My first encounter with Ajeet Pratap Singh (APS), then a graduate student was when I joined Prof. Veronica Rodrigues’ lab at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai in 2006 as a freshly inducted Master’s student. Sharing the work space, Ajeet was my daily dose of inspiration, support, comic relief and poetry; from his undying love for ghazals and poetry, and an accomplice in watching cricket together in between experiments.
Undoubtedly, the one thing that everyone in the department could vouch for Ajeet is his single-minded focus on science. He is grateful to his postgraduate mentors, especially Dr. Suvendu Ray at Tezpur University, Assam, India for instilling his enthusiasm in the life sciences. “He would tell us about the most recent scientific discoveries in the field of Biology. These discussions opened a different world for us. Most of us were used to the matter of fact training that we get in our schools, with limited focus on free thinking. He was a big motivation for me to pursue a PhD and get a first-hand experience of the excitements in the field of science,” says Ajeet.
During his doctoral work on neuronal modeling under Prof. Veronica Rodrigues and Prof. K. Vijayraghavan, Ajeet benefited from their ‘complimentary approach to science’ and the comprehensive PhD program at TIFR. Ajeet credits his PhD program for emphasizing strongly on learning new skills. He is thankful to Prof. Vijayraghavan for having played a huge role in shaping his career even after his graduation from TIFR in 2011. It was his guidance that inspired Ajeet to pursue his postdoctoral research with the phenomenal developmental biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard, popularly known among colleagues as Janni, and a Nobel laureate of 1995. Things worked out for Ajeet and he soon moved to the beautiful, German university town of Tübingen to work with Janni at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology. He was also a proud recipient of the EMBO long-term fellowship.
Ajeet fondly recalls his experience with Janni, learning basic concepts of developmental biology. In addition, the multidisciplinary and international research environment only made it all the more stimulating for him. He feels that interdisciplinary education is undermined in the Indian schooling system, and he encourages everyone to seek opportunities to learn from different fields to be able to deliver quality science in the current age of collaborations.
Ajeet is now an investigator at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Massachusetts, since August 2016. However, the transition from his postdoc lab to NIBR didn’t happen overnight. While studying color pattern formation in zebrafish (for his post-doctoral research), he observed that the fishes liked to stay together (shoaling), and this inspired him to develop a system to study social behavior. Alongside his postdoc, he kept working on his idea and developed genetic tools to study it further.
Janni provided him the platform and freedom to pursue his ‘additional’ interests. Ajeet invested on developing simple behavioral assays to measure social behavior of zebrafish, made several gene knock outs to probe into the genetics behind this shoaling behavior.
Opportunities often come to those who are prepared – and Ajeet was prepared.
Towards the end of his postdoc in 2015, he came across an advert from the NIBR – looking for scientists interested in genetics of zebrafish social behavior, aimed to better understand human social behavior and the disorders related to them. As it was so closely related to his line of work and interests, Ajeet found a perfect fit and was offered the job the very same day as his interview. Commenting on the differences in research foci in academia and industries, Ajeet opines, “In general, the long-term goals of industry and academia are clearly different – both have a prime emphasis on the generation of knowledge base, but in industrial research knowledge, those that would seem to help solve diseases of humankind get immediate priority. However, at NIBR, fundamental research is highly encouraged – our work on zebrafish is basically like any other basic research.” Despite his spectacularly successful academic track so far, Ajeet acknowledges the imbalance between the increasing number of PhDs and postdocs coming out each year and the paucity of jobs in academia that cater to them; something that has been described as a Ponzi scheme by others. He feels that it is imperative to spread awareness about careers beyond academic tracks for researchers.
As Ajeet grows his group at NIBR to understand complex social behaviors in zebrafish and to utilize this model organism for drug-discovery in the longer term, I see his story reminding me of many crucial lessons in planning a successful career. It is a story that highlights personal commitment towards developing and working on independent ideas, and active mentoring at every crucial step of one’s career. With the synergy of the two, chances are high that one is ready to embark when the right career opportunity comes by. More importantly, these are pivotal in creating independent lines of ideas and research – the only way to nurture and pursue science.
Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD works with Club SciWri as a writer and editor of articles aimed at helping Indian scientific community in research as well as entrepreneurship. You can get in touch with her here.
The cover image was designed by Vinita Bharat, PhD. Follow her work as Fuzzy Synapse at Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The inset images were kindly provided by APS, Dr. Anurag Singh and momentum-photos.
The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).
This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.