Radio PDF | Laasya Samhita

Radio PDF Episode 05 | S1

Should Indian institutes have an equivalent of a recruitment cell for PhDs and Postdocs as well? Why should we have more awareness about career paths other than academia? How is the Indian scenario for science writers as a profession?

Laasya Samhita, a former postdoctoral researcher from the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, has addressed these questions in our latest podcast of #RadioPDF.

If you are a postdoc in India and would like to be a part of this podcast series, drop us a note at indiabiospeaks@​indiabioscience.​org!

Stay tuned for more updates from Radio PDF!

[Laasya Samhita has recently joined as a faculty at Ashoka University, Sonipat. This podcast was recorded before she joined this position]

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.

[00:00:00] — Intro

You are listening to IndiaBiospeaks, voices from the life science community in India.

[00:00:08] — Suchibrata Borah

Hello everyone. I’m Suchibrata, and you are listening to IndiaBiospeaks Radio PDF. At Radio PDF, We talk to postdoctoral researchers working in India about their research and the benefits and challenges of working in India, and what they think needs improvement.

The guest of today’s conversation is Laasya Samhita. A DBT Wellcome Trust Early Career Fellow at the National Center for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, she has recently joined as an assistant professor at Ashoka University, Sonipat. I want to add a note here for the listeners that this podcast was recorded before her joining as a faculty. Hello Laasya. Welcome to Radio PDF.

[00:01:05] — Laasya Samhita

Thank you very much.

[00:01:07] — Suchibrata Borah

Please tell us, in short, what you have studied so far and what is your research interest now.

[00:01:14] — Laasya Samhita

I did my bachelor’s in microbiology, chemistry, and zoology from Mount Carmel College in Bangalore. After this, I joined IISc for an integrated Ph.D., that means an integrated masters and Ph.D. after a bachelor’s. There, I worked in a molecular biology lab. After my Ph.D., for a year, I decided to try something different, so I worked freelance as a science writer and journalist. Again, post a year, I joined NCBS and wrote this grant for the Wellcome Trust DBT Early Career Fellowship, which I then got, so I worked as an early career fellow at NCBS in Dr. Deepa Agashe’s lab for the last five, six years now. So that was an evolutionary biology lab. So my interests currently are a combination of molecular biology and evolution.

[00:02:01] — Suchibrata Borah

So Laasya, tell us a little bit about your research, what you do at NCBS and, what model system you use, what you plan for your future research. 

[00:02:10] — Laasya Samhita

My current research has to do with how making mistakes or errors in biological systems can still contribute to phenotype and to adaptation. I work with bacteria, specifically with Escherichia coli, which is a very popular model system in biology and using the process of protein synthesis in this bacterium, so protein synthesis is a very central biological process in all living cells because we all need proteins, they’re sort of the workhorses of the cell. Using protein synthesis, I investigate how making mistakes in this process can be potentially useful to the cell. So, at a broader level, you could say I’m trying to investigate details of information flow in biological systems. I’m trying to see how protein change can impact DNA change. I’m also trying to see how noise in systems, errors I’m counting as noise, can impact how the system shapes up, evolves, and moves over time. This is sort of very broadly what I’m trying to do, and my work has also led me to antibiotic resistance. In the future, I hope to investigate certain kinds of antibiotic resistance in more detail.

[00:03:19] — Suchibrata Borah

So you have worked for five, six years as a postdoc in an Indian institute. So you are very much aware of how competitive the recruitment process is when you go for a job in academia after doing a postdoc. How do you think the institutes could help to make this process easier or less daunting? Does any institute have a recruitment cell for PhDs and postdocs? If not, do you think an equivalent of a recruitment cell for PhDs or postdocs similar to a campus placement cell for bachelor’s or master’s students could help?

[00:03:54] — Laasya Samhita

To the best of my knowledge, I don’t think there is any institution that has the equivalent of a recruitment cell, for example, which exists in many universities and colleges for other disciplines, right? So, for example, for engineering, even for biotechnology students, post-bachelors or management students, and so on. But yes, I think the equivalent of a recruitment cell would be very useful. This is something new that has to be initiated for which some level of funding may have to be set apart, some level of manpower certainly has to be set apart, and I think part of the lack of information that people in science, people in academics have about alternate job opportunities can be tackled by increasing exposure. So even before you get to the point of a recruitment cell, just making sure that there is more interaction with people employed in, say, industry, in writing, in various kinds of freelance jobs, data analysis, you know, and so on. So if you just invite people for talks, make sure that your students and postdocs get to listen to these, get a sense for what it means to be employable after a postdoc if you don’t land up in academics and so on, I think that itself would be a big step forward. And places are doing this now, starting to do this more and more. I mean, I think it’s important for people to realize fairly early on to be made aware of the fact that less than 10% of students who get a Ph.D. are going to end up in academics. That’s the reality worldwide, simply because there aren’t enough jobs. So it is supremely competitive, but while, of course, one should be optimistic, one should also be prepared for what it means to be applying for jobs outside of academia.

[00:05:31] — Suchibrata Borah

You raised a very important point that we should put more focus on alternate careers, as maybe only 10% of students who study science end up getting a job in academia. Could you please tell us more about the other opportunities or career paths one can pursue after a Ph.D. or a postdoc?

[00:05:53] — Laasya Samhita

I have just finished my postdoctoral, well, career if you like. So I’m not an expert in this. I can only speak based on what I have heard from other people or read. So some of the obvious opportunities outside of academia line, the industry related to biology, right? Biotechnology, vaccine, and drug generation. Similar research into these things, R and D in these things. But there are also very many startups these days. Again, funding for the startups, you have to be able to write for your own grant. Think of an idea that can potentially have a commercial application, get funding for it, get together some level of manpower, attach yourself to an institute where expensive equipment can be accessed, and so on. So that’s another thing you can do. You can certainly do writing and editing if you’re good at it. This could involve freelance jobs, or it could involve jobs with academic journals. And if that is what you intend to do, it’s a good idea to start building towards it, many years previously, I would say, during your Ph.D. itself. Start a blog, science blog, you know, write, talk to people, do smaller interviews, gather some level of experience as a journalist and a writer. So that’s another thing you can do. In general, from speaking with people who hire biologists in, let’s say, sectors like pharma, pharmaceutical companies, my impression is that there are several skills that postdoctoral fellows do have, which are useful in these sectors, but because of lack of information on both sides, neither side knows that they can get. So, for example, statistical analysis, analysis of large data, which we do, many of us do routinely, knowledge of some degree of programming, right? So these are all skills that we acquire on the way, but you may not put it specifically on your resume, typically you don’t. Because your resume academically is judged completely by the papers you have, right? And people read the paper, and they know you’ve applied X, Y, Z technique or used whatever X, Y, Z instrument and so on. So you don’t explicitly state this, but for jobs outside of academia, it may be important that you highlight the specific skills you have because that’s what they want. Again, I think having more conversations and opening up, making academics less of a black box, if you like, will only help this.

[00:08:00] — Suchibrata Borah

Laasya, you mentioned that you were freelancing as a science writer for almost a year in between. So how is the Indian scenario for science writers as a profession these days?

[00:08:14] — Laasya Samhita

When I worked freelance, to be honest, I earned entirely by writing or very largely by writing for popular science journals in the UK and the US because if you’re only going to write for journals in India, you’re really not going to earn enough. So you can’t sustain yourself on that at all. I did write for the newspaper here as well, but it’s, you know, you can do that as a hobby. You can’t do it as a full-time earning job. So like, if you write for the newspaper, you write for Deccan Herald, you’ll probably get a thousand rupees for an article. You write for some other places, even if you write four or five articles like that, and let’s say you live in Bangalore, that’s going to maybe a little cover your rent and maybe like a little bit into your provisions. If you have a family, it’s impossible, right? Whereas if you write for, say, the New Scientist or The Scientist, these are places I wrote for, then you get paid in their currency. So the conversion works well for you. So you earn 15 to 20,000 an article, and then you can do multiple articles in a month. And that’s much more sustainable in terms of finances. We still need to build a better and stronger culture of popular science and science journalism in India. It’s catching on. There are initiatives much better than it was, say, ten years ago, but it needs to get much stronger. It needs more funding, really. I mean, you can’t afford to pay people like this unless you have some funds to dip into, right, even the journal.

[00:09:33] — Suchibrata Borah

As we are talking about writing, you have written an article on the scientific workforce in India. I would like to know the behind-the-scenes story of this article. From where did the idea of this article come from, and is this something you came across in your life or something that you have experienced in your surrounding?

[00:09:56] — Laasya Samhita

So the survey itself is anonymous, but outside of the survey, I did speak with people individually to ask because, if you remember, the article was about problems faced by students and postdocs in academia and how to go about improving their experience, so everybody’s experience if they could. So yeah, of course, I can’t speak about individual experiences. There’s a whole range, but it is true that it was depressing to hear how many people had genuinely bad experiences. As the article also says, for Ph.D. students, interpersonal relationships with their PI were the largest point of contention, but also other things, a sense of inadequacy, you know what we call imposter syndrome, I think that everybody who enters science goes through the feeling that everybody else is smarter than you, better than you. All of us, I certainly went through it, but for some people, it sort of bogs you down, and you’re never able to get out of it, which is really unfortunate. And then you don’t have a support system that’ll help you get out of it. In academics, you are inure your to criticism. You know, you’re used to, your work is criticized, your every experiment that doesn’t work is critiqued. Your presentations are critiqued, your writing is critiqued. And when you first step in after a bachelor’s or even after a master’s, and you’re not used to this, it can be very tough. You have to develop mental toughness as you go along. There’s very little place and a lot of criticism. And it can either make you better, or it can get you down. I do think we need to make a conscious effort to let people know when doing a good job, let them know that failure is a part of academics. You know, most things are not going to work. So it does, over time, toughen you. You learn to deal with failure, which I think is very important no matter what job you take.

[00:11:33] — Suchibrata Borah

So, Laasya, we all have our own challenges. It’s not easy to bring out the best in us and put it in front of the world to see. I’m sure you, too, have had many different hurdles in different stages of your life. Could you please share some gist of it?

[00:11:52] — Laasya Samhita

One thing I found very tough was writing, writing skills. You can think that you’re very good at writing if you’ve written, you know, fiction before and non-academic writing of any kind. But it’s very difficult to learn how to write academically, and it’s going to matter very much to your papers. That is a hurdle, and it’s a skill worth building early on.

[00:12:13] — Suchibrata Borah

It’s a very obvious move when one starts a postdoc after completing a Ph.D., there are many students out there who are planning to do postdocs after finishing their Ph.D. So any piece of advice you would like to share with them?

[00:12:28] — Laasya Samhita

So I think my advice would all be once you start the things that you can do, once you start, that will, well, that will make you better, in my opinion, make you better at your work and possibly make it better as far as your job process go. I would say irrespective of whether you start on your own grant or you join a lab which already has a project open, irrespective of this, write a grant. I think I found it a very useful exercise skill as a researcher to help me collate my thoughts, to help me organize timelines, all of which are very important things once you start your work. Particularly, given we do such exploratory and open-ended work and there’s really no one, no one can tell you beforehand that this is, this is how it’s going to proceed, and these are your goalposts. Goalpost keeps shifting, right? So I think it’s very important that you write a grant. It really helps moving forward. Another thing that helps your intellectual development, I think, as a postdoc Is to start reviewing papers. Now, this is not very common in India, it’s much more common abroad, but I would talk to your mentor and persuade them to help you co-review. Start by co-reviewing papers, and then maybe you can move on to reviewing on your own, again, really helps. Another thing that I found very useful, and again, something that gives you a lot of independence and confidence, is to write an article on your own. This would typically be a review, let’s say, a mini-review. Some thought that you want to explore that you are interested in, or maybe just a state of the field, whatever your field of research is, again, or something that you’ve been interested in enough to fall, or if you can’t do it entirely and you don’t do it with your mentor, but at least try and take full charge of this as much charge of it as possible, right. And again, that’s, that’s very liberating and gives you a sense of confidence. I guess finally, I would say get a life. It’s, it’s very easy to get swallowed up and let your work through your life. This is maybe more as a Ph.D. student than a postdoc but both ways. For some people, particularly when your group of friends are all inside academics, you know, they’re all within your lab or from neighboring labs, I would say get out of that. Talk to people outside. Make yourself aware of how the rest of the world functions. Don’t get stressed out by your work, the things not working, experiments failing, and so on. Make a conscious effort not to let that happen. You know, get a hobby. Talk to family, talk to friends outside of academics, and it’s not only healthier for you, but it, in fact, also helps positively impact your work. I think we should remember that academics is a creative endeavor in addition to being an intellectual one, and you can’t do any creative work if you’re bogged down constantly. You know, or if you’re overworking to the extent that you can’t think clearly. So take a break. Enjoy yourself and enjoy the work.

[00:15:02] — Suchibrata Borah

Thank you so much, Laasya, for joining us at Radio PDF. Your insights on having an equivalent recruitment cell for PhDs and postdocs are definitely worth a longer discussion, and I hope something of that sort will soon be adopted by our Indian Institutes. Also, I really liked how you put an emphasis on keeping the balance between work and personal life, which is indeed very, very useful advice.

This is the end of today’s podcast. You heard Laasya Samhita, a DBT Early Career Fellow at NCBS Bangalore. It’s time to wind up this season of Radio PDF now. We will come back soon with more discussions with postdocs from all corners of India. But until the next season, stay tuned to IndiaBiospeaks. Thank you for listening.

[00:16:04] — Outro

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