Columns Journey of a YI

A lesson learned: three pillars to an excelling scientific society

Priyanka Singh

Priyanka Singh is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Jodhpur. In this invited piece, she writes about the lessons from her experience regarding the different support systems that allow science to prosper. 

Priyanka Singh
Priyanka Singh 

I believe that my inclination towards research work started with the one year long research project which I pursued as a part of the Master in Biotechnology program at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), India. Developing new methods and strategies in the field of healthcare gave me enthusiasm and ignited a passion to dive deep into this beautiful world of enigmas that defines life science research. 

Around the same time, I started developing a habit of reading interesting research work from all over the word. While going through all the great discoveries in life science, I was troubled to note how India with such a rich history of advanced scientific knowledge and huge scientific population still lags behind in the number of research articles in high impact journals or representation in prestigious awards like the Nobel Prize. It dawned on me that in order to get my answers I should embark on the quest myself and gather diverse research experience by working in different parts of the world. 

So, I applied for PhD positions in various foreign universities and got a competitive North Rhine-Westphalia graduate fellowship which provided me the opportunity to do my PhD in Molecular Biology from the University of Muenster, Germany. Moving to a different country, one which didn’t have English as the first language, was a scary proposition at first. However, once I got accustomed to the culture and language, a sense of normalcy was restored. 

Apart from the research work, I found it quite exhilarating to be able to interact with people from different parts of Europe. For me, the most noticeable feature of life in Europe is not the luxury of advanced technologies, but rather the attitude of the masses which understood the importance of maintaining the right balance between core human values including self-enhancement, openness to change, self-transcendence and conservation which makes them efficiently function as a developed society. I also noticed that the majority of Indians studying abroad were excelling in their respective fields, which suggests that Indians are just as skilful as their counterparts from developed nations. 

After completing my PhD, I was awarded some excellent competitive European fellowships like European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO-Long Term Fellowship) and Alexander von Humboldt (AvH) fellowship which allowed me to spend a few more years in Europe in different labs working on diverse research topics. As a student, I worked in some very well-funded research laboratories in India and abroad. The administration in these places was well organized, efficient and supportive. As a result, the entire focus for me was always on research and scientific activities. After gathering almost a decade-long experience of working with some of the best researchers in the world and learning cutting edge technology in the field, I decided that it is now time to make use of this knowledge by going back to my country and getting a firsthand experience of working in Indian academia as a faculty. 

With great zeal and motivation towards contributing to the advancement of scientific community in India, I started applying for faculty positions in India. Simultaneously, my husband was also applying for faculty positions in the field of Chemistry. We had to face the two-body issue and went through the struggle of sending numerous applications and appearing for multiple interviews for almost two years. Finally, we both got Assistant Professor positions at IIT Jodhpur and we joined together in May 2017. It was overwhelming for me and my family as having a couple working in a same academic institute is highly unusual and very hard to come by. 

I was very hopeful as a new chapter of my career was beginning which held the prospective of working towards becoming a torch-bearer of Indian Science and grooming the younger generation through teaching and research. Although I was prepared that the beginning might be tough, there were some situations which I hadn’t anticipated. I had to go through bureaucratic processes which seemed ancient. It started with the movement of the institute to the permanent campus, which led to postponement of research lab allotment. The allotted lab had no water connection or furniture. Despite no previous infrastructure-related training, I was surprised by my abilities to expand in different aspects of lab designing. I laid out the design for the furniture, water and electric connection for the lab. It took almost one and half years for the Institute to implement these designs and furnish my laboratory. However, this gave me the confidence of building a laboratory from scratch and it was overwhelming for me to see getting these ideas implemented after the long haul. 

Funding was another hurdle as the first external funding agency where I submitted my application took more than a year to review the proposal and finally sanctioned it with some budgetary cuts. This made me realize that my mentors must also have gone through several of these hurdles themselves and they still kept working towards their scientific goals. My situation had just made me appreciate them more and I took these hurdles in stride. Getting a lab functional was slower than I expected but I am glad that we are finally there and I will always be thankful to the first batch of my students for walking this path with me. 

My experience has taught me a valuable lesson that while being a good scientist is still an important part of the deal, a nurturing and supportive academic environment acts as an incubator which also affects the speed and direction of science. The quest to get the answers to my naïve questions, and my journey so far has presented me with three pillars for an excelling scientific society 1) Scientist 2) Administration 3) Funding. If any one of them is weak then the science will suffer. So, it is very important for these three pillars to work together with the right intention, courage, professional ethics and moral towards science and society.

My journey has made me strongly believe in the quotation by the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker” which translates in English as What does not kill me makes me stronger”. I am glad that IndiaBioscience is providing this platform to give voice to young investigators of India which will definitely not go unheard.

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