Dr Nishant Kumar Varshney is working as a Beamline Scientist on an Indo-Italian Macromolecular Crystallography beamline XRD2 at Elettra Sincrotrone, Trieste, Italy, which will be open to Users in start of the 2017. The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs caught up with him about his career and experience while working in an unconventional postdoctoral career of a Beamline Scientist after a PhD in Structural Biology.
He did his bachelors in Chemistry from DU and Masters in Marine Biotechnology from Goa University in 2005. Completed his PhD in 2013 from Biochemical Sciences Division, CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, India on structure-function relationship of three enzymes that has industrial and therapeutic applications. During his PhD, he received Commonwealth Split-Site Scholarship to work for an year in York Structural Biology Laboratory, University of York, UK, where he developed his interest in the field of Structure Based Drug Discovery field.
In Nishant’s (NKV) words, “First, I would like to thank Abhinav Dey (AD) for adding me to CSG group and now giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about new Indo-Italian joint venture at Elettra Synchrotron, Trieste, Italy which we Inaugurated last month.”
(XRD2 Beamline; Picture source: NKV)
AD: During your graduate school, when did you realize you wanted to try a different research-based career than conventional postdoc?
NKV: Actually the thought and the opportunity came after the PhD, when I was working as Research Associate (RA) in National Center for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune. During my PhD, I was working both at the bench (cloning, expressing, purifying and setting up protein for crystallization) as well as collecting data at our home source for my proteins and sometimes helping other collaborators. Like most of the graduate students, I dreamt of getting a conventional post doc position abroad and coming back after few years for some decent permanent position in India. It was during RA-ship, that I saw the ad for a Beamline Scientist position at the new Indian beamline at Elettra. I thought of it as a good opportunity to not only learn about the working of beamlines but also having plenty of time to play and learn with data collection strategies to get best out of your protein crystals. Moreover, the idea of helping different users with different projects and, if possible, making some worthy contribution to their projects excited me too.
AD: What is your typical work day like?
NKV: Most often our day starts with a black filter coffee at 9 🙂 and ends around 6pm. Currently, we are at the final stages of commissioning the beamline and implementing an automated instrument on the experimental table. Since working at the beamline is a first time for me, my work schedule usually revolves around my local supervisor and Head of our group, Maurizio. We help our supervisors with the work and learn out of it. Everyday there is something new to learn. We set small targets with deadlines and sometimes we work till late to meet those deadlines. Also being an industry, there are many other usual administrative/non administrative appointments also to be taken care of.
AD: Do you think having a PhD was an advantage for you in the current job?
NKV: Yes. Experience and a degree in structural biology were the essential educational qualifications for this job. I was brought into the field of X-ray diffraction, protein crystallization, three-dimensional structures etc. in practice during my PhD only. Having hands-on experience with these techniques and a visit to a Beamline in Diamond, UK during my Commonwealth Scholarship tenure gave me experience and confidence to apply for this job. Some technical terms and what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch was totally new to me in the beginning but I think I am getting better day-by-day.
AD: How was the transition from a bench to a synchrotron?
NKV: I would say transition was not that easy. Coming from enjoying a mostly wet lab, handling buffers/proteins and transitioning to the technical aspects of a synchrotron where I was expected to understand as well as install beamline components, alignments, installing vacuum etc. was initially too much technical for me. Mathematics has not been my strongest subject so I am still trying to get better with the numbers.
AD: What would you recommend as first steps for students/postdocs interested in pursuing a fellowship in handling this kind of job?
NKV: If one is coming to synchrotron as a user, I would say, apart from having familiarity with data processing programs and knowing your proteins, you need not to worried about what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch. Beamline staff should teach you how things work at the Experimental table and how to collect data. But if someone wants to be a Beamline Scientist or a Beamline Postdoc, first step is to develop your love for the technical aspects of a beamlines. Brushing up your Physics or say Biophysics will also help you to understand your work. It is also important to keep in mind that it is not a 9-5 job and you should be ready to devote long days sometimes.
AD: Having gone through interviews as an applicant yourself, what are a couple of things that could help a PhD standout from the crowd?
NKV: Especially for a job at the Beamlines, working knowledge of the beamline, however little it may be, through regular visits to the synchrotron for data collection and processing the data on your own will make you stand out. Familiarity with different programs for data collection to structure deposition will help you for the job. Apart from that, one should enjoy working with the users and be ready to help them to sort out the technical as well as practical problems outside the normal office hours.
AD: Was there anything (positive or negative) that you were surprised about this job/profession that you didn’t expect until you were in it?
NKV: As a matter of personal opinion, anyone who starts the unconventional career, will wish to have a sense of stability in his/her tenure. As I am working in an Italian Industry, as a visiting Scientist on an India-funded project, there is always an insecurity regarding the length and timing of the next extension. Moreover, the absence of funds available for in-house research and for attending/presenting work in the conferences was not what I expected.
AD: Please tell us about the new Indo-Italian venture and what do you foresee of this collaboration for the development of science in India?
NKV: Till the date, India is either renting beamtimes for macromolecular crystallography e.g. BM14 beamline in ESRF or funding visits to other beamlines of the world. This is the first time when India is a partner right from the design, construction, commissioning and maintenance of two beamlines at synchrotron. The XRD2 and Xpress beamlines are a part of a scientific partnership between India and Italy under a project administered through the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore with financial support from Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India and Elettra Sincrotrone,Trieste. The Xpress experimental station has been constructed to study the structure of materials under high- pressure using the technique of X-ray diffraction of samples subjected to the action of two diamonds that can exert higher pressures to 50 GPa. In this way the researchers will be able to access the possibility of synthesizing new superconducting materials, harder and more resistant. This beamline will also be applied in other areas, such as mineralogy and geophysics. XRD2 is a dedicated beamline to determine three-dimensional structures of proteins and biological macromolecules with application in biology, medicine, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. XRD2 is an highly automated and tunable beamline with state of the art instruments which will allow to collect faster X-ray diffraction data from protein crystals in highly automated way better than collected using home source. With 50% share in the project, now Indian crystallographers and High Pressure diffraction groups will have plenty of beamtime accessible to them. Once the proposal has been accepted, DST will provide the travel and daily cost funds.
AD: What are the career possibilities after being trained at the cutting edge of your field?
NKV: The field of macromolecular crystallography is still in a developing stage. There is lot to explore and develop in the field right from the data collection step to relate the structure to its function. With the experience at the synchrotron, prospects of developing your own research in the field are always open. Working in Pharmaceuticals Industries mainly involved in Structure based Drug Discovery is another option. With all the knowledge of the structural biology, a career in academics is also a possibility. Moreover, with the advent of Free-Electron lasers and new developments in alternative techniques, three-dimensional structure determination of macromolecules using serial crystallography and Cryo-Electron Microscopy and Cryo-Imaging techniques are the new open fields where experience in structural biology is a desirable qualification.
I hope, these facilities will be very beneficial to our Indian researchers.
Nishant Kumar Varshney was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Featured image source: Pixabay