Columns Journey of a YI

Resuming a scientific career after a break

Sonam Mehrotra

Sonam Mehrotra is a Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance Intermediate Fellow at Tata Memorial Centre — ACTREC. She attended YIM2017 as a YI. In this invited piece she talks about getting her research career back on track after a two-year break from work.

Sonam Mehrotra
Sonam Mehrotra  

To succeed in academia is hard for anyone. It becomes even more challenging if one takes a career break to take care of family needs or due to any other personal circumstances. Is it possible to return to a research career after a prolonged break and still be successful? From my own experience, I can say, it is possible but is definitely not easy.

Unlike other Principal Investigators (PIs), I became one after a significant unintended but a circumstantial gap in my scientific journey. Though I did not go to the lab while on this so-called break”, I could not really keep myself away from science. I thought about alternate career options but did not find anything more interesting than a career in research. So, I tried to keep in touch with new developments in my field by regularly browsing through new journal articles and talking to friends who were pursuing research. 

During my PhD and post-doctoral studies in the U.S, not only did I gain extensive research experience, I also got a chance to involve myself in writing several grant applications with my mentors. This experience in grant writing proved to be a crucial factor in helping me resume my scientific journey after a break. 

I constantly looked out for any re-entry schemes that could offer me a route to re-enter academia in India. Eventually, with the help and support from a senior Principal Investigator who sponsored my grant application and provided me space in his laboratory two of my applications were accepted. I was awarded fellowships, one each from Department of Biotechnology (DBT) and Department of Science and Technology (DST). As I could avail only one of these at a time, I chose the BioCARe fellowship sponsored by DBT

I returned to research after a gap of almost two years as a Scientist‑D at the Centre for Excellence (CoE) in epigenetics at IISER Pune. I started working on projects related to the CoE’s objectives and also developed my own independent research project with support from my grant. There had been significant technical advancements in my field while I was away from the bench. Initially, I felt nervous and wondered if I would be able to execute and design successful experiments. After joining the IISER Pune, the first thing I tried to do was to interact with PhD students and postdocs in the lab and re-train myself in current technologies and research methods. My association with the CoE and IISER Pune helped me in a big way to update my existing research skills and regain confidence. My advisor and mentor at IISER Pune encouraged me to apply for the Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance (India Alliance) Intermediate Career Fellowship. Initially I was quite hesitant, but on realising that this exercise would at least help me prepare a good grant proposal, I applied for the fellowship. I was fortunate that the fellowship was awarded to me and I got this opportunity to begin independent research once again. 

I moved to ACTREC a year ago and started working with a small research group comprising of a research fellow, a postdoc and a few trainees. The Wellcome-DBT fellowship has given a great boost to my scientific career. I have managed to re-enter the academia, but I still have to pass the test of time, publish quality science and achieve my scientific goals. As I continue on my journey, I feel immensely grateful to my mentors, family and friends because of whom I did not give up and quit science.

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