In Conversation with a Mentor | Interview with Manju Bansal

In Conversation with a Mentor (ICM) Episode 5 | S1

The guest of this episode of In Conversation with a Mentor’ is Manju Bansal, who is a professor of the Theoretical Biophysics group in the Molecular Biophysics Unit of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. She is the Founding Director of the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology at Bangalore.

Podcast Duration: 22 min 40 sec

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.

[00:12] — Shantala Hari Dass

Today we’re lucky to have a very successful researcher with an effervescent personality with us. She’s a Professor in the theoretical biophysics group in the molecular biophysics unit of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. She is the Founder Director of the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology at Bangalore. She is Professor Manju Bansal. Welcome Professor Manju Bansal to In Conversation with a Mentor’. We’re excited to have this conversation with you.

[00:43] — Manju Bansal 

Hello, Shantala. I’m happy to be part of this very inspiring and useful kind of podcast which IndiaBioscience is doing.

[00:53] — Shantala Hari Dass

Thank you, Professor Bansal. 

[segue music]

[00:54] — Shantala Hari Dass

So you were a student of Professor G N Ramachandran, who was a student of C V Raman. So you have an enviable experience and legacy, one that few have. Could you tell us a little bit about how this experience and this legacy have impacted your approach to doing science, and your approach to looking at how scientific organizations should focus? Can you tell us a little bit about these experiences? And your experience working with Professor G N Ramachandran.

[01:30] — Manju Bansal 

It was actually quite an experience and this is a question I get asked quite often. Meeting Professor Ramchandran for the first time at the interview itself was an eye opener for me because one of the first questions he asked me or rather a comment he made that has stuck with me was, he said, at the interview, we are not trying to find out what you don’t know. You tell us what you know and we will question you on that. Because most university syllabuses are very wide and large, but most of the things are not covered. So I realized that that was a very, very useful attitude to take to find out the possibility of what the young scientist is capable of. And then, of course, when I got assigned to him as a student, it was, again, a kind of very scary experience, because several people warned me that he was a very tough person, the whole group had just moved from Madras University to Bangalore. So I had no seniors to actually inform me about what it would be like to work with him. So initially, I was very happy because, in fact, I had joined the biophysics unit, partly because I had heard about Professor Ramchandran. But when I got assigned to him, as a student, I was a bit scared, because many people told me that he’s a very tough person to work with. 

But it was very inspiring to work with him because his whole approach to research was so research-oriented, I mean, it wasn’t just publication or trying to produce results, but he really wanted to raise questions. And the other thing he told me, because once when I said for something, but this is what the paper says, or publication says, he immediately said, don’t take everything which is published as gospel truth. To be a good researcher, you should question everything that you read. And those few things have stuck with me all through my career. And I have tried to actually pass that on to my students also and question, you know, have a questioning mind to be a researcher. So it was very challenging, he was very demanding. He would give a problem and say Okay, take your time to do it. But give me the results tomorrow morning”. So that was something which one had to get used to. So, you know, we got used to working overnight, in fact, to show him results the next morning. But at the same time, what was wonderful about him was that he gave you due credit. I mean, he was always very appreciative also, when you showed him some good results. And in fact, it was much later I realized how appreciative he was of my work. Because even 10 years after I had finished my work, when I went to give lectures at some places like Calcutta and Delhi, many people said, Oh, we’ve heard about your work, because when Professor Ramachandran gave a talk here so long back, he mentioned your work and said how good a student you were. So that were really very strong features of memories of my working with him. And as I said, especially having a questioning attitude is what I try to pass on to the students and keep it in mind all through my career.

[04:51] — Shantala Hari Dass

That was such an exciting insight. So with that, the next question and the theme of this podcast In Conversation with a Mentor’, you had a great mentor who had such a profound impact on your thought and your philosophy of mentoring. You have then in your career moved on to mentor Ph.D. students, mentor master’s students. So if I were to ask you, what would you say is your philosophy of mentorship? And what are some of the things you keep in mind as a mentor when you’re mentoring students, Ph.D. students, and master’s students?

[05:23] — Manju Bansal 

You know, questioning, even published results, was one of the things I learned from Professor Ramchandran. And maybe I should also mention that apart from Professor Ramachandran, I did my postdoc also in India itself, and that was with Professor V. Sasisekharan, who himself was a student of Professor Ramchandran. Both the projects that I worked on, one on protein structure, collagen structure, and on unusual nucleic acid structure, which was with Professor Sasisekharan. They were both kind of hear-see at their own time, especially nucleic acid structure, when we started talking about left-handed structures and Watson Crick, I mean, people in biology would know that the double helix of Watson Crick is almost a canonical thing. But when we started talking about alternative structures for DNA, it was considered hear-see. But, as I said, working with these two doyens of science, biophysics, and raising questions about published data and results, and that there could be alternative views and features to the question, made me bold enough to take up challenging problems for the future also. And that is what I try to make my students and Ph.D., doctoral fellows working with me imbibe that kind of a feeling. 

But apart from the science part, and I think, as I said, the curiosity of learning new things, not just sticking to what is your topic of research, but also reading and, you know, being aware, attending other people’s lectures, and being exposed to it is something which is very important, and especially when you have the opportunity to do so, I encourage my students to attend conferences. The third thing is, of course, as I said, I mean, basically being original in your research, not doing a copycat kind of research or a me-too kind of research I know, me, too, has different connotations now, but you know, just because somebody publishes a paper in Nature, and you start doing some small variation on that, but try to take up original ideas and thoughts of your own. And finally, it is the honesty and integrity in your research.

[segue music]

[07:43] — Shantala Hari Dass

It’s lovely to hear about your vision for developing future researchers for the Indian community. The next chapter in your career that we’d like to talk about is your work with IBAB, the Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology. So you were the Founder Director of this organization, IBAB at Bangalore. What were some of the difficulties and challenges that you encountered in this new type of mentorship?

[08:12] — Manju Bansal 

Well, very frankly, I never thought of myself as becoming the director of an institute. Almost all IISc professors at some time or the other, get offered administrative positions at other places, but I never thought of myself as becoming a director. So I was quite surprised when I was actually approached. Because this was not against an application or anything, I was just approached by one of my senior colleagues, that there is this new institute coming up in Bangalore, under the Vision Group of Biotechnology of the Karnataka state government. It will be going to be dealing with bioinformatics and biotechnology and they were looking for a director. They had approached him to find somebody and he thought I would be a good person to take up. So I was quite shocked because I was not very close to this colleague of mine, but that he should think I would be suited for that. And in fact, I said that I’m not sure I’m suited for it. But he actually threw it at me almost as a challenge. He said, no, in fact, I think you are the right person and I think you will do a good job if you take it up. And then when I said what about my research, I’ve been a researcher all my life, I’ve never held an administrative position, he said, well then take it up as a challenge and show that you can do it. One of the first thing I said is that if I do take it up will you give me a free hand because my friends and colleagues actually warned me that you’ve been at IISc, which is not just a centrally government-funded Institute, but you have so much independence at IISc to do your research. From day one as you join even as a lecturer you have full freedom. But if you move to a state government institution, it will be very restrictive and maybe, you know, there’ll be interference from other people. So that was the first question I put to them, if you want me to take it up, how much freedom would I have? So they said, you will have a free hand to set up the place. Then they asked me, what was my aim. If I take it up, what would be my vision? And I told them that what I would like to do is have a bioinformatics course, which would be really multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and have students from all diverse backgrounds to take up the course, which I wanted to start. And the course itself would not be like what bioinformatics has been taught in the universities at the moment, which is just like exposing students to tools of bioinformatics, which are available on the internet. I said, I would like to develop a group of bioinformaticians, who can actually develop tools, develop algorithms, and be able to come out with new kinds of approaches to looking at biological data, which is what bioinformatics is all about. To my own surprise, when we advertised the course, we got responses from students with all kinds of backgrounds, from engineering to medicine, to agriculture, to veterinary apart from the basic sciences, of course, math and statistics. And we conducted an interview, we selected 35 students who came from six different backgrounds, you know, and then, of course, creating the syllabus for them, which had math statistics, as I said, chemistry, biology and of course, bioinformatics itself. It was very challenging, but it was exciting. I mean, once I got into it, it was really exciting.

[11:46] — Shantala Hari Dass

So you know, all of that long-term vision, I think, is what has sustained IBAB and kept it on the trajectory that it has. In terms of long-term vision, do you think that the visions you set out with have been accomplished?

[12:01] — Manju Bansal 

One thing, which has definitely changed over time, and I think it is for the better, is that in a major chunk of my career, especially at IISc, the attitude towards the industry, or applied research, was rather snooty. And we weren’t encouraged to have industry contacts or, you know, do research which was funded by industry or which might benefit industry especially if the industry was paying you something. The engineering faculty at least was encouraged to do some kind of consultancy, but not in the sciences. I started interacting with industry people on a day-to-day basis because one of the other aims of IBAB was to produce products for students, and researchers who would be also fit for industry jobs, and also have an internship for the students to go and spend six months there. And that I think, helped us enormously and of course, getting placement after that. Because, even the industry was surprised, and many of them said that they were the best-trained students they had got in bioinformatics. So that was one thing that industry exposure, for me also, was very, very helpful in realizing that one doesn’t have to do only basic research. 

And the second thing, of course, is subjects that have come up in interdisciplinary science. That is, I think, again, very good, that makes life tougher, you can’t be just a botanist, or a zoologist or a physicist, but learning to be more. So being again at IISc, the engineering students looked down upon the life science students. And they just didn’t think that it was quantitative enough for them to be interested. But now we have so many engineering students approach that they would like to do their term project in life sciences.

[14:04] — Shantala Hari Dassl

It’s interesting to see how as your journey progresses, doors opened, both in terms of mindset and in terms of opportunities when you started interacting with the industry and sharing your research with them. Was there a moment in your life that you would call a turning point?

[14:20] — Manju Bansal 

I think if you talk about a turning point in my life, I would say when I decided to change from hardcore physics, because as I said, my master’s was in pure physics, to do biophysics. And so that decision I think, which was very unusual in the way back in 1972, when I got into this because at that time biotechnology, bioinformatics was unknown. At that time, though, I felt a little bad because my father said — Okay, you want to take a career. You may want to be a career person. Do it”. He just put me on the train from Hyderabad to Bangalore with no chaperone, nothing. That again gave me confidence. So apart from the confidence for doing research, which came from my interaction with doyens of science like GNR, it was also I think, the confidence my parents, especially my father, showed in me, by letting me travel all alone, you know, come and be here for an interview at that time when girls were not very, not really encouraged to take up careers. 

And the other one again from a career point of view was, that I did do a small shortish postdoc, as an Alexander von Humboldt fellow in Germany after my Ph.D. I didn’t go for a postdoc immediately though. Having done my Ph.D. with Professor Ramchandran, obviously, I had some offers. But since I had started working with Professor Sasisekharan on unusual or alternative DNA structures, I just decided to stay back and work in India. But then after that, since I didn’t have an immediate faculty position when I had an opportunity to go and do a postdoc at the European Molecular Biology Institute in Heidelberg, Germany. When I went there, I realized that the people with whom I had worked in India, they were no less, if anything, they were more outstanding than the people I was interacting with in Germany, and at a leading European lab, like European Molecular Biology Laboratory, one of the leading labs in the world. So that was another turning point for me.

[segue music]

[16:50] — Shantala Hari Dass

Sometimes it’s often debated as a group that the Indian postdoc community is not thriving as much as it should. Do you have any thoughts on whether this really is the kind of issue that Indian science faces? What can be done? Or do you think that there really isn’t anything to really worry or debate about?

[17:09] — Manju Bansal 

No, I think it is an issue. And I think it’s a chicken and egg problem. Most institutions in India, when looking at recruiting scientists, they tend to give a higher preference to people with postdoc experience abroad. Whereas I feel that one has to see the kind of work which the candidate has done, whether in India or abroad is immaterial.

[17:34] — Shantala Hari Dass

You are a mentor, you’re a professor, you’re the elected fellow of many scientific societies, and also a part of many advisory boards or scientific journals. So how do you manage your time? And what do you do when you’re not doing science?

[17:52] — Manju Bansal 

Actually, I love reading, as I said, that’s apart from, you know, just my research papers, or research-oriented work. Not only in science, I like to read out-of-syllabus kinds of papers, but also literature, and fiction. Again, I think that I inherited or rather developed that thing right from my school days, where I would borrow a book from the library and finish it overnight and the librarian would say you couldn’t have read this book, you’re just taking it and returning it. So I love reading good literature, both fiction, nonfiction, travel. And related to travel, I love seeing new places. Being a researcher in science has also given me an opportunity to travel almost around the world. I’m in so many countries, at least in the northern hemisphere, I think around the world, from Japan to the USA to Europe to wherever and see places, meet people. And I’m happy to say that you know, you, you make friends then from around the world with whom you can stay in touch. Those are the two major interests I have and you will be surprised to know that one other hobby I used to have, which again, I don’t have much time now, was knitting. Even when I joined IISc and I was in the hostel, I made several friends because I was the only person, maybe because I come from North India, Uttrakhand, where all ladies knit or used to knit. So many of these girls would see me doing that and I made unusual friends. Maybe I should mention one of them specifically was Sudha Murthy, who is Infosys foundation chairperson because she wanted to learn knitting and I taught her that. So that was one more hobby that I tried. Now that I’ve kind of superannuated and though I’m continuing with a small group of researchers still, I’m trying to catch up on my reading and maybe some household hobbies.

[20:09] — Shantala Hari Dass

You know you never know where you meet people and where you make connections and through what.

[segue music]

[20:19] — Shantala Hari Dass

Thank you Professor Manju Bansal for joining us today and sharing your truly incredible journey starting from when your father put you alone on the train to Bangalore, to then working with stellar eminent scientists and then training scientists who have now gone to establish their own scientific careers, to driving an institute, it’s been truly fascinating to talk to you. It’s without a doubt that you have a passion for science and it’s been truly inspiring to talk to you about it. I’m sure that our audience will find this conversation very interesting and inspiring and so once again, thank you very much for joining us in this conversation. 

[21:01] — Shantala Hari Dass

Thank you all for listening to IndiaBiospeaks In Conversation with a Mentor’. We look forward to receiving your comments and feedback at indiabiospeaks@​indiabioscience.​org

[21:16] — Outro 

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