IndiaBiospeaks Mind Matters in Academia

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

Lakshmi Ganesan, Karishma Kaushik & Mayuri Rege

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 4 of this conversation, the panellists and moderators discuss barriers to getting help.


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! 

Karishma Kaushik 0:45

I think one thing we are certain of is that we hit the nail on the head when it came to the key issues and the solutions were also spot on. 

I’ll start with Hansika. A big concern that sets in when you become an early career PI is this sense of isolation. Suddenly, there are people who are junior to you working with you. They may not be the people with whom everybody will be comfortable pouring their deepest fears and problems, though some of us are very, very open about it, because I do believe one should train honestly. So how does one overcome issues of isolation? 

The other issue is that of confidentiality. How much do you tell your colleagues? Ultimately, we are all competing for the same positions, we are all competing for the same grants. If you talk to your seniors, how do you know they’re not out to kill your career? How do you know they would keep it to themselves? 

These are practical issues we face and to be honest, the people we end up talking to are our spouses, our parents, or our children. So far, the children are pretty young, and they don’t understand. However, at some point, I think I am going to be banking on him as well. We bring it all home, because there is nobody to talk to at work, not peers, not juniors, not seniors. A young person in Indian science very correctly said that we should not use our spouses as punching bags or as counselors. How do you think we can navigate this better?

Hansika Kapoor 2:21

Thank you, Karishma, for the question. I think I concur with Professor Maitrayee, who said that, I hate the word competition. Collaboration and cooperation is better preferred. Approaching peers or approaching juniors from a mindset that already predicts that they are going to betray you, for instance, is going to preclude any kind of confidence that you may have in their ability to help you as well. You are writing them off even before you have tried. This could be because of hearsay, because you heard X telling Y that they have done this to someone else in the past and things like that. However, I think your own lived experience counts and matters much more. 

I think it is a risk, of course to communicate with someone with whom you are probably competing with in the same field or on the same grant application or whatever it is. But if forces are combined, maybe you will end up writing a joint grant proposal that would be much stronger a bid as compared to two fairly weak ones. 

I think it all comes down to the perceptions that we have about how harmful people can be to us in this community. I think that is ingrained and entrenched in how we approach collaborators, and how we approach our juniors, seniors, and mentors. I’m a social scientist, I don’t believe that everybody’s out to take away my funds, because I have limited funds to begin with. At the same time, I know that cut throat competition is much, much greater in the life sciences, STEM and allied disciplines.

I think this would also help deal with the isolation aspect of your question. If you believe that everybody in your peer circle is after one-upmanship and no one wants to collaborate with you, you are not taking the first step to change that academic culture. I think in that sense, starting from a place of trust and not that of suspicion is my recommendation.

Karishma Kaushik 4:39

We see that in the personal front all the time, right? We walk into a marriage on the basis of trust, not expecting it to fall apart. So why not apply the same metric in a professional setting as well, just to a larger group of people? Correct? Absolutely. 

Hansika Kapoor 5:20

Precisely. The results may surprise you, they may shock you, but they may surprise you as well. If enough of us do it, then I think that the slow changes in the generations of scientists in India can move towards the path of trust instead of that of mis-trust.

Karishma Kaushik 5:40

We can at least start in that direction. Maybe few people will let you down. Maybe there will be others who are surprises along the way and you may develop very good bonds with them. Thank you, Hansika. 

Imroze, how have you dealt with this?

Imroze Khan 5:52

I briefly spoke about this at the beginning about how confidentiality and isolation could be a problem. I mostly agree with what Hansika said. I also want to highlight that lack of trustworthy guidance is a raging issue for many people. I have been lucky to get some of this perhaps throughout my academic career, but I know of many people who couldn’t manage to do that. I really put this at high importance to consider for all of us.

Maitrayee DasGupta 6:41

If you have a strategy, or a good question, you will reach the goal, maybe at the end. But if you don’t have a strategy, and you have all the riches in the world, then that’s all noise, and you will not reach anywhere. 

Sticking to your strong insight, provides you with much needed confidence and nothing else will matter. Everybody is struggling somewhere on some front or the other and so none of us are alone. You just have to be strong inside with the conviction that you have to keep on.

Karishma Kaushik 6:41

Sandhya, you’re part of a larger institute, and you’ve been on big committees, panels and awards. As young researchers, we face this crab syndrome. Why are we not collaborating well enough in India? are we not? are we? Is it because there are too few of us? Is there too little space to accommodate us? How can we collaborate better?

Sandhya Visweswariah 8:30

I think it all boils down to that terrible word competition’. Even amongst younger colleagues, they’re always looking over their shoulder at what the other person has done. One thing that I do want to say, however, is that, a part of growing up, maturing or aging, involves you looking at an individual with a step back from them, and figuring out what it is that’s driving them, or what is it that’s motivating them. 

If you do that, you will end up being able to evaluate your colleagues as to whether they would become good collaborators, whether they would become the people you can share your problems with, or all your successes for that matter. One of the things I find is that even if something works, we hesitate to tell someone else because we’re concerned that they will be jealous and they will get bothered by that. 

We need to strive to inculcate in ourselves the ability to step outside of ourselves and look at both ourselves and the other as two bodies which are now within some sort of collision distance within each other. 

We can then figure out whether there are nooks and crannies that can be adjusted so that you fit together as a whole. I think that ability is something that we will need to strive to inculcate within ourselves. This again comes back to the first point that was raised right at the very beginning of this discussion. How do you do that? Maybe you don’t do that by watching Hindi movies, because the behaviour of those individuals can be quite oblong.

You really do this only by reading and by putting yourself in the shoes of another human being, because he or she would have reacted to a particular incident in a particular way. That may be something you might do or something you may not do. 

When I mean reading, I mean, really, in any language. Literature is so rich across all languages in our country. Try and put yourself in the other person’s shoes. If you are able to do that, empathy will increase and your ability to talk to someone will improve. Your ability to share your worries, and your concerns will also increase. This feeling of everyone and the humankind as a whole wanting to move forward, rather than just one person charging ahead will dawn in you. 

Karishma Kaushik 11:26

Reading also translates to introspection and building ourselves from within. Absolutely.

Mayuri Rege 11:39

That was a great discussion, it’s time to move on to our longer Q & A, we’ve got a bunch of really good questions. So I’m going to start off with the first one.

A PI will often go through a rough phase and the lab will face the brunt of it. Very few PIs, unfortunately, are comfortable sharing with their students that they have stress or that they’re having a bad time right now. How do you think we can encourage PIs to have a conversation with the lab even when they’re not doing so well, so that they can actually support them and not just be in a state of confusion as to what is happening?

Sandhya Visweswariah 12:16

When you start your lab, the age difference between you and your first student is really not that much, and you both belong to the same generation. From my own experience, what I found is that some of my best friends happen to be some of my earliest students. I think in the beginning, assuming that you see maturity in the students working with you, you should feel free to share your difficulties, you should feel free to share your problems. 

As you get older, the generation gap comes in. Then it’s sometimes somewhat difficult to convince the younger person that you actually are on the same page. But in the beginning, as young investigators, you should really look at your students as your friends first. Invariably, you’ll find that some of them do stay with you for the next 30 – 40 years. You can watch their success and be happy, as if they were your own children.

Mayuri Rege 13:19

Help them help you. Yeah. Thank you. 

Imroze Khan 13:24

I absolutely agree with what Sandhya just said. It is so important to have this relationship very transparent to begin with. Ultimately, as the time goes, when the age difference keeps on increasing, maybe that kind of transparency may not be between you and the students, but perhaps you could have this culture already instilled in the lab. It will then stay on, and your senior students will take it forward and eventually it will be a continuum of transparency between the PI and the youngest student.

Mayuri Rege 13:58

Open communication has to be two ways, right? Thank you. That was great. 

The lockdown has thrown a lot of challenges at us. How are people dealing with their labs at this time? How are you managing relations? How do you keep your spirits up?

Hansika Kapoor 14:23

Sure. Wonderful question. It is very pertinent to the last several months that has kept us at home. What I do personally is try and have at least some meetings where everybody is coming in to do something unrelated to work. Work is going on throughout the week and throughout the month, but we have something more like a downtime session or just a recreational session, where all of us just join a Zoom call together and talk about say, the latest Netflix or Amazon Prime movie that we’ve been watching. 

The idea is to really have an unwinding session which we used to do during non-lockdown times, every Friday, over lunch. Now because it’s so few and far between, I think it’s really important to maintain that kind of connection from where you are. We interact with everyone monthly, which is not as often as I want to do it, but given other scheduling constraints, of course, that’s what I’ve been doing to keep the team spirit up.

If there are concerns that individuals in my team have, they can, of course, message me at any point in time, and let me know. If somebody couldn’t finish a task because their neighbor or someone in their family has COVID, it is really important for us to be very, very sensitive, and very, very sensitized at times like these where we cannot impose hard deadlines. 

We need to have soft deadlines during lockdown, because I just don’t think that it will be fair to impose constraints when you’re not entirely sure what context your team members may be living through right now. 

Mayuri Rege 16:21

Thank you.

Karishma Kaushik 16:23

Beautiful! That gave us a lot of perspective. Yes, thank you, Hansika.

Lakshmi Ganesan 16:28

Thank you for listening and we hope you found this useful. We would love to hear your feedback, comments, thoughts and ideas, So please do comment, share and subscribe to IndiaBiospeaks.

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…and see you soon 

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