Columns Stories from Scientists

Young researchers: Charting a path to independent research with the Rowland Fellowship

Purnati Khuntia

Purnati Khuntia is a postdoctoral fellow at Tamal Das’ lab, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Hyderabad. Her research focuses on hair follicle morphogenesis in mouse skin epithelium. She has recently been awarded the 2024 Rowland Fellowship by the Rowland Institute at Harvard. In this article, she shares her story of securing the Rowland Fellowship.

Title image Purnati Khuntia
The Rowland Fellowship. Photo Credit: Purnati Khuntia.

I recently completed my PhD from the lab of Tamal Das, Associate Professor, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) Hyderabad, where I tackled a longstanding query regarding epithelial Golgi polarity shift during wound healing, a puzzle existing for over 50 years. Currently, as a postdoctoral researcher in the same lab, I am delving into the intricacies of hair follicle morphogenesis in mouse skin epithelium.

I am honoured to have been awarded the 2024 Rowland Fellowship by the Rowland Institute at Harvard, Cambridge, USA. I will be joining as the Rowland Fellow from December 2024. 

About the Rowland Fellowship

This prestigious fellowship supports exceptional early-career experimental researchers across all scientific and engineering disciplines, enabling them to establish independent research groups in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

At the Rowland Institute at Harvard, I will work as a principal investigator, starting and leading my own laboratory with a dedicated space and substantial resources. This includes generous start-up funds for capital equipment tailored to my research needs, an annual budget starting at $225,000 for operational expenses such as lab supplies and travel, as well as for hiring personnel like postdoctoral fellows and undergraduates. The fellowship also provides a competitive salary allowing me to pursue innovative research in an interdisciplinary and collaborative environment. 

Applying for the 2024 Rowland Fellowship

After submitting my application for the 2024 Rowland Fellowship, I was chosen as one of the ten finalists for the Rowland Fellowship interview. While the interview is always conducted in-person, I was allowed to appear for the interview online via Zoom, due to the challenges of visa requirements. The process was remarkably smooth, and the institute was exceptionally supportive and accommodating. What particularly inspired me about the Rowland fellowship was their emphasis on enabling fellows to lead independent teams and establish their own labs. 

This opportunity marks a pivotal moment for young researchers aspiring to launch their own research initiatives and delve into topics of personal interest. After completing a PhD, researchers often want to pursue their areas of passion and gain further experience. 

For those eager to lead their own teams, the Rowland Fellowship offers an excellent starting point.

Since I have been exposed to academic research, I always had a dream to set up my own lab and lead my own team. The Rowland Fellowship resonated with me, and I wanted to explore its requirements and opportunities. For me, this fellowship represents a path to not only conduct meaningful science but also to create an inspiring environment where my team and I can thrive together. 

My success mantra for the Rowland Fellowship application:

I felt that two of the most important requirements for Rowland Fellowships were developing a good research idea and being passionate about running a team. 

As a PhD graduate, you are trained to think critically and to ask fantastic questions, but taking on leadership responsibilities presents its own challenges. Running a productive research team and lab involves several key considerations. Firstly, it requires fostering collaboration among individuals with varying levels of research experience, guiding them to tackle intriguing scientific questions that resonate with all team members. 

Secondly, it demands the ability to identify the essential requirements needed to address these questions, such as selecting appropriate experiments, tools, techniques, model systems, and recruiting the right team members. Additionally, it involves knowing when to collaborate with external experts on specific aspects of the work. Setting up a lab from scratch also entails structuring its operational needs, from daily equipment usage to specialised tools and time-dependent requirements, while effectively managing available funds.

During my PhD, I had the privilege of gaining invaluable experience in Das’ lab, where I learned crucial aspects of lab setup, effective team collaboration, training new researchers, procuring equipment, and adapting to evolving research directions. Das also provided significant personal guidance, nurturing my interest in pursuing research and a career in academia.

Armed with this training and experience, I feel confident in my upcoming role as a Rowland Fellow to lead a team of passionate researchers. It may feel a bit overwhelming currently, but I’m sure the role will be quite exciting.

When aiming for the Rowland Fellowship, young researchers must emphasise their ability to think logically and critically about the trajectory their proposed hypothesis will take over the span of 4 – 5 years. They should be ready to adapt as the hypothesis develops. This fellowship spans five years, offering ample opportunity to maximise its potential. When faced with challenges, it’s crucial to seek guidance from peers and mentors. 

One can move a mountain alone, but it is much easier with a little bit of guidance from the right people.