As a part of SciWri’s effort to interview young academicians, scientists, PhDs beyond academia, entrepreneurs, and social scientists to understand their career paths, their interests, and their vision, we interviewed Dr. Senthil Arumugam (SA), group leader at the Single Molecule Science Node of the University of New South Wales, Australia. Senthil talks about his passion for Biology and his journey from being wanting to become an astronaut to his present obsession with single molecules.
AG: How do you describe yourself to others?
(Senthil) SA: I am a microscopist-biologist who enjoys learning the best techniques and applying them to real world biological questions. Throughout my formal education, I have either built or applied specialist microscopy techniques to problems ranging from neuroscience, bacterial biology or eukaryotic biology, during which, I also learned about the length and breadth of interesting biological problems.
AG: Where and how exactly your academic journey started?
SA: I think I was always interested in science. I do not remember when I started liking science, but I do remember wanting to be an astronaut. It stemmed from breaking my father’s old Russian cameras for the lenses in it, and made a telescope to explore space. That made me curious about what is out there, who we are, what is life. I think this is where I got interested in science and learning about things around me. Meanwhile, there was a physics teacher in my 11th class, Mr. Venugopal, who, on his first day at the job, picked up the text book, waved it at us, and asked one question – Why are we studying all this? That episode pretty much helped me work wilfully towards becoming a scientist. This made me take up Bachelor of Science, where I came across another special teacher, Dr. Shashi Pandya. She used to teach organic chemistry, and she started a small research lab, where we would try new chemical synthesis pathways. She encouraged me to apply for summer research fellowship at the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), Bangalore, India. I spent 2 months at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, India, in the inorganic chemistry department, where I was exposed to how research is performed, designing experiments based on ideas explored in past literature, and the idea that text books are made out of real research (as silly as it might sound, a lot of students do not have the exposure at the undergrad level in India). The stint at IISc also exposed me to the premier research institutes in India – IISc, JNCASR, TIFR, etc. I applied to all of these places for my masters and got selected to pursue my Master at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. Here, I worked in the lab of Dr. Sudipta Maiti (http://www.tifr.res.in/~dcs/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=19&Itemid=126), where I could build a strong base in microscopy that would help me in future to explore life below few microns (the other unseen space).
AG: You went to Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) to pursue your Masters. Why did you choose to go to TIFR?
SA: Though I was interested in continuing science, I had little idea about doing a Ph.D. abroad, I did not have any clue when I came to TIFR, about who funds your Ph.D., how can one go abroad for doing a Ph.D., what should one do to pursue Ph.D. TIFR being a very dynamic place, and being well-informed and exposed to world science, provided me with plenty of advice and help to apply for various Ph.D. positions.
I was clear I wanted to go to an optics + biology lab. I applied to plenty of universities in the USA, but was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, a colleague of mine, who had visited MPI-CBG Dresden, Germany, told me that it looked like Dresden was the place for me because of the many microscopy based labs there. I applied, got called for interviews, went there, and liked the lab of Petra Schwille (http://www.biochem.mpg.de/en/
AG: Can you share with us some moments from your PhDs?
SA: I think the best moment was when one of my projects got accepted and made it across to a biology journal. Owing to its interdisciplinary approach it was a struggle to get it accepted, but I am glad it saw the light at the end of the tunnel. That was also my first lead author manuscript. I think it boosted my confidence and made me pursue more independent ideas.
AG: Tell us something about your postdoc and why and how did you chose your postdoc lab/mentor?
SA: By the end of my Ph.D., I was quite confident of my microscopy skills, and the ability to pick up new techniques. I decided to look for biological problems. At the same time, I was wary of joining a pure biology lab. I also wanted to stay on Europe as my wife was pursuing her Ph.D. in Germany. I narrowed down my search to Paris, because of the highly interdisciplinary nature of the institutes and their exciting contributions that I had followed. I joined as a joint-post doc between the labs of Patricia Bassereau and Ludger Johannes (https://science.institut-curie.org/research/multiscale-physics-biology-chemistry/chemical-biology-of-membranes-and-therapeutic-delivery/). Patricia’s lab was a more quantitative, physics oriented lab, and Ludger’s was a traditional biology lab a perfect example of an interdisciplinary collaboration. Patricia’s lab was also focused on membrane physics while Ludger’s on endocytic processes. My Ph.D. experience in Petra’s lab had acquainted me with model membrane systems, and a lot of membrane biophysics owing to expert colleagues in the lab with whom I frequently chatted in the lab and over beers. Therefore, I thought I could put together biology, optics, and membrane physics and do interesting stuff here. Being the bridge between the physics and the biology department here, I could learn a lot in good detail from both the fields. At the same time, Curie institute being in Paris made my monthly commutes to Dresden and back easier.
AG: What were the most memorable postdoc moment?
SA: While in Ludger’s lab, I was trying to image endosomal sorting dynamics using spinning disc microscopes. I had tried pretty hard with all possible tricks and variations. I did manage to capture some events but knew this could never be high-throughput given the time resolution, photo-bleaching and the fast dynamics of the endosomal system. This was when Eric Betzig’s invention – the lattice light-sheet microscope was published around October 2014. I desperately wanted to get my hands on this microscope. With some efforts from my side and other non-related events between the labs of Tomas Kirchhausen and Ludger, I was on a flight to Boston, to visit Tomas Kirchhausen’s lab (http://www.idi.harvard.edu/investigators_research/investigator/kirchhausen_lab/). The first time I imaged on this microscope and saw the dynamics of endocytosis and vesicles in live cells that I could only imagine before, I knew I had to get this as a weapon in my arsenal.
I think I had the same nervousness and insecurities that everyone has towards the end of post-doc when you look at the job market, and everything seems uphill. This was also the time when I felt I had to be out and independent soon. Most of my experiments were strictly dictated by Ludger, and my papers from my post-doc seemed like they would take forever to get published. I thought it was either now or never.
A single cell image generated from the lattice light sheet imaging showing clathrin coated pits, its tracking and shigatoxin (in blue).
AG: How did you cope with life outside India? What were you doing beyond labs?
SA: I do not think I felt any pressure living outside India. I had a fantastic time in Dresden. It’s a very pleasant city with the right balance of architecture, open fields, and beautiful mountains to hike around. Summers were spent playing ultimate Frisbee and hiking on the Sächsische Schweiz, winters enjoying the snow, ice skating, cross country skiing. I had fantastic friends from all over Europe and other places. Being centrally located in Europe allowed us also to travel and explore EU countries.
During my stay in Paris, most of my time was spent traveling – first between Paris and Dresden, and then between Paris-Barcelona-Boston. When not traveling, beyond the lab, life mostly extended to either bars or classical Parisian riverside picnics, outings, travels.
AG: How was the academic job hunting process? When did you start planning? What were the critical factors that helped you during the job search?
SA: I had no immediate plans to search for academic jobs when I moved to Paris. I thought I might do another post-doc or see how it goes. However, the fact that I did not have the kind of independence to do what I wanted to, with my ideas – a freedom I was spoilt with in my Ph.D. lab, really made me yearn for it. At the same time, frequent traveling to different institutes during my post-doc exposed me to various researchers. I met with and discussed with a lot of researchers between Paris, Barcelona, and Boston where I was doing microscopy experiments for my post-doc projects. This exposed me to a variety of projects in detail and helped me shape ideas as well gave confidence to my ideas. At one point, I attended three conferences, ranging from developmental biology to computational biology in tandem, just because I wanted to know what interesting biological problems are out there. All the visits, conferences, and conversations expanded my knowledge base tremendously, exposed me to a variety of biological questions, technical advancements, and available resources, which proved to be a feeding ground for me to generate new ideas, think creatively using the expanded base of information to solve biological questions.
Above everything, the fact that I was desperate for conducting independent research and the confidence that I was ready for it drove me. I started applying/ looking for jobs at the end of two years into my postdoc. I considered India primarily in the beginning. I applied for Young Investigator’s meeting but did not receive a positive response. I did go around visiting and giving talks in institutes in India whenever I was on vacation, and I was repeatedly told I needed more experience or more papers. At the same time, talking to various researchers, I realized it is difficult to get the kind of funds I would like to have to bring cutting edge microscopy technologies in India. Thus, I shifted my focus to investment developed countries where I could execute the kind of work I want to do, particularly in in Germany, Singapore, and Australia.
AG: What do you think is the most imp step you took for cracking academic job market?
SA: I think I inadvertently played on my strengths of microscopy and analysis. Along the way, I made sure I had the right balance to enrich myself with the knowledge of biology and various interesting questions in biology so that I could pick problems that interest me and use my strengths to answer it. To crack the job market, one of the essential requirements is to put forward a solid original thread of a project idea that is strongly supported by your training, research experiences, publications, etc. that are convincing a committee to trust you with carrying out the project. I started early on this, read a lot of papers, generated ideas that interested me, discussed with plenty of very good friends – old and new from TIFR to Curie, helped me shape it. Technology and science go hand in hand and developments often jump by leaps within a decade i.e., within the range of time from starting a Ph.D. to finishing a post-doc. I happened to be lucky to end up in a lab where I could convince the lab head to fund my trips and travel to various institutes to learn advanced microscopy technologies. While technology is not solely the basis on which one is recruited, it is better to be prepared for a balanced approach towards science, as well as using your strengths being part of the academic supply chain. You need to weave your path through the intertwined maze of technology requirements by your lab, the institutes, your expertise that is a commodity and your research interests that should be sharpened and developed in parallel.
AG: Now that you are a PI, what has been your experience so far?
SA: It has been amazing so far. I am enjoying the freedom to realize my ideas and the ability to reasonably fund my ideas. I have got a fantastic post-doc who is very enthusiastic and extremely easy to work with and has been very helpful in starting up the lab. I am looking forward to the first experiments from the lab once my microscope is built.
AG: As a young PI what are the challenges and what support system do you get?
SA: I think one of the biggest challenges is that most students and post-docs have little understanding of the financial and management aspect of running a lab. You suddenly see a million dollars at your disposal. Fortunately, I could talk to a lot of friends who had just established labs and got some useful inputs, project your expenses early, buy the biggest necessary equipment first, go a bit slow – don’t fall into the shopping spree trap, balance people, and equipment, etc. The senior colleagues in the institute here have been helpful in sharing their lab running costs and their strategies; that help me devise my own suited to my lab’s requirement.
Cell lines, plasmids, etc. form an important part of a biological research lab. Often when you switch projects, collecting these can be a task. While some people are really benevolent with sharing resources, some are not. Be prepared to do your homework to overcome these hurdles.
AG: Whats your idea of mentoring in today’s academia? Will you be open to people who want to transition out of bench work?
SA: I am largely inexperienced in mentoring and go really with my intuition and feeling of what is right. I do take feedbacks from my student and try to have a regular co-worker relationship like I would if I was a post-doc along with them. It’s been only three months, and I find this, as of now, comfortable.
I am certainly for people transitioning out to alternative careers. An academic position is not the final destination of doing science. In a steady state, only about 10-15% can move to a post-doctoral position and even lesser from a post-doc to a junior faculty position. It is clearly a pyramid, and it’s not going to change anytime soon. I would advise to fight it out early on in your career if you are very much passionate adamant on a faculty position. If you do not succeed, you may be better off saving yourself some time to explore plenty of options. I was prepared to look for something else if an academic position hadn’t come through after the first post-doc. The chances of getting a faculty position only drop after that unless a miracle of the high impact magazine or journal article comes out. Explore alternative career options. Build expertise on things that interest you.
There are various possibilities where your training can be put to use while excluding a faculty position – the most exciting of them in my opinions are entrepreneurial ventures, scientific animation and illustration services (Complex ideas need to be conveyed to the academic community as well as the general public. Experts in understanding scientific details and ideas as well as capabilities of portraying them using animations, illustrations will be increasingly in demand), Analysists (big-data, image processing, coders) will be in demand considering the advent of cutting edge technologies in various fields. These secondary employments that come out of novel demands are largely under-utilized. At the same time, the academic institutions also need to encourage and create these positions. One may think of a transition help system where specialized training (for e.g. creating animations) is given to students willing to transition out while being related to the academia.
AG: Finally, what will be your suggestions to PhDs who are preparing themselves for an academic position?
SA: If you are absolutely serious about an academic career, explore ideas and technologies; try to go beyond your comfort zone. Talk to a variety of people, discuss science, ideas. It broadens your mind regarding what you can understand, how much can you relate and build cross bridges that are unique. Expect to do more and beyond regular reading, experiments and writing manuscripts as you go from Ph.D. to post-doc and post-doc to an independent position. Strike early when you can leverage off your most recent papers and the younger age. Put time and effort to write a project proposal that is rich in ideas, novelty, and technology if that’s your expertise. Remember it is not a post-doctoral project proposal for a single person for the next two-three years. Put together your ideas, and put up a mature project proposal that a lab would be working on. A good estimate is a project with work and experiments requiring about three Ph.D. or post-docs for the next 2 – 3 years. You are also required to be on a variety of committees that demand a broad variety of knowledge base. Keep yourself updating about exciting discoveries, techniques, and developments.
Dr. Senthil Arumugam is a group leader at the Single Molecule Science Node of the University of New South Wales since September 2016. His lab focuses on intracellular trafficking in diseases and develops and uses cutting edge imaging and analysis techniques for cell biology. He obtained his masters from TIFR, Mumbai and PhD from Technical University of Dresden/ MPI-CBG. He then did a post-doc at the Curie Institute in Paris where he was also a recipient of the Pierre Gilles de Gennes fellowship. More about his lab can be found on https://sms.unsw.edu.au/senthil-arumugam
Editor: Ananda Ghosh (AG)
I work at the NYU Office of Industrial Liaison to make sure that NYU innovations are developed beyond bench and ultimately serves society to solve unmet needs. As a co-founder of SciWri my vision is to share ideas and stories through SciWri and create awareness in innovation, entrepreneurship, alternate careers for PhDs, sustainable development, biodiversity, environment, and leadership.