Columns Journey of a YI

A long-drawn homecoming from Paris to Bengaluru

Shruthi Vembar

Shruthi Vembar is an Assistant Professor at Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB), Bengaluru. In this second article of the JOYI 2024 series, she chronicles the challenging transition journey to India, facing dilemmas of networking, acceptance of short-term offers, and unanswered questions about the academic hiring process. 

Shruthi JOYI 2024
Journey Of Young Investigator (JOYI) 2024: Shruthi Vembar. Compiled by Ankita Rathore

I vividly recall the moment when I felt ready to apply for principal investigator (PI) positions in India. It was June 2015. I had just turned 33, and was 4.7 years into my post-doctoral fellowship at Institut Pasteur in Paris. My first-author paper was about to be published in a reputed journal, and everyone around me was cheering me on. It was an exciting time and I was full of hope. I began discussing the application process with peers who had returned to India to set up their independent labs. I even reached out to established PIs who had moved abroad after spending several years in India.

A common theme that surfaced from these discussions was the importance of being visible” to the Indian diaspora at the time of application. 

Given that the majority of my scientific training had taken place in the US (PhD) and Europe (post-doc), I had limited connections in India, especially amongst senior academicians and scientists. I also realised that, given the niche, non-mainstream fields that I had worked in, my PhD and post-doctoral mentors did not have strong connections in India either. 

I found myself in a dilemma, wondering whether I should invest time in building a network in India and defer my applications, or if I should just go-for-it’. There was the added concern of potentially exceeding the 35-year age cut-off for Assistant Professor-level positions that is inherent to the academic hiring process of national institutes of excellence. After much deliberation, I decided to stand on the shoulders of my curriculum vitae (CV), which I believed to be competitive, and began the application process. 

With the BIHP team at our annual lab retreat in Cap d’Agde, France. Photo credit: Shruthi S. Vembar
With the BIHP team at our annual lab retreat in Cap d’Agde, France. Photo credit: Shruthi S. Vembar

On your mark, get set, go!

Having grown up in Bengaluru (and because my primary reason for moving back to India was to be with my parents), I initially applied to national institutes in the Bengaluru area, a couple of which were my dream’ institutes. Perhaps it was beginner’s luck, but I was invited to interview at three out of the five places I applied to. You can imagine my joy! I prepared rigorously for the interviews with my peers (through presentations, chalk talks, Q&A sessions, etc.) and finally arrived in India for the interviews in mid-2016. So, what happened next? 

Well…I fantastically bombed the first interview, got an offer from the second, and never heard back from the third, even after months of follow-up. Not bad, you may say, since all I needed was ONE competitive offer; yet, there was a caveat. 

The second institute could only offer me a five-year fellowship position, without a guarantee of absorption as regular faculty. Now, I faced a second dilemma: Should I accept a risky, short-term position, considering that lateral movement in India can be challenging, or should I continue chasing a permanent/tenure-track position? Complicating matters, I was facing pressure in Paris, with my post-doctoral mentor urging me to apply for permanent positions in France. It was undoubtedly one of the hardest decisions that I’ve ever had to make, but I finally declined my one Indian offer, believing that I was prepared for what was to come. This was early 2017. 

Wait, it’s not a 500-meter race, it’s a marathon…

What followed next was a challenging, mentally and emotionally draining second round of applications, this time to more than 25 institutes spread across metropolitan India. Mind you, I was still under 35, and compared to the first round of applications, my CV was, in fact, stronger, with more publications, more collaborations, more talks, and more mentoring roles. I had also invested time on networking, reaching out to various institutes in India to give research talks and discuss my future plans. 

Nevertheless, despite my consistent efforts, I didn’t receive interview calls, nor did I receive responses about the status of my application from a majority of the institutes. The two institutes that rejected my application mentioned that my research regarding gene regulation in a non-model pathogen was not in their list of focus areas. I even had someone ask me to switch from working on Plasmodium to Toxoplasma, since the latter is easier to manipulate! I went through a period of self-doubt, low self-esteem, and a sense of hopelessness. 

The end is in sight

And suddenly, just like that, in the spring of 2018, after more than a year of waiting, the tide shifted. I got an opportunity to work for two months as a visiting scientist at a private university in North India. This experience exposed me to the nuances of Indian academia and helped me build strong connections with pre-eminent Indian scientists. During my time there, I finally received positive responses from two institutes: a tier one national university in Delhi, a staggering 11 months after I submitted my application, and the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology (IBAB), Bengaluru, where I joined as an Assistant Professor in December 2018. There were many reasons for choosing IBAB over the institute in Delhi, but that is a story for another article, I think. I was also awarded the Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), India, after I had accepted the position at IBAB. Although I only availed the contingency grant, it proved to be a lifesaver. 

The Vembar lab, a.k.a., the Plasmobees, in April 2023. Photo credit: Pravalika Amar
The Vembar lab, a.k.a., the Plasmobees, in April 2023. Photo credit: Pravalika Amar 

My reflections

It took me nearly three years to return to India as a group leader, a journey fraught with lessons. I learnt the importance of networking and visibility, the art of negotiation, the ability to say no”, and to weigh my choices against my priorities. 

Mine is a success story. Yet, every now and again, I stop and reflect on the academic hiring process in India: What criteria do institutes prioritise when assessing a prospective candidate? Why is there a lack of transparency in recruitment calls regarding the research domain that the institute is looking to hire in? Why do hiring committees often fail to respond to inquiries about a candidate’s application status? For instance, I still puzzle over why the third institute I interviewed with in 2016 abruptly ceased communication, despite initially offering positive feedback and expressing intent to support my application for an NIH (National Institutes of Health, USA) grant. Could gender bias have played a role? I will never know… And lastly, why does the 35-year age cut-off for hiring still persist? These lingering unanswered questions compel me to take action towards fostering an inclusive and equitable academic environment in India.

After all, isn’t starting a lab similar to launching a start-up?
Madhubani-style painting of the intra-erythrocytic schizont stage of the malaria parasite on handmade paper with drawing ink by Shruthi. Photo credit: Shruthi S. Vembar
Madhubani-style painting of the intra-erythrocytic schizont stage of the malaria parasite on handmade paper with drawing ink by Shruthi. Photo credit: Shruthi S. Vembar

If you asked me, What are the key principles that have shaped your growth as a scientist and mentor during your five-year tenure at IBAB?”, I would say:

  • Think big, the size of your institute does not matter.
  • Embrace teaching, be it at the BSc, MSc or PhD levels. Engaging with young, curious minds deepens one’s scientific thinking.
  • Choose the right collaborations.
  • Don’t be comfortable with your comfort zone. Integrate computational biology, AI/ML and related fields into all aspects of your research. After all, that is where the world is headed!
  • Promote diversity and inclusivity in your lab, spanning gender, language, disabilities, and regional and cultural backgrounds.
  • Merge creativity with empirical inquiry through science art. In fact, my journey with Indian tribal art has shaped my professional trajectory in ways I never anticipated. Without it, I’m not sure I would be where I am today.

Written By