Sudarshan Gadadhar is a Scientist at Centre for Inflammation and Tissue Homeostasis of inStem, Bengaluru. In this invited article, he shares the significance of mentorship, collaboration and networking in establishing an independent research group as a young investigator in India.
As a budding graduate in Biochemistry, I had the chance to pursue my doctorate at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in 2007, a lush green campus I had fallen in love with growing up in Bangalore. My Ph.D. question was distinct from most of the work done in the lab. It helped me realise that individual success depends on a network of science professionals. I attended diverse seminars not directly related to my work and fortunately had several discussions over random coffees and lunches that gave me ideas, protocols, and reagents which I implemented to complete a wonderful journey at IISc.
To further a career in academia, the logical transition after Ph.D. is a postdoctoral stint. I preferred Europe to experience a new research culture. Since my Ph.D. was mainly translational, involving generating and testing immunotoxins for targeted cancer therapy, I was interested in a lab working on fundamental cell biology with a specialisation in the use of transgenic mouse models. In April 2014, I joined Institut Curie in Paris. The lab I joined is a world leader in the science of post-translational modifications of tubulin, a cytoskeletal element. I spent 8 wonderful years learning the fascinating aspects of the tubulin code and its role in the structure and function of mammalian motile cilia and flagella.
I would be remiss if I do not mention the role of my doctoral and postdoctoral mentors. They maintained a great atmosphere and granted me the freedom to explore my scientific questions. This independence was pivotal for me to develop as an independent researcher. I learned to manage tricky situations in a lab, both scientific and non-scientific, from both my mentors. Both mentors were pivotal to my career development as they provided a platform for criticism and discussion. I learned a lot about man-management skills from my postdoc mentor, a crucial skill for a group leader.
My postdoctoral position allowed me the opportunity to attend at least one international meeting each year. The meetings fostered scientific development, networking, and new collaborations. Collaboration works in two ways – you get the expertise into the lab and the work takes half the time. Between 2016 – 2018, my main postdoctoral project hit a major roadblock with no solution. I discussed the issue in several meetings which led to individual collaborations with experts in cryoEM (Max Planck Institute for Cell Biology and Genetics, Dresden), biophysical analysis of sperm beat patterns (University of Bonn, Germany), and spermatogenesis, sperm motility, and fertilisation (Institut Cochin, Paris). These collaborations came together to clear the roadblock I had hit. Despite the pandemic, we worked in unison to provide the first evidence of how glycylation controls motile cilia in mammals. The story made it to the cover of Science! This experience taught me to navigate research in different countries with scientists who work, think, and perceive differently. This feat was majorly possible due to the support of my postdoc mentor.
At this point, I was ready for the next step: setting up my independent research group. This required some introspection on the following lines:
Am I prepared to lead and train budding scientists?
Does my scientific question make any sense?
Where do I want to set up my lab?
How will I get funds for running the lab?
Will I be able to let go of the control I have over my project?
Here is where my collaborators, mentors, and the people I networked with came to my aid. A bit of advice to young researchers is to discuss all these questions within their network, as they give you a frank, honest opinion since they know you both as a person and a scientist. Once I got the clarity and felt ready, I sent out my applications.
Faculty applications and recruitment interviews are challenging, with a work presentation followed by a chalk talk. Postdoctoral fellows might be naïve to this process and success requires proper planning. Fortunately, my peer network in Paris guided me. A panel of scientists from different walks of Biology conducted a couple of mock drills and also critically reviewed my research proposal. This preparation served me immensely in the application for faculty positions and grants like the DBT/Wellcome India Alliance Intermediate Fellowship. My peers who had availed of this fellowship also mentored me in this regard.
I also ensured the strength of my professional network in India. On every visit to India, I visited research institutes to discuss my current and future research. It helped me gauge where and how my research would fit. I also discussed my strengths and weaknesses as well as the funding opportunities and the available grants.
I was also fortunate to attend the Young Investigators’ Meeting in 2021 held online, where I networked with young investigators and learned about their experiences navigating the recruitment process, setting up their labs, and garnering funds. I also interacted with institutional representatives and presented my 5 year research plan to get an idea of who would be potentially interested in recruiting me. These discussions were crucial in fine-tuning my proposal, for the interview at DBT-inStem and the application for the India Alliance Fellowship.
The networking bore fruits and these efforts led me to secure the position at DBT-inStem. I started my lab in April 2022. I also successfully navigated the interviews of the India Alliance Intermediate Fellowship, which was awarded in June 2022 with a start date of January 2023, thus indeed making it a great Wellcome back to India!
My career as a researcher is based on the network I have built and on my mentors and collaborators. I am sure going forward, this network is only going to grow.
To all aspiring researchers, here are some words from my side:
Choose your labs carefully as it is not just about the research question, but also how your mentor, supervisor, and colleagues are. This goes a long way in shaping you as an independent researcher.
Anybody can be your mentor if they can guide you toward your goals. There are no specific criteria to define your mentor(s).
Build a strong scientific network, collaborate, and do not hesitate to ask for help. Do not be under the misconception that a researcher needs to be independent. Reach out to people in your lab, department, institute, city, country, or outside. It could be just for advice or materials, equipment, protocols, or grant review. Go solo but with a strong backbone of support!