Trinath Jamma is an Assistant Professor at BITS Pilani-Hyderabad Campus. In this invited piece, he writes about the importance of supportive mentors and a nurturing environment from the host institute in setting up a successful lab as a young investigator.
Well into my post-doc at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMASS, Worcester, USA), I decided to head back home and explore career options that would allow both research and teaching. Yet, a hiatus from research in India was sufficient to raise several questions in my mind, the foremost of which were: will I be able to continue with my vision of metabolic inflammation research in India? What must I do to match the research standards set by those in the west?
While I am still looking for answers to my latter question, I am happy to reaffirm that, indeed, there are numerous prospects for excellent research in India. But I soon realised that one needs the immense support of systems that share your dream to grasp such opportunities. Two pillars were pivotal in helping me build foundations in my early days of an independent career: mentors and the host institute.
Good supervisors can be lifelong mentors and perhaps even collaborators, granting you the autonomy to coalesce new research directions in familiar environments. It is natural to forge a meaningful relationship with your PhD supervisor who has been there for you at formative stages of your science career.
My thesis supervisor, K N Balaji at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, continues to be a phenomenal support in shaping my scientific outlook. Our informal discussions propelled some of my most successful studies. Additionally, he trained me to have a good foothold in academic administrative processes which stood me in good stead in starting my own lab.
During the same time, I was fortunate to work with Srini Kaveri and Jagadeesh Bayry at INSERM, Paris. Their generosity is such that even today, their doors remain open to me for all forms of scientific networking.
My post-doc mentor at UMASS, Worcester was himself a young investigator. Jun R Huh was a true multi-tasker with colossal persistence. Efforts from both of us led us to secure funding support to the laboratory. Our time together gave me lessons on time management, leadership skills and effective productivity.
Upon my return to India, I had a short stint as a UGC-Kothari Post-Doctoral Fellow in the laboratory of Sharmistha Banerjee at the University of Hyderabad. Sharmistha is an enthusiastic, dynamic and candid mentor. There remains much to be learnt from her.
These mentors with their varied academic experiences and leadership styles have provided unconditional support when I was exploring unchartered territories.
The initial excitement of being offered a faculty position at Birla Institute of Technology and Science (BITS Pilani), Hyderabad, was quickly followed by the realisation of its multiple challenges. It is well accepted that starting an independent research group today is perhaps more difficult than ever and in this respect, paucity of funding is just the tip of the ice-berg.
BITS Hyderabad has several schemes to encourage the effective integration of junior researchers into their first leadership roles. They have a “how to” manual with valuable information and recommendations for newcomer faculties. Additionally, they conduct orientation and communication drives with key personnel in administration, information technology, human resources and finance departments to deal with region- and institute-specific regulatory nuances related to laboratory work, biosafety and ethics.
With regards to the funding perspective, BITS is now propelling more resources into research than ever. They have established a timeline for allocating research initiation grant to incoming faculties in addition to intramural competitive seed grant support. I was the recipient of its OPERA (Outstanding Potential for Excellence in Research and Academics) Award which is in the form of a “joining bonus” paid over three years. Such incentives are aimed at bringing research in BITS at par with the best institutions in India and elevating its QS World University Ranking.
While applying for external funding, I received critical and constructive feedback from experienced senior faculties. A joint drive for the recruitment of JRF and laboratory technicians allowed us to generate wider interest among candidates and gave me important tips on good recruitment. Further, a well-organised and clear account of expected teaching load, commitment to research and intellectual leadership made sure that we were all on the same page. Senior faculties also proved resourceful when preparing lectures and in classroom technology. In this way the institution strives to stand out not only for its scientific enquiry and its ability to attract funding, but also for nurturing talent, measured on an enduring time scale.
I hope every young investigator receives the support that I have. If not, I urge them to actively seek out good mentors and institutions that grant them the freedom to flourish. After all, chasing science is not for the faint-hearted.