Columns Indian Scenario

Finding and starting a job at Jawaharlal Nehru University

Saima Aijaz

It was July 2006 when I started applying for a faculty position in Delhi. At the time, I had been a post-doc at University College London where I was working on the molecular characterization of epithelial tight junctions. I wanted to be based in Delhi and I thought JNU and NII would be good places to apply. I was aware that I was limiting my chances of success by applying at just two places. However, nobody was working on tight junctions in India and I felt that this could work to my advantage. In December 2006, I presented my work at the Special Centre for Molecular Medicine (SCMM), JNU and NII and then waited to hear from them. For the next eleven months I did not hear anything from them. Then, in November 2007, an e-mail arrived from JNU asking me to appear for an interview. I attended the interview and was offered the position of Assistant Professor at SCMM, JNU. There was no news from NII so I accepted the JNU offer and joined in January 2008, pleased that I finally had a chance to establish my lab. I thought that the tough part of job hunting was over and the rest would be fairly easy. Little did I know of the pit falls ahead!

The Special Centre for Molecular Medicine is a fairly new centre with six faculty members (including me). It is currently housed in a building that used to be the old Genetic Engineering unit and is not large enough to accommodate six labs. So until the Centre moves to its new premises (which are under construction), getting laboratory space is a serious issue. I did have an office though and I thought that since I was going to be busy writing grant proposals I didn’t need lab space right away. I was wrong. Because on the very first day of my joining, a first year PhD student came to see me. He wanted to pursue his PhD in my lab (!!!!). He had joined one semester late and labs had already been allotted to other students from his batch. Senior colleagues advised me that he would be an asset in setting up the lab and rather naively, I agreed to be his PhD supervisor. Looking back, that was my very first mistake as new faculty since there really wasn’t much my first PhD student could do. I had no lab, no research project and no money. With only two courses to complete in the monsoon semester, he had ample time on his hands. His batch-mates were busy learning basic lab techniques and familiarising themselves with ongoing projects in their respective labs. Read about tight junctions, I suggested to him. He did, but there was also pressure to catch up with his batch-mates. Having no prior experience of supervising students I felt it was my moral duty (!!) to keep him occupied lest he felt left out and I spent more time trying to keep him occupied than I did on grant writing. What was I thinking?? Pressure was mounting and the combined stress of supervising a student and writing the grant proposal was getting to me. To make matters worse, I did not have accommodation on JNU campus and was commuting for more than an hour everyday to get to work. The independent faculty position was beginning to look less like a reward and more like a punishment.

With the start-up money of three lakh rupees that JNU had sanctioned, I bought a few restriction enzymes, borrowed a cloning vector and began to teach my student basic molecular biology techniques. Now I can get moving on the grant proposal, I told myself in March. There was a small problem though. I was not continuing my post-doctoral work so had to design a brand new project. It was like starting from scratch. Where do I start? The project had to be novel yet one that I could quickly develop in the given circumstances. Assembly and disassembly of tight junctions had always interested me and seemed a good idea to build on and I started searching for various stimuli that I could exploit to study de novo junction assembly. Something that would open up the tight junctions upon addition and close them upon removal of the stimulus. Now that the idea had dawned all I needed to do was to fill in the blanks! Perhaps viral or bacterial proteins would be good candidates and I started searching the literature for one that would not open or close the tight junction permanently. The pace of grant writing had picked up. So did the administrative work load. By now it was June and the new academic session was about to start. It was time to select new PhD students. Several days of interviewing later, a list of successful candidates was drawn up. I also started to teach a course on cell junctions to the new batch of students. Weekly lectures of 1 – 2 hours until December 2006.
In between, I did manage to finish the grant and submitted it to DBT. Things moved more quickly then and I successfully defended the grant proposal in front of the task force committee in September and had received a letter from DBT informing me that my grant was approved. By November, barely eleven months after joining SCMM, I was assigned another PhD student. Well, at least the grant money should be here soon, I consoled myself.

February 2009 and the money had still not arrived. What had arrived was a letter from DBT informing me that my grant funding had been reduced by 30%. What now? It was at this time that I attended the first Young Investigator Meeting held in Kerala. It was heartening to see that I wasn’t the only one with teething troubles. But compared to other new recruits at Institutes, I just had more of them. The meeting brought me in touch with not only established Indian scientists but also role models who have successfully integrated the scientific spirit in their lives despite all the odds. I came back feeling inspired and motivated. Rather than appeal against the cut and waste more time, I decided to accept the money from DBT. After all, I have my career to launch and two PhD students to take care of. I will build on the foundation later. Am I being optimistic? Perhaps, but what other options do I have? I am finally setting up my lab and also getting ready to submit more grants.

It is now eighteen months since I joined as new faculty. Now would be a good time to take stock and reflect on all that has happened. In this time, I have written and submitted a grant proposal, taken two PhD students, taught a new course on cell junctions and have only just started building my lab. It is painfully obvious that had I been on my own (without taking on students) I could have been much faster with grant writing. I would have also had time to start initial experiments before the arrival of students in my lab. Plus it would have been very good for my nerves. So what message am I passing on to new recruits at universities? It most certainly is NOT to dissuade them from joining universities. If anything, it is a message to policy makers who need to sit up and take notice. What would I like them to do? Increase the start-up money given to new faculty for a start. And not to assign new students to new faculty for at least a year. And to provide better infrastructure. Is that too much to ask for? I dread to even think about the smaller universities. Policy measures will only be effective if they touch every university in India where even today young students can only dream of doing cutting edge science. Is anyone listening?