In Conversation with a Mentor | Interview with L S Shashidhara

In Conversation with a Mentor (ICM) Episode 1 | S1

In this first episode of the podcast series In Conversation with a Mentor’, we talk to L S Shashidhara from Ashoka University. He specializes in Genetics, Molecular Biology, and Evolutionary Biology.

He is a developmental biologist and Professor at IISER Pune and is currently on lien to Ashoka University. Here Shashi talks about his career path starting from college, his trials and tribulations as a mentor, his failures and how he overcame them, etc.

Shashi is an associate member of the European Molecular Biology Organization and the President of the International Union of Biological Sciences. He has received multiple national and international recognition.

Audio length: 27 min

(Note to listeners: This recording was done during the COVID-19 lockdown over a zoom meeting call. This has resulted in a slightly diminished audio quality with some mild disturbances in the recording, compared to a studio-quality recording.)

[00:00:01] — Intro

You’re listening to IndiaBioSpeaks, your one-stop resource for science news and careers.

[00:00:11] — Suchibrata Borah

Hello and welcome to our new podcast series, In Conversation with a Mentor’, on the stories of some path-breaking mentors across the life science research community. In this series, we will talk to researchers, science managers, administrators, and entrepreneurs based in life science. We have seen excellent scientists turning into successful leaders across different fields, but we have mostly heard them talk about their work. In this series, we’ll delve deeper and bring to you many untold stories about each of these mentors. Stories that may have shaped them into becoming what they are today. It is the first episode of this series. Enjoy listening to In Conversation with a Mentor’’ and we would love to hear your feedback.

[segue music]

[00:01:08] — Suchibrata Borah

In today’s episode, we shall be talking to Professor L S Shashidhara from Ashoka University to know more about his life, career journey, and the path toward mentorship.

[00:01:18] — Suchibrata Borah

Hello, Shashi. Welcome to In Conversation with a Mentor’. Thank you so much for joining us today.

[00:01:23] — L S Shashidhara

Thank you very much. I’m happy to be here today.

[00:01:27] — Suchibrata Borah

Shashi, if I start talking about your achievements, I think it will be an essay, so I will quickly go over the most important ones. You are a developmental biologist and a professor at IISER-Pune, and currently, you are on Lien to Ashoka University. You have received multiple national and international recognitions. You are an associate member of the European Molecular Biology Organization and the president of the International Union of Biological Sciences. You have received a significant percentage of Indian Science awards as well. So with all these recognitions and awards in your bag, when someone asks you who are you? What do you say? Like, how do you like to define yourself?

[00:02:11] — L S Shashidhara

It’s always a difficult question. We always have different hats in society and use time, we may use it in different contexts, but I think the easier way to explain myself is I’m a scientist. Then I would say I’m a biologist, then I would say I’m a researcher and a teacher. Then I would say within biology, I’m a developmental biologist, trying to understand, using an insect as a model system, how organs are positioned along the body axis and what mechanisms determine the precise size and shape they attain in proportion to the body size every time a new organism is born. 

As you can make out, I’m trying to explain not only what kind of profession I’m following, but what kind of research methodology I’m using. When I say scientists, I’m obviously using scientific methods and specific questions. So obviously, depending on the context, if I’m telling a school kid, I may explain in a different way. If I’m explaining to another co-scientist working in a similar area, I may directly get into the specifics. So it’s a complicated question, as always in life.

[00:03:27] — Suchibrata Borah

Yes. So in your life, was there any incident that you would like to share that changed your life entirely or impacted you heavily, a turning point in your life?

[00:03:39] — L S Shashidhara

Okay. I mean, always, right? I mean, every one of us has certain small events that would have changed the path, right? And it’s like this. You are always going on a particular road. There are always certain folks. And when you stand the folk, you want to know whether you want to turn left or right or go straight. Let’s say it’s a three-way. Then sometimes you wouldn’t have a clear rationale for why you want to take a particular path. Sometimes you may cross by coincidentally or certain prior experience or certain kinds of push that makes you take a particular path. 

In my case, it was almost determined that I would be going to an engineering degree program. But for some silly reasons, sometimes you can call my laziness or a silly reason that I had already had admission to an agriculture degree program and where I had already taken the admission. And then the engineering degree offer letter came much later, perhaps two weeks later, not too late. And the fact that I was already in a college and in a very nice campus, beautiful campus, Agricultural University in Dharwad. So that sort of made me like why should I go anywhere because it’s a beautiful campus? So I just decided to stay back. 

And then when I started learning genetics: cytogenetics, genetics, and evolution, that sort of changed the rest of my life because although I pursued to some extent plant breeding and genetics in the beginning and later plant molecular biology for my Ph.D., my initial interest in genetics and evolution continued to push me to explore different research topics, particularly after my Ph.D., my decision to move to drosophila genetics and developmental biology was largely because of my second year and third-year undergraduate courses that I took and the fantastic teachers I had.

I think the rest of the decisions that I took where I worked initially in Hyderabad and why did I move from Hyderabad to Pune, all those things are all actually of lesser consequences in a way because those decisions everybody takes for a variety of different reasons. I think the initial path that I took that I would be pursuing genetics, molecular biology, and evolutionary biology was somewhat by, you can say, simply by chance. I know it’s a really good chance actually. Maybe I was very lucky that I took that decision.

[00:06:28] — Suchibrata Borah

Okay, maybe we all wanted to become something else in life and later landed somewhere else, right? You are also into science administration and you are associated with many reputed organizations such as ICMR, EMBO, DBT, IUBS, and these organizations play a crucial role in shaping science policies. My next question is related to career choices and possibilities. We have seen people moving into diverse roles. However, in most cases, this transition is not very smooth. So what changes in the system, or the policies, you think can improve the scenario?

[00:07:08] — L S Shashidhara

Okay, obviously this is the kind of issue we are all facing in the Indian system. Perhaps in other places too. More so in the Indian system because of somewhat rigidity in the system. And when I say system, research, and development system, it’s not necessarily only restricted to government institutions, it’s true for non-governmental organizations too. There are two reasons. One is the way research is funded in this country and the second is how big the research and development landscape is in the country. Or you can call it the science and technology landscape because we are all scientists talking here. And although the biology community is large in terms of our infrastructure, in terms of funding, the level of funding is still not that big enough that we can actually quickly make career choices and then move on to different areas of research and development, starting from working as a scientist to collaborating in multi-institutional collaborations and then taking up different roles in this research management part. 

So when I was in CCMB, Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology, that was a time when CSIR initiated large multi-institutional collaborative projects within the CSIR system. I was coordinating one such project across six different institutes. Although I was still a young scientist, the Director and the Director of CCMB and the Director General of CSIR, both sort of trusted me and had confidence. They made me a coordinator for a very large project of close to about 30 crore rupees in those days. It was early 2000. And when I started coordinating research across very diverse CSIR organizations I realized how difficult it is to collaborate. One is because people are working on diverse topics. People are working using diverse model systems and the governance system, although they are all part of a CSIR family, it’s somewhat different in different places and there are also personal influences of somewhat senior people which basically makes the system much more inflexible. 

Obviously, I realized that unless individuals have academic freedom and to do what they want to do and also there is a system that helps to manage the research not only at the individual group level but also to effectively come together in large collaboration both within the institute or between institutes or multi-institutional or even in national level. And that was what we were lacking. 

In fact, much of my effort in the last 15, 20 years later in CCMB and again after joining IISER Pune, and currently, is to actually, some of the policy has to change for people to collaborate easily, across institutes, across disciplines and for that to manage such collaboration in a very complex administrative system of India, there are certain special skills that are required. How to develop those skills, or can we have certain specialized personnel in the team who will have all these skills? Not necessarily that everybody should have those skills. So the researchers do research, and there are research management people who will actually manage the research. But the people with the management skills should know what the research is all about and what’s the importance of the research they do, what kind of methodology they use, and what kind of facilities they need. So it’s not that simply managing finance and administration kind of management. It’s actually a very intricate science management kind of skill. So that’s where we need to change the policy in India. It is still being done in a sort of patchy way, with a few pockets, but it’s being done properly. A few individuals are driving this very well.

IndiaBioscience is doing a lot of work to change the system. We need a systemic change in all our organizations, whether DBT, DST or ICMR and our funding pattern should change to enable such large collaboration to happen. Because science, as you know, we have witnessed in real-time, during COVID time, it has to be collaborative, it has to be interdisciplinary, and multidisciplinary. And any state-funded research should have such a good research management program associated with actual research. So the policy should be towards that. That’s what my personal goal is, to bring such kinds of policies into the system.

[segue music]

[00:12:21] — Suchibrata Borah

Thank you for mentioning academic freedom. I think it’s a very important element of academia. Let us now switch gears and focus more on your role as a mentor. You are leading many programs and organizations towards excellence. What do you think is the most challenging part of being a mentor?

[00:12:40] — L S Shashidhara

Okay, so let me call myself a facilitator, because a mentor, leader, sometimes it’s sort of too big a word. I don’t believe in leadership because everybody should lead their own life, professional or otherwise. And the job of others should be to facilitate someone who has people in positions, whether dean or director or vice-chancellor. As a facilitator, there are a lot of challenges. One is that people come with very diverse skills, research skills, and management skills. And also there are very interesting eccentricities of people. We need to accommodate all of them. Typically, very creative people are the ones who come to research and we need to sort of support them. And a large number of creative people, are not necessarily very good at managing things well. Sometimes you may have to handle them, sometimes you may have to spoon-feed them. 

We had challenges where a person would like to do all kinds of tissue culture work and may not know how to set up a tissue culture lab, or may not know how to manage a tissue culture lab. So you need to put a system in place so that the person’s job is to come out with the experimental design for actual experiments but all the peripheral work perhaps is taken care of by the department or the institute. 

So otherwise, you cannot actually achieve excellence. The problem in the system is you sort of let people do what they want to do, and you say you find a way to get things done, but that approach will not work. It may work in some cases. Some people are good in both research as well as research management, but not many people are. In fact, most people actually are not so good at research management. They learn on the job. Perhaps it may take five to ten years. But a young faculty, when he or she joins the institute, that’s the time when they have to be really productive, and if they don’t become productive in the first five to ten years, it is actually a loss to the institute, loss to the nation, loss to the humanity that such talent is being wasted and not taken and making full utilization of that balance. So in that context, my job has always been trying to facilitate everybody’s research to an extent that people say it’s my weakness that I would actually get into micromanagement, buying the pipettes, setting up centrifuge, to labs, to air conditioning system, to procurement system. So sort of give importance to the details so that the people who actually do research can actually do research more effectively so that the productivity increases. So as a mentor, obviously I had to sort of look at aspects of research management of every individual, every faculty. That also includes how to deal with Ph.D. students, how to sort of set up a process in which you can get good Ph.D. students, how to mentor Ph.D. students, how to set up collaborations, and also deal with publications, how you write your response to editors when you get some comments from the referees. So obviously you have to sort of help them at all levels. If you help them in the first five years, I’m sure they will take off. And also in any institute, if you have some five, or six such people, not necessarily everybody should become a mentor, someone or other way. But in every department, at least half of them should have certain good mentorship skills and they should be selfless. Obviously, mentors should not become an author of any publication, otherwise, that mentorship will not work.

[00:16:45] — Suchibrata Borah

You really do understand the issues a young PI faces. Great to learn about that. And we often talk about success. Let’s talk about the failures today. No human being is perfect and we all make mistakes, right? So what has been your greatest failure in life, according to you, and how did you overcome it?

[00:17:03] — L S Shashidhara

Well, I have not overcome it yet. We all make lots of mistakes, and I keep making mistakes. There are sometimes knowingly we make mistakes simply because we are unable to do anything different. For example, it’s not really a mistake. You can say limitations of how you do research. For example, my own personal research is taken a backseat, and many of my Ph.D. students have suffered because of a lack of my personal attention to their research while I was sort of dealing with other institutional and very different national-level issues. So that’s definitely, to some extent, a mistake and I’ve still not corrected myself, although I’m trying very hard to ensure that all students at least get a good Ph.D. with some publications and then have a postdoctoral position. And beyond that, what they do is of course their life. But that’s still not a consolation. I have to improve on that one. 

When I give a lot of importance to the details, management, and other aspects, when it comes to actual research, one of the mistakes I always do is I don’t listen to the details of other systems, including sometimes my own Ph.D. students. So that sort of goes against the way science is done, the way research is done, which is also something wrong, and still, I need to improve on that.

[00:18:38] — Suchibrata Borah

Did you have any role models or mentors who were influential in your career trajectory and your mentorship style?

[00:18:47] — L S Shashidhara

Yes, of course. I’ll start with my Ph.D. supervisor, Alison Smith. The first thing she did was to give me full freedom. Although I had not done any molecular biology until that time. Molecular biology was very rare in those days, even in western countries. So I had not done any molecular biology. But she asked me to just do whatever I think I can. In fact, she was periodically sort of looking at my reports, but most of the time asked me — Do your experiment. If it doesn’t work, then only I’ll help”. If it works, it’s fine. Right? So that means she allowed me to make mistakes in the experiment.

The second is my very first research paper in my life. It was in PNAS in 1991. She made me a co-corresponding author with her because she said you have contributed intellectually, it’s not just that you did some experiments. I did all the experimental designs and ideas. So that sort of gave me a big lesson about how to actually help other people, younger people in my life. But many, many Ph.D. students in my lab too have been corresponding authors, sometimes a single corresponding author of their publications. I’m still following that principle in my life. 

Coming to in terms of science administration management, of course, VijayRaghavan is one role model I have with whom I worked in the beginning when he was sort of evolving as a science leader in his career. He was a, what’s called project director of NCBS when he just started on the IISc campus in Bangalore. So I sort of saw him, how he actually works and solves problems with these issues and how to improve the infrastructure, although it was a transit campus and so forth. So that sort of helped me a lot when I was involved in setting up IISER Pune later. 

And the second is the role models and the inspiring people are the ones who always conferred confidence in me without even knowing what my capabilities are. So, for example, Lalji Singh of CCMB. For the most part of my time in CCMB, he was the director. And Professor K N Ganesh, for the most part of my life at IISER Pune, he was the director. Amazing. Professor Ganesh is amazing. The amount of freedom, amount of time he used to give for dealing with everybody’s problems, just listening. We used to say you’ll solve 90% of the problem when people talk to you about their problem with a senior person. A young faculty may find a solution herself or himself. You don’t have to even give any solutions or any suggestions. They will find it for themselves. But they need a sounding board. The sounding board has to be someone with some experience. And he kept his door always open. Anybody can walk in and talk to me anytime and for hours sometimes. He used to stay in the office until 10, 11 o’clock at the night, keep listening to the stories of all the young faculty and that’s the kind of leadership even I’m not being able to achieve. So, he is always an inspiring person in my life. 

And beyond the people with whom I worked, another person I worked is Prof. D Balasubramanian for a very short time when he was the director at CCMB. He’s the one who appointed me as a scientist and he is the one who inspired me to work on science communication, science popularization, and so forth. Some of my interest in science communication came from his inspiration. There are many, of course. I just named a few.

[00:23:05] — Suchibrata Borah

So my last question is, is mentorship an acquired skill? If so, how can one hone the skills?

[00:23:13] — L S Shashidhara

I don’t know. All of us have our own experiences, right? We make mistakes. Sometimes by chance, we are successful, but we have to understand why something worked, and why something didn’t work. So self-sort of introspection is very important, right? And a mentor should basically introspect all the time and find which one would work, and which one wouldn’t work. Obviously, when we say what works and what wouldn’t work in our professional life, we had to make sure that whatever we do, it should meet the highest standards of ethics and integrity, right? We don’t say somehow something works. We are not talking about that kind of strategy here in our professional life and higher standards of ethics and integrity are the foundations of scientific professionals. And given that you follow and adhere to these ethics and integrity and you can always introspect what are the ways in which something works and wherever it didn’t work and what could have made it work. And then passing on this information to other people who are beginning to experience professional life in research and development is important. And when you transfer this information, you have to be very honest, and selfless. I don’t think there are any other kinds of skills, special skills are required. There’s nothing like communication skills, writing skills, and you have to have a management degree or such kind of thing. I think whatever we experience and that experience has to be transferred without any inhibition. You can also tell them what didn’t work for you and where you have made mistakes. And that’s important as a mentor, otherwise, it won’t work.

[segue music]

[00:25:30] — Suchibrata Borah

Thank you Shashi, for your time and sharing your journey with us. Your journey will inspire many and your insights on some of the very common yet confusing topics will help people to see and understand the road ahead with much more clarity.

[00:25:45] — L S Shashidhara

Thank you. Thank you very much for this opportunity. I just blabbered. I don’t think they should take my word as advice. It’s just that if it’s interesting, it should be interesting.

[00:25:58] — Suchibrata Borah

I think you touched upon many important topics and people should listen to you, seriously. 

All right, this is the end of the podcast. Thank you all for listening to IndiaBiospeaks In conversation with a Mentor’. We look forward to receiving your comments and feedbacks. Thank you all.

[00:26:17] — Outro

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