the job at NCBS. In late 2010, with support from my new mentors at NCBS, I set up the NCBS Research Development Office and now work closely with the scientific community on campus to facilitate applications for extramural support from local and international agencies. Running the RDO at NCBS makes full use of all the skills I acquired as a Funding professional at the Trust and has also required me to listen, observe, learn and adapt further. It has been a great experience so far, instructive for me and hopefully useful for the scientific community on the Bangalore Biocluster campus.

Since India Bioscience is substantially about mentorship, here are my own views on the subject. I have been extremely fortunate to have had some great mentors along my career path. Rarely have these remarkable individuals taught me how to do my job — rather they have consistently shown me the big picture”, encouraged me be honest with myself and found me courage when my own failed me. It is vital to pick one’s mentors wisely. Your mentor does not need to be a woman because you are one. Your mentor does not need to be a scientist because you are one. Rather, your mentor needs to have a sustained interest in your development as it makes a useful contribution to the bigger picture.

Exploring alternative careers in science requires some legwork and retraining. So if you find yourself interested, seek experts in the area, talk to them and if possible, train with them. Much as you would pursue post-doctoral training.

More information on the Research Development Office at NCBS is available at http://​www​.ncbs​.res​.in/rdo