Beginnings in Bhopal: Reflections from YIM 2024 (Part I)

Ankita Rathore & Sindhu M

The 16th edition of the annual Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM 2024) was held in the central Indian city of Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, from 11 to 15 March 2024. Around 120 young investigators and postdoctoral fellows, along with representatives from funding agencies, mentors, and institutional representatives, attended the meeting for special talks, networking sessions, workshops, panel discussion, and poster presentations.

YIM 2024 Report Part I
Glimpses from YIM 2024. Picture credits: IndiaBioscience.

Since 2009, the Young Investigators’ Meeting (YIM), the annual flagship event of IndiaBioscience, has been showcasing the burgeoning potential of India’s life science community. The meeting fosters collaboration, mentorship, and networking, shaping the careers of young scientists and advancing scientific excellence in India. The YIM series exemplifies how a large meeting can be held in India with a focus on non-hierarchical engagements, open interactions, and active support for early-career scientists.

This year, over five days, YIM 2024 welcomed 40 Young Investigators (YIs) from different institutes all over India and 40 postdoctoral fellows (PDFs) from various Indian institutions and universities abroad. The YIs and PDFs received guidance and support from nine mentors and had networking opportunities with several senior scientists and institutional representatives. The meeting was organised in two parts: the first three days were the YIM component of the meeting, which included keynote lectures, mentor talks, panel discussions, poster sessions, and workshops, while the final two days consisted of the PDF Satellite meeting with lightning talks by post-doctoral fellows, talks by institutional representatives, and discussions on start-up funds, faculty fellowships, project and grants management in the life sciences in India.

The co-organisers of YIM 2024 were Karishma Kaushik, IndiaBioscience; Lipi Thukral, IGIB; Ragothaman M. Yennamalli, SASTRA Deemed to be University; Varun Chaudhary, IISER Bhopal; along with the IndiaBioscience team.

A group picture on the day 2 of YIM 2024 at IISER Bhopal. Photo credits: IndiaBioscience
A group picture on the day 2 of YIM 2024 at IISER Bhopal. Photo credits: IndiaBioscience

Welcome note and keynote lectures

The meeting started with an opening note by LS Shashidhara, NCBS, who advocated for robust state sponsorship in basic sciences and outlined the recent funding initiatives supporting life science research in India. Shashidhara briefed the audience about the New Education Policy and the National Research Foundation of the Government of India, emphasising their promotion of multidisciplinarity, internationalisation of science, and industry-academia collaborations. Karishma Kaushik, Executive Director, IndiaBioscience, highlighted the mission of IndiaBioscience to facilitate the life science community in India, and urged participants to utilise open interactions and networking mixers to connect with mentors and fellow attendees at YIM 2024.

Sanjay Mishra, Senior Advisor, Department of Biotechnology, GoI, highlighted the decreasing share of the government in funding research and the need to collaborate more with industry. Ron Vale, Janelia Research Campus, HHMI, reminisced about the beginnings of the YIMs and IndiaBioscience from a dinner table conversation to the first experimental meeting held in a small conference room, blossoming into a successful meeting connecting life science researchers across the country over the last 15 years. Vale added,

The hunger for being part of something bigger than yourself and being part of a community is a major driver of YIM’s success and continued existence.

Special talks at YIM 2024

On the day 2 of IISER Bhopal, Sujoy Dey, Zeiss Technologies, talked about new advances in microscopy, including light sheet microscopy and lattice sim, as well as the features offered in Zeiss microscopes. Tamralipta Patra, Azim Premji University introduced the audience to her unique undergraduate course, where students combine art and science to explore the flora, fauna, and livelihoods in India’s diverse biogeographical zones. 

On the day 3 of YIM 2024, Surat Parvatam, Humane Society International, highlighted various aspects of transitioning from animal models to models that better mimic the human body, such as organ-on-a-chip, organoids, and computer models. Parvatam encouraged scientists and engineers to collaborate in developing such platforms and emphasised policy and regulatory changes to promote human-relevant models. Following this, Vikash Kumar, Shiv Nadar University, introduced the concept of design thinking in life science environments, focusing on its application in designing ergonomic workstations and layouts for research labs.

Mentor talks at YIM 2024. Photo credits: IndiaBioscience, Collage by Ankita Rathore
Mentor talks at YIM 2024. Photo credits: IndiaBioscience, Collage by Ankita Rathore

Takeaways from mentor talks

Nine renowned researchers, including three international mentors, two of whom were from the Global South (Bangladesh and Chile), and six from universities and research institutes across India, were invited to YIM 2024 as mentors. These mentors, in their mid- and senior-career stage, shared their research journeys, recounting their paths from their PhDs to setting up their own research groups.

This year’s mentors were — Abhijit Majumder, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay; Andrew Lynn, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Anindita Bhadra, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Kolkata; Cesar A. Ramirez-Sarmiento, Pontificia Universidad Catolica de Chile; Frederic Berger, Gregor Mendel Institute of Molecular Plant Biology GmbH, Austria; Mahalakshmi Radhakrishnan, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Bhopal; Ramray Bhat, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru; Ritu Trivedi, CSIR-Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow; and Senjuti Saha, Child Health Research Foundation, Bangladesh.

Some takeaways from their talks were:

The beginning of research careers

The mentors shared their winding paths, recounting numerous shifts in their research fields, failures to secure grants and faculty positions, and their perseverance to become mentors at YIM. Radhakrishnan reminisced,

My career may look like a series of events I had planned beautifully. But it was a series of coincidences, and only upon looking back can we connect the dots.

During her PhD, Radhakrishnan was shocked to see samples washed with tap water in her new chemistry lab, having transitioned from biology. Trivedi had to learn the vocabulary of endocrinology during her PhD, transitioning from organic chemistry. After her PhD, she turned down a post-doc offer that was not compatible with her family, while Majumder grappled with shifting from chemical engineering to biology.

After securing postdocs and successfully completing them, mentors shared their experiences of applying for faculty positions. Ramirez-Sarmiento was turned down for faculty positions for two consecutive years before securing three different offers simultaneously.

Funding and grants

After securing a faculty position, obtaining the first grant becomes more straightforward. Preliminary data is crucial for securing subsequent grants in the following two to three years. For grants applied for five years after securing a faculty position, publications play a crucial role. Funding agencies also expect the principal investigator’s (PI) area of expertise to match the research area of the proposal.

For instance, when Bhadra changed her field of investigation from wasps to free-ranging dogs, she faced skepticism about applying tools from wasp research to studying dogs. After securing grants, further challenges arise, such as navigating procurements to purchase equipment, obtaining clinical samples, and establishing collaborations.

The struggle to set up a lab

Lynn advised YIs to learn the procurement process of their institute by participating as junior members of the procurement committee. Radhakrishnan shared her experience of successfully conducting research despite not acquiring the Nuclear Magnetic Resonance (NMR) instrument of her choice. Saha shared her inspiring journey of utilising international grants to establish the first genome sequencing facility in Bangladesh to diagnosis childhood meningitis. Bhat chose to obtain clinical samples from private hospitals over government ones due to better maintenance, despite lower sample availability.

Students, the backbone of research community

Besides securing faculty positions and funds, hiring students and ensuring a happy working environment are crucial. Berger said,

Show that you care for the students, and they will care for you and the lab.

Mazumder agrees that it is important to care for the research group and demonstrate it. Women scientists faced additional challenges. How did you leave your husband and come back to Bangladesh? What is he eating?” they’ asked when Saha moved back to Bangladesh to give back to her community.

Spotlight talks

Besides interacting with mentors, YIM 2024 also provided YIs with the opportunity to engage directly with committee members of funding agencies and attend sessions on grants through spotlight talks. Ajay Kumar Jha, American Chemical Society (ACS), highlighted ACS’s efforts to prevent paper mills, promote open access science, and conduct publishing workshops to train researchers in writing papers for journals.

Rajalakshmi Karat, TNQ technologies, spoke about the use of generative AI and large language models in research. Ramjee Pallela, AIC-CCMB, highlighted various funding opportunities and grants available to scientists for their start-ups, such as NIDHI-PRAYAS and SPARSH, and urged researchers to be aware of the financial and paperwork requirements involved in companies and start-ups.

'Exhibition-in-a-box' presented by Science Gallery Bengaluru. Photo Credits: IndiaBioscience
Exhibition-in-a-box’ presented by Science Gallery Bengaluru. Photo Credits: IndiaBioscience

Workshops for YIs and PDFs

Dinsa Sachan and Shakoor Rather, Science Journalism Association of India (SJAI), conducted a science journalism workshop for the YIs. The workshop focused on the distinction between science journalism and science communication, explored the types of science stories, and engaged in hands-on activities like writing press releases and discussing the importance of investigative journalism in combating misinformation. 

Madhurima Kahali, Taylor and Francis (T&F), conducted a workshop for postdocs called Research ethics for PDFs’. The workshop began with an introduction to ethical practices in research publishing and the guidelines of T&F to deal with malpractices. The participants then discussed case studies pertaining to authorship and publishing malpractices. 

Ahalya Acharya and Shelwyn James, from Science Gallery Bengaluru (SGB), presented an Exhibition-in-a-box’, emphasising its role in breaking barriers and facilitating two-way conversations at exhibits. Through immersive learning tools and engagement in both English and Kannada, the initiative aims to bridge diverse communities and enrich public interaction with science and art.

Talks by IndiaBioscience team

Arushi Batra, Program Manager-Digital Initiatives, discussed the various podcast series and the YI Huddles’ of IndiaBioscience, which serve as conversation starters for young investigators on topics like starting a research group and public outreach. Rohini Karandikar, Associate Director, emphasised the compilation of resources for international grants under the IndiaBioscience international grants awareness program (iGAP). Vijeta Raghuram, Program Manager-Education, stressed the importance of two-way communication between scientists and teachers.

Ankita Rathore, Program Manager-Science Communication, shared the vertical’s initiatives such as news articles on recent publications, opinion articles, and compendiums such as Journey of a Young Investigator (JOYI)’. Manjula Harikrishna, Project Manager-Community Building, highlighted the IndiaBioscience Outreach Grants (IOG) that encourage researchers to share their science with the public.

In the closing remarks for YIM 2024, Karishma Kaushik, Executive Director, outlined the road ahead for IndiaBioscience, including new and ongoing initiatives for 2024 – 2025.

Glimpse from talks by the IndiaBioscience team. Photo credits: IndiaBioscience, collage by Ankita Rathore
Glimpse from talks by the IndiaBioscience team. Photo credits: IndiaBioscience, collage by Ankita Rathore

Supporters and engagement partners

YIM 2024 was funded primarily by the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, alongside support from other engagement partners such as Ashoka University, Azim Premji University, ACS, AIC-CCMB, EMBO, Humane Society International, Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, India Alliance, IISER Bhopal, Premas Life Sciences, Shiv Nadar University, TIGS, Taylor & Francis, TNQ Technologies, and Zeiss Technologies. These collaborations underscored a collective commitment to nurturing India’s scientific talent and fostering support for early-career scientists.