Megha Kumar is a DST Inspire Faculty fellow at the CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad. She is one of the Young Investigators selected to attend YIM2020 in Mahabalipuram. In this invited article, she writes about how her postdoctoral training in India helped prepare her for an academic career.
I am a developmental biologist and my happiest moments in the lab are when I am watching embryos develop with time. Embryos are such perfect creations, beautiful, intricate and dynamic. The communication between cells in the embryo is at its best and the most intriguing aspect of this field is how cells talk to each other and know their relative position and fate.
My interest in developmental biology originated during my undergraduate studies at the University of Delhi. I was keen to pursue an academic career in developmental biology using a vertebrate model system. My graduate training was in the US and then I moved back to India to pursue postdoctoral training. I was often asked, “Why do a postdoc in India?” Postdoc usually refers to an additional research training after PhD which is more often than not a stepping stone into academia and research. For most young researchers in India today, postdoc experience is typically attained in a lab outside India.
Postdoc culture is only just beginning to take shape in India with a number of postdoctoral fellowships slowly becoming available from the funding agencies. The number of postdocs has also increased over the past decade, although the majority of the PhDs undergo postdoctoral training in labs in USA, Europe and Japan. Many research organizations also offer postdoctoral training programs to encourage potential postdocs to remain in India.
I am a product of one such program, the DBT-Young Investigator (YI) award at the Regional Centre for Biotechnology (RCB), Faridabad. The YI program encourages intellectual freedom to pursue scientific questions to build your independent research program.
A popular belief is that postdoctoral training in Indian lab cannot get you an academic position. The truth is, getting an academic position is challenging in either case. Publishing high-quality scientific articles from Indian labs is not impossible. Postdoc training in India does not always mean low productivity; what matters is the scientific questions you ask and how you choose to answer them.
I see many advantages to pursuing postdoctoral training in India. It helps you network extensively and set up collaborations amongst your peers and colleagues. In my case, a collaboration with CSIR-Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB) was instrumental in pursuing the questions I was interested in seeking answers to during my postdoc training period. I could not have pursued that line of thought if I did not collaborate.
I do confess that it was physically exhausting to shuttle between two labs in two different regions of Delhi NCR, but it was all worth it. Collaborative projects also open up more job prospects in the same geographical region as well. One can move around and visit institutions and give job talks with more convenience. In my opinion, one learns to sustain oneself in the Indian academic environment faster and probably better as a postdoctoral fellow within the same system. On the flip side, one may not have as many “high impact factor” articles as compared to postdocs trained in leading labs in America and Europe.
Now, let’s move on to applying for jobs. Is there a good time to apply? The answer is yes. The time to apply is when you feel ready. When you feel confident enough of the skills you have acquired so far in your PhD and postdoc and have begun nurturing ideas which will form the basis of your future lab. When you feel ready to move on and take on a challenge of a very different nature – finding an academic position, joining the organization and setting up the lab.
The key is to apply everywhere. And I mean everywhere. There are a few fellowships available to transition into pursuing an independent research program such as DST-INSPIRE, The Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance fellowships and the Ramalingaswamy re-entry fellowship. The secret to success is finding a suitable host organization where you can begin your independent research program.
I began my independent research program at CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Hyderabad, nearly a year ago. I was fortunate enough to begin experiments on day one itself. So, seek help from your peers and colleagues and use their lab to begin your experiments. Don’t wait till you have set up everything in your own lab.
The lab will grow fast. The first few months are exciting as you have been dreaming of this for many, many years! It feels exciting and time seems short when you want to try it all. But a word of advice that I received from my senior colleagues and would like to pass on to you is – refrain from spreading yourself too thin and keep your focus on what you need to do to create a niche in your field.
Finding an academic position is initially a battle and being on the other side of the table as a PI does put immense pressure on you. Mentoring students, securing funding, writing papers, grants, paperwork and a ton of reading, together translate into a lot of work to do. The big change from postdoc to PI is less time spent on the bench but more on the desk. And yes, I do try to shuttle between the bench and desk. The balancing act is hard but I enjoy every moment of it – both sides are fun. Working at the bench keeps me alive and kicking. The desk gives me experience, it is where I get more time to read, write and reflect.
Mentoring students is another activity that is highly fulfilling, gratifying and critically important as they are the lab! Spending quality time with students and helping them learn how to do science is important to create a healthy lab ethos. As you set up the lab, stick to your passion, interests and strengths. The pure joy of doing experiments to seek answers to your questions is hard to put in words. So enjoy every moment of it!
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