Columns Journey of a YI

From lonely lab to twitter tribes — My journey in academia

Poonam Thakur

Poonam Thakur is an Assistant Professor at Indian Institute of Science and Education Research-Thiruvananthapuram (IISER-TVM). In this first article of Journey Of Young Investigator (JOYI) 2024 series, Thakur shares her academic journey detailing her transition back to India, research challenges during the pandemic, and the importance of mentorship and networking.

JOYI Poonam Thakur
Journey Of Young Investigator (JOYI) 2024: Poonam Thakur. Compiled by Ankita Rathore

My academic journey has been full of unexpected experiences, difficulties, perseverance, and turning points in my professional development. I completed my PhD from Panjab University followed by two post-doctorate stints at Lund University, Sweden, and Goethe University, Germany. After receiving the DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance Early Career Fellowship I made the decision to return to India. During this transition, I attended the YIM 2019 meeting in Guwahati which helped me develop a better understanding of the hiring landscape. I actively applied for independent positions and eventually, I was successful in getting an Assistant Professor position at IISER-Thiruvananthapuram.

Changing niche

I started my faculty position in March 2020, undoubtedly one of the most difficult times to embark on such a journey. Although the institute provided me with a lab space and some startup funds, the raging pandemic meant that no students were permitted in the laboratories, and the animal house was closed. I couldn’t begin studying the regional vulnerability of Parkinson’s disease, one of my core areas of expertise, due to lack of access to animals. But I embraced the challenge and leveraged my theoretical background in biophysics from my undergraduate and postgraduate studies to plan some in-vitro experiments. With the help of Master’s project students in the laboratory, we started to set up a basic protein purification and biophysical characterisation pipeline for the group. 

I am fortunate to have found two excellent students who bravely started from scratch with me, despite lacking any PhD seniors or prior experience. Also, my faculty colleagues in the department generously shared resources, equipment, and cell culture space. I felt incredibly lucky to be in such a supportive environment. While I had no prior practical knowledge in biophysics or cell culture experiments, the collective support helped me set up a new line of work. Despite inevitable publication delays as we refined our new techniques, the prospect of exploring exciting new research directions kept us optimistic during this phase.

Lab in early days. Photo credits: Poonam Thakur
The laboratory in the early days. Photo credits: Poonam Thakur

Quality over quantity in funding

Occasionally, I was advised to relinquish my DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance Early Career Fellowship for career advancement. I steadfastly ignored that advice, a decision that in retrospect, proved instrumental in propelling my nascent laboratory. The grant comes with reasonable flexibility and a longer duration of 5 years, both of which meant that I could pivot to the newer research directions that were necessitated by the pandemic. 

After my laboratory group expanded in size, I started submitting multiple grant applications. I made the mistake of applying to every single grant with an open call. I once submitted eight grants in a single year! Unsurprisingly, I was completely burnt out and unable to maintain a high standard of writing. I was also disappointed when those applications inevitably did not succeed. From that experience, I learned the importance of writing with quality control and conserving energy for grants that align better with our areas of expertise. Subsequently, the laboratory acquired funding from Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB).

Additionally, we recently received our first international research grant from the UK’s Cure Parkinson’s Trust. Also, I’m thrilled to share that my graduate student was awarded a Parkinson’s Foundation visiting fellowship.

Finding common ground with mentees

As young principal investigators (PI), we are often anxious to generate data and publish papers quickly but it is it’s crucial to exercise patience with new students. The majority of our students lack research exposure during post-graduation, and need time to grasp the fundamentals of a research environment. It is imperative to provide them with adequate training in techniques, experimental design, and critical reading. 

Like my post-doc supervisor, I enjoy spending time with my students looking through the microscope, sifting through raw data, and teaching them to recognise exciting findings. This aspect of my job brings me immense happiness. 

In a rapidly evolving technological landscape, the techniques we learned in our time are quickly becoming obsolete. So, it is crucial to send students to workshops, conferences, or collaborative groups early in their PhDs so that they can stay abreast with the latest techniques. 

Doing science in India presents many challenges, such as slow reagent delivery, lengthy purchase processes, and often delayed funding. It is easy to get frustrated and inadvertently let it out on students. Initially, I tried to shield students from these challenges. But I’ve learned over time that openly communicating the difficulties with students and working together as a team to navigate these challenges is a more effective strategy to move forward. The most fulfilling part of being a mentor is witnessing my PhD students come up with ideas and gradually grow into independent thinkers.

Most mentees pursue their PhD in the peak of their youth when they are at their most energetic, have comparatively less responsibilities, and some financial independence. This is also the best time to enjoy life. I always encourage my students to pursue their hobbies. We have had painters, dancers, origami artists, and even models in our lab. As a lab, we attend all campus events, go on hiking trips, and celebrate happy occasions together. I hope that by seeing me let go from time to time, it also encourages them to feel free to have fun in their journey. 

My students have been my greatest asset, and I strive to pay it forward by investing in their growth, careers, and happiness. 
Lab showing off their dancing skills during annual cultural fest- ISHYA. Photo credits: Media Team, IISER-TVM.
The lab showing off their dancing skills during annual cultural fest-ISHYA. Photo credits: Media Team, IISER-TVM.

Finding your tribe

As a first-generation college student who had not been introduced to the value of networking in my early years, I had practically no circle within academia when I stepped into my role as a PI. The timing was less than ideal, coinciding with the onset of social isolation and lockdowns spurred by the pandemic.

During this period, I started using X (formerly Twitter), and it quickly evolved into one of the most rewarding experiences of my journey as an independent academic. It became the platform where I met collaborators for my science outreach project, Mind Gala”, drew participants for the virtual conferences and webinars I organised, and posed numerous naïve questions to fellow colleagues in the field. It also boosted my visibility within the broader scholarly community. 

Whenever I run into other researchers at conferences, our interactions often start with a recognition of Hey, I know you from Twitter (now X).” This less formal connection also helps to strike up discussions with more senior colleagues. In many ways, X (formerly Twitter) democratises science, offering glimpses into the thought process of institutes, funding agencies, and administrators, while enabling me to grow as a scientist and mature my worldview. It has proven indispensable in staying informed about the latest grant calls, professional opportunities, and expanding my network. 

X (formerly Twitter) has been the place for me to gain friendships, build a circle and find my tribe. It even helped to attract brilliant students to my new lab!

Although being on Twitter is a very wonderful experience, I’ve discovered that it may occasionally be intimidating to see everyone talking about their accomplishments. It is important to remind ourselves that we are doing enough. Academia is hard! It is imperative that we define boundaries for ourselves. There is more than one definition of success and more than one way to reach it! 

Written By

Assistant Professor, IISER Thiruvananthapuram

Poonam Thakur works on the progressive debilitating movement disorder, Parkinson’s disease. Her research leads to the development of better mouse models of PD and, biomarkers as well as therapeutics for the disease.