MH-02 | Mind Matters in Academia — for Faculty | Part 2 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 2 of this conversation, the panellists and moderators talk about new group challenges’.

Transcript with Timestamps

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! 

Mayuri Rege 0:52

With respect to the lab, there is a whole set of challenges that come up when you are trying to set the culture and the tone of your lab. There are a lot of people who struggle with how do I get my students to work? How do I motivate them and not overwhelm them to the point that they are pushed beyond their capabilities? How do I maintain a professional relationship? For example, is it okay for a student or a PI to message somebody at 12-‘o’-clock in the night and expect an answer? How do you discuss that? 

How do you attain work-life balance, and set expectations as to how much time has to be spent in the lab, or what is important to an advisor or a student? Setting expectations could also be with respect to scientific rigour and work ethic. There are so many nuanced topics here. Let’s start off with Sandhya, then we’ll get on to the other panelists, on how to deal with them.

Sandhya Visweswariah 1:54

Having to deal with people in your lab never goes away throughout your career, whether you are an early investigator, or whether you are close to the end of your career. Every student or postdoc in your laboratory is an individual, and he or she will have their moods, their likes and their dislikes. I think that has perhaps become one of the biggest challenges that we have to face in the sense that we’re supposed to relate to each and every one of them as individuals. 

Now, there is a feeling that maybe you can generalize and say, Oh, I’m going to treat everybody the same’. However, that’s really not the case because there is personal chemistry. While in no way should that influence the progress of their science, there are certain students who you don’t mind talking a little bit more to and certain students would like to talk to you. Many of them just run away the minute they see you. So, you know, you have to deal with all of these things without compromising the progress of their own science. 

I know, and I still remember that after I started my own laboratory more than 20 years ago, I used to have sleepless nights, because students in the beginning, tend to fight with each other. The culture in the laboratory was not yet established. There was always this feeling that students want to set up the norms of the laboratory or how the lab should be run. There will be these conflicts, and there will be these tensions. You are acutely aware of them, even if they don’t speak to you about it. You have sleepless nights thinking, was I too harsh on him? did I speak too harshly to her? is he going to show up in the lab tomorrow? is she going to sit in my office and cry?. There are all these emotional angles that come into your running the lab, which in a way actually distracts you from taking on with the science. 

But there is one thing that I’d like to say. By the time you become a principal investigator (PI), you have all worked in laboratories, you have worked in your PhD lab, you have worked in postdoctoral labs. There are certain things in those labs, which you found good, and certain things in those labs, which you felt did not suit you. You were not very happy with it. Maybe your supervisor was too demanding, or your supervisor was too strict, or maybe your supervisor never spoke to you. There could be many, many problems. 

Take stock of what they were, and ask yourself, can I not have those things in my own laboratory? The new students who come to your lab really know nothing except what you show them. If you can consolidate all your ideas and thoughts on what you’ve experienced, you might be able to create an environment which is less stressful on you because it’s comfortable to the way you look at life, and hopefully less stressful on your students. 

But remember one thing, you cannot please everyone, and you’re going to have to be prepared at some point to face some slight conflict with the people that are working with you, but in no way should that affect their science. That is something that we need to do and learn to detach ourselves from those things.

Karishma Kaushik 5:13

Thank you, Sandhya, you spoke about so many points there, and to be honest this is turning out to be a private session for me. I needed it the most. 

I will ask Imroze next about taking on new group challenges. I have personally experienced and heard from colleagues who mentioned that they struggle to shed off the baggage of past experiences albeit good. For example, my PhD PI, met me once a week. It was in the US, and they didn’t have so many administrative and all the different kinds of issues that we deal with in India. So how have you built your group? How did you work on trying to adapt it to your own setting, and not have so much baggage from the past while building a new group?

Imroze Khan 6:02

I think I should highlight this particular point that, in a way, I have been quite lucky to be independent from very early years. Starting from my PhD lab to postdoc, I had the option to be completely independent. 

In a way, I had the opportunity to pick up management skills, skills on how to talk to people or how to manage your lab members. I had my own way of gathering these experiences, which has possibly helped me a lot when I started my own group. I cannot tell about others who had a different experience when they were mostly protected or mostly following somebody else’s rules and regulations. I had a very independent way of bringing my work through, even when I was in NCBS or in IISER.

Karishma Kaushik 7:00

Alright. Okay, so maybe it’s an individual thing. We have to outgrow it, or shed that skin?

Mayuri Rege 7:07

Lets pick the rounds from the other panelists.

Maitrayee DasGupta 7:17

I saw the zenith and the nadir, I mean, everything. I think that this contrast in my experiences made me very focused, that this is how a lab should be. You should be very excited with your goals. That excitement should be transferred and that is it. If your student is excited with the problem, they can take it further. Most of the time, I tell them one thing, they come back with ten more by the next morning. They chat with me at midnight, because they’re excited about the idea. I don’t even think to the extent that they do. All you have to do is ignite their brains. Once these young people are excited, they can really change the world. They are so excited. I think that is a key to running the lab and you are happy, and they are happy. 

Mayuri Rege 8:19

Find the fire. Yeah!

Maitrayee DasGupta 8:20

It is not that I don’t scold them, many times I do, but the next moment I’m friends with them. It’s just part of running a lab. No problems there.

Mayuri Rege 8:36

I think the common thread that is coming from everybody is you set the tone and you set the enthusiasm. Hopefully, that transfers to your students. Hansika, do you have just a few things to add?

Hansika Kapoor 8:54

Sure. All that I was going to add is to know right from the start what kind of equation you would like to share with your teammates, or group. If you want it to be hierarchical, I think that expectation should be clearly communicated to your lab mates. If you want it to be a flat structure, then that needs to be communicated so that everybody is on the same page.

Time boundaries should be set so that our work and home do not bleed into each other. I think it’s very important to vocalise all of these things and not just assume them. I have done my postdoc in the US as well and my mentor was so very respectful of the fact that I have a personal life. It’s important to maintain that the distance between work and just unwinding or recreation.

Imroze Khan 10:03

Karishma, I see the fourth point of setting expectation, which is to my understanding something we also should focus a lot on. This is what I think also becomes a separate problem for a new PI, because expectations can change when you move to a different phase of your career, from a new PI to say, a mid-career PI. 

It is very important to have a clear conversation with the students to talk and understand expectations from both sides. This is what I really have found to be extremely beneficial. In a way this avoids a lot of further confusion among students. Expectations can also lead to conflict if not handled well.

Karishma Kaushik 10:50

Yes, absolutely Imroze and in the beginning, when you start a group with one member, your expectations are only with that one person. Then when the group expands, you have to set new expectations with everybody and personalize it / individualize it based on their personalities, and how they operate. It’s not a one size fits all, you can’t run a group like that. So clearly, I think this is very important.

Mayuri Rege 11:12

I think we had some really great points. So this is the time where we take a short Q & A break.

We’re going to pick up some questions that have been asked. 

The first one is, do you believe that the popular perception of the ideal researcher, (superman or woman) plays a role in exacerbating the mental health challenges? Are you just setting yourself up for failure by having this?

Hansika Kapoor 11:55

Excellent question. I like the gender neutral tone of that question as well, because it’s an ideal researcher, it’s not the ideal male scientist and things like that. I think yes, of course, the ideal anything, the ideal insert, whichever profession you would like to insert, would set up unrealistic expectations for you. I don’t think that’s a very healthy way to ignite your own curiosity in the scientific realm, as well as to maintain and sustain that curiosity over a period of time

It is not just enough that we have entered science. We have to learn how to stay and grow and develop in the scientific discipline that we have chosen to enter. I do think that whatever the conception of an ideal researcher is, it is also really important to surround yourself with mentors who you look up to, and would be probably a little more relatable. So look at mentors that you work with, look at mentors that perhaps your PI has earlier on worked with. This again, does not mean lower your expectations entirely nor does it mean that you should only aim low.

However, if you say that I am going to do this fantastic study and get these millions of dollars in grants, and win the MacArthur Genius Award and things like that, it’s going to put a lot on your plate, and that in turn is going to put a lot of pressure on you. You’re going to be responsible for that pressure and for allowing the whistle to blow and release that pressure. 

I think ideal anything is not a sustainable way to try and develop and grow in a profession, regardless of what profession it may be. I would set a more realistic one. You could look at mentors that you have worked with in the past or that you look up to or who are reachable in a sense and try and emulate or take good qualities that you can imbibe from them.

Karishma Kaushik 14:10

Thank you, Hansika. 

To what extent do we need a formal mentorship Like a be the match’ in Indian science for early career investigators who come in? What do you think are the pros and cons of this? The cons as I see it, you will get tagged as so and so’s and it becomes like gangs and coteries and cabals. What are your thoughts on this?

Sandhya Visweswariah 14:39

So very quickly, I think when we set up the Center for Biosystems Science and Engineering (BSSE), we realized that mentorship was something that was sorely lacking, especially amongst young investigators when they joined the center. So what we did was we set up what was called a mentorship committee for each of our new faculty that we recruited in that particular center. 

Now, who are the mentors? They were not picked by me or the chair of the department. They were selected by the young person after he or she was in the institute for perhaps six months to eight months. Once they got to get to know people around them, we asked them, who would you like to be on your mentorship committee. 

Mentors could be people from their own home institution, we had people coming from NCBS or JNC, or wherever. Now of course, with Zoom, you can have them from anywhere you like, around the country or the world for that matter. So I think this is a culture that must be somehow inculcated and fostered in many of our institutions. 

The issue is that if mentors are selected by the chair of the department, for example, there will still be a feeling of intimidation for the younger faculty member that you must have that young person on board with you. When you select mentors, invariably, I found that having a female mentor is sometimes quite nice. This is not just for female faculty, but also for even young male faculty. Now, in biological sciences, it’s not difficult to find female researchers who can mentor you. Perhaps in the engineering sciences, it’s more difficult but not in biological sciences. 

I urge all my younger colleagues to look for people who they think they would like to talk to, and who they would like to run their ideas by. For example, if you’re thinking of submitting a manuscript, send it to this mentor, to get his or her feedback. You’ll see the work in a completely different perspective, possibly, because the mentor may have nothing to do with the kind of science that you’re writing about. However, he or she will be able to understand the crux of what you’re trying to say. 

As far as I’m concerned, I think mentorship is a culture. The problem in India is all this Guru shishya culture, where whatever the guru tells you to do, you have to do it and it is not a dialogue. I think that’s the difference between mentorship and having a guru. With a mentor, you are free to argue and question whatever advice the mentor gives you. I think we must try to inculcate this in our community. 

I can’t say it’s succeeded in many departments in the institute either. Somehow in the center, which is a new center, we’ve been able to consistently do it and our younger colleagues also welcome this mentorship committee. However, I have not been able to do it successfully in my parent department. There is history and there is baggage that comes with the past. I do however urge our younger colleagues to even unofficially identify someone who you’d like to talk to, and discuss your science with.

Lakshmi Ganesan 17:54

So listeners, now that was part two of the conversation. We hope you enjoyed listening to it. In part three of this discussion, we will talk about challenges around research funding, and the organizational culture. Do stay tuned. 

Please also check out 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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