Columns Opinion

From lab-bench to a desk at India Alliance

Megha Sharma

At 15, I was sure I wanted to do a PhD. Biology intrigued me, I thought DNA replication was more symphonic than Beethoven’s 5th, and a career discovering fundamental truths was a privilege. When my postdoc-stint did not go my way, I started exploring other things in which I could combine my interest of science and education. This is when I realised that there were career choices beyond a life in academia!

During this time, I luckily stumbled upon an advert for a Grants Adviser’s position with The Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance (IA). I went for the interview with an open mind. Two things about their offer excited me: Firstly, the IA’s mandate to help scientists, create efficient systems and ultimately, build scientific capacity in India; secondly, the opportunity to start work at the offices of The Wellcome Trust (WT) in London. Conditioned by years of watching out for free pizza as a graduate student, the six months all inclusive stay in central London was too tempting! My colleagues and I were recruited together. Under the tutelage of one of the most experienced administrators at the Trust, we were trained to become full-time grants administrators and although not included in our job description, part-time psychologists.

The first on-the-job training we got was to short-list preliminary applications. The IA’s process mirrors that of the WT — preliminary applications are screened in-house (with occasional inputs from Committee Members) and competitive applicants are invited to make full applications. Far from being a power trip, the idea that we are the first decision-makers on an application, gave me and the entire team goose bumps. To this day, each new preliminary screening session brings on sleepless nights and upset stomachs. Having been a junior researcher myself previously, the applicant’s emotions resonated within me. Making an application takes time, effort, hard work and importantly, it is sent with a lot of hope. As easy and pleasant as it is to convey good news, that much harder and painful it is to convey bad news. It slowly dawned on me that things we do are life-changing events both professionally and personally for our applicants. This thought continues to dominate when I approach my work as a grants administrator.

The next task for us was to process invited full applications. We each got a set and I had my own portfolio of applications to work with. One of our most important contributions to the grants-process is to ensure that each application gets the best expert peer reviews. This aspect was most challenging for me: I have always been passionate about the biology of lipids and had neither the time nor interest in learning more about other fields. But at the IA, applications are distributed by institution, and not our areas of interest. To find the best referees therefore, we have to study the proposal thoroughly and know enough to identify experts. Suddenly, I found myself learning about DNA deep sequencing <shudder>, microarrays <complicated>, animal ethics <ugh> and Bayesian modeling <snooze>. My experience has now given me a large breadth of knowledge in biomedical sciences. Also, since funding is for future experiments, it always nice to read about cutting-edge science.

Working in a team was also a new experience. As a PhD and post-doc, except for the occasional collaboration, I worked in my own little world. However Grants Advisers, we have to work as a team towards the same deadlines, regardless of our handicaps. This also means if a colleague is on vacation, another has to step in to complete the job. No shelving samples into ‑80 here; the show must go on.

The final event of the grants cycle is the interview with the Committee. We prepare a packet of information with regards to each applicant (full application with all the costs and information verified, peer-review reports, additional information etc) and supply it to the Committee before hand. By this point we have been working with the applicant and on the application for about 6 months so we develop a level of intimacy with both. I have always found it nervous to sit in the interview room and watch my” applicant respond. All of us cross our fingers and hope that all our applicants are awarded — what better prize for all the hard work than an award?

Fellowships are all about people and this is where the part-time psychologist comes in. Understanding aspirations and communicating news (both good and disappointing) forms a big chunk of the job. How do you tell someone that the competition is tough and that they didn’t make it without sounding patronizing? How do you tell an applicant that their CV is very good but it won’t stand muster in an international competition? How do you respond to the query Hi. i am studly. Which fellowship should i apply for?” Umm… did you read our website? Occasionally, scud missiles explode in our inbox: sharp emails accusing us of bias; rejected applicants questioning our nationalism; complaints about how unfair the decisions were etc. The stories are amusing at times but do take their toll. We begin to question ourselves: was it worth working overtime on weekends to get award letters out or to chase and beg for reviews from quality referees?

Ultimately though, what pleases me the most about the job is working with a Fellow after they have been awarded. Right from the phone call relaying the good news, we have the responsibility of making sure that funding is as hassle-free as possible. It’s a pleasure to be able to offer flexible and generous funding to future leaders of Indian science and working with them. This is one of the biggest reasons why becoming a grants administrator has been a refreshing career move. And scientifically, my job has forced me to concede that not just lipids, but all science is cool.