Pavan Agarwal is an Assistant Professor at the Centre for Molecular Neurosciences of Kasturba Medical College, Manipal, Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE). In this invited article, he recounts his rollercoaster journey of setting up an independent research group during a pandemic as a newly returned young investigator in India.
Starting a lab and going from ‘zero to one’ is never easy, but what a wild ride the last few years have been! To borrow from Dickens- ‘It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.’
I had been a Postdoc at HHMI, Janelia before moving back to India. A place nestled in the secluded suburbs of Virginia, hosting some of the best minds in neuroscience; akin to working in a Zen monastery. Witnessing science here was exciting & nerve-wracking at the same time! I returned to India in 2019 and was awarded a Ramalingaswami Fellowship from DBT to start my own lab. I weighed multiple options for an ideal host institute based on science, geographical location, and the possibility of managing the two-body problem.
I decided to move to Manipal, a quaint student town, close to the pristine beaches of southern India. The Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE) had just been recognised as an ‘Institute of eminence’ by the Govt. of India. I joined the newly established Centre for Neurosciences within Kasturba Medical College (KMC). KMC built upon its strengths in patient care and medical education to promote research in basic & clinical biology.
I joined along with great colleagues, also starting their labs fresh out of their postdocs, with lots of energy and empty lab space to house us. I thought it would be the best place to start from scratch and grow. Little did I know that a rollercoaster of a journey awaited!
Revenge of the flies
In January 2020, I worked in my empty office: ordering supplies, writing grant applications and hiring the first Ph.D. candidate. One of the grant applications was provisionally accepted by DBT, leading to the Dean re-iterating his promise of lab renovation. Things looked upbeat & promising, but it was all about to change. Soon after the renovation began, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and the entire world started to shut down. My dream of kickstarting a career was replaced by health and safety concerns.
I have been studying the effects of social isolation on Drosophila epigenome and behaviour. I never imagined that humans across the globe would go through the experience of my lonely flies!
At times, I joked in online lab meetings that our lonely flies were exacting their revenge on us! I could see the mental health issues these lockdowns would cause globally and the support required for my own team. I also re-visited our published data with my collaborator in Canada, and we wrote a review on social isolation for the journal Molecular Neurobiology.
A million hopes a day
Meanwhile, academic Twitter and my email were abuzz with the unfolding of the pandemic. Several tweets reported that the Centre for Disease Control had confounded the early days of testing with suboptimal qPCR primers that were forming a hairpin!
During the lockdown, my Ph.D. mentor LS Shashidhara called me to join a national voluntary effort named Indian Scientists Response to CoVID (ISRC). This amazing group of scientists with their respective domain knowledge contributed to public awareness and hoax busting.
My contribution at ISRC included designing a testing kit, for which several of us poured over manuals from the CDC and WHO. While scouting, I realised that a large city like Bangalore was receiving only 5 viral RNA extraction kits per week! Raw materials including hydrolysis probes, good quality Taq polymerases, and dNTPs were outsourced due to supply chains moving offshore!
Corona test kits were being imported from the US in exchange for hydroxychloroquine and political goodwill! Due to the efforts of many unsung heroes, India reached the milestone of conducting a million COVID tests a day, close to the ones in the USA.
Surviving & thriving
Weeks turned into months, and the lockdown continued. I kept up the online lab meetings to sustain morale and discuss science.
Since my team was new, I took a few classes on fly genetics to show mutant fly phenotypes on screen. I reminisced about my training, learning the same while sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with my lab members. Nonetheless, my team loved the online classes.
I shared my frustration of not sharing the experience of seeing flies under a microscope with my students with SC Lakhotia at BHU. He suggested some small experiments that could be conducted once we rejoined our labs which calmed my nerves. SC Lakhotia along with Ranganath had taken up the Herculean task of editing a protocol book on using Drosophila for laboratory research for college students.
After about 3 months, the lockdown started lifting partially, and being a medical college, we were allowed to come back to 50% capacity. We started with some basic experiments to record aggression in flies with the supplies we could find/borrow from nearby labs. Since my lab was not operational, we did the first set of simple experiments on my office bench. This was an example of the ease and the beauty of handling flies with a rudimentary setup.
Discussions with Raghvendra Gadagkar on exploring animal behaviour in our backyard were an additional creative boost. We ended up publishing a protocol on assessing aggression in flies using this simple setup in the Drosophila protocol book published by the Indian Academy of Science for college students!
Although there were struggles due to COVID-led supply chain delays and bureaucracy, seeing students’ curious and enthusiastic eyes made it all worthwhile. Thanks to the administrative support from MAHE, my lab got refurbished and we became operational soon. We also received extramural funding from DBT. I was fortunate to have some very kindhearted friends and colleagues who went out of their way to help. I will forever remain grateful for them. I also learned the value of grit, compassion, and forgiveness that can set one free.