Columns Journey of a YI

A whole new world: Finding an academic home in India

Karla P. Mercado-Shekhar

Karla P. Mercado-Shekhar is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biological Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Gandhinagar. She is one of the Young Investigators selected to attend YIM 2020 in Mahabalipuram. In this invited article, she writes about her experience of moving to a new country to set up her lab and adapting to the Indian academic ecosystem. 

Karla P Mercado-Shekhar
Karla P Mercado-Shekhar 

I was born in the Philippines and raised in Guam, an island territory of the United States. I became a United States (US) citizen as a child and made my way to the mainland for higher education. I obtained my Bachelor’s degree at Boston University and PhD from the University of Rochester and was a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine. My career trajectory was nothing unusual thus far. However, I then ventured on a road less travelled when I moved to India to pursue an academic career.

My decision to move to India was taken over several years. I met my future husband (Himanshu Shekhar) in graduate school and became aware of his desire to move back to India after his training to contribute to the research ecosystem in his home country. I was intrigued by his inclination because a majority of Indian graduate student colleagues in the US preferred to stay back. Himanshu was well-informed about the academic scenario in India but I wanted to find out more for myself about the possibility of moving to India and contributing to cutting-edge science. 

I gradually familiarized myself with the culture, history, academic environment, research-funding scenario, and healthcare system of India. I learned that despite its long-standing challenges, the Indian research ecosystem was developing rapidly, more institutions were being created, and the research productivity of existing institutions was on the rise. I was pleasantly surprised, but having spent my formative years in the US, I wanted to ensure that I could make India my home and potentially thrive as an academic researcher. 

While we were postdoctoral fellows at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine, Himanshu and I attended the Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM) in Boston, USA, in 2015. YIM provides a platform for early-career researchers for acquiring information about transitioning to an academic position in India. I interacted with faculty and administrators from leading Indian institutes and funding agencies, who gave a comprehensive overview of the current academic scenario. These discussions provided valuable insight into preparing for a faculty position and the expectations from new faculty. 

The YIM mentors also shared the challenges that new faculty faced, such as setting up research infrastructure, acquiring instrumentation and reagents, attracting students, and balancing research, teaching, and service. I noted that these challenges were ubiquitous at institutions abroad. Thereafter, I took every opportunity to attend events to learn more about Indian academia. 

I participated in another YIM event held in Chicago in 2016. Attending YIMs connected us to like-minded individuals who shared our vision of teaching and conducting scientific research in India. I also interacted with young faculty who had recently established their research in India and already had impressive accomplishments. These interactions greatly increased my confidence, and over the next several months, I travelled widely to interact with representatives from various Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) and other leading institutions, such as at events held at the University of Chicago and Purdue University. 

I visited India for the first time in 2017 when Himanshu and I got married in Kolkata. We decided to make use of this opportunity to informally explore future job opportunities. Four days after our wedding, we visited the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur to present seminars and witness Indian academia firsthand. Overall, this visit was eye-opening for me. I was delighted to see that many of the labs were well-equipped, the faculty were motivated, and the students seemed bright. This experience assured me of the potential to succeed as an academic researcher in India. Moreover, interactions with individual faculty members provided me with an understanding of the expectations from prospective faculty.

Our next visit to India was two years later, after the birth of our daughter. During this trip, we interviewed at five institutions. It was exciting to interact with academics from all over India and to receive feedback on our research directions. Himanshu and I were also facing a dual-career situation, and we decided not to consider positions in different cities. After careful consideration, we joined the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN) – an institute that had impressed us by its interdisciplinary academic culture and student-friendly approach.

An important factor affecting my decision to move to India was my research focus. As a biomedical engineer, my prior work was focused on ultrasound, primarily in the American context. However, the healthcare challenges in India are starkly different from those in the US. Ultrasound is an affordable and widely accessible imaging modality and has immense potential for growth in India. I envision that working in India could also be gratifying because of the opportunity to train a large number of students who would assume leading positions in academia and industry. 

I received the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status, a life-long visa for non-Indian citizens, which allowed me to hold a permanent position in India. My decision to move to India surprised many of my peers. However, my family and mentors supported my transition after realizing that I had taken this decision after a lot of thought and exploration.

My experience at IITGN has been fruitful since I joined in April 2019. I taught two new courses that were received well and obtained initial funding support and space to set up my laboratory and hire a postdoctoral fellow. I am currently working with a postdoc, a PhD student, and 2 MTech students who are helping develop my research program. Moreover, I received funds to purchase a major piece of equipment through a competitive internal research proposal. Because of my OCI status, my external grant applications required me to have an Indian co-principal investigator, which I did not consider a problem because of the interdisciplinary nature of my research. 

The inclusive culture of IITGN helped me transition to my new home. My colleagues have been supportive of my work and have helped me navigate hurdles. Although a majority of individuals at IITGN speak English, language can sometimes be a barrier when talking to staff, vendors, and officials. However, I am taking measures to improve my Hindi. Official procedures are also quite different in India, but I have been able to reach out to my colleagues who are always available to help. 

Building a lab, acquiring equipment, forming a research group, teaching new courses, and service-related duties can sometimes be overwhelming for a new faculty. However, my friends who are early-career faculty at institutions abroad. have confided in me that they are also facing similar issues. The realization that these issues are not specific to India has helped me maintain a positive outlook when faced with such challenges. 

We learn from the experiences we have and the people we meet. Additionally, interacting with peers at IITGN has helped me develop new ideas, beyond my immediate research plans. Therefore, instead of taking a rigid stance, I have found it helpful to allow my plans to evolve based on the infrastructure and expertise available in my ecosystem. 

Although moving to India was a huge step, I never doubted that I will be able to adjust here and pursue a satisfying career. The last 10 months have been an exciting adventure beyond my expectations. I have learned that finding our path in life is akin to research. When we venture on the road less travelled, we are more likely to experience the joy of discovery.