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Find the right research environment, and make it work for you

Mukund Thattai

I rediscovered that biology could be interesting, well into the second year of my PhD in condensed matter physics at MIT. Visiting my family in Bangalore and finding myself at a loose end one afternoon, I agreed to accompany my mother to watch a public lecture at the National Centre for Biological Sciences. The talk was about anti-retroviral therapy; my mother, a doctor who deals with HIV-positive patients, seemed to follow it well enough. But I have to admit it went right over my head – the last time I had seen any biology at all was in high-school. What did catch my attention was the animated discussion that developed in the corridor just after, which seemed to involve notions of protein structure, binding energetics, and large-scale computer simulations. To my surprise, none of the participants were biologists. When I asked about this, I was told that several people at NCBS came from non-biology backgrounds. My hosts gave me an ultra-fast survey of the current frontiers of biological research, and explained how the volumes of new quantitative biological data were catching the attention of researchers from across many disciplines. I was hooked. Later that year, back at MIT, I joined a biophysics lab and jumped into the deep end of biology. Ten years on, I’m running my own laboratory at NCBS, and enjoying (almost) every minute of it.

So how did this work? How did I end up back in Bangalore, and find this position at NCBS? Luck, of course, has a large part to play: a lot has to do with accidentally being in the right place, at the right time, surrounded by the right group of people. And to the extent that every academic trajectory is unique, my own unlikely random walk, starting and ending at NCBS, may not be directly relevant to someone else’s situation. But there are, perhaps, some general lessons that are worth sharing.

Find the research environment that’s right for you. Even on my first visit, I imagined I would enjoy working at a place like NCBS. What first struck me was its academic openness, and high degree of interaction between different labs. It was small, just the right size, it seemed to me. The scientific infrastructure and the standard of research were of the highest level – taking up a position here would require no compromises. The interdisciplinary makeup of the faculty was important – I certainly did not want to lose touch with my primary training in physics. Once I shifted my PhD toward biological questions, I visited NCBS every time I happened to be in Bangalore. One of the first people I got to know well was G.V. Shivashankar, whose research interests overlapped with my own. Shiva was a great host, I would meet his students and share research updates. He’d keep in touch by email, and introduce me to other colleagues; I also got to know Vijay, the Director, and Jitu Mayor, now the Dean, both of whom were extremely accessible and always ready to answer my questions. It was through Shiva that I first heard about NCBS’s Young Investigator Programe’, which I applied to after finishing my PhD. By the time I applied to the YIP, I had already given two research talks at NCBS over the years. Building up this familiarity was important, it gave me confidence I was making the right choice when I accepted NCBS’s job offer.

Choose the right time to start out independently, and build a network of colleagues and mentors.Kanpur. I had switched fields through my PhD, and was really learning biology as I went along. One of the most difficult decisions I had to make was whether to accept NCBS’s Young Investigator offer directly after completing my PhD, or whether to do a postdoc to broaden my exposure and build up my skills in biology before setting out independently. Starting out on your own is risky – things might not work out the way you plan, while doing a postdoc in a great lab is almost certain to be productive. Again, I asked for and received a lot of good advice, and in the end decided to take the plunge. First of all, I knew what I wanted to work on, and I had the outlines of a five-year plan. I could hit the ground running, and ramp up research in a couple of directions which I couldn’t pursue while working in someone else’s lab. Secondly, through my PhD I had built up a strong academic network. I really had two academic advisors: both my PhD advisor Alexander van Oudenaarden at MIT, as well as another mentor, Boris Shraiman who was at Bell Labs. Working with Boris, I spent time at Bell Labs and at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics in Santa Barbara. All this connected me to a network of researchers from both physics and biology, a network which I now find invaluable. One of the more difficult aspects of working in India is to maintain exposure to research in your field around the world. It requires sustained effort to talk about your work at the right venues to an engaged audience, and to keep in continual touch with colleagues in other countries. And of course, since moving back, I have worked hard at building up a network of colleagues around India. The Young Investigators’ Meeting in 2009 was a great opportunity to do this.

Balance the job with other aspects of your life. Bangalore is home. Most of my family and friends are here. It’s a busy and bustling place today, not at all like the city I grew up in. But it’s a place where I am comfortable and plugged in. To this day I don’t know what choice I would have made if my ideal job were on one continent, but my ideal location on another. As it happens, I was lucky enough not to have to make that choice. Perhaps I would have followed the job. On the other hand, there are tangible benefits to having a social support structure, and in many ways it helps me focus more intensely on my research when I need to. I’ve also had the opportunity to work outside the scientific core, speaking at schools, working with artists and playwrights to build up public awareness of science, bridging the divide between academia and the real world’. It keeps me honest.

I’ve been working at NCBS for five years now. I’ve come to rely on the support and advice of colleagues, while navigating the obstacles of setting up a new lab. I’m always being forced to do things I was never trained to do, and I pick up skills as I go along. It’s been difficult at times, to pick the right problems, to attract the best students, to build a smooth and cohesive research group. Through all this, the science has been exciting, and really drives me from each day to the next.