Crafting Your Career (CYC) | 08 Informational Interview with Savita Ayyar — Research Management

Crafting your Career Episode 8

This is the fourth episode of the series on informational interviews”. Here IndiaBioscience chats with Savita Ayyar, on her foray into research and innovation management from basic science research, and on her new entrepreneurial venture.

Transcript with Timestamp

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01

You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks — your one stop resource for science news and careers.

Welcome everyone to our episode on crafting your career in science. As you know, we are doing this series of informational interviews, talking to various science professionals about their career journeys and the field itself, which is precisely what these interviews are meant to find out. As you may know, as a science graduate, you may use this tool to approach and learn from experts about their domain and simultaneously grow your network.

Joining us in the studio today is a very interesting lady, someone who I look up to personally for the breadth and the depth of her knowledge and the warm person that she is. She is Savita Ayyar, a research management professional and a consultant. She’s the founder of Jaqaranda tree, a private consultancy service that supports organisations in research management activities.

Hello Savita, it’s wonderful to have you join us today.

Savita Ayyar 1:06

Hi, Lakshmi. Thanks for having me over.

Lakshmi Ganesan 1:09

Savita, let me begin by asking you about your career trajectory. You have a bachelor’s and a master’s in biochemistry and biotechnology and a PhD in developmental biology from the University of Cambridge, and even went on to do a postdoc in developmental biology there. Why and how did you turn towards research management?

Savita Ayyar 1:28

Around the end of my postdoc period, I was wondering what direction my career could take, I came across an advertisement for a job within one of the funding divisions at the Wellcome Trust. As you know, Lakshmi the Wellcome Trust is a major funder of biomedical research worldwide, I realised that working at the Wellcome Trust would entail a big change for me. Rather than carrying out my own research, I would be facilitating someone else’s research ideas while enabling funding. And while this role at the Wellcome Trust would take me away from bench science, it would still allow me to remain connected with outstanding research from across the world. So at that point, I had a background in the life sciences, some administrative experience, and knew just how important research funding was for my mentors. So I spoke to my postdoc advisor about the role and she was really supportive. I then had a chat with a friend who worked at the Wellcome Trust, and that long conversation Lakshmi over several cups of coffee, gave me the confidence to finally apply for the job.

Working at the Wellcome Trust was a complete eye opener for me to the many activities that are actually required in the scientific ecosystem. I learned what grant proposals look like, how good peer review helps to shape ideas, and how funding agencies make decisions about supporting grant applications. You know, funding for research is a crucial first step that makes all innovative research possible. During those years at the trust, I got to see just how challenging it was for scientists to raise funding, for their research programs, and I also learned the value of good research management in furthering research.

Lakshmi Ganesan 3:11

That is great, Savita. And then you moved to India, Bangalore. Can you tell us about that transition? and how did the exposure at the Wellcome Trust help you in your new role in a completely new ecosystem back home?

Savita Ayyar 3:26

When I moved back to India, I knew that the Indian research ecosystem was different from that in the UK. So I moved to the National Centre for Biological Sciences in Bangalore (NCBS), and had conversations with the leadership there. NCBS was poised to grow with the addition of two new institutions, inStem and C‑CAMP and the campus would change from being a single research institution and turn into a cluster of life sciences research organisations. So we decided to create a centralised service for fundraising and Award Management for this growing cluster, and named the office, the research development office or the RDO.

Building the RDO was an entrepreneurial venture of sorts: setting up space and processes from scratch, getting to know funding needs of the researchers, building links to funders, building a team of trained staff and yes, scaling up operations. My years spent working at the Wellcome Trust set me up well for taking on the challenges of developing the RDO at NCBS. I also enjoyed working with amazing colleagues at the NCBS campus, all of which helped to shape the trajectory of the office and my own career. And now nearly a decade later, it’s wonderful to see that several other institutions in India are developing similar offices.

Lakshmi Ganesan 4:43

Thank you for sharing Savita. I know that the RDO at NCBS is a model for several institutions. Savita moving to talk about your current entrepreneurial venture, the Jaqaranda tree, that’s a really interesting name! How did this name and the associated idea originate?

Savita Ayyar 5:00

I spent several years building the RDO at NCBS. And there came a point when I realised the need to do something different — to create a new learning experience for myself that built on my skills at that time and allowed me an opportunity to contribute to the broader Indian research ecosystem. A consultancy service seemed like a flexible platform for this next stage of my career. As you know, Lakshmi Bangalore has several beautiful old trees — the Gulmohar trees and Jaqaranda trees, among others. My office at NCBS had windows overlooking a Jaqaranda tree laden with beautiful lilac blooms. And that was the inspiration behind the name for the firm.

Lakshmi Ganesan 5:46

Savita that’s a beautiful and unique name really.

Now coming to the funding scenario itself, briefly, what are the different sources of funding for research in India that one should be aware of?

Savita Ayyar 5:57

Over 50% of research in India is supported by the Government of India. Extramural funding for projects and fellowships is available from several Indian government agencies, such as the DBT, the DST, CERB and ICMR. In addition to government sources research funding is also available via international agencies and partnerships, including the India Alliance, CEFIPRA, EBMO, HFSP and others. There are also funding opportunities for research through corporate sources, philanthropy, crowdfunding and others.

Lakshmi Ganesan 6:32

Savita how would you describe the main responsibilities of a grants manager at a research office?

Savita Ayyar 6:39

Researchers have to be aware of the diversity and nuances of different sources of funding. Each agency has its own schemes, policies, procedures, and timelines. And it is very hard for the busy researcher to keep track of all of those details while focusing on their research programs. And here, good research management support can make a big difference. Staff at a research office can work on behalf of the researchers and the institution to create a repository of knowledge on funding schemes and requirements. Professional input from the research office staff on the timing and content of funding applications can make a big difference to busy researchers, and ensure that proposals are put together and submitted to agencies well ahead of deadlines. During the lifetime of a grant, research office staff can help researchers track funded programs and to ensure that funding requirements are met, such as annual reporting.

Lakshmi Ganesan 7:35

Savita, along these lines, can you also talk about collaborative projects or team science” as it is called now? I imagine that the role of a research manager would be indispensable in such endeavours, correct?

Savita Ayyar 7:48

Yes, very much. So. Indian researchers are increasingly participating in team science projects that involves several institutions, sometimes across countries. These initiatives bring together consortia of researchers with diverse skill sets. Funding for team science projects is available through the Government of India, the India Alliance and several other funders. Team science projects are complex, regular communication between stakeholders, that includes the institutions, the investigators, the collaborators and funders, is crucial to keeping the program on track. And here research managers can play an important role, both in sharing the administrative responsibilities of the investigators leading the program, and in ensuring that requirements are met in a timely manner.

Savita I’m curious to know what a typical day or a week is like for you?

We live in a changing world and that are always emerging opportunities and crises. A research manager has to be able to deal the rough with the smooth. Robust processes, strong communication between the stakeholders, and an understanding of the goal helps to ensure that most tasks are structured. This also makes the best possible use of everybody’s time.

Some element of unplanned work exists at every level and each day for me is therefore a balance between the planned and unplanned activities.

Lakshmi Ganesan 9:19

That sounds fair enough Savita. I would like to know, what is it that you like most about this line of work? And on that note, is there anything that you wish were different?

Savita Ayyar 9:28

The very premise of research management is the facilitation of good research. So it’s wonderful to see innovative and new programs get funded, or to see the benefits of research having an impact on the world we live in. But success is only the tip of a very large iceberg. For every grant application that is funded, that are a large number that aren’t funded. So it’s really important to celebrate the successes.

Lakshmi Ganesan 9:57

Sure Savita. How does the research management office fit within an organisational structure? Who are the stakeholders that you typically interact with?

Savita Ayyar 10:07

Within an organisation, research managers and administrators typically work with many stakeholders, including the researchers who are applying for funding support, institutional leadership, collaborating institutions, facility managers, administration and external agencies. Research offices play a central role in ensuring seamless interactions between these different stakeholder groups. The head of research office generally reports in some way to both scientific and administrative leadership within an organisation.

Lakshmi Ganesan 10:39

Savita I’m interested in knowing about the India Research Management Initiative, IRMI as it is called, that you have been involved in. Why was the need for such an initiative felt in India? And how can it contribute towards developing a robust research and innovation ecosystem here?

Savita Ayyar 10:55

Developing research ecosystems is a long term process for any country. In 2016, the Wellcome Trust commissioned a scoping study on research management in India. Following on from there, the India Alliance launched IRMI or the India Research Management Initiative in early 2018. The IRMI initiative was started as a 12 month pilot, aimed at raising awareness of research management in India, engaging in dialogue with the community and identifying gaps in the ecosystem. Several institutions supported by the DAE, DBT, MHRD, the ICMR are and others, including privately funded institutions participated in the IRMI pilot. We recently published a peer reviewed open letter on insights from the IRMI pilot, and I invite listeners of this podcast to read the IRMI open letter.

Lakshmi Ganesan 11:48

To all our listeners, if you wish to know more about the outcomes of IRMI’s pilot study, we encourage that you check out the description section of this podcast where we have added the links to this work.

Savita, for someone that is looking to start a career in research management, what training opportunities are there, and what sort of experience can one seek or project?

Savita Ayyar 12:14

Research management is best learned on the job. Direct work experience teaches a lot.

A suitable job opening or internship opportunity can be invaluable. For more experienced research managers exchange visits to other countries and offices can provide fresh perspective. Globally, there are several training courses and modules some which are available online via platforms such as edX.

Research management conferences worldwide are also a great learning opportunity. There are some training workshops in India such as the one supported by the Newton Bhabha fund and British Council, and the courses supported by the DST at institutions such as the Administrative Staff College in India in Hyderabad

Lakshmi Ganesan 12:56

Also Savita while we are at it, can you also talk about what kind of support systems can exist to support the career growth along this path?

Savita Ayyar 13:05

Institutional leadership and peers play a very big role in professional development and recognition for research managers. Research management is now also increasingly being recognised as a scholarly activity, and this offers avenues for professional development. In countries such as the UK and the US, research managers and administrators can become members of professional associations which support their training and networking needs. Research management associations also offer recognition for research managers at local and international levels.

Lakshmi Ganesan 13:45

Thanks for sharing these Savita. Finally, are there any words of career wisdom that you would like to leave our listeners with today?

Savita Ayyar 13:54

Try to work for organisations and projects that are likely to have impact. Find inspiring mentors and talented peers. You often learn a lot just through the right conversations. There is no perfect job. Each role has its positives and negatives. And as long as the pluses outweigh the minuses, and you’re fired by what you do, it’ll all be fine. Each morning is then a new opportunity and the world is your oyster.

Lakshmi Ganesan 14:20

Thank you Savita, for those wonderful words, and for taking the time to share your career story with us today and throwing light on the research administration landscape and the training opportunities that are available for graduates. Listeners, please do check out the description section of this podcast where you will find the links to the resources and training opportunities that Savita shared with us today. Until next time, enjoy your science, be open to new experiences. And of course, watch this space for another interesting and enlightening career story only on crafting your career in science.

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