This is a platform for YIM alumni to share stories about their journey as a young Indian researcher.

Journey of a YI

  • Plant science and perseverance: My story of overcoming challenges

    Charukesi Rajulu is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Biotechnology & Bioinformatics at the JSS Academy of Higher Education & Research (JSS AHER), Mysuru. In this fourth article of the Journey Of Young Investigator (JOYI) 2024 series, she shares her journey, from an orthodox background to defying societal norms to make space for herself in plant science in Indian academia.

    Charukesi R JOYI
    Journey Of Young Investigator (JOYI) 2024: Charukesi Rajulu. Compiled by Ankita Rathore

    Hailing from an orthodox background where paternal opposition to higher education and early marriage were prevalent, I defied societal norms, driven by a burning desire to explore. Despite modest grades in 12th-grade biology, my fascination with the subject only grew. When my plan A of pursuing medicine was not successful, I turned to plan B and decided to pursue biotechnology, inspired by articles in the science and technology section of The Hindu newspaper. During my undergraduate studies, my love for research grew, and graduating first in my class opened up excellent opportunities for me to pursue a master’s degree in biotechnology.

    On receiving multiple admission offers for my master’s degree, my father, who had initially opposed my pursuit of biotechnology, expressed his approval, which was a proud moment for me. But this joy was short-lived as I unexpectedly lost my father to a heart attack just a month after starting my master’s degree at Bharathidasan University, Tamil Nadu. 

    This marked a turning point in my life, as I suddenly had the responsibility to support my family.

    Despite my paternal family’s pressures to finish my education quickly and plan for marriage, my desire to study and pursue research remained strong. With unwavering support from my mother and sister, I continued to pursue my ambitions of becoming a researcher.

    Taking baby steps

    Inspired by an internship mentor’s advice to observe nature closely, I developed a keen interest in it. After completing my master’s degree, I was uncertain whether to pursue research in academia or industry. While contemplating my options, two close friends prepared my applications for the Biotech Industrial Training Program (BITP) organised by Biotech Consortium India Limited (BCIL), sponsored by DBT. Although I was not personally interested in the program, my friends convinced me, and all I did was sign my application form. Unfortunately, I was the only one accepted into the program, while both of my friends were not. Despite my sadness over their disappointment, they expressed genuine happiness for my success. It was in this moment I realised the blessing of having true friends. 

    With my PhD students at Plant Tissue culture facility at School of Life Sciences, JSS AHER, Mysuru. Photo credit: Vinod Kumar
    With my PhD students at the plant tissue culture facility at the School of Life Sciences, JSS AHER, Mysuru. Photo credit: Vinod Kumar

    Attending the BITP program at Sugen Life Sciences in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, was a game changer. I met exceptional mentors, especially Prabhu Daivasigamani, whose teachings on animal model experiments inspired me towards research. Despite being the last in my batch to learn animal handling, I eventually acquired the skills needed, including handling rats/​mice, and performing post-experimental animal sacrifices using techniques such as cervical dislocation. 

    While the experiments were successful, I had nightmares about rats and mice, leading me to realise that conducting research based on animal studies is not my strong suit.

    Moving to a foreign land

    I started reading different articles to identify my core research interests and applied for PhD programs at few Indian research institutions. With inputs from my seniors and classmates, I also considered exploring opportunities for doctoral studies abroad. Networking and guidance from seniors helped me during this process. 

    With no female in the family as precedent for studying or working abroad, opting for a PhD program overseas marked a major milestone in my life.” 

    But my maternal uncle, a mridangam artist, has been a significant role model in my life. Inspired and encouraged by him, I made the firm decision to step out of my comfort zone, setting out to pursue a PhD in plant molecular biology at the Javier Paz Ares group, Spanish National Centre for Biotechnology (CNB), in Madrid, Spain, sponsored by the LaCaixa PhD international fellowship.

    In my early years abroad, I navigated linguistic and cultural challenges while honing my skills in cutting-edge tools. I had avidly pursued molecular biology since my college days, and finally got the opportunity to study the model plant Arabidopsis at a molecular level, focusing on its adaptations to low phosphorus nutrient stress. Under the guidance of my advisor, I actively explored the plants strategies for stress tolerance. I also learnt the art of meticulous experiment planning and execution under the guidance of another mentor from CNB, Vicente Rubio. Identifying our protein of interest through western blotting and observing protein-protein interactions in confocal microscopy brought me immense joy and satisfaction during the days spent conducting western blotting, yeast two-hybrid experiments, and bimolecular fluorescence complementation experiments.

    After my PhD, I had a brief and enriching postdoc at Rothamsted Research with Mathew Paul’s group, deepening my understanding of sugar signalling in plants. But visa uncertainties and project closures caused moments of anxiety. A subsequent postdoc at Warwick University with Murray Grant’s group introduced me to chloroplast immunity. Though I didn’t continue beyond my probationary period, the experience left a lasting impact. During a one-on-one meeting, 

    Grant asked me, What topic would you like to pursue for your research career?” This question left a profound impression on me, prompting me to think (and plan).

    Life abroad with my husband, also in plant science research, was captivating, yet we longed for emotional connections rooted in India.

    Connecting the dots

    During my post-graduation in 2007, I went on an educational tour to research organisations in Bengaluru and Central Food Technological Research Institute, Mysuru. The moment I set my foot in Mysuru, I was drawn by its lush vegetation and meticulously planned greenery. I remember thinking, If I ever settle down for a job or life, it should be in a city like Mysuru”. Like the themes in The Alchemist’ novel, I believe that nature and the universe conspire to guide us towards our deepest desires and aspirations. 

    Our Plant research team at School of Life Sciences, JSS AHER, Mysuru (Left to right): Meghana S, Supriya S Kammar, Muthamma MB, Charukesi R, Subrahmanya Hegde, Ajay R Bhat and Mohan TC. Photo credit: Sunil Kumar MS
    Our plant research team at the School of Life Sciences, JSS AHER, Mysuru (Left to right): Meghana S, Supriya S Kammar, Muthamma MB, Charukesi R, Subrahmanya Hegde, Ajay R Bhat and Mohan TC. Photo credit: Sunil Kumar MS

    After a two-year maternity break, I began my first academic position as an Assistant Professor at JSS Academy of Higher Education & Research (JSS AHER), Mysuru, marking the beginning of my journey as a faculty and independent research leader. Securing a job in Mysuru fulfilled my long-standing dream of settling in this verdant city. Despite being a medical-based institution, university authorities wholeheartedly supported and encouraged my pursuits in plant science research. They offered administrative assistance to implement extramural start-up research grants I secured from funding agencies like University Grants Commission (UGC) and Vision Group on Science and Technology (VGST), Government of Karnataka.

    Currently, our research team is focused on understanding the stress resilience mechanisms of the Horse gram crop and Parthenium weed using molecular and omics approaches. Implementing extramural projects has been a steep learning curve, involving building a research setup and a team from scratch, and addressing technical challenges in procuring and utilising equipment, resources, and instrument maintenance. 

    At times, I find myself investing more time in project management than in actual research, self-improvement, or guiding PhD students. Nevertheless, my passion for understanding plant resilience to stress and my drive to achieve continue to motivate me. Plants, to me, are not just subjects of study, they are invaluable teachers of resilience and perseverance. Their ability to adapt and thrive amidst climate change serves as a guiding light, inspiring me to overcome challenges, manage stress, and cultivate resilience in life.

    Posted on in Plant Biology, Science, Women in Science, Personal Experience, Young Investigators

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