In Conversation with a Mentor | Interview with Sanjay Mishra

In Conversation with a Mentor (ICM) Episode 3 | S1

In the series of podcasts In Conversation with a Mentor’, we chat with mentors across various life-science fields. We talk to mentors who paved their way into unconventional career paths breaking the stereotypes, mentors who successfully led startups/​businesses in the life sciences, mentors who found love for science management and administration, and of course the ones who made research look cool.

In this third episode, from the series, we have Dr. Sanjay Mishra as our guest. Dr. Mishra has recently joined as a Scientist H at the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), India. However, this podcast was recorded when he was serving as the Advisor and Head of the INSPIRE division at the Department of Science & Technology (DST), India.

Dr. Mishra is also the former Advisor and Head of the KIRAN division at DST.

Podcast Duration: 26 min

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

[00:01] — Intro 

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

[00:10] — Suchibrata Borah 

Hello, and welcome back to In Conversation with a Mentor’. The guest of this episode is Dr. Sanjay Mishra. Dr. Mishra has recently joined as a scientist H at the Department of Biotechnology India. However, this podcast was recorded when he was serving as the advisor and head of the INSPIRE division at the Department of science and technology India. Dr. Mishra is also the former adviser and head of the KIRAN division at DST. In his diverse career path, he held various Academic positions, including a professorship at Shiv Nadar University, Delhi, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Australia, and the Institute of Engineering and Technology, Lucknow. 

Enjoy listening and please send us your feedback at indiabiospeaks@​indiabioscience.​org.

[01:02] — Suchibrata Borah

Hello Dr. Mishra. Welcome to In Conversation with a Mentor’.

[01:08] — Sanjay Mishra 

Hello IndiaBioscience.

[01:10] — Suchibrata Borah

Thank you for joining us, Dr. Mishra. We are happy to have you today. Dr. Mishra, you are a mechanical engineer and you have a Ph.D. in Biomechanical Engineering. You started your career as a faculty and then shifted to science administration by joining DST, after more than 20 years of service in teaching and research. What made you decide to do that?

[01:38] — Sanjay Mishra

I joined the department, particularly for two, or three reasons. Because, a: whatever I have done in 22 years of my career in academia, and my experience with the Indian teaching, research, university sector, college sector, and school sector, the DST to me was providing me a platform where I can make an impact and changes and reforms across the spectrum everywhere from Kashmir to Kanyakumari, which no other scientific lab position or some other job would have satisfied. That’s one. And the second point, you know, as many of you would have lived abroad, you’ll see that your heart always beats for India. Whatever you say, whether you live at Harvard or MIT or Oxford, your heart is always in India, I mean, I come from that category. So that was the second reason to come back.

[segue music]

[02:30] — Suchibrata Borah 

So when we stay in one profession for a long time, we create our own comfort zone. A career switch means coming out of the zone and starting something entirely new. How difficult was it to switch careers? And, more importantly, how difficult was it to switch countries while switching careers?

[02:54] — Sanjay Mishra 

I think you’re very right when you say that whatever professional career anyone chooses, after a decade or so, everybody develops his or her comfort zone. And in general, I think we are designed to remain in our comfort zone, not to move out. But if I have to describe myself in a single word, probably I will say, explorer. Probably I’m a born explorer. New things, trying new places, new institutions, new ways of interventions, you know, this is kind of in my DNA. So that’s why you can see that, you know, I’ve moved to the three continents, you know, I did my part of work in Lucknow and Banaras, then moved to Oxford, then came back and then again moved to the US, then again came back to India, then again moved to Australia. So, all these movements were enriching my experience. So all these things gave me a very rich experience about the various good practices, benchmarks, societies, and cultures. And all these varieties have helped me a lot in designing new programmes at DST, in designing new interventions, filling the gaps, what programme is required to fulfill this particular gap area in the science sector in India, whether it is at a PDF level or it is at a school level. All of these things have helped me a lot tremendously. I was lucky to have this wide varieties of experiences.

[segue music]

[04:26] — Suchibrata Borah 

Since we are talking about new initiatives at DST, let us talk about the INSPIRE programme as you are heading the division currently. Could you please tell us about the INSPIRE MANAK programme which you started? What is the programme and who are the beneficiaries?

[04:44] — Sanjay Mishra 

Now INSPIRE is one of the interventions designed by the Department of Science and Technology to promote and supply the best quality human resources, and future human resources in the area of science and technology. Now, this programme starts at the school level. So there’s one component, which is designed to be implemented from class 6th to class 10th level — school level, then you have other components which work at the college level, their master’s level, Ph.D. level, postdoctoral level, and faculty level. So you’ve got all areas. It’s like a ladder, from class six to postdoc. 

Coming back to, particularly, MANAK. This is a very, very unique programme. And, to the best of my knowledge, probably no other country is running a similar programme of this magnitude and size. I’ll put it this way. The objective of the MANAK programme is to inculcate innovative capacity or innovative thinking among our school children. This is the broad thing because when we say if a student is innovative, and becomes a critical thinker, has out-of-box thinking, then this programme is designed to scaffold him or her, provide some kind of support mechanism, recognise, reward, mentor to a higher level. And what it does is this programme invites applications from all the schools in India. Now, saying all schools in India looks very simple, but when I say all schools from class six to class ten, the number is about five lakh. In other words, all the principals of schools, whether they are government, school, or private schools, they are entitled to submit two or three ideas, which are novel ideas based on science and which have little societal value. They must be problem-solving, and more important, they must be novel. And when we have these ideas, like last year, we have received 6.43 lakh ideas. And then we select, roughly the last couple of years, we were selecting 50,000 plus ideas, and then the 10,000 rupees which is the award money for the selected ideas, we transfer into the student’s bank. And then we request the student that, use my money, the 10,000 rupees, to convert your ideas into the model prototype, do some research, and go to a nearby lab. We provide a support system. And then at the end of another two months, you know, these students are requested to come to a district level exhibition where all the best ideas were selected from a district, they are showcased, and a jury comes, filters 10% of the best ideas which come to the state level project exhibition committee. Again, a jury comes, selects 10% of the best ideas from each and every state of India, and comes to the national level. And then again, the jury comes, and we select the best ideas. So this is a kind of a pyramid-structure where there is the filtering of ideas and it comes to the national level. Finally, we select 60 ideas that are rewarded by the MANAK awards, and these 60, go to the Rashtrapati Bhavan for showcasing their ideas. Some of them will also go to the Sakura science programme in Japan. And more importantly, some of the ideas which have commercial potential, DST, and NIF together with the help of the institution, provide this support system to put an IP patent or a design patent. I’m not sure about the number but I think more than 50 or 60 patents have been already applied and two or three have already been commercialized where they are licensed to the commercial institution. So this is the whole structure and the activities under the MANAK programme.

[segue music]

[08:30] — Suchibrata Borah 

you have mentored Ph.D. students, master’s students when you were a faculty, right? And now you are running the INSPIRE programme, the MANAK programme. I could see that the MANAK programme is very much close to your heart. So how has the mentorship experience, you know, helped you to develop, to make this programme better?

[08:53] — Sanjay Mishra 

I’ll put it in a slightly different form. Not only MANAK, my previous experience as a faculty in India and abroad, as a postdoctoral researcher, as a teacher, and of course, as a student in Indian colleges, all those experiences have helped me to enrich and strengthen the, not only MANAK programme, but all my other programmes as well. Like, as a head of the KIRAN division, I will briefly tell, and also as the head of the INSPIRE programme where we are dealing with fellowships at the Ph.D. level. So not only MANAK, but across the board, all programmes benefit from the experience, in which manner I would like to share a few things. 

Whenever I’m looking at a programme, I always look from the other side of the table. If the end beneficiary is a Ph.D. student, I’ll recall my days as a Ph.D. student and look if the programme is good or bad or if are there any gaps! Are there any barriers that I have faced in my personal life? And if I’m not convinced, I will not do it. I will make sure that that problem is solved which I have faced in my personal experience, number one. In terms of the MANAK programme, if I take it, then I would see, not the well, up-to-date good resource schools of Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore, I will look at the typical average government school or a municipal school in rural India and see whether my portal and my system are able to cater to the needs of that particular school or not. I’m just giving one example. It’s basically that very often we design a portal and we say that everything is online. Fine, it looks fantastic. But the reality is that there are places in districts in India where there is a power shortage, where there is no internet connection, and where there is a low level of internet literacy. How those people will be able to address my programme? So, this is just one example. So, I will try to look. 

Second is the language barrier. I myself was partly born and brought up in the UP. So, Hindi has been my medium and I love Hindi. Of course, English has been the kind of official language. In my engineering college, I was taught everything. But still, I believe that there’ll be a lot of students especially in the northern belt, or even in other states where maybe Bangla is the medium of instruction. For students and the teacher, whether he or she is a school teacher, that may be a language barrier. So you will see, in MANAK, immediately after joining, I made it that we need to have 14 languages, at least 15 languages. 

So I’m trying to look at the barriers or the problems faced by the audience or end user of my programme, and I’ll try to change and reform, modify the programme portal. So, of course, there are limitations of time and resources at DST also. So I cannot say that each and everything is 100% perfect. I’ll not claim that but I try to mould and do the maximum possible.

[segue music]

[11:56] — Suchibrata Borah 

You mentioned initiatives for PhDs and postdocs, you are the former adviser and head of the KIRAN division at DST, which is a dedicated division for women researchers. So could you please tell us what is this division? And what are the new initiatives coming under this division?

[12:17] — Sanjay Mishra 

Yes, I have worked as the head of the Kiran division for almost two and a half years. And I try to first understand the problem myself, like why the DST started a special division with a special programme, which is women-centric. And you know, the first few months I myself studied the extent of the problem, and the socio-economic and administrative reasons, and the concept of a leaky pipeline, why the women, we lose a lot of talented women in the process of education and the workforce. So I studied all those things. And then I tried to do a couple of interventions, and designed several programmes to strengthen the current programme. The one thing which I wish to share with the audience, I think many of them may know but many may not know that the KIRAN division — the flagship programme has been to bring back those women who have a break in their careers because that is one of the basic barriers, why we are losing women from the professional mainstream or workforce. Because of the family and because of mobility issues, they move from place A to place B and care for the children. So the scheme WOS‑A, WOS‑B, and WOS‑C have been designed to fulfill those needs. 

Apart from that, the one new intervention which took during my tenure, of course, was supported by the government right from the top to my division, that how do we bring more girls into the STEM field, because, if you do an intervention at Ph.D. level or at UG level then that is actually too late. Because then we discovered that it is the class 10th level where the first junction starts where a student, whether he is a boy or girl, chooses the first stream. What to study in grade 11 and 12. If a girl chooses commerce or arts or sociology or some other subjects, no matter what you do, she cannot come back into STEM. So that is where the maximum leakage is. Again, I would like to reiterate as I was saying that I’m a firm believer of all subjects. I do not want that in a society everybody should become a scientist, no. We need musicians, we need philosophers, we need players, we need economists. But, especially for girls students, the data shows that there is enough number of girls who are interested otherwise in STEMs, but because of the lack of motivation, lack of resources, lack of guidance, lack of family support, or maybe the science is not available in the nearby school. So there are many factors that inhibit those girls who otherwise would have opted for a science career, but they do not take it because of these. So my job was to remove these barriers so that these girls, especially in class 9th and 10th level, prepare them for science in STEM so that they choose at 11th and 12th level, STEM subjects, and after 12, preferably they should go for the areas or the subjects where the women are underrepresented in STEM. So, this is about Vigyan Jyothi. 

Similarly, there’s one more intervention, which again, I think I’m really proud of as an Indian, is that we designed a programme, an intervention called GATI — Gender Advancement Transforming Institutions. The idea is very simple. It simply measures the gender advancement at each and every university level, department level, or lab level, and then makes objective criteria, and then we can grade them on how good and not good the institution is for women, in terms of providing support mechanism, providing promotional avenues, the policies, the physical facilities, how friendly your institution is for women. If you can measure, make an index, and then plot it, then you can see, and this will give a kind of sensitization to the policymakers, especially the top people sitting at the labs, and the universities and other institutions to look gender as an important ingredient for the development. It has just started. 

And in addition to that, there was another programme which we started to see, often, there are women who are permanently employed in institutions, but again, because of family reasons they want to move to a different city, or sometimes they have to move to a different city and resign from the job. So DST started a programme called mobility programme where permanently employed women can take a break of three to five years with a fellowship. So they are on leave or lien from the host institution, and they can join their family and they can work in a different city of their choice, from DST fellowship, for three to five years, hopefully, because otherwise, we will have lost them from the workforce. The pipe would have leaked. We are trying to address this leakage. So that’s another programme which we started.

[segue music]

[17:21] — Suchibrata Borah

Great to know about the mobility programme, the Vigyan Jyothi programme, and also the GATI programme, I think, which is something entirely new that you are doing. And it’s great to know that DST is putting emphasis on ranking based on gender. Talking about gender and women, Are there any distinct obstacles that women face while coming back to research after a pause or in general in research? It’d be great to hear about this both in terms of access to leaders and mentors, and the availability of opportunities.

[17:54] — Sanjay Mishra

Suchi, you have already given the answer to the question. As far as the obstacles and barriers are concerned, you have rightly pointed out the lack of mentors, support systems or guidance. That is one primary. And second, you have again rightly pointed out, the lack of opportunities available, especially for women. And again, when I say women, women at the age of, let’s say the 20s, after Ph.D. gap of one or two years, it’s a lot easier to be absorbed by the workforce or anywhere, but women having a gap of 10 years, let’s say, after MSc or after Ph.D. The current situation of India as we all know, there is a fierce competition, there are less positions and we have got more talented people. That’s a fact. And probably the women become losers because of this competition, because there are maybe men or other women who do not have a break in their career, they generally are able to get those positions whether they are contractual positions, postdocs, or whatever. 

Now, having said that, again, this is the problem, which in my opinion, cannot be solved by government intervention or a DST scheme. Because this requires a change in the mindset of the people. And I say people, whether the people are in government or in the private sector or industries. I will share one of my own experiences just to highlight the point. When I was offered a faculty position in IITs, my age was, I think, because I moved for postdoctoral and then came back to India, I think 34 ish. And someone I remember told me that, okay, in general, if you’re 35 plus the coveted institutions, they don’t like to take people who are 35 plus as assistant professor or faculty or a scientist. So I was thinking that well, as a man, I had no break in my career. But think about another case of a woman who after getting married has a first baby, maybe a second baby. This is a clear-cut case of the five to seven years of break in their career where she is doing, again, I will say, a more important job for society. But I can see that if somebody comes with a very strong CV with 40, probably many institutions, with a gap, they may not entertain. That is the case in India. Whereas in Australia or in America, I’ve seen, these things are discounted. They take care of the gap. And they normalize the CVs of somebody having a break of seven years, versus somebody who doesn’t have a break, so they are unequal. So that is where women get the kind of competition, which is unequal competition. 

And again, I say that I’m not saying that giving an extra favor to women, what I’m saying is that give them equal playing field, that’s all, that’s all. Give them an equal playing field. That will solve the problem. And the last point is that the good thing is, that a lot of good news is coming from the private sector. Look at the companies. There are programmes where they are saying that return to work, or you know, like second inning or second opportunity. So they’ve got some programmes, where they are targeting those women who want to come back into the mainstream career after a break. A similar thing needs to be adopted by everyone in this system.

[seque music]

[21:21] — Suchibrata Borah 

So my last question is, now that you are not directly with academia, do you miss being in academia actively?

[21:30] — Sanjay Mishra 

I can say in one word, I miss my freedom, freedom’ within quotes. As a professor, or as a university teacher, I have lived and enjoyed the full freedom of my work. And the only constraint I ever had in my 22 years of my career was a weekly timetable where I have to have Monday, third period, and Thursday from 4.30 to 5 o’clock. And that used to be maybe five hours in a week, that was the only constraint I have lived. So the first problem which came to me after joining DST is, how do I reconcile myself from a nine to five job where I have to sit in an office because I’ve never done it in my 22 years, so that’s freedom. 

Second is in academics, the universe is your limit. Now, if you take my own examples, if you look at my publications, I started from bone fracture healing, looking at the mechanical environment of the bone fracture, bone osteogenesis, stress-strain, which is the application of mechanics, mechanical engineering into the bone biology. Later on in my PDF, I was looking at paleontology, how the bones have evolved, from dinosaur bones to human bones, and vertebrate biology. I moved into vertebrate biology. And that was for one year in my PDF. I was lucky that my supervisor was saying that Sanjay, there is no barrier, you think whatever you like, nobody will pay you money, just to be thinking something new, something which is interesting. That was in academia. And I published a paper where I was trying to compare the shape and size and mechanical properties of bone from a rat to mouse to cows, to dogs, to elephants. You know, like, this is the kind of elementary of bones. Then I moved into Vertebrate Palaeontology to dinosaur bones, and then I moved to Osteoporosis research. And then I moved later on, when I moved to Australia as a teacher, a couple of my publications were, how do we teach engineering? What’s the best way? It was more of the educational philosophy of teaching engineering. Then I moved into the areas of online learning and teaching: e‑learning.

So I’m trying to say that in academia, this is a huge variety of opportunities. And my request and a strong suggestion to your audience will be especially for the younger ones — Do what your heart says. Do not try to do it from peer pressure. Do where you feel thrilled. Do something which is making a mass impact. I mean, I joined DST, because I believed that I’m able to have an impact on several thousands and lakhs of lives. So again, whether it is research or administration, anywhere you are, my suggestion will be to do what you like, which satisfies you. But yes, I think coming back to your question, my first and last love is academia. And sometimes I think that if God comes to me and says Sanjay, what do you want to become in your next life?”. I will say, a university teacher, a teacher, full stop. Nothing else.

[segue music]

[24:33] ‑Suchibrata Borah 

Wow. So starting from engineering to paleontology to vertebrate biology to how to teach engineering, it’s a long way that you have come. Thank you, Dr. Mishra, for your time and for sharing your journey with us. I’m sure your journey will inspire many and will give courage to those willing to switch careers at a later stage of life. Thank you.

[24:57] — Sanjay Mishra 

Thank you very much for giving me this opportunity. Probably this is the first time that you know I’m able to tell all 360-degree angles about my own professional journey.

[segue music]

[25:10] — Suchibrata Borah 

Thank you all for listening to IndiaBiospeaks In Conversation with a Mentor’. We look forward to receiving your comments and feedback. Thank you.

[25:19] — Outro 

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