Avishek Banik is an Assistant Professor at Institute of Health Sciences of the Presidency University, Kolkata. In the ninth article of our JOYI series, he shares his journey from fascination with the microscopic world to establishing a successful microbial interaction lab as a young investigator in India.
It was a simple school experiment of observing pond water samples through a compound microscope that had the most impact. It was my introduction to the world of microbiology, a science of innumerable viable albeit invisible creatures! Science magazines became a staple and a graduate/postgraduate degree became essential.
I was motivated toward rice research because I belonged to Bardhaman, a district in West Bengal, known as the ‘Rice Bowl of Bengal’. Rice production is hampered by abiotic stress, nutrient mismanagement, and pest attack resulting in recurring economic losses to farmers. Thus, I decided to work on the benefits of the rice-associated microbiome at ICAR-National Rice Research Institute. I worked with beneficial rice endophytes (microbes that live inside the plant tissues) that enhance sustainable production and reduce economic losses in rice production.
Since my earlier expertise was in microbiology, I floundered in my early days with plant cultivation and experimental culture. Scientists and fellow research scholars at ICAR-NRRI taught me to grow rice and study its life cycle. The diverse scientific atmosphere of ICAR-NRRI shaped me to work on several burning issues of Indian agriculture. While working as a Ph.D. scholar, I observed how methodically my thesis guide managed administrative work associated with running a lab. I hoped to implement the same while setting up my laboratory.
Fresh after my Ph.D., I joined as an Assistant Professor of Microbiology at RK University, Gujarat, where I taught undergraduate and postgraduate courses for two years. My teaching interest is inseparable from my research ambitions. I strongly believe that research and teaching activities complement each other. I observed that students were curious to know the aspects of microbial life. They also wondered about research as a profession, such as: how many hours researchers work and whether people tend to work in groups. It helped me design a curriculum focusing on research and research-based learning. Here, my research entailed understanding the role of indigenous microbes in combating salinity and metal stress in agriculturally available soil.
I moved to the University of California, Davis for a post-doctoral position. There I assessed microbial interaction with wild rice genotypes through omics techniques.
As most Assistant Professor/Scientist positions in India have an age limit of around 35, I started exploring opportunities. I joined the Presidency University, Kolkata as an Assistant Professor in 2019 and immediately started applying for grants to establish a laboratory. In the same year, I was awarded the Young Scientist in Agricultural Microbiology by the Association of Microbiologists of India, a big motivation in my early career.
In 2020, I was awarded two grants from SERB and UGC. Since it was the pandemic, I faced difficulty in grant execution. With immense support from the administration and colleagues of Presidency University, I initiated research and established my laboratory that I named the “Laboratory of Microbial Interaction”.
Currently, we are investigating factors that influence the colonisation of beneficial plant-associated microbiomes to specific niches. We profile epiphytic, endophytic, and rhizoplane microbial dynamics and diversity while adopting culture-dependent approaches. We aim to identify a “personalised plant microbiome” and construct plant genotype-specific synthetic microbial consortiums. We expect these consortiums to enhance the plant nutrient use efficiency under stress. I am hoping to contribute to the yield and eventually feed the ever-increasing Indian population.
I believe that research output should reach common people while simultaneously breaking social and economic barriers. Thus, I am inclined to shape a culture of product-based research.
A young investigator can think about the following while starting:
One should focus on submitting grant proposals immediately upon joining. Without seed funding from the institute, setting up individual laboratories can be very difficult.
While initiating a new laboratory, one should have prior knowledge about the already existing shared facility of the institute. Planning the proceeds from the first grant is essential as you might require infrastructures unique to your work.
While recruiting scholars prefer laborious students to intelligent students.
Network building and collaboration are important to solve a problem. Always share your research problem with peers and mentors. Ask for help.
The balance between professional and personal life is really important.