Columns Journey of a YI

A tale of two labs and one home

Nirmalya Sen

Nirmalya Sen is an Assistant Professor at the Division of Molecular Medicine of Bose Institute, Kolkata. In this invited article, he writes about his research journey as a young investigator that took him through two labs in India to a place he calls home.

Nirmalya Sen
Nirmalya Sen 

I started my journey as a young investigator (YI) with a DBT Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship. The journey took me through two labs to a place I call home. 

First lab: language and culture are not barriers

With experience in transcription factors, cancer biology, sequencing technology, and small funding, I joined RGCB, Trivandrum in February 2018. It was relatively easier to plan things as a postdoctoral researcher; it was tough to implement them as a YI. I was burdened with significant paperwork to initiate the fellowship. This time required agility in decision-making while understanding the limitations of the host institution. 

Initially, I lacked students, a laboratory, and office space. I utilised that time to write for DBT and DST grants and order consumables and equipment. I was able to set up a functional laboratory and hire two students by August 2018. In the next 6 months, I focused on student training and collaborations. I procured a DST-SERB ECR grant on a project and started building up a manuscript. 

The central facility and colleagues were supportive when my lab did not have most of the equipment I needed. Even though I did not speak the native language, the care, love, and cooperation of the RGCB fraternity made me feel at home.

Second lab: working experience in a state university 

In 2019, I transferred my fellowship to Kalyani University in my home State, West Bengal. The ignorance surprised me: the administration took me to be a postdoctoral student and fellow faculty were surprised at the recruitment of a Ramalingaswami fellow. 

With limited knowledge of civil engineering, I converted an empty room at the university into a functional laboratory. I also contributed to setting up a central cell culture and instrumentation facility in the same building. The university Vice Chancellor encouraged my ideas and appointed me as the facility in charge. 

In the meantime, I hired a junior research fellow and published my first paper as the corresponding author. I was hoping to secure a permanent position before the exhaustion of my fellowship and grants. 

The onset of the pandemic wrenched these plans. Lab-based research work was rendered impossible due to lockdowns. My experience working without a lab helped me utilise the period effectively. I restructured pending manuscripts, organised online lab meetings, attended online seminars, and built a network with nearby hospitals and institutions. 

By mid-2021, I was able to start a fully functional cell culture facility and a laboratory. I also communicated my work to a reputed journal. The manuscript was accepted in February 2022 which led to an extension of my DBT grant for another 2 years. 

To minimise the uncertainty in funding, I continued to explore permanent positions. In 2022, I was offered an Assistant Professorship at Bose Institute. Here, I feel at home — I have a dedicated laboratory space, intramural funds, and PhD students to continue my research.

Take home messages to future young investigators (YIs):

  1. Try to apply for permanent positions. Even if you come with fellowship grants, it will last you for 5 – 6 years. Pros of fellowship: i) They provide you with salary, startup funds, and possible opportunity to start your research immediately. ii) Prestigious awards boost your CV, iii) You have the flexibility of changing your institute. Cons: i) Time-limited and temporary with no promise of permanent positions, ii) Always abides by host institutional rules, where you may not have privileges of a permanent faculty.

  2. Ask for intramural funds and apply for extramural funds. Have 1 – 2 projects ready for submission. The funding is very competitive, so don’t rely fully on your postdoctoral publications. Be realistic about the needs/​science policies of the country while writing the project. If you are a basic researcher, provide translational/product-based benefits as outcomes. Also, since 35 – 36 is a cutoff for YIs, you may not be able to apply for early career grants/​awards later.

  3. Planning matters. Have a tentative laboratory plan, a list of reagents, and a list of equipment prepared before you join. Find out what things (machines/​reagents) are available in the institute that you can’t buy immediately.

  4. Spend your time effectively. Read and write tentative projects, review articles and restructure your manuscripts if you don’t have a functional lab. Once you have the lab, try to perform bench work if possible in your new lab, this will encourage young students and increase your workflow. Remember, you are the most efficient worker in your lab and it always feels good to do some interesting experiments.

  5. If you want to change your workplace, figure out the logistics (both professional and personal life matters). Don’t take too long to decide. Ideally, you should target the first 1 – 2 years of the fellowship window/​job window for changing institutions. Unless you get a permanent position, avoid changing host institutions in the last year of your fellowship.

  6. Hire all kinds of manpower possible. You may not get a PhD student in the beginning. Hire research assistants, summer interns, and guest workers; they may be short time workers but will increase your productivity due to the division of labour. 

  7. Networking and collaboration are essential. You can work out of your collaborator’s laboratory, use their expertise, and send students to learn. Also, don’t forget your friends in research, ask them for help.

  8. Take some time out for yourself. YIs are often overburdened with deadlines, work environment, and job insecurity. Give yourself some personal space, engage in scientific activity, read and write about tentative projects, avoid negative thoughts, and remind yourself of your dreams.

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