As my first year as an independent researcher comes to a close, I reflect on the various events that stand out – moving back to India, starting an independent research lab – in the recent leap in my career trajectory. While talking about this feat with my colleagues and friends, I jokingly tell them, “I am happy to have survived”.
On a more serious note, there are only a few phases in one’s life when major transitions, new environments and growth spurts coincide. Expectedly, these phases bring with them chaos, lessons and introspection.
As a physician-scientist trained in India and the US, I moved back to India after more than a decade abroad to establish a research laboratory that straddled the divide between the bench and the bedside. Sharing some highlights from the initial stages of this journey, I hope to underscore the fact that focusing on things that are working (as opposed to roadblocks) and making incremental progress, is probably the best strategy to navigate this steep learning curve.
1. The Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship
I moved back to India funded by the Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), a prestigious fellowship to enable overseas scientists to re-enter the Indian system. With a mandate to ‘reverse India’s brain drain’, it has proven to be an excellent opportunity. This fellowship funds the salary of the independent investigator, making one less reliant on institutional funding. Furthermore, the research component of the fellowship is highly flexible, providing much-required freedom in the nascent stages of setting up a lab.
I attended the 10th conclave for Ramalingaswami fellows held recently; it was heartening to be part of a community of newly-returned scientists, looking to establish themselves in India. The guidance and approachability of DBT and its team have been invaluable and laudable throughout this year.
2. Young Investigator Meeting 2019
I was invited to attend and present my research at YIM 2019, organised by IndiaBioScience in Guwahati, Assam. This was my re-introduction to academia in India, and it proved to be an excellent networking opportunity. One of the big learnings from this meeting was to have unconventional ways to do research in India and thereby, overcome hurdles due to constrained funding. A few examples are – sharing consumables with other labs, using the equipment on a rental basis, or running experiments overnight to avoid scheduling conflicts.
While working abroad, seemingly unlimited resources and perennial funding become the norm. This might not be the case for most people setting up a new lab in India.
Everyone has been forthcoming and helpful since I moved back, whether it be with sharing lab resources or helping with administrative work. Taken together, my experiences at the Ramalingaswami conclave and YIM 2019 drove home the point that while science and research in India is certainly not devoid of problems, there is an active and vibrant community working to improve it.
3. Getting the research going
Armed with the fellowship, I set out to establish my lab this time last year. Laying the groundwork of setting up a lab – from procuring the first set of consumables, reviving cell lines and recruiting new lab members, to designing the first set of experiments and developing my overall research question was an invigorating experience. Coupled with re-learning the administrative work associated with running a lab, it was definitely a steep learning curve. One of the issues with treading an off-beat path, is the lack of milestones to track one’s progress.
Any comparisons with other young researchers would not be accurate or fair, owing to differences in the area of work and institutional environment. On several occasions, I was worried that my progress was too slow or too unfocused.
Looking back, if I had to give any advice to myself, it would be to take life one day at a time, and get less perturbed with not having a defined plan or failing to meet to some deadlines. The initial phase of setting up a new lab and starting a new research project is turbulent, and one has to accept it as part of the process.
4. The first researcher in the lab
A major positive note in my first year was finding the first member of the research team – Snehal Kadam. Snehal had to play multiple roles in the setting up of the lab. Together, we have not only designed experiments, written papers, and mentored undergraduates, but also figured out rental models of various equipment, built the lab website, and planned budgets.
I realised that it is important to find the right people, especially in the initial stages when the research and vision for the group are being figured out. This includes people who are not only motivated by the research but are also willing to take the initiative to set up the lab, purchase and manage inventory, and work in collaboration, both, within and outside the group. Beyond the science, the first member of the group also plays a key role in laying down the foundation for an open, communicative and highly productive environment.
5. Building an ‘open lab’ team
In the first year, my research group was open to several undergraduates across disciplines from universities and colleges in the vicinity. I have tried to adopt an ‘open lab’ policy, which encourages young people to join us for well-defined projects. This has proven to be a win-win situation, where the students get solid research experience and my research group has the opportunity to mentor them.
With the undergraduates, we have published our first review paper and are establishing projects that study bacteria under infection-like conditions to develop relevant models. While I have been impressed with the grit and enthusiasm of young people in science in India, I do believe they would greatly benefit with more focused mentoring towards career development, hands-on research work, and easier access to advanced knowledge resources (publications, bioinformatics tools, etc.).
6. Working with industry
Bred as an academic, it came as a pleasant surprise to discover opportunities to work closely with biotech startups and platforms to commercialise the technology. I was seeking certain advanced equipment when I came across NCL-Venture Center, a well-equipped facility that offers state-of-the-art equipment for any lab groups to use. While using the facilities at this incubation centre, I developed strategies towards commercialisation, gained a better understanding of the IP (intellectual property) space and also got to collaborate with other biotech startups.
7. Running a lab
There were times I got so preoccupied with handling administrative, bureaucratic and logistic issues, that I could barely focus on the larger research question. Furthermore, having to constantly follow up on the delivery of consumables, dealing with equipment breakdowns or inordinate delays in customs clearance, is quite annoying and infuriating. However, I have learnt ways to efficiently pull back from ‘dealing with the system’, albeit for short durations of time, to focus on the little joys – designing new experiments, executing protocols, and analysing data. Finally, I make it a point to communicate these issues with members of the research group, so that they can offer their perspective and possibly help find solutions.
As the first year comes to a close, it is time to scale the research group, both in terms of scientific output and funding, as well as collaborations. This might include taking on PhD students, mentoring more undergraduates, presenting our work at international conferences, and publishing our results. Subsequently, we would also work towards translational possibilities, whereby our work could find a relevant place in the development pipeline for wound infection therapeutics and enable composite, precision-based approaches to personalize the management of wound infections.
I also realise the need to reach out to local communities, be it scientific, student, or citizen forums, to discuss my research. This has, so far, not only served to attract talent and interest in the group, but also made me think of the focus and relevance of my proposed research. I have given talks at local colleges and universities, as well as written features for popular science publications. When I discussed my work with the citizen community at the LOFT forum and our feature in IndiaBioscience, it was very well-received.
Recently, a well-intentioned colleague asked me ‘How has the first year of moving back been?’, I responded with a chuckle, ‘I didn’t think it was going to be easy, and it hasn’t, but I do still think it’s going to be worth it’.
Author bio: Dr. Karishma S Kaushik is a Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, University of Pune. She is currently leading a research group that studies the wound infection microenvironment. When she is not actively working on bacteria, biofilms, and biomimetic models, she is invariably discussing them with her son!