Columns Journey of a YI

Returning home and integrating with Indian Science

Subramanian Sankaranarayanan

Subramanian Sankaranarayanan is an Assistant Professor at Biological Engineering department of Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar, Gandhinagar. In this invited article, he describes his challenges and exciting opportunities as a young investigator returning to India to contribute to Indian science.

Subramanian Sankaranarayanan
Subramanian Sankaranarayanan 

Being away from home for more than a decade, I longed to return to India. I had been planning this for several years but was skeptical about the institutional setup and rigid research atmosphere. I was also worried about being disconnected from global science. However, upon my return, I observed that the scientific ecosystem in India had undergone a positive shift. Like me, several researchers are moving back every year to contribute to Indian science.

I joined the Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN) as an Assistant Professor in June 2022; after 12 long years of research training abroad. I am the first plant biologist recruited to this institution. Introducing a new field to an institute is full of challenges, responsibilities, and exciting opportunities. I intend to establish a state-of-the-art plant molecular and developmental cell biology lab at IITGN where I can train a diverse group of students to perform world-class research. 

I am happy to have created an ecosystem of young researchers starting their journey in Indian science. With the institute’s generous startup funding and fellowship, I recruited an excellent post-doctorate fellow, who has returned from his Ph.D. training abroad. Ramalingaswami Re-entry fellowship, a research grant from the Department of Biotechnology, and a collaborative research grant from the Gujarat State Biotechnology Mission (GSBTM) allowed me to collaborate with a colleague from Ahmedabad University, who too is settling in after an international stint. This supportive environment has helped me build a professional base upon moving back from Purdue. 

Landing an academic position is not easy; post-joining, there are more battles to fight and win. One has to secure sufficient grants to run a lab, mentor students, teach courses, and do a lot of paperwork. Upon starting my new role as a PI, I prioritised setting up my laboratory and recruiting excellent students in my group. The administrative structure at IITGN has been mostly supportive of my needs. 

During my research training, I longed for a metaphoric and literal space of my own. Being a mentor is a fulfilling experience, and so is setting up a laboratory. Both require winning a few battles! My research activities need a dedicated space for plant growth chambers and a greenhouse facility. The institute has supported me with a temporary space; I hope to acquire a dedicated one by next year. 

IITGN has an interdisciplinary approach that works on solving real-world problems with a high impact on society. My discipline of biological engineering has researchers working in diverse areas like cell and molecular biology, epigenetics, neuroscience, nano-biotechnology, biomedical engineering, and computational biology. I frequently interact with colleagues and students across diverse disciplines like chemistry, material science, physics, electrical engineering, computer science, and mechanical engineering and get to learn from them. I have established interdisciplinary collaborations and am working on some exciting new projects: synthesising nanoparticles from plant materials for wound healing and using computational biology to understand the cellular signaling events during plant reproduction.

It is fulfilling to work with motivated students. During my first six months, I taught a molecular genetics course to undergraduate and doctoral students. Teaching undergraduates with little experience in biology was challenging. I experimented with animated videos for communicating molecular processes. I introduced the history of molecular genetics for inspiration. I hope these activities brought out the teacher in me. I also had an opportunity to plan and coordinate the Foundation Program, a 5 week-long immersive experience for first-year undergraduate students with a focus on the following five pillars: Values and Ethics, Creativity, Teamwork, Social Awareness, sports, and physical activity.

Young researchers should set time aside for planning and logistics. The timelines for the same vary considerably and are much different from what we are used to abroad. Instruments, reagents, and cell lines can take several weeks to be delivered. Their transport requires additional paperwork and follow-up. It can be frustrating, if not planned for in advance. I am inspired by my colleagues who have taken all this in their stride and are publishing well.

Despite the many challenges, I am hopeful of the joys of scientific discovery. Soon enough, my team and I will be contributing to some excellent research.