Columns Journey of a YI

Striking a balance between teaching and research

Ravi Vijayvargia

Ravi Vijayvargia is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Biochemistry, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, Vadodara. He attended YIM 2014 as a YI. In this invited piece he talks about his experiences as a teacher-researcher in an Indian University.

Ravi Vijayvargia
Ravi Vijayvargia 

Choosing a career in a University setup has its own advantages and caveats. The most important aspect being the ability to strike a balance between teaching and research. It is well understood that teaching is the mandate and priority for most University departments. Despite which, even in the universities one’s career progression is often dependent on API (Academic Performance Indicator) score which is judged on the basis of an individual’s research contribution. Thus, however, invested a person is in their teaching assignments, they must also conduct meaningful research. This means bringing in money by writing research grants as most universities do not have a concept of a start-up grant. Further, it takes almost 4 – 5 fold more time to setup a functional lab in a university setup compared to a research institute. But, there are ways to keep oneself interested in research until then. Dissertation students play a very important role in generating preliminary data for a research grant. Additionally, few of them, who are motivated and well-trained, can continue with you for their PhD thus repaying the time invested in them.

When I started as an Assistant Professor in August 2013 at the Department of Biochemistry, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda, I was fortunate to be asked to teach subjects of my interest and liking. On the other hand, however, there was hardly any start-up fund to initiate a research laboratory. A shared lab space and Rs. 50,000 for 3 years was all that I received. After about nine years of post-doctoral training at the best places, including MGH- Harvard Medical School, it was a difficult situation to be in. I felt as if I had a job but no work. 

Gradually, things started to roll as I initiated an epidemiology project to determine the prevalence of Huntington’s Disease (HD) in patients with motor abnormalities. This was an off-shoot of my Postdoctoral work but quite relevant to India, as no large-scale studies on the prevalence of HD were available for the Indian population. In next three years, much to our surprise, we got several HD positive samples and generated enough preliminary data to submit a research proposal for funding. Also, another proposal on targeting post-translational modifications of mutant huntingtin protein as potential therapeutic for HD got funded by DST-SERB in March 2017. 

Here, I wish to justify my continuation of research in the area of my postdoctoral work. A lot of established researchers advise against continuing in the same area as one’s PhD / postdoctoral research. Ironically, however, the chances of getting a research proposal funded is largely dependent on your contribution, expertise and publications in the area of proposed research. Thus, I believe that to get started in the University setup where there is minimum start-up support, it is justified to submit one research proposal as an extension of your PhD/​postdoctoral research. 

Once the ball starts rolling, the University setup provides ample opportunities to pursue other research ideas mainly through M.Sc. dissertation projects. I have trained 7 dissertation students till now and through them have generated sufficient preliminary data to submit at least two grant proposals. 

Therefore, in my experience, striking a balance between teaching and research depends a lot on whether you are offered or have the choice to teach subjects of your interest, assigned good dissertation students and have a good rapport with the senior colleagues in the department.