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Crafting Your Career (CYC) | 09 Informational Interview with Minhaj Sirajuddin — Academic Research

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This is the fifth episode of the series on “informational interviews”. Here IndiaBioscience chats with Minhaj Sirajuddin, on his career trajectory from being a grad student, postdoc and then faculty at inStem, Bangalore. Be sure to subscribe to our season on our podcast page here!

Transcript with Timestamp

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01

You're listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one stop resource for science news and careers.

Welcome everybody to our next episode on crafting your career in science. Continuing with the informational interview series, we are talking today with Minhaj Sirajuddin, Assistant Investigator from inStem Bangalore.

Thank you for joining us. Minhaj.

Minhaj Sirajuddin 0:26

Thank you very much for having me here.

Look forward to your questions.

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:33

Minhaj has followed the much coveted career trajectory from moving from being a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute in Germany, to a postdoc at the University of California, San Francisco, in the US. Receiving the Wellcome Trust DBT-India Alliance Intermediate fellowship, and the EMBO Young Investigator program awards, he now runs his independent laboratory "The cytoskeletal lab" at in inStem Bangalore. Let's together today learn about his journey into academic research.

[Career Journey] Minhaj, can you describe your career journey so far and tell us when and how did you realize that research was your calling?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 1:10

I cannot trace back to a single event or time point where it told me that, research is my calling. But on the top of my head, I can tell a couple of instances which actually were influential in deciding which career path I wanted to take. This was during my Masters when the human genome was first sequenced. That motivated me to look more into protein structures and understand how these might be beneficial for biomedical research and in health problems. After that, during my Masters, I also did a project as a JRF (Junior Research Fellow) in the laboratory of Professor Raghavan Varadarajan at MBU at IISc (the Indian Institute of Science) and I was really gravitated to the idea of working in a research lab because I felt very comfortable in that scenario and I really liked the research conditions. So, I think those two events actually pushed me more into research, I would say.

Lakshmi Ganesan 2:22

Minhaj, Can you tell us what is the current focus of your laboratory?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 2:29

Currently, we are focusing on understanding how biological motility works. It can be anything from muscle contraction to heartbeat or sperm motility or microscopic particles which are moving inside the cell. So, anything which is moving is what we are interested in studying. There is also a physiological relevance to this because if you see most human diseases, they have some relation to something which is motile (moving) actually. So, we are also very much interested in understanding how these motility pathways are being dysfunctional or affected during pathological (disease) conditions. For example, cardiomyopathy is a is a muscle heart disease, which can be due to mutations can be inherited in the families. And these mutations can be the in genes which are actually are involved in in muscle contraction, for example. The bottomline is, biological motility is something which fascinates us. And we also take a very reductionist approach in understanding how these systems work, where we use light microscopy, electron microscopy, cell biology and biochemistry to understand normal physiological conditions and pathological (abnormal) conditions associated with biological motility. [Orchestra Jingle]

Lakshmi Ganesan 4:08

What aspects of your training as a PhD postdoc, did you inherit into your current research problem? How did you make it your own (or) adapt or make it relevant to the present Indian context?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 4:24

Okay, so that's a two part question I believe. So we can maybe split that into two.

First is integrating my PhD and postdoc training. So in my PhD, I did X-ray crystallography and structural biology. That actually helped me understand the problems from a structural perspective. Then in my postdoc, I was involved in studying molecular motors using microscopy, and biophysics. So that is when I got fascinated about biological motility, let's say, and combining these two is really what is happening in the lab. So we combine both structural elements, understanding the tiny molecular details, at the same time, we also take a bird's eye view of the problem using microscopy and other cell biological approaches. So it has actually been a good platform for me to integrate both my PhD and postdoc training.

Now coming back to your question about how I have adapted or how it is relevant to the Indian context. This is actually due to the setting at inStem, which has nurtured this scenario. Our theme is cardiovascular biology and diseases. We have a human geneticists who actually looks into how single-point mutations cause cardiomyopathy in families in the Indian subcontinent. And this is where I come in. So most often these genes are associated with biological motility. So we take those mutations and understand how they affect their property. Most often these are mutations, which do not completely kill the person or even the (biological) process, but they slightly shift the balance towards one way or the other. And that is why it is a human disease, because otherwise the person wouldn't have been born. So to understand how the single point mutations actually affect, we have to use a variety of approaches. And that is, again, where the training from my PhD and postdoc combined helps understand that. So in a way, I think, overall, the both PhD and postdoc, and also the setting here at inStem has actually created a unique program, I would say. [Orchestra Jingle]

Lakshmi Ganesan 7:08

Minhaj, as an early career researcher, what are your roles and responsibilities? Do you still get to spend time at the bench?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 7:21

Unfortunately, I don't spend as much time in the bench as I would like. But in the beginning, I used to spend quite a lot of time in the bench. This is because as a new Principal Investigator (PI), I was the one was responsible for training the first wave of people in the lab. And later on, I realized that, at some point of time, the people whom I had trained, they were quite capable of training the next generation. So I took I took a step back. And my main role now is to supervise the students and understand their problems, or find new new ways to solve their problems. That is what I spend most of my time in. In our institution, there are no undergraduate courses. So we have very limited number of opportunities to teach. There is also a lot of academic committee roles, which I'm also involved in. So in a typical day, I will be mostly about talking to the students, there will be a few committee meetings here and there. And there'll be some interesting talks happening at the institution. So that sums the main main responsibilities of an academic PI. [Orchestra Jingle]

Lakshmi Ganesan 8:43

Minhaj, as someone who has completed a full circle from being mentored to being a mentor of young graduate students, can you describe your style of mentoring? How similar or different are you from your mentors?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 9:03

I don't know what my style of mentoring, maybe you should ask my students. But how different or similar am I to my mentors? Obviously I would have been imbibed certain characteristics from my mentors. For my PhD, I worked with Professor Alfred Wittinghofer. He had a very big lab, he had whole department which was under him. But somehow he managed his time very well. He was a very good manager, he was good at talking to people and resolving conflicts. Also, the work ethics were completely different. It was also very new because I moved from India to Germany, and so it was a very new set up for me and I learned quite a lot from there.

In my postdoc, I was with Ron Vale and the UCSF peer system and their culture is completely different. I mean, it was several notches up in terms of, I wouldn't say quality, but there was a lot of peer pressure. But most of all, I learned quite a lot from Ron also, because apart from being a fantastic scientists, we all know that he has created so many new initiatives, which is beneficial for the whole of the community. So I have definitely learned quite a bit from both of them, and I try to incorporate that in my own working style.

Most often I have observed that some of the best mentors are people who find good people, and they explain the problem. If they (the students) are interested in the problem, you have to leave them alone, and the rest of it falls apart. Because no matter how much you try to push someone you will not be able to achieve unless it inherently motivates them.

Most often I have observed that some of the best mentors are people who find good people, and they explain the problem. If they (the students) are interested in the problem, you have to leave them alone, and the rest of it falls apart. Because no matter how much you try to push someone you will not be able to achieve unless it inherently motivates them. So that's something which is a key part of my mentoring style, I believe.

Lakshmi Ganesan 11:17

Minhaj, as an early career researcher, you certainly wear many hats. So is there a typical work day, if yes, what is it like?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 11:27

There is no typical day, I believe. Every day is a different day. So most of the time on a working day I try to come early, so that before the students arrive, I try to finish some of the emails and writing. And then, when the students start to arrive, as I mentioned earlier most of the time, I spend my time by talking to them and mentoring them. I separate the days as blocks so that they can understand that I'm free during a particular block of time. The students also have their experiments planned. So they usually have one hour or one and a half hours of downtime in certain processes. So I give them blocks saying that I am free in the morning block at this time, and that if you want to meet, we can meet at this time. In this way, I think like we use our working day very efficiently. So that way I also like to leave by by six or seven so that I don't spend the whole evening sitting in the lab. So this is something I have tried to consciously incorporate in my day, because during my PhD and postdoc days, we have actually worked quite unearthly hours. And I have made a conscious decision that I would try to structure my day from nine to six. So that I also have other things to do in my life. [Orchestra Jingle]

Lakshmi Ganesan 13:04

Minhaj, what are the challenges of being an early career researcher in India today in the life sciences?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 13:12

As it is like in any other country, it is also challenging to do research in India. The challenges are somewhat unique I feel. For example, we have certain timelines in our mind, and it doesn't match up. This could be because of various reasons - it could be because your reagents or the parts of equipment did not arrive in time, or something that happens in the lab that is just beyond your control. In such cases, I think it is wise to not take on oneself too harshly. Rather, one can take a step back and think about how to manage this expectation, but at the same time equally, not compromising the quality of the research. This is a very unique challenge I feel in this country.

The second challenge is how do you maintain international presence, and at the same time, you also don't want to compete with the Western counterparts. Because as I mentioned, the timelines are completely different here. At the same time, if you are isolated completely, you are not standing up with your peers with whom you might have trained or worked alongside when you were training in the Western world. There is a challenge in balancing that act. How do you think about a local problem and simultaneously, how to stand with the international community is again a very unique challenge I feel in the Indian scientific context.

Lakshmi Ganesan 14:40

Minhaj, for someone who is looking to start a career in academic research in life sciences in India, what are the typical and atypical sources of funding that one can tap into?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 14:51

The typical sources of research funding in this country are government funding bodies, this is your typical DST (Dept. of Science and Technology), DBT (Dept. of Biotechnology), The India Alliance, ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) and CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research). For people who want to return back to the country, there are several attractive fellowships available, the Ramalingaswami Fellowship from DBT, Ramanujam from DST. India Alliance has this Intermediate Award. So all these things are very, very lucrative and attractive for anyone who wants to come back to India.

There are also few philanthropic initiatives have been initiated in this country, but this source of funding is untapped. I think it is in a very nascent stage, and we are trying to bring those funding sources also in the mainstream. If you look at the situation in the US, for example, apart from NIH (National Institutes of Health), and NSF (National Science Foundation) or DOD (Department of Defense) sometimes, there is a lot of societies whose funding goes into research, for example, the American Heart Association or the Lymphoma society. There are many examples like that. We don't have such kind of societies, which can also fund research in India. These are what we call atypical, or non-traditional funding sources, which is a challenge, and also equally an opportunity, I believe.

Lakshmi Ganesan 16:24

Minhaj, can you throw some light on the recent changes in the publishing landscape the world over, and how it impacts the research lifecycle today?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 16:34

I am quite optimistic about the whole situation currently, although there are different arguments about how it has become very toxic, and how usually people are looking into journal impact factors in hiring and promotions and so on. But the whole situation around pre-prints and even open access has made me think that it is actually moving in a positive direction.

For example, if you want to finish a manuscript, you write the manuscript and if you want to tell the community, you put it in a preprint server. Then the community knows that you have a paper which is coming out from your lab. It is then just a matter of time that a particular piece of work will be peer-reviewed and published in a journal. So as a researcher, I feel way more relaxed that I have finished this piece of work and that it will eventually find its way to a peer-reviewed journal at some point of time. As a researcher, I can then start thinking about new problems or finish up other manuscripts, rather than keep it inside my computer and not talking about it to anyone. So I think that is a very positive scenario that has emerged in the past few years. I am looking forward to taking advantage of this situation. [Orchestra Jingle]

Lakshmi Ganesan 18:08

Finally, Minaj, are there any words of career wisdom that you would like to leave our listeners with today, from your journey so far?

Minhaj Sirajuddin 18:19

I think it is important to understand, if you want to do research, I would strongly suggest that one should give it a try. Let's say if you're an undergrad who is finishing up, give it a try doing a summer (project) in the lab or a project thesis somewhere, or at least give one or two years working in a research lab before you want to commit for a PhD. This is because often I see, or we see that people come into research, and they have some picture in their mind, and what is in reality does not match their expectations.

The first thing you find when you come to research lab is that not everything works, and there will be a lot of failures. If you're not able to navigate through these failures, it is going to be very tough. So that is something I would strongly recommend people to look into. If you're not good at taking failures, I think research is not a good place to be in.

It is also important to understand that most of the undergrads who come into the system, have actually passed or even aced all their exams. That is how you get into the system because there is no other way to judge you to bring you into the system. But the first thing you find when you come to research lab is that not everything works, and there will be a lot of failures. If you're not able to navigate through these failures, it is going to be very tough. So that is something I would strongly recommend people to look into. If you're not good at taking failures, I think research is not a good place to be in.

Lakshmi Ganesan 19:39

Thank you Minhaj. It's been very inspiring for me to talk with you today. Thank you for sharing the valuable lessons from your career story. Thank you all for listening, and we hope that you find this both interesting and useful. To listen to more science professionals talk about their career journey, do subscribe to our episodes only on "crafting your career in science".

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