How Beena went from handling tech to leading a scientific team

It's not everyday that one hears about gifted technical officers making it into faculty. This is why Beena DB's journey from technical officer to faculty member stands out.

By Preetha Joseph

As a young girl, Beena DB would often help out her parents in the paddy fields and coffee plantations in Coorg, where the family lived. These experiences sparked in her an affection for plants, which later grew into an interest in plant biotechnology during her higher studies. Since then, she has created a unique path for herself, playing various roles of technical assistant, research fellow, assistant professor, lab manager and currently, a faculty at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.

Beena came across challenges from the beginning of her journey. Being the first person in her family to go beyond a B.Sc. degree, there was nobody to guide her. Peer support was minimal as well. Her first stepping stone into scientific research came from a serendipitous conversation: “I was talking to a doctor, who was treating me for a cold, about needing to find a place to complete my project requirements for post-graduate studies in biotechnology, in Bangalore. He suggested a company called Indo-American Hybrid Seeds but had no other information about it. After returning home, I found the address and contact details from the telephone directory, since internet access was not common then, and called them. My request for an internship was initially rejected by the receptionist. However, I was not ready to take no for an answer. I asked for an appointment to meet the director and considering my enthusiasm and courage, he gave me a chance to intern for a project funded by the Biotechnology Industry Research Assistance Council (BIRAC) where I worked on Agrobacterium-mediated gene transfer in tomato plants,” she said during an interview. 

During the internship, Beena became fascinated by the scope of research involving the integration of lab techniques with plant growth and tissue culture. She recalled how she was amazed at how a bit of plant tissue in a small bottle could be modified and used to produce whole plants using the new equipment and techniques available to her in the lab.  She quickly gained a strong passion for working in wet labs, and a drive to pursue research in the field of plant biotechnology. She went on to join the Institute of Wood Science and Technology, Bangalore, a branch of Indian Council of Forestry Research and Education in Dehradun, as a technical assistant and later took up a Junior Research Fellow post. This is also where she pursued her Ph.D. on developing protocols for clonal propagation — generating genetically identical plants from fragments of a parent plant — of two bamboo species.

Balancing many roles

In 2007, when her daughter was born, Beena was still in the process of completing her PhD along with fulfilling her responsibilities as an assistant professor in a private college in Bangalore, where she was also head of the post-graduate biosciences department for two years: “I did not have the choice of taking a break from my job when I had my baby. Along with taking care of my daughter and teaching at the college, I managed to write my doctoral thesis and submit it for evaluation. The whole process took almost seven years, and finally in 2011, I presented my thesis in Dehradun with my one-year-old daughter in the audience,” she said.

The challenges were not easy to overcome. However, Beena stuck through and strode forward. “The struggles I encountered to come up in my life by taking care of my daughter, without much parental or partner support, made me stronger and fearless. I always have the habit of saying ‘yes I can’, which actually puts me into challenging situations sometimes! Growing up, my daughter has witnessed, experienced and gotten used to these situations, and I feel like she is much more mature and understanding compared to other children of her age”, she said affectionately.

“I did not have the choice of taking a break from my job when I had my baby. Along with taking care of my daughter and teaching at the college, I managed to write my doctoral thesis and submit it for evaluation. The whole process took almost seven years, and finally in 2011, I presented my thesis in Dehradun with my one-year-old daughter in the audience.”

A new chapter

Beena with a student in the lab at Azim Premji University

After eight years of teaching at the private college, Beena’s career changed course as she joined Azim Premji University as a lab manager in 2016. “It was not easy for me to make the shift from the assistant professor post to a lab manager at Azim Premji University, because technical officer roles are not as valued as principal investigators or faculty in India.” However, her passion for lab work and zeal to pursue something different from the norm compelled her to take up the job. She was disheartened when her designation as lab manager and the contractual nature of her position at APU hindered her from getting many research grants she applied for. However, she was not ready to leave her job and pursue independent research just yet, as she had heard that  temporary research positions came with risks. For example, she heard of many stipends not being released for many years; such a situation would not provide the financial stability required to take care of her family. So Beena held on to her dreams of doing her own research for some time.

Although her initial role was to set up and run the university’s biology laboratory, her motivation and strong work ethic led to her working with the biology faculty on designing lab experiments based on the concepts taught in a variety of undergraduate biology courses. This was in addition to the many other responsibilities such as coordinating with vendors of lab equipment, maintaining the equipment and sourcing lab materials that were used to set up experiments. Beena was well aware of the need to be resourceful, and there were enough opportunities to do so. For example, Beena recounts one of the incidents where she devised an ingenious way to teach students a complex biological technique on an unexpectedly low budget: “One of the lab techniques we teach is protein purification. A ready-made kit for this would cost around Rs 7000, where five runs of the purification can be conducted and a single run would take around four hours. This is not feasible for a three-hour lab for a class of around 25 students. By making students prepare their own reagents and modifying the kit a little bit, I ensured each student gets a chance to run the test and complete it within two hours,” she shared. Beena has also gained a variety of new skills herself. Over the course of her lab manager job, she has become an expert in handling worms, hydra, bacteria, spiders, yeast and much more.

In July 2020, four years after she joined Azim Premji University, Beena found herself making another unconventional switch—a promotion from lab manager to faculty of the university! She recounted her reaction to this with a sense of joy and pride in her voice: “My transition from lab manager to faculty position was completely unpredicted and unconventional, as faculty hiring is a critical and complex process. So, it [being a faculty member] means a lot to me and has given me a chance to prove my potential and accomplish my goals by designing new lab activities based on my research protocols, engaging in teaching, mentoring and guiding (B.Sc.) honours students’ projects and much more. I am really happy about this, to be able to grow personally and contribute to the university as well.”

Her new role will give Beena more creative freedom in her lab work and provide her with a more intellectually rewarding experiences in her pursuit of research. In fact, even as COVID-19 has hit the brakes on lab work for a while, Beena is already realising the potential of her new title as a faculty and is busy writing a proposal for a research grant, observing online classes to get back into teaching and writing up lab protocols for an online publication. Throughout our conversation, Beena, hopeful and excited for what the future holds, continuously acknowledged the support of her colleagues and the work environment in the university. She considers her promotion as the second significant stepping stone (the first being her internship at BIRAC) to her dream of conducting her own research in the importance of plant and fungal metabolites in pharmaceuticals and agriculture.

Author Bio: Preetha is currently pursuing her Master’s degree in Health Economics from National University of Ireland, Galway and is a science writer for Research Matters. 

By TLoS Team | Published on Oct 15, 2020 in Technology