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In pursuit of a passion in science: Face to Face with Professor Mohan Balasubramanian, PhD

in Face à Face by
Nida Siddiqui (NS)  brings out a journey of a passionate scientist Dr. Mohan Balasubramanian, Pro-Dean at the Warwick Medical School, University of Warwick, UK. In this interview, Mohan talks about important aspects one needs to inculcate to become an effective academic researcher and a mentor.


Mohan during his Singapore days (Courtesy: NUS Singapore)

NS: How did your journey begin? What was the motivation?

MB: My journey did not start with science, I was interested in sports and I did not get the greatest grades in school. I got into Chemistry because that’s one subject I could pursue with my sports qualification. I was a decent chemist and did quite well.  I did not know an iota of biology and my chemistry degree was with physics and Math. This was the period of early days of biotechnology in India.  Masters in Biotechnology I thought will be an interesting next step.  I wrote the entrance exam and I passed it. It was the first batch of Biotechnology program in India that was done through a national level entrance test. That led me to MS Baroda University, which was my gateway to my career in academic research.

I found genetics and molecular biology very interesting and started interacting with Late Professor Bharat Chattoo, an excellent scientist who had just come back from Switzerland. He was a plant geneticist by training and was busy setting up his lab at Baroda. I did my master’s thesis with him and I found science as a natural extension of chemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry very intriguing.  It was during that time that I got intrigued by genetics and did the first cloning in Baroda. It was very exciting since it was the new era of modern life sciences, especially in India. People were doing microbiology but not molecular Biology. I also made a library from rice. Baroda had a reputation those days of being an intellectually stimulating environment because the microbiology department and the biotechnology program were tightly knit together and classical genetics, phage genetics were taught at a very high level of sophistication and the department inculcated the habit of reading current literature so we would know for e.g., self-splicing RNA (which was my favorite topic by the way). We had a great resource at Baroda. You get to read all the current discoveries almost immediately after they got published. We did not have the equipment and setup but there was enough intellectual framework and by being around Prof. Chattoo and working in his lab it was clear to me this is what I want to do because there were thousands of open questions and the technology was relatively new at that time. So, it was really exciting to go from a chemistry background into molecular biology and all thanks to one person, whose approach to science was so special that 6 to 7 of my classmates  are professors in top places in the world, Vishi Iyer, Head of Life science at UT Austin, Pradeep Kachroo in University of Kentucky, Naweed Naqvi at TLL, Karuna Sampath at University of Warwick, would agree that it was Late Chattoo that got them into science. To me Prof. Chattoo was an institution in himself.

NS: How did you move to Canada next?

MB: I wanted to work on plant biology because in Prof. Chattoo’s lab I worked with plants so I wanted to continue working on plants. I did apply to a few other universities but the University of Saskatchewan gave me a scholarship and that was a huge factor so I went there. At that time, there was a study that got published in Nature (1988) on the discovery of chaperonins (these prevent proteins from misfolding). Chaperonin was the hottest topic in biology during that time and I found Sean M Hemmingsmen to be the best person with whom I can pursue my Ph.D. I approached him and he readily agreed to take me as his Ph.D. student. I was working on two different projects, one on Chlamydomonas and the other on a tobacco plant. I generated a cDNA library here since Baroda had taught me that very early on. Sean had to go to Oxford for a sabbatical to the lab of Paul Nurse. Once Sean returned from his sabbatical he told me that Paul Nurse had done a genetic screen for cell cycle mutants and he gave me some of Paul’s papers and he said Paul is also willing to give all these mutants – “do you want to work on this?” Sean’s lab was primarily a plant biology lab with no expertise in yeast. But he was persistent, “This is a very exciting problem and I would love to get involved, do you want to do it?” I said, “yes, sure.” I read up on all of Paul’s work and those that were coming out from the labs of Leland Hartwell and Marc Kirschner. The topic was really exciting and cutting edge but it was incredibly competitive. I was alone in this lab in Saskatchewan and I decided to work on cell cycle but not on mitosis or S phase which the big labs were pursuing vigorously, but cytokinesis. I cloned three of the cytokinesis genes while I was in Sean’s Lab, tropomyosin, myosin light chain, profilin.We had mutants for these, raised antibodies for two of these, localized one protein which is when I graduated. It is going to be 30 years and I am still fascinated. Visually it is a beautiful problem.  You can see the cell divide, you can see it contracting and the problem keeps us busy even now. That’s how I got into this field of research.


NS: Tell us about your postdoc at Vanderbilt, how did you decide this was the right place

 MB: It was very straightforward, I finished my Ph.D. in 1992. I wanted to go to a place where I could take all these genes and continue working on them. Kathy Gould had just set up her lab at Vanderbilt University, she did a postdoc with Paul Nurse. I heard she was hiring and I approached her and told her that I wanted to work on cytokinesis. So, I continued working on the genes I took from Sean’s lab. My colleague Dan Mc Collum and I got very excited with cytokinesis and decided that some of the key proteins in cytokinesis had not been discovered in the Nurse’s screen. So, I carried out another large genetic screen and we got hundreds of mutants defective in cytokinesis and we identified close to twenty different genes and the main motivation was to identify Type 2 Myosin heavy chain. That screen led us to everything – ring positioning, ring assembly, ring contraction. We had a blueprint on how cytokinesis happened. Kathy is a very generous person. When I left her lab she let me take the mutants I isolated. Looking back I realize how incredibly lucky I was to have been associated with very generous mentors during the initial years. Prof. Chattoo taught me the intricacies of molecular biology, Sean allowed me to take my work with me to Kathy’s lab and Kathy allowed me to take what I generated to set up my own lab in Singapore.


NS: After your postdoc – Did you have a dilemma: Academia or industry?

 MB: Ever since I saw Prof. Chattoo and the life of pure excitement he led in science, I did not think of anything else but a career in experimental research. Mentoring was another aspect that I loved. In Vanderbilt, I was taking care of undergraduate students in Kathy’s Lab and graduate students from the neighboring labs would also come to me for advice occasionally. People would tell me that I would make a great mentor. Even to this date that is the thing I enjoy the most. Now I have to do administration and so on but to spend time with your younger colleagues and go through the process of discovery is still the most exciting thing for me.


NS: Tell us about your transition to Institute for Molecular and Agrobiology, Singapore. What were the challenges during initial years of opening the lab? Have the dynamics of those challenges changed or they are the same?

MB: While I was in Kathy’s lab, I received a phone call from Nam-Hai Chua, who was setting up a new institute in Singapore. He was looking for a fission yeast person and offered me a position. The present generation applies to thirty-forty places, interviews seven-eight, lines up starter packages, but in my case I accepted the Singapore offer immediately. It was one of the best things I did since it was core funded and I did not have to write grants. I did not write grants for 16 years in Singapore and I could work on practically anything I wanted to work. That was an offer you would not want to refuse. Most of the time what happens is, for a starting PI it takes a couple of years to get a grant, you don’t have sufficient manpower to work on your ideas and you are slogging to get your first grant. So, for me walking into an institute and being able to recruit three people was a real luxury. Nobody told me what to do. When you write a grant, you fit the idea to a certain framework, addressing a disease or cultural problem but I could just work and not justify anything to anybody. The only expectation was to do something interesting and publish papers and create new knowledge. It was the easiest path that came in front of me, there was no struggle. I was given the money and asked for the equipment needed and there were technicians who would set up the equipment before I arrived. I also recruited a student before I moved there and he ended up on a paper I published before I even saw him. It worked out great.


NS: What were the factors you considered for your next move to UK? When did you know it was time to move?

MB: The 16 years I spent in Singapore was fantastic. During that time we went from a lab that did only genetics and molecular biology to a lab which did genetics, molecular biology, synthetic biology, reconstitution experiments, and biophysics. We could add new dimensions to work with progression in time. 16 years is a long time and you live only once so if you want to do something different you have to make a choice at some point and we took a big risk coming here to Warwick because coming from a core funded institute to a granting system is a challenge. But my feeling was, if I don’t make it in a granting system then my success in Singapore was a fluke. If I do make it in the granting system then maybe I am competitive enough. It was a bit of a challenge that I threw at myself and I think it’s good once in a while, although I would hate to have not succeeded in which case I would be thinking every day why I left my core funded job. But fortunately, it all worked out well.

UK has a very rich tradition of fission yeast research and it is an English speaking country. I chose the University of Warwick because of their core strength in Cell Biology. In particular, I was looking forward to having colleagues like Robert A Cross and Nicholas J Carter who were (and still does) doing a branch of Biophysics which I wanted to incorporate into our research. There were fantastic cell biologists like Andrew McAinsh, Masanori Mishima, Jonathan Millar, Anne Straube and a number of people whom I ranked very highly as scientists and thought that would be an excellent environment to work. I think Rob was the key and his presence made me choose to come to Warwick as opposed to a few other places which also offered me positions.


NS: What do you look for in students when you decide to mentor them? 

 MB: I really don’t know except that it works out well in the end. I have trained about 20 students, 16 have graduated, 4-5 of them are already group leaders some of them are associate professors with tenure doing very well. I have had about 20 postdocs of which 7 are PIs, 2 are professors, 1 is a Wellcome senior investigator at Crick. To come back to your question I don’t know, there is a feel I get when I talk to people. You can tell that they care about research. I don’t like people who come and talk about what they expect from their research. Like I want to get a job there, I want 2 Nature papers. I think research is about enjoying the process not waiting for the results. You can tell from talking to some people that they enjoy the process and If you do the process properly you will get something. I don’t have any formula but I have been incredibly lucky that more than a quarter people I have trained are successful group leaders all over the world and many others are doing successful postdocs. It’s not working 6-7 days a week, it’s how much you care about the experiment, how you prepare for the experiment and by being your worst critique. For example, there is a Malaysian student in my lab. She did an internship with me during her undergraduate degree. I asked what’s going on, she said “I see certain things but I did not want to tell you till I repeated this and I did not to want to mislead you”. I thought these are the people I want in my lab because they have high standards, they want to repeat things and it’s important in science to repeat things. For an undergraduate who hasn’t been in a research environment, to come to that mental framework is a feat in itself– To me that’s the kind of people I want in my lab, not someone who tells me that I want to finish my Ph.D. in three years with Nature papers without actually talking about the science. In science, many times it’s the feel that matters. It’s hard to precisely tell what you are looking for but it’s how much you care about science that matters.


NS: With the paucity of funds and slowing academic job growth, what do you think Postdocs should do in terms of career advancement? 

MB: There is a big shift in how science is being done, nowadays it’s a lot of collaborative science. When I started my Ph.D., it was very common to pick any of the top journals and find papers that have only 2 authors. There is a first author and the senior author. There were even papers that had one author. This was all possible those days. But if you look at papers now there are too many authors. The problem with that is it takes thirty human years to finish a project and there is a team of people and four joint first authors and a senior author. There aren’t going to be enough jobs. The way science has evolved requires large teams to accomplish the jobs and many of them may not make it because to accommodate that many successful postdocs you need to quadruple the intake. It is only natural since people have to earn a living and have a good quality life. Other options, like an industry job, is becoming more and more common.

There is a problem and what I would like to see is that some of these core-funded institutes to have staff scientists posts and these are for the very best postdocs – a chance to be independent and not with the expectation of running huge groups. People might love to do their own research -have just one technician. The way universities work these days that kind of a post doesn’t exist anymore. That’s one thing that I would like to see. The other is that – it’s nice for big labs to have continuity and there maybe people who do not want to run a lab but would be very valuable for a senior professor who doesn’t have that much time on a day to day basis. These are other options that people can think about. But it is a real problem.


NS: How should postdocs prepare for academic job transitions in the current scenario?

 MB: One should be excited about their science and that will be the best way of finding good jobs. You should have curiosity, enjoy the process and read a lot. If these three elements are there, success will come on its own.


NS: What are the major criteria one looks at when they hire a new faculty? 

 MB: I should declare that I am a signatory of DORA (The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment). I don’t look at metrics. I read the CV and look at the papers to see what the person has done. If it’s interesting and if they are attacking an important problem, using interesting approaches then that’s the kind of person I would like to recruit. As somebody who heads the Warwick quantitative biomedicine program, funded by the Wellcome trust, We have recruited 2 independent fellows and we will be recruiting more assistant professors very soon and we will use these criteria – good common sense, judgment of science. We won’t fall for metrics because then, only people who work in a few areas which are heavily populated get recruited, and you would not be recruiting people from areas that are not heavily populated and most likely that’s where your major insights are going to come from. You have to look at new exciting opportunities that are very early in development. We will look for people who want to make a difference in science, who have research problems that they are excited about and they think about all the time. We are looking for people who want to solve challenging problems by overturning conventional wisdom, asking big questions and for those who have a passion for science communication to teach the next generation of young students.  As an assistant professor, you should do a good job of putting enthusiasm in undergraduates. We want people who have the enthusiasm of talking about science, about their own research and scientific methods as valuable tools, something they cherish every day. That’s the kind of people we want.


NS: What will be your suggestions for the new investigators as they venture out to start their labs?

MB: Be curious. If you want to answer a problem, think quantitative, don’t be qualitative or descriptive. Medicine and Biology are increasingly becoming quantitative sciences. The way surgeries are done now are nothing compared to how they were done 20 years ago. Present day biology will incorporate quantitative data analytics, physical, engineering, chemical sciences to solve its major problems. That’s the way you can create an edge for yourself. Science is a business for smart people. You are trying to understand nature by doing clever experiments and there are thousands of clever people out there so everyone needs to have some edge. If you employ one or two of these other approaches together with your traditional strengths, I think you are likely to succeed in answering those questions.


NS: Any final thoughts for students pursuing PhD

MB: Read a lot, be curious, enjoy the process and communicate your science both in writing and orally. Those are the most important things at all levels. You could be sitting right next to somebody in a train and you should be able to explain your science in a simple language which he or she can appreciate.  Success is a very strange word, without these qualities it’s very difficult to answer the questions and if you are able to do that, to me that is a success.


About Mohan Balasubramanian:






Mohan Balasubramanian graduated in chemistry from Madras University in India and pursued a post-graduate program in microbiology and Biotechnology in Baroda, India. He carried out his Doctoral research at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, where he initiated his study of cell division in fission yeast. Following post-doctoral research at Vanderbilt University, USA, where he furthered his study of cell division, he joined the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology Singapore in 1997 and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory Singapore in 2002. He moved to The University of Warwick, UK in 2014.

Edited by Ananda Ghosh

About Nida Siddiqui:







Nida is currently pursuing final year Ph.D. at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. She completed B.E., Biotechnology from Sir MVIT, Bangalore, India. Following which she worked as a Junior Research Fellow in MRDG, IISc, Bangalore for a period of 2 years.


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Transitioning to an Editorial job @Nature Medicine: Face-to-Face with Javier Carmona

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I met Javier in a recently concluded Keystone meeting in Big Sky, MT. The meeting organizers had created an app for the participants to interact online. I found Javier on the app’s database as a participant from Nature Medicine and I reached out to him. He was kind enough to find time and discuss the nuances of a career transition into science editing. He agreed for a Face-to-Face interview with me and appreciated our efforts in helping the postdoctoral community identify their calling from the multitude of careers in science.  Javier (JC) started his studies at the University of Navarra and received a degree in Biology from the Autonomous University of Madrid. In 2013, he obtained his Ph.D. after working in Manel Esteller’s Cancer Epigenetics and Biology Program in Barcelona. Javier continued his research as a postdoctoral fellow in the group of José Baselga at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York, where he studied the mechanisms of resistance to therapy in patients with breast cancer. In 2016 he joined Nature Medicine as an Assistant Editor. Despite having a background in biomedicine, he has a myriad of scientific interests, and occasionally writes about different topics on the blog Mapping Ignorance . Javier is also an editor at Science Seeker where he selects top posts in the fields of medicine and general biology. You can follow him on Twitter @FJCarmonas.- Abhinav Dey (AD)

AD:    Please tell us about your academic research background?

JC: I studied biology at University of Navarra and I specialized in cell & molecular biology. As an undergraduate I did some rotations in different labs, and towards the end I started collaborating regularly in a laboratory at the Spanish National Cancer Research Centre, in Madrid (Spain) where I eventually completed my PhD. In my grad school, I worked on cancer epigenetics with a focus on identifying DNA methylation biomarkers for cancer diagnosis. I also got involved in many collaborations and got exposed to several different research areas –definitely an enriching experience!  After completing my PhD I started a postdoc at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC), in New York (USA), which lasted two and a half years. My postdoctoral research focused on breast cancer biology and tyrosine-kinase receptor signaling in relation to therapy resistance.

AD:    What motivated you to transition from laboratory science into scientific editor?

JC: As I considered my long-term career, I wanted to explore alternative paths to academic research that would, however, allow me to stay in touch with science. After considering different options, I realized that the world of scientific editing was the perfect one. This was because it’s a great opportunity to keep learning about the latest scientific advances on many different areas of research, which was exactly what I was looking for.

AD:   How did you train yourself into science editing? What resources during your Ph.D. or postdoc tenure served useful towards achieving your goals?

JC: Being trained in different areas of research and getting involved in different projects provided me with a broad view of scientific research and allowed me to create relationships with researchers in other fields. Also, being able to identify the main message when hearing a talk or reading a paper and detecting strengths and weaknesses –while participating in lab meetings and journal clubs-, are important skills that became very useful when I transitioned career paths. Lastly, towards the end of my postdoc I started to collaborate as a free-lance writer for different science blogs where I wrote about scientific advances; this helped me to develop my science communication skills.

AD: Can you share 5 most important skills that you highlighted in your CV/interview during the job application process?

JC: I think having a broad view of scientific research; a critical view and analytical capacity; showing ability to interact with people from different backgrounds; and being enthusiastic and open-minded about learning new concepts and ideas, are important skills in this type of job.

AD: As an editor at Nature Medicine, what does a normal day at work look like?

JC: Most of the time is devoted to reading scientific manuscripts that are submitted for consideration to the journal. As the editor responsible for cancer biology, I handle most of the manuscripts in this area; however, we also have editorial meetings every week in which we discuss those manuscripts we consider of highest interest, so I get to hear about manuscripts from other research areas, including neurobiology, cardiovascular research, infectious disease, etc. In addition to evaluating manuscripts, we also attend scientific meetings on many different topics. These are great opportunities to interact with researchers as well as to hear the most recent scientific discoveries.

AD: How do you achieve work-life balance?

JC: I think it’s important to maintain an equilibrium between work and life-out-of-work, and so I try to make time to practice sports as often as I can –either running around central park or leaving the city to do some hiking or skiing. Also, in a city like New York the cultural offer is huge, so we try to enjoy as much as possible the concerts and exhibitions going on at all times. And of course, traveling, either for a weekend or for longer times when possible, it’s a great way to disconnect and enjoy the time off.


We thank Javier for sharing his experience with us and we wish him success in his upcoming endeavors.

Javier Carmona 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.



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Transitioning into Science Policy: In conversation with Zane Martin, Ph.D.

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The process of bringing bench side discoveries to bedside not only involves the efforts of scientists and doctors, but also people who serve as a bridge among the researchers, policymakers, and the public at large. These individuals work in areas involving the policies that apply science for the benefit of society in a profession that is colloquially termed ‘Science Policy’. The science policy umbrella is diverse, ranging from scientists working in federal agencies, serving as Congressional staff, or providing science policy guidance for non-profits, academia, or industry. Duties include but aren’t limited to grant management, regulatory oversight, and science communication with policymakers and the public with the goal of progressing science. Every country that pursues scientific research with the aim of bringing the discoveries to the society has people involved in this profession. Although different governments work different, interacting with a science policy professional can always provide an idea of an alternative career for Ph.D. graduates.

Becoming a policy maker or an implementer by itself involves a lot of training (apart from bench work) and persistence. Although the internet provides a lot of resources, the best information can be obtained during a personal interaction with a professional working in this area. Serendipity created an opportunity for me to interview Dr. Zane Martin who gladly obliged to talk about her role in Science Policy and how her efforts during her graduate studies landed her some prestigious science policy fellowships.


SC: Could you tell us about your educational background?

ZM: I attended graduate school at the University of Texas Medical Branch, where I investigated drug discovery techniques for neurodegenerative diseases. While completing my Masters’ thesis in Pharmacology, I synthesized and screened a library of compounds to evaluate their prophylactic/therapeutic efficacy against amyloid-beta aggregation, one of the neuropathological hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Thereafter, I completed my Ph.D. dissertation in Neuroscience, investigating another therapeutic strategy based on inhibiting a cellular signalling event involved in synaptic plasticity implicated in Parkinson’s disease. Following my Ph.D., I completed a postdoctoral position at the NYS Institute for Basic Research, where I investigated potential therapeutics against tau hyperphosphorylation, another hallmark of Alzheimer’s. During my postdoc, I was awarded the Jeanne B. Kempner Postdoctoral Scholar fellowship to fund my work. Collectively from these studies, I authored several peer-reviewed publications and won travel awards to several conferences to present my work.


SC: What is your current position and what does a normal day at work look like?

ZM: I am currently completing an American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science and Technology Policy Fellowship at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Along with the training opportunities that I avail as a recipient of this fellowship, I work at the National Institute on Aging in the Division of Neuroscience. I am involved with the implementation of the National Alzheimer’s Project Act. I help regulate funding through both grant management and by developing resources to help progress science. Examples of resources at the NIH typically involve databases like PubMed,, and GenBank. The database I am working on is based on Alzheimer’s preclinical studies with the aim of improving science rigor to increase success in clinical trials.


SC: What motivated you to transition from laboratory science into science policy?

ZM: As an AD researcher, I was aware of the potential healthcare havoc we will experience if no treatment strategy for AD is discovered as demographic shifts increase the percentage of the population over age 65. Because of this, I developed a deep respect for the policies that help with the progression of biomedicine for the betterment of our society. The NIH is a global pillar for the worldwide coordination of scientific and healthcare related collaborations to address all global health needs. By including legislation, synergies become established to help pinpoint critical global health challenges, such as finding better treatments for diseases like AD.


SC: What were your approaches to pursue science policy? Did you exploit other resources during your Ph.D. or postdoc tenure to gain skills pertaining to your goals?

ZM: I first got involved during graduate school by participating in advocacy networks in different scientific societies. I attended advocacy meetings and volunteered to help with advocacy events. To increase experience in leadership positions, I was the president of my local Association for Women in Science (AWIS) chapter during my last two years in graduate school, where I organized several local functions and chapter meetings.

During my postdoc, I created a local science advocacy group with the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB). My group met with our Senator’s staff to campaign for increased biomedical funding. I also volunteered as an Alzheimer’s Congressional Team Member for the Alzheimer’s Association, where I wrote OpEds for our local paper and met with policymakers to discuss the importance of biomedical funding for Alzheimer’s research.

From volunteering at societies, I found an opportunity to become a science policy intern at the American Brain Coalition (ABC). For this internship, I participated in meetings with the Congressional Neuroscience Caucus to analyse the impact and effectiveness of the BRAIN Initiative. I wrote reports from these meetings for the ABC members, and I provided other material for the ABC website, such as creating a Capitol Hill Toolkit.

I also started a blog to practice writing for different audiences. I wrote about current policy events, such as appropriations proceedings involving biomedical funding, and legislations dealing with climate change and energy, evolution and schools, and vaccination enforcement. This blog led to a consultation gig with AAAS, where I submitted blogs about science policy topics for their MemberCenter website.

I recently completed a Mirzayan Science Policy Fellowship at the National Academy of Sciences working in the Board on Life Sciences, Division on Earth and Life Studies. I helped manage projects by organizing expert speakers, panelists and reviewers, selecting the literature to guide the attendees, participating in workshops and webinars, and co-authoring the workshop summaries.


SC: Could you share your thoughts on how can a person who has no experience in science policy transition into such a role?

ZM: First and foremost, complete a Ph.D. program. Ph.D. graduates have a greater advantage because they understand science, and they know how to think critically. Another important suggestion is to network. Volunteer for science societies and nonprofits, and ask for informational interviews from people that interest you. Don’t be shy! You’ll be amazed at how receptive people really are when you reach out. And most importantly: WRITE. Write for multiple audiences. Along with scientific manuscripts, write Letters to the Editor or OpEds for your local paper, blog, submit articles to societies and nonprofits. Finally, don’t get discouraged with rejection. The great thing about science policy is that every person takes a different path to get there. So, if one path doesn’t work, try another.

SC: What are the long-term satisfactions associated with a career in this field?

ZM: I feel more purposeful in this career trajectory. Being a bench scientist is also admirable, but working in science policy is more “big picture” with work potential having a greater impact. Overall, working for the government is highly rewarding because I am serving the society.



About Zane:

I am a AAAS S&T Policy Fellow at the National Institute on Aging – National Institutes of Health, where I help with the implementation of the National Alzheimer’s Plan. I have a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and M.S. in Pharmacology from the University of Texas Medical Branch, and received postdoctoral training at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Developmental Disabilities. My research career focused on drug discovery strategies to combat Alzheimer’s disease and related dementias.


About Sayantan:

I’m an IRTA postdoctoral visiting fellow at the National Institute on Aging – National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, USA. Apart from science, I invest my time in networking, writing, organizing events, and consolidating efforts to build a platform that brings together scientists and industry professionals to help spread the perception of alternate careers for life science graduates. Follow me on Twitter @ch_sayantan


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Ina: artist who uses water to communicate science

in Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by
We are 90% microbial
Cellular processes in water color by Ina Schuppe Koistinen.

Since the time I started working with Sciwri, my interest has been to meet and chat with people who work at the interface of art and science. It has been an enriching experience for me to learn how other scientists/artists think. Trained as a scientist, we are accustomed to drawings and writings all the time, be it our lab notebooks, chalk talks, lab meetings, departmental seminars, etc. using every possible ways to explain our science to peers, mentors, reviewers or philanthropists and other funding agents. Some however break the boundaries of their training and manage to express themselves and their science through their art. Ina Schuppe Koistinen is one such artist.

Ina’s passion for science, biology and chemistry in particular stemmed from the classroom taught by her favorite school teacher. She is now a Associate Professor in Molecular Toxicology at Karolinska Institutet and works at the Science for Life Laboratory.

As a scientist, she feels that science is often unapproachable for commoners. People perceive us as a breed of nerds in white coats and instruments in lab and choosing not to talk about it. While that she proclaims is true, it does not give a complete picture. Science is not boring as often perceived. She has taken it upon herself to tell the world that science is pretty engaging and scientists are just not ‘labrats’ but extremely dynamic. And what can be more interesting than beautiful images where one color bleeds into the other and imagination takes its shape in the form of lines and curves and eventually comes together to build a scientific phenomena or a concept.

She had always toyed with colors and brushes. But during Ph.D. is when she really found her expression.  While gazing through the microscope for most of her graduate studies she would look at colored stained neurons on a dark background. The patters she saw inspired her and she felt the urge to share them. She rediscovered the colors and brush as a medium to express herself. The nerves and neuronal network became the subjects of her scientific and artistic inquiry.

It was too irresistible a force and since then she has been involved on various projects dealing with science and arts. As a scientist she would be looking at patterns all day and now how she looks at her life through that same glass as well. She believes there is no such thing as a part time artist. It is not about the hours one spends in the studio, it is about how much, energy, observation, preparation goes into making that “art”. The creative process is something that is with you 24X7. She often works on a subject and a medium for six months or more and once the project is done she is on the lookout for her next inspiration. She has developed her skills in watercolour painting at different art schools in Sweden. She explores different medium and different subjects. Her subjects are often inspired by her work, her fantasies and her surroundings. Microscopy is what inspires her the most. “The hidden intricacies of cells and tissue, a completely different world which deals with microns keeps me inspired”, Ina smiled.

Cellular processes visualized in water colors  by Ina Schuppe Koistinen.

When asked why did she chose visual arts, she had the most simple yet a profound response, “because, I like it”. Also as a yoga teacher, she believes in wholesomeness of life. The day job of science was not liberating her enough and she needed to do more. Almost all the multipotentialites I met during this journey of interviewing for Sciwri, this remains a common theme, the urge to do more, do something creative and useful. She made poignant observation that as scientists, we live in tomorrow. Today you plan an experiment, tomorrow you set it up. Today you set it up, you make observations in future. In future, based on the result, you decide further experiments and hypothesis. Gratification in scientific process is delayed. The moment in present is often lost. She fills up that space through the medium of art. Ina says “Art to me is like meditation; both allows you to explore within and focus at the same time.”

Contribution to science not only comes from scientists at the bench, it also comes from communicators, and educators of science. With her art shows and exhibits, she manages to engage society and continues to make science ‘cooler’ for everyone. She believes if one student gets inspired to do science after looking at her work, she would have accomplished something. During her exhibitions she has varied response from both scientists and laymen. Artists tend to appreciate the colors, patterns, the technique. Some compare the cells and process to cosmic events like big bang and other physical process. Audiences with a bit of biology training do tend to find the meaning and concept in the work. Her work ignites many wonderful conversations.

As scientists, we are trained to observe and analyze. For many the creativity and imagination is often lost in the process. Ina experienced something very similar when she had an exhibit of series of paintings on tissues and cells as viewed through microscopes. To her surprise many pathologists were unable to look beyond what they were used to looking under the microscope and were disappointed by the fact that the paintings do not show the real shapes!

Ada Lovlace, co founder of first computer with Charles Babbage, said, ‘Imagination is the Discovering Faculty, pre-eminently. It is that which penetrates into the unseen worlds around us, the worlds of Science. It is that which feels & discovers what is, the real which we see not, which exists not for our senses. Those who have learned to walk on the threshold of the unknown worlds, by means of what are commonly termed par excellence the exact sciences, may then with the fair white wings of Imagination hope to soar further into the unexplored amidst which we live.’

Ina’s portrait by the author

Talking to Ina has reiterated the importance of wholesome creative life to me. Hope you learn something from her as well. Next time when I paint blobs of colors, Ina’s philosophy will guide me.

Find more about Ina’s work on her website:

Cover Image: We are 90% microbial  by Ina Schuppe Koistinen.

About the author

Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing.




Face to Face with Dr. Senthil Arumugam

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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 (, 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 (, whose lab was essentially based on applications of fluorescence methods to biology to understand biological phenomena. I gladly accepted it, knowing the fact that there were plenty of optics and microscopy, but truth be told I had no clue about the biological problems that I would address. I don’t think I analyzed so much in depth about institute rankings, lab rankings or whatsoever other metrics may be.

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.

The City of Dresden, Germany

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 ( 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.

The mountains where I would occasionally hike

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 ( 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


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.


Transitioning to a faculty position in Australia: Face to Face with Ranjay Chakraborty

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The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs has brought you stories of career transitions from United States, Europe and India. This time around we go ‘down-under’ and have tete-a-tete with Dr Ranjay Chakraborty (RC). Ranjay is transitioning from a postdoctoral position at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) to academic faculty position at Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia). In his Face-t0-Face interview with Abhinav Dey (AD) he talks about his aspirations, his efforts and his future plans in Australian academia.

AD: How did you know it was time to move on from your postdoctoral fellowship to your first professional position?

RC: After completing my PhD at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane (Australia) in 2013, I was excited to join my first postdoctoral position at Emory. In addition to geographical and cultural changes, I was looking forward to my transition from human visual optics research to visual neuroscience research in animal models. I feel, 3.5 years of postdoctoral experience at Emory provided me optimal exposure to the world of academia, and helped me better understand the bigger picture of being an academic. Of course, with time, I matured as a scientist, and started feeling more confident about looking for academic positions. By third year, I made some good publications from the current lab, and was working on an Early Research Career Development award. At that point, I started looking for academic positions (mostly outside the USA due to visa restrictions), and was lucky to get one.

AD: What was your motivation towards an academic career?

RC: I enjoyed doing vision science research during my PhD and postdoctoral fellowship. I have invested so many years in research that I was absolutely sure of continuing it, wherever I go. Although I didn’t get to do a lot, I loved teaching visual optics in India, and during my graduate studies in Australia. I was looking for a platform, where I could bring both research and teaching together. This was my strongest motivation for an academic career. In Australia, my position would also allow me to see patients in the clinic as an optometrist; something that I totally enjoyed in the past.

AD: How do you foresee the academic research environment in Australia?

RC: Similar to the US, establishing a research career in Australia is challenging. From my previous experience, I know that NIH equivalent, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council fundings are extremely competitive. I am looking to develop collaborations within and outside the Vision Science dept. for making competitive grant applications. I will also be looking for industrial funding.


Image courtesy: Ranjay Chakraborty

AD: How did your postdoc training make you competitive for an academic position?

RC: My postdoc training at Emory has been truly instrumental in preparing me for this academic position. It helped me to develop a range of analytical and research skills that were crucial for this position. In addition to basic science research, I learned about academic writing, mentorship, journal and data review, data presentation, collaborative research and many other things that helped me to develop as more mature and confident professional. It has been a magnificent journey from my grad school to the end of this postdoctoral position. I am really thankful to my postdoctoral mentors Drs. Machelle T. Pardue and P. Michael Iuvone for this precious postdoctoral training opportunity at Emory.

AD: What advice do you have for postdocs to make best use of their time?

RC: This is my first position, and I am too young to advice anything in particular. Postdocs are generally very disciplined and assiduous, and they exactly know that it’s time for either “publish or perish”. One small advice – try not to restrain yourself to just “lab and experiments”. Every once in a while traveling and time with family and friends help becoming more productive and focused at work.

AD: Can you briefly describe your plans about the size and mentorship style of your laboratory?

RC: Australian academic positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. In the 1st year, my primary focus would be preparing the lectures, and set up the lab. I am going to take it easy, and keep my lab small at the beginning. I plan to hire a research technician to get started with my projects. I would extend my research group in the future depending on projects and funding situation. I intend to hire people who are deferential, good team players, and inherently motivated to do good research. I would design robust policies in the lab for running experiments, ordering materials, lab meetings with individual lab members/groups, data management and storage, authorships, attending meetings and developing collaborations. I would want my group to be transparent, and feel free about discussing their issues with me and each other.

AD: Do you have teaching responsibilities?

RC: As I mentioned previously, Australian faculty positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. I do not have a lot of teaching experience, and I look forward to this new role in Australia.

AD: Were there any specific resources such as the Office of Postdoctoral Education that you utilized to help you transition into an independent position?

RC: Yes, a number of courses/workshops from Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education have been really helpful in introducing me to several critical aspects of academic positions in the US. I was particularly benefited from K award grant writing course, laboratory management course, and responsible conduct of research ethics course offered by the Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education. I also attended workshops for “how to prepare teaching and research statements”, “how to look and apply for academic positions”, and “preparing CV and NIH statement”. These courses helped me to evaluate whether or not I really wanted to pursue academia.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs about grant writing and successfully obtaining funding?

RC: I do not have any major funding to myself, so I am not the best person to advice on that. But, from my postdoctoral experience at Emory, I have learned that early grant applications based on solid pilot data are imperative to applying for successful academic positions. Early applications within the first two years of postdoc (such as departmental grants) do not have to be too extensive, but they set you up for the habit of grant writing. Of course, publications are equally important. As we all know, first 4 years of postdoc are critical for several early career grants in the US.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs making the transition to an independent career?

RC: As I mentioned earlier, the key is to decide whether or not you really want to pursue an independent career. If you do, it doesn’t harm to start applying sooner. With a clear and well-structured research aim, decent publications, adequate skill sets, and strong references you could have a decent chance to get a tenure-track position, perhaps stronger than you might think!

Ranjay Chakraborty 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


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Featured image source: Pixabay


From cloning genes to directing X-rays: Face to Face with Nishant Kumar Varshney

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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


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Face to Face with Sandhya Sriram

in Face à Face by

In this episode of Face to Face, Dr. Sandhya Sriram talks about her role as a Program and Grants Coordinator at ASTAR Singapore. More importantly, she talks about her journey as a postdoc, her network strategies, and her entrepreneurial ventures in science communication and more….

Face to Face with Prof. Lawrence Rajendran on Science Matters

in Face à Face by

“Observations, not stories, are the pillars of good science. Today’s journals however, favor story-telling over observations, and congruency over complexity. As a consequence, there is a pressure to tell only good stories. Moreover, incentives associated with publishing in high-impact journals lead to loss of scientifically and ethically sound observations that do not fit the storyline, and in some unfortunate cases also to fraudulence. The resulting non-communication of data and irreproducibility not only delays scientific progress but also negatively affects society as a whole. ”

This is the concept of Science Matters a GenX journal for scientists. Prof Lawrence Rajendran from the University of Zurich talks about his idea of what a journal should feel like, and why ScienceMatters is different and has a potential to change the publication industry as well as science.


Prof. Lawrence Rajendran

University of Zurich

Founder: Science Matters



Tête-à-tête with Gaurav

in Face à Face/That Makes Sense by

Gaurav Goyal shares his educational journey from Kurukshetra to Korea and then to the U.S. He is currently working as a research scientist with a start up in U.S., where he continues to grow, learn and challenge himself.

The highlights from this conversation:
earn anything and everything, pick up a book, go sit in a class. initially you might struggle but eventually, you will learn.
There is no limitation to what you can learn and what you can do. Never live with a label.
To people who are finishing Ph.D.
Take inspiration, don’t be blinded by history. be open to explore, expose yourself. make use of resources available, wherever you are; and MAKE YOUR OWN CHOICE.
Image: Another brick in the wall.
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