Columns Opinion

The Trials, Tribulations and Joys of setting up my lab in CSIR-IICB

Sucheta Tripathy

A couple of weeks back it was my first one year in Kolkata and India after pretty long overstay in the USA. Amidst all fear, speculations, we took a rather bold decision to come back to India. My position was not permanent; it still isn’t, but that rarely affects my work or my daily functioning. We left our comfortable jobs, beautiful home, green-card to work for our country. Now after a year on when I look back, I don’t think it was bad decision at all… It has taught us a lot of things, but at the same time I am lucky to have my students, my lab and a very loving environment. I will try and highlight some of my then and now moments with you. I had built few myths around some of which will be discussed here.

Myth 1: About Funding and setting up a lab in India.

What I thought:I have to manage my show with my contingency for at least a year’.

I have had only 5 lakh per year as contingency and I thought I will buy 2 servers by paying 1.5 lakh each and hire a programmer for the remaining amount to start my computational work. I did not think of PCs and other items at that time! I did not know if the institute will give any start up money; the director also did not promise anything regarding this. In one of our informal conversations, he said you ask for money, but I will reduce it to half and give it to you. I did not think of getting any extramural funding from anywhere else at least for a year. So, my plans were to survive exclusively on the contingency for a year.

What it turned out to be:Got the support that I never expected’.

I took chance and asked our director for some money for instruments and some for chemicals very gingerly. Tada.., he immediately granted the amount without any reduction. So, probably he expected that I will ask for lot more than that (I am still discovering that whatever I ask is actually the lowest that anyone asks here). So, now it gets me into thinking how much is too much or how little is too little. In USA, I have seen established researchers struggling for meager funds. So, probably I need to rekindle my thoughts and reset my lower limit. Also I have few grants lined up, although not funded yet, so there is still hope. So, money wise I would say I am pleasantly surprised here.

Myth 2:Starting wet lab is too difficult and people are un-co-operative…

What I thought: I will not be able to set up any wet lab for atleast a year’.

I never thought of starting a wet lab for at-least few initial years here. When I would think about the things required for basic wet lab such as balance, pH meter, centrifuge, gel apparatus, chemicals, other consumables, culture facility and other countless number things, I have had cold sighs. I also never imagined that people (read scientists) can be co-operative in any way. About 7 months back I never thought of having my own small culture facility, culture collection, my own DNA/RNA extracting facility and small experimental facility.

What it turned out to be:I am actually having a basic wet lab facility before completing one year’.

Although not an easy job to set up a wet lab as pointed by one of my senior, but nevertheless I already have one! I now have a culture collection. We have standardized growing BGAs, extracting DNA and RNA from them. We have also sequenced two genomes in house!! That is stupendous for me considering what I had thought before and the slow pace of everything else here. We also just walk across the corridor and get help from the neighboring lab for anything else. So, people are much nicer than I imagined them to be…

Myth 3:I will not have adequate computational facility here…

What I thought: Althoughcomputers exist, but the power will be inadequate’.

After leaving Virginia Tech, I thought the computational resources I will have is going to be meager and I will not be able to do much until I buy my own big servers. At VT, I worked with machines with 16 GB memory and a max of 16 cores. Of course there were clusters but they were shared by a number of people. So, getting to the front of the queue was just as good as waiting for a month.

What it turned out to be: Much superior computers exist here’.

Not only do we have superior computational facilities here, but also access to Indias superfast computing facilities. We have a HPC cluster in our institute shared by 2 groups, out of which one group already owns several such HPC clusters, so really don’t need to share it with us. I have my 3 linux servers on NFS with most of the bioinformatics pipelines installed. I have exceptional help in bioinformatics from Applied Biosystems. This is something I never expected.

Myth 4: I have to run my own sequencing here…

What I thought: I thought I have to do my own sequencing here by myself! Since it is a govt. lab, I thought they just have machines and no one to operate (that is what people think about govt. run labs).

What it turned out to be: My senior colleagues who bought the machine are much smarter than I could have imagined!! They negotiated with the company to station their dedicated personnel to take care of our sequencing initiatives. Thankfully I can do sequencing here without being hassled by unwanted details of running reactions and all…

So, far all my expectations have been turned into fair amount of pleasantries. I also have a number of other myths turning out to be pleasant surprises such as getting students with fellowships, getting smart programmers as project assistants and getting experienced women scientists in my lab. In total I have been overwhelmed by the benefits that we get here.

But there are few cultural barriers that I had to overcome and few things that I learnt the hard way 

I will share some of my experiences here:

1. Dont accept objects you did not intend to order or never open a pack:
Some of our lab purchases has been excellent, some were OK and some were awful. Among the awful stuff I there were few that did not work too well which I could not return. The bills could not be paid on time and finally I had to pay it off of my contingency.

2. When processing bills, if you give a file to someone keep a copy or keep an evidence of it.
Here in govt. run lab, when the bills are processed, it passes through a string of processes. I still dont understand why it has to be that way. For me purchase should be straight forward. You choose the company that sells a particular product, then procure it and send the bill to account section for final payment. To top it all money has a cycle and it goes back by March. That is very tough to adjust.

3. Follow up:
Here nothing happens without following up. You may tell one thing one time, but the other person does not take it seriously till you tell it N number of times. That is true in every aspect of life here. So follow up on each and everything. Buy a tape recorder if necessary and play it multiple number of times.

4. Have infinite memory:
Since you have to follow up on each and everything, you need to have infinite amount of memory. If you already did not have it, buy an external hard drive :)