Columns Journey of a YI

A joie de vivre in Science

Rohan Khadilkar

In the second article of our JOYI 2022 series, leading up to YIM 2022, Rohan Jayant Khadilkar,Principal Investigator, Advanced Centre for Treatment Research & Education in Cancer, Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai, expresses his joy in pursuing a life in science.

Rohan Jayant Khadilkar
Rohan Jayant Khadilkar 

Science is fascinating and fulfilling. The joy of asking curious questions, the quest of finding answers to those questions, and unravelling the unknown leaves me wanting for more!

My passion in science developed during my Master’s in Biotechnology at Presidency College in Bengaluru. It was fueled by amazing teachers that I was lucky to have. I became interested in understanding and learning more about what goes on behind, in terms of science and research, when a concept makes its way into a textbook. This process was enriching and helped me in preparing for the various examinations that I needed to take to get into research.

An exciting Ph.D. journey began for me at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bengaluru, working with Maneesha S. Inamdar, Professor and Chair, Molecular Biology and Genetics Unit, JNCASR. She moulded me and helped me develop qualities that were essential to thrive in research. I was startled, yet equally enthralled, by the variety of things I had to learn during my Ph.D. The training I acquired taught me life lessons and qualities that helped me in dealing with challenging situations. Diligence, discipline, devotion, and dedication are some valuable virtues that I learnt from my Ph.D. supervisor.

Bengaluru is a hub for science and research, with many eminent scientific institutions and their campuses being in the vicinity like the Indian Institute of Science and National Centre for Biological Sciences. It was a treat for a budding researcher like me. I just soaked in and imbibed whatever I could by just co-existing in that environment, and by witnessing and interacting with numerous illustrious scientists.

Ph.D. was indeed a rewarding journey and an experience like never before. My research at JNCASR focused on understanding the role of a novel endocytic protein, Asrij, in regulating stem cell homeostasis in the Drosophila hematopoietic system. I received the Best Ph.D. thesis award (2015) in Biology from JNCASR and the Indian National Science Academy’s Young Scientist Award in 2019. I could not contain my happiness when our research on endocytic control of stem cell maintenance was appreciated on international platforms in conferences and was also awarded the European Molecular Biology Organization’s (EMBO) fellowship for a collaborative research visit to Milan, Italy, to the laboratory of Dr Thomas Vaccari.

After my Ph.D., I moved to the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada to work with Professor Guy Tanentzapf. The training that I received in the Tanentzapf lab as a postdoctoral fellow was completely different than what I had experienced before. The liberty to conceive, design and execute an experiment independently was exhilarating and it helped me grow as a scientist. Since it was an international and culturally-diverse lab, I was able to develop collaboration skills that not only helped me work in a team but to help lead a team. I would call it a successful postdoc that helped me get significant publications, which landed me an academic job in India. My experience in Canada with Guy helped me blossom into an independent researcher.

Members of the Stem Cell and Tissue Homeostasis laboratory. Upper row (left to right): Suraj Math, Grishma Pillai, Arjun A.R., Rohan Khadilkar, Rujul Deolikar, Yash Sheregare, Aman Chaurasia. Bottom row (left to right): Saraswathi Pillai, Ujjayita Chowdhury, Sugata Ghosh, Kishalay Ghosh. Not in the picture: Chitraja Walanj.

The idea of heading a laboratory and starting my own research group was exciting and something that I always wanted. Thus, my journey on transitioning from a postdoc to an early career researcher/​new principal investigator (PI) began. My search for academic/​faculty positions in India has been a journey full of ups and downs. Despite the roadblocks, I was single-mindedly focused and determined on cracking it. I worked relentlessly on my applications, research proposals, teaching proposals and cover letters every single time with equal determination despite the rejections. I often rehearsed an elevator pitch describing the research proposed in my future independent lab. I also practiced my research talks during this phase with mock presentation drills, where I was my own audience!

This whole experience of academic job applications taught me to be patient and in hindsight, when I think about it, I would like to help future academic aspirants by sharing my own unique personal experiences. One main advice is to start early. It is all about being there at the right time at the right place. One often keeps waiting for that breakthrough high-impact factor publication during postdoc; but, from my personal experience, a decent first-author publication in a peer-reviewed journal that is known and respected in the field is good enough for initiating the application process. This is a long journey, especially in present times due to the pandemic, and demands a lot of patience. One may feel lost and demotivated during this journey, but the key to crack the code is to hold the head high, holding up and persisting with it.

Each of my mentors/​research supervisors and scientists whom I have closely interacted with during my Ph.D., international research visits and during my postdoctoral training had unique qualities and made a strong impression on my mind. I have actively tried to inculcate a combination of these qualities in me in order to be a better scientist and, this has really helped me. The mentorship and support that I have received from my mentors is truly invaluable and serves as a guiding light in my scientific journey.

The training during my Ph.D. in India gave me a flavour of the science administration, funding policies and overall work culture in India. So I was aware of what I was getting into and signing up for. Navigating the Indian science ecosystem, especially administrative matters, for a person who has done Ph.D. and postdoctoral training abroad is a daunting task as there is a different set of challenges abroad. One needs to bear in mind and mentally prepare for the fact that the research landscape changes and is different in different places.

I joined the Advanced Centre for Treatment Research & Education in Cancer (ACTREC), Tata Memorial Centre, Mumbai as a Principal Investigator in March, 2020. It has been a roller coaster ride ever since. It was just a week after I joined that the nationwide lockdown was announced. I call myself a pandemic PI as the founding two years of my independent research career as a starting PI has been in the thick of the pandemic amidst multiple waves of COVID infection.

There are many challenges one encounters while starting a new research group and while establishing a new laboratory. On top of that, early career researchers like me have faced unprecedented problems and roadblocks – be it financial/funding-related issues, administrative matters or manpower-related issues. There have been major delays that have hampered work and research. But looking at the brighter side, I learnt many things both personally and professionally. My lab focuses on understanding how stem cells and tissue homeostasis are regulated during developmental and disease conditions using Drosophila (fruit fly) as a model system. I was awarded the Har Gobind Khorana – Innovative Young Biotechnologist Award in 2020 and the Ramalingaswami Re-entry fellowship in 2021, which gave a boost in terms of funding for my new laboratory. 

In such challenging times, having a strong support system really helps. IndiaBioscience and its flagship events like the Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM) provide a great opportunity to network and engage with fellow scientists who are at different career stages. This not only provides the right kind of exposure to the science done in India but also helps in building a support system that helps one navigate one’s way out of challenging situations.

I end with a quote by Barbara McClintock, who has always been an inspirational scientific figure for me: If you know you are on the right track, if you have this inner knowledge, then nobody can turn you off… no matter what they say”.