Columns Journey of a YI

It’s never too late to get back to science

Ujjaini Dasgupta

Ujjaini Dasgupta is an Assistant Professor at Amity Institute of Integrative Sciences and Health, Amity University, Haryana. She is one of the Young Investigators (YIs) selected to attend YIM2020. In this invited article, she writes about her experience of returning to active research after spending six years in a different field.

Ujjaini Dasgupta
Ujjaini Dasgupta  

To be a scientist and run an independent research group has been a dream that I have nurtured since my PhD days. I joined as an Assistant Professor at Amity Institute of Integrative Sciences and Health, Amity University Haryana in 2016 where my group (Laboratory of Sphingolipid Biology) is working on decoding the intricacies of sphingolipid signalling during tumour progression using multidisciplinary approaches.

The Amity Institute of Integrative Sciences and Health (AIISH) is a new initiative of Amity University, Haryana, designed to perform interdisciplinary research at the interface of innovative advances in molecular medicine and healthcare and is headed by Rajendra Prasad, an eminent Indian molecular mycologist. 

When I was in school, I did not think much about a career except wanting to follow my older cousins who were successful physicists. I completed my BSc (Hons.) from Presidency College, Calcutta (now Presidency University). I still have very fond memories of my esteemed college and this was the place that invoked my interest in biological sciences for the first time. 

I then completed my MSc in Biophysics and Molecular Biology from the Department of Biophysics and Molecular Biology, University of Calcutta. During my MSc, I was trained by some of the best teachers I can think of, who sowed the seeds of research in my young mind. 

My MSc days also taught me to never to give up on a problem. This is a driving force that has guided me throughout my scientific career. While pursuing a PhD at Delhi University (South Campus), my serious liking for the field of signal transduction grew, starting with intricacies of light signal transduction and photomorphogenic mutants of Arabidopsis who can see light in darkness”.

I started my postdoctoral work at the University of Massachusetts, Medical School doing an elaborate screen designed to identify novel components of the Hedgehog signalling pathway using Drosophila as a model system. In spite of my mentor’s and my undeterred dedication and sincere efforts, the screen did not work due to some technical problems. Even though I had invested more than a year on this screen right at the beginning of a postdoctoral career, I did not take this as a setback and immediately started another screen that eventually ended with a publication in PNAS. By the end of my postdoctoral research, my interest in lipids as signalling molecules in disease models had taken a concrete shape.

After my postdoctoral research, I moved away from academic research and pursued a career in scientific administration and infrastructure support development. I worked initially on a collaborative project with Labindia Lifesciences Pvt. Ltd. and Delhi University and later at Advanced Technology Platform Center at the Regional Centre for Biotechnology (RCB), Faridabad. I gained substantial experience and a wide perspective of both academic research (through graduate and postdoctoral research experience) and non-academic managerial skills, which helped me evaluate the depth and feasibility of research questions. 

Though I moved away from doing active science, I kept myself updated with contemporary research in my field. During this period, while enjoying many invaluable and invigorating scientific discussions with faculty friends in the community, I realized that my passion actually lies in pursuing mainstream science. Although I had lost some time after my postdoctoral research, I felt that it is never too late and decided to make a comeback into science after six years. Support from the family and some friends in the scientific community made me feel confident about the decision.

It was not an easy task as I left my comfort zone and was competing with postdocs with fresh publications, while I had had none in the past five years. I came to know that Amity University Haryana had just opened a research wing led by Rajendra Prasad. Though I did not know him at the time, I had heard from some of my friends that he is a true visionary. After my first meeting with him, I became convinced that if I am to be given a second chance to pursue my scientific career then this will be one of the best opportunities to avail. His vision, passion, and enthusiasm for science had no bounds and soon I joined Amity University Haryana as an Assistant Professor. One of my major considerations for joining AIISH was his vision to establish the Center for Lipidomics that would enable me and other researchers do cutting-edge research in lipid biology. 

The next year went by in a whirlwind with some teaching responsibilities and writing grants. Many of them got rejected, but some got accepted (to my relief). After obtaining a couple of grants, I started the journey of building a career in academia, block by block — getting the lab running, getting instruments, guiding students, finally doing the first experiment, followed by the first publication. 

My previous experience in developing platform technologies gave me insight into setting up and smooth running of infrastructural and instrumentation facilities at Amity University. It becomes very tough for the scientific community to accept you as a serious scientist if you have a six-year gap in your research experience, and this made me more determined and hard-working. 

Support from colleagues at Amity University, friends from the academic circle, and family helped me establish an active research group working on challenging problems in cancer biology in the Indian context. As getting publications matters the most for a new scientist, my first publication gave me the much-needed confidence to go forward and work harder.

I truly believe that the following few golden rules helped me to get the best from my journey till now.

Grab every opportunity as it comes: When I started looking for an academic position, my choices were limited. There were a lot of questions since I was joining a private university where teaching was a primary mandate. Keeping in mind the pros and cons, I believed in the vision of Rajendra Prasad, who led the research wing I joined. So, the right opportunities at the right time should be recognized and availed even if the path to them is challenging.

Take one step at a time before you fly high: When the situation is not perfect and there is a research gap of several years, then the best way to get going is to take one small step at a time and go for the next step with renewed vigour. Everything is not always as perfect as it should be, and everything does not always work in your favour. Knowing the limitations, I never restricted myself to big grants. I applied for whatever came my way, knowing that I had to start somewhere and then go for more. Even the success of the simplest of experiments in my lab gives me happiness and confidence.

There is no shortcut to success: Success is a relative term; every individual sets his/​her own limits that define success for him/​her. However, there is no shortcut to success at any time. Your passion will never fail you if you combine it with generous portions of willpower, strength of mind, hard work and confidence.

Importance of good collaborations: The impact of good collaborations is far-reaching and rewarding. For young scientists like us, it is an absolute must as it widens the horizon of science and gives us an opportunity for interactions, complementation, cohesion and opportunities to do multidisciplinary science.

At the end of the day, I am happy that I can pursue my passion. Private universities in India are building strong infrastructure along with support from the Government of India and are providing a fantastic atmosphere to do good science. It is the urge to satisfy your scientific craving that keeps you going and it is never too late to do it.