MH-02 | Mind Matters in Academia — for Faculty | Part 1 of 4

Mind Matters in Academia

This discussion addressed issues around mental health, particular those that are relevant to early and mid-career faculty. Featuring Sandhya Visweswariah, Maitrayee DasGupta, Imroze Khan and Hansika Kapoor, this discussion was moderated by Karishma Kaushik and Mayuri Rege. In part 1 of this conversation, the panellists and moderators talk about new PI challenges’.

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01

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

Dear Listeners, in this special episode addressing mental health in academia, IndiaBiospeaks revisits excerpts from a discussion that happened on Oct 9, 2020. 

This discussion addressed issues around mental health, particularly those that are relevant to early and mid-career faculty.

Featuring Sandhya Visweswariah, Maitrayee DasGupta, Hansika Kapoor and Imroze Khan as panelists, this discussion was moderated by Karishma Kaushik and Mayuri Rege. Enjoy listening! 

Karishma Kaushik 0:51

Thank you so much Lakshmi. Thank you, IndiaBioscience, and to all our panelists and also Mayuri for taking this on with me. I am very excited to be here. Just by the audience poll that you pulled up Lakshmi, we see that almost somewhere around 70% of the attendees are the intended audience for today’s webinar on mental health. This includes early and mid career faculty, PhDs and postdocs transitioning to become faculty. 

I am Karishma. I am an early career faculty and a Ramalingaswami Fellow at the University of Pune. I started my research group in 2018. I am right in the thick of being an early career faculty myself, and I look forward to this discussion.

Mayuri Rege 1:32

Hello, everyone. I am Mayuri, a DST-INSPIRE faculty at Ruia College and I am still figuring out being an early career faculty myself. I apply bioengineering tools to study how genes are controlled. This series is Karishma’s brainchild and I’m very happy to be a part of this discussion because I’m learning a lot about mental health issues pertinent to academia, which people seldom talk about. We as young PIs have never been trained in these aspects. We have only been taught how to do good science. I therefore bring the perspective of an uninitiated PI as I think. With that, let me start by introducing today’s panelists. 

First, we have Professor Sandhya Visweswariah. Sandhya is a professor at IISc, where she studies the mechanism of signal transduction via cyclic nucleotides in bacteria and in the mammalian gut. She’s also the co-chair of the Center for Biosystems Science and Engineering. She is one of the handful of Margadarshi fellows of the Wellcome Trust / DBT India Alliance. A champion of women and young scientists, Sandhya has served as a students’ counselor and was the first chair of the internal committee against sexual harassment at IISc. She also mentors a number of intermediate fellows. We are very happy to have you here today.

Sandhya Visweswariah 3:00

Thank you very much.

Karishma Kaushik 3:01

Thank you, Mayuri. Thank you, Sandhya. Welcome. 

Our next panelist is Professor Maitrayee DasGupta. She is a Professor in the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Calcutta and her research interests are in symbiotic nitrogen fixation and plant receptor kinases. She has established a vibrant research program, training more than 17 PhD students and postdocs. She has been recognized by multiple agencies, and is a fellow of all three National Academies of Sciences in India. Welcome, Professor Maitrayee. We are in wonderful company as you can see.

Maitrayee DasGupta 3:32

Thank you very much.

Mayuri Rege 3:34

I’d like to introduce Imroze. Imroze earned his Ph.D. from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata and completed his postdoctoral training from National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. He is a SERB Early Career Fellow and a DBT/​Wellcome Trust India Alliance Intermediate Fellow at Ashoka University. He is an evolutionary biologist who is broadly interested in understanding how organisms adaptively evolve against/​with infection and disease. In spite of being an early career investigator, Imroze has already gained a reputation for being a very supportive and accommodating mentor to his PhD students and postdocs, and we welcome Imroze to this panel.

Karishma Kaushik 4:18

Our fourth panelist is Hansika. Hansika is a research author at the Department of Psychology, Monk Prayogshala, Mumbai. She holds a PhD from IIT, Bombay in the area of creativity, specifically negative creativity (aka how people get good ideas to do bad things). She is the recipient of the Fulbright-Nehru Post-Doctoral Research Fellowship (2019−2020), and is an affiliate at the University of Connecticut. She is a published author, practising psychologist, and her research interests lie in individual differences, creativity, and behavioural economics. Welcome Hansika.

Hansika Kapoor 5:01

Thank you, happy to be here.

Mayuri Rege 5:09

We will get started with the webinar. We have divided it into two parts. First is academia and mental health. The second part is on how one could manage their mental health.

Karishma Kaushik 5:26

Let us start with the challenges around being a new PI. My first set of questions is going to be for Imroze, since you’ve just recently walked this path. We move from a stage where we want this opportunity badly, we have worked towards it almost our whole scientific career, to get to where we are.

We are then faced with this overwhelming feeling of this is all me now. Whether we succeed, whether we fail, whether we publish, perish, get grants, or get appraisal, it’s all on us. Imroze, how did you personally navigate this transition from being overwhelmed with the responsibility to actually start enjoying it? What was the journey of your mental health during this time?

Imroze Khan 6:26

Thanks, Karishma. I think this is a very relevant question. I also think this is the story of many people. There is little point in denying the fact that there is a lot of pressure. Until you were a postdoc, you were still working with a group, and you did not have to take care of any of the logistics, you could just do your work and publish. That was a whole different world altogether. 

Suddenly, when you begin your PI-ship, everything changes. From living under some sort of security with somebody else taking care of your logistics, now you have to take care of everything. Suddenly you find that there are a bunch of people who are associated with you. 

For example, in my case, I started as a new PI in a new university. When students joined my lab, it was an added sense of responsibility, which was now not just about myself. I felt I had to do some justice to the faith that the students have placed in me. 

There is also the pressure to publish good papers. At some point in time, maybe one or two years ago when I was trying to get funding for my lab, there were times when I used to feel that it was too overwhelming. 

I realised the importance of creating mechanisms of resilience and I did so by building a good peer circle, finding good collaborators, good friends, and also finding an alternative way to relax. 

I realised that this (research) cannot be the only thing. Of course, while it is important to find these alternative mechanisms, I also think that the mechanisms will differ from people to people. I try to take out time quite dramatically when I think I need to do so, but without compromising my responsibilities.

Karishma Kaushik 8:44

Absolutely. Thank you, Imroze. I think the solutions will vary, but you very nicely articulated the challenges. Suddenly, you feel you have to live up to different kinds of responsibilities that people have reposed in you. Their salaries depend on grants that you will bring in and of course, negotiating administrative and logistical issues that we were never exposed to in the first place. You find that taking time away from all of this, and just thinking about it from a distance has helped you better navigate your early years?

Imroze Khan 9:16

Yes, I think so. Having said that, we have to devise these resilience mechanisms on our own because this is going to be different from individual to individual. For example, somebody might like music, some may like traveling, some may just chat with good friends, sometimes having a good conversation helps. 

I think the present scenario sometimes just drives you to do one kind of work, and makes you stuck to your office and in front of a laptop writing grants and papers. But it is so important to know that sometimes, you need to stop somewhere and just do something else which you like to do. This is how I am trying to survive. It’s not easy at all. Finding the balance is not easy, but I think there is a compelling pressure, which I tend to listen to on and off, whenever I can.

Karishma Kaushik 10:06

Absolutely, I agree. For me, sometimes reaching out on social media to young colleagues across India, and hearing them narrate similar problems makes me feel I’m not alone. Often in the day I forget that it’s just not only me navigating this.

Mayuri Rege 10:23

Let’s maybe hear from Sandhya and Maitrayee on the new PI challenges…

Sandhya Visweswariah 10:31

It’s been a long, long time since I was a new PI. However, I can still feel the angst of many of my much younger colleagues in institute’s like mine and elsewhere. One of the most important things, perhaps for a young PI to think about, at times when they feel a little stressed is, would I be wanting to do anything else?’

The reason for us to be in this profession, presumably, is because we love science and the doing of science. Someone who feels that it’s full of problems and full of difficulties, maybe needs to sit back and think, is there anything else that I would be good at? Is there anything else that I would like to do in life?’ If the answer is no, then you’re just going to have to grin and bear it.

I do completely agree with what Imroze said. The problem with many of us is that our focus is so only on our work. This way, we lose track of what’s happening in the world around us. We must have parallel interests, and we must have parallel hobbies. 

The best way actually is to have a group of friends completely out of the profession, because they will bring you back to reality. Many times when you are worrying about some chemical not having been reached, they will talk to you about how they didn’t have water in their house for five days. That will help put you into some kind of perspective. 

I think in all of these issues, young people need to find interests outside of their laboratory. While it’s very nice to talk to your peers, and it’s extremely nice to talk to people of similar age, and perhaps at the same level of seniority, try and find yourself a good senior mentor. This is because that person would have been through this maybe 20 years ago, 15 years ago, 10 years ago, and they would have come out on the other side, reasonably successfully. 

Mentorship is something that I think young people must look forward to. Unfortunately, in this country, it’s not considered something that young people want, because they feel they’re being talked down to. However, if that’s the feeling, the problem lies with the mentor, so find another mentor. There will be people around you who will understand your difficulties and help you put things in perspective.

Maitrayee DasGupta 13:04

I think the way that I am different from the other people who are sitting here is that I belong to a State University, and had started the lab with peanuts. It is hard to describe what I started with as you will not be able to relate to it. But having said that, there is a saying that poverty brings togetherness’. Right from the beginning, till the very end, my students have been with me, through thick and thin and that is the culture in the lab. 

We are practicing science and it is a brain exercise. How can a taxed brain be a creative and a thoughtful brain? You may not have a reagent, but you have to have your brain absolutely active. You should be talking with joy about science. 

That is what I always maintain. Right from the beginning, I have been friends with my students all through. I talk to them and I make them think. Thinking is science, not just doing experiments. Some are not good at doing experiments, but they can think very well. Some are good at doing experiments, but they can’t think that way. 

When you talk about mental problems, it is the problem of the supervisors. We as mentors have to be able to manage the whole ecosystem in the lab in such a way that everybody feels that they are important. Everybody should feel accommodated and it has to start right from day one. 

Even if you are a young PI, you have to spend time with your students and that is an exercise in itself. If someone is having a problem at home, you cannot expect that kid to deliver in the lab, it is impossible. You have to talk it out, and make friends with them and that way, it delivers. They may work incessantly for seven days and then they don’t come for seven days, how does it matter in science? 

You have to be productive. This is the way I handled it right from the beginning, because I suffered in the past. When I was a PI, I already knew, this is how I’m going to be. 

Also, in a State University, you are anonymous. You are not under peer pressure unlike those who are from big cities who are under peer pressure right from the beginning. I was not, and so I could think, I could be slow and I could be steady. It is important, wherever you are, if you have the opportunity to be slow and steady, as it ultimately yields.

Karishma Kaushik 16:17

Thank you, Maitrayee. 

I will take off from what you said about creativity and being in the right mind space. It is a great opportunity to get Hansika in. Hansika, you worked on creativity, albeit how good people do bad things or use good ideas to get to bad things. In our context, when you’re dealing with everyday administrative logistic issues, research related issues or science related issues, how do you proactively get into the right space to make sure we keep thinking of the science and that we are creative enough to think of good ideas to take this project forward? Hansika, can you weigh in? 

Hansika Kapoor 16:59

Sure. Thank you to all my co-panelists for bringing up wonderful points, I think they are absolutely relevant. I think, pertinent to the question that you asked, prioritisation and time management is a skill that I’m still grappling with, as is every other PI or senior faculty or early career faculty. 

I think prioritisation or figuring out what needs to be done when, or making sure that you’re not spending too much time on frivolous activities that may not really lead to fruition and things like that. 

I actually want to point out, the bullet point two on the slide, other the metrics of success’ are so very important to consider because at the end of the day, your worth as a human being does not get reduced to your H‑index.

I think it’s really, really important to remember that getting into academia or science is willingly entering a very masochistic profession and saying, I’m going to fail, nine times out of ten and I’m still going to persist and be resilient.’

It’s part and parcel of our discipline, and of our profession rather. You may fret and fume over all these aspects. However, in order to focus on science, we need to make sure that there’s enough self care and that you’re taking care of yourself in some way — by meditating, creating art, going on bike rides, if that’s safe and permitted, wherever you are. Making sure that you have that headspace to deal with issues and concerns that you probably take from work to home. Right now, because that line is blurred, it’s all coming together. I would say prioritisation and time management is the key.

Karishma Kaushik 19:01

Totally. Thank you.

Lakshmi Ganesan 19:03

So listeners, that was part 1 of the conversation. Hope you enjoyed listening to it. 

In part 2 of this discussion we will talk about academia and mental health, particularly the challenges around setting up a new group or a new lab. 

Please also checkout several curated resources on mental health on the IndiaBioscience website. You will find a link to these on the description section of this podcast.

Stay safe, stay informed, and stay healthy…see you soon 

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