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Ernesto Llamas: the sketching science guy

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Sketching Science is a well-known blog amongst the scientist community. Most of the posts relate to the guy who cries after a PCR fails, and stays inside the lab irrespective of weather and time. The wit and humor packed in the sketches have supplemented the constant need for coffee. The blog has become one of the most popular amongst the scientists in a short span of just a year. The main blog does not reveal the identity of the cartoon maker or the model. The first revelation, no, the guy in the images is not the cartoonist. The Sketching Science guy is a lab colleague of Ernesto Llamas, the creator of Sketching Science. Secondly, No, I am not revealing the name of the model (perhaps some other day). On behalf of Club Sciwri, I spoke to Ernesto. Frequently, he uses two tools: the micropipette and the iPad stylus. In this post, he shares with us his beginning, his present, and his future aspirations.

I.J. How did you choose to become a scientist?

E.L.  My father is a psychiatrist and my mother a painter. So, since I was a child, I was surrounded by both science and art. My dad inspired me to go into life sciences whereas my mother was a significant influence to get into the art world. When I was about to finish high school, I heard about Genomics, and I was very keen to study it. However, back then this field was still emerging in Mexico, and only two Universities had this degree. Thus, it was tough to get admitted. I tried, but I was not accepted. Then, I decided to study Biology at the best University of my country, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Moving to Mexico City and studying Biology opened up my mind and horizons. I found my passion for molecular biology.

After becoming a Biologist, I decided to pursue a Masters in Biochemistry. During my Master’s I started working in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. It was the first time I did real experiments using a micropipette. I was very interested in chloroplast biology.

After finishing my Masters, I wanted to move out from Mexico. Science is a career that allows you to travel and meet new people, and interact with them, either via conferences or going to different laboratories. I was very motivated with the idea of studying a Ph.D. abroad. I applied to several places, was rejected by some but finally, I came to Barcelona to the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG). Nowadays, I am still working on plant biology using Arabidopsis as my model. I am in my 3rd year and planning to defend my thesis this year.  I have been able to publish some of my work from my Masters and Ph.D.

I.J. Since when have you been sketching and painting? How did Sketching Science come about?

E.L. Since I was a kid, I have been painting. In my school notebooks, there were sketches and doodles everywhere. I also took some painting lessons where I had the opportunity to learn watercolor and oil painting. Once I joined the university, I did not get much time to paint, sketch or doodling. However, during my Ph.D., I re-discovered my passion for art. I received an iPad as a gift, and I started to using it to take notes, and again, there were digital doodles and sketches everywhere. I was attending to seminars, and while taking notes, I was drawing the speaker, the images, and charts shown in the presentation.

I am a fan of social media; I used so see all the amazing blogs like AsapSCIENCE, PHD Comics, IFLScience, and others. I noticed that many others do not show much visual material about the life of scientists in a research lab. So, I decided to illustrate everyday struggles in a molecular biology lab.

In the beginning, I decided to open a Twitter account, but I did not get much response there, so I started using Instagram and then Facebook back in March 2016. It has been a year since I started and I am very thankful for the help provided by wife, lab mates and the “Sketching Science guy” that give me a hand to recreate the humoristic situations that happen daily in the lab.

Experiments do not always work correctly. Doing science can bring you frustration, but you have to keep working and fix your mistakes. You just have to make fun of your errors and keep going. For example, if your PCR did not work, you just need to laugh about it and try it again, and that is the message I want to spread with my posts.

That’s how it started, and I think it is going well because the number of Sketching Science followers are still increasing.

I.J. How did it evolve into a business?

E.L. I am just starting to transform Sketching Science into a business. It is super hard to manage a business and finish a Ph.D. Right now I am quite busy, trying to write my first author paper and my Ph.D. thesis. Some companies have contacted me to make some advertisement for them, and it is rewarding because my work is appreciated and support me to keep creating content. I am planning to make an appropriate business platform. Once I finish my Ph.D., my plan is to have a proper website with engaging images to communicate science.  I would like to have some sponsored content to create the website and keep Sketching Science’s social networks growing.

But for now, I am just focusing on finish my P.h.D. and is a lot of work. Right now, it’s just my wife and me who are doing this; she helps me with social media and with the upcoming website. To transform Sketching Science into a proper science communication platform will take some time. I will need some funds or financial aid to become a professional.

However, I am looking for post-doc positions right now. But sometimes it is hard to get one. I do want to follow an academic career. Nevertheless, if I do not get a suitable position, I will focus on Sketching Science a 100% and look for other options during the meantime.

Science communication is a relevant thing right now, so I think it’s okay to keep developing Sketching Science and follow a scientific career.

I.J. How supportive is your PI and your institute?

E.L. My PI is very supportive. He knows what I am doing. I also make a lot of cartoons for lab presentations, and I think he likes them. Right now, I am helping him create visuals for reviews and posters. We are also planning to come up with a book. Regarding CRAG, I think most of the people there know that I am the creator of Sketching Science.

I.J. Why do you think visual media is relevant in science communication?

E.L. So, a text is not very inviting. I am more a visual person. I believe that a colorful and balanced image is more exciting and inviting. For instance, when I see a post on Facebook with an attractive image, I automatically click the link attached to the picture and I read the article. Definitively, posting visual content on social networks, it’s a powerful tool to communicate science nowadays.

I.J. How has been your personal experience juggling a Ph.D. and a Facebook page?

E.L. When I started I was posting one drawing per day. Every day was tough, so now I create one once in a week. I am busy most of the week; I try to make something during nights, or in the train on my way to the Institute. Particularly, I work mostly during weekends creating stuff for Sketching Science. Designing the sketches somehow releases my stress.

I.J. What kind of feedback do you receive from your followers?

E.L. I have had some great responses for some of my posts. Some months ago, I made a post about the PCR protocol, and one follower recreated the whole set of sketches taking photos of himself. For the post “Summer is coming” another fan sent me a picture of him wearing the same lab coat, shirt, gloves, and sunglasses just like the Sketching Science guy! It is nice to see how people recreate some of my work.

Albus Dumbledore said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” On behalf of the scientific community, I thanked Ernesto for bringing the much need break from the cycles of frustration.


About the author

Ipsa Jain is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Dr. Neha Bhudha edited the article.





Transitioning as an Editor at Cell Press: Face-to-Face with Colleen Brady

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Scientific conferences are major networking events for scientists at various stages of their careers. Some find collaborators, some find career development opportunities, but nevertheless everyone builds their network. I met Colleen in a Keystone meeting while presenting my poster and it was nice to know that she is an Emory alumnus. We discussed science not only in experimental aspects but also in her career as a scientific editor. Not only did she agree to share her career transition story, she also introduced me to a treasure trove of similar stories from editors at Cell Press with advice for those wanting to be an editor as well as perspectives from different editors who give their background and reasons for becoming an editor. In this Face-to-Face interview with Colleen Brady (CB), we will learn how her editorial career path to Cell Press shaped-up while honing her science communication skills as a bench scientist at Stanford and Harvard universities.- Abhinav Dey (AD)

AD: Please tell us about your academic background?

CB: Before coming to Cell Press, I completed a postdoc at Massachusetts General Hospital and a PhD in Cancer Biology at Stanford University.  My training included some breadth beyond one technique or system, which was helpful preparation for academic editing.  As a PhD student, I studied the transactivation functions of the tumor suppressor p53 using mouse and cell model systems.  As a postdoc, I learned the zebrafish system and studied retinal regeneration using chemical biology screening techniques.  I also enjoyed teaching as both a student and a postdoc, which helped build my communication skills.

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

CB: I spend much of my time reading and evaluating science.  Our team meets almost every day to have an editorial meeting where we discuss manuscripts under consideration, including newly submitted manuscripts as well as those that have undergone peer review.  For new manuscripts, we read them and consider them within the framework of our journal and in the context of previous publications.  We consider the strength of the data as well as the level of conceptual advance over previously published work and whether the overall manuscript aligns with our journal’s scope.  When we decide to send a paper for peer review, I investigate potential reviewers with expertise in the key areas of the paper. After peer review, I synthesize the reviewer feedback along with our original editorial assessment to determine the best course for the manuscript.  I spend a portion of each day writing decision letters and responding to author inquiries and appeals.  My job also includes other activities such as going to conferences and visiting labs, where I can learn about the latest research, meet people in our community, and help scientists decide whether or not to submit their paper to our journal. These meetings can also help us identify topics for potential review articles. Editors also work on committees with the aim of improving the way we publish science.  For example, a lot of committee work went into our new methods format called STAR methods.  I wasn’t part of that committee, but maybe I’ll be involved in our next big project.

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

CB: I enjoy thinking and communicating about science,  and my original career plan was to be a professor at a small liberal arts school.  Partway into my postdoc, curiosity led me to a “meet the experts” session at a conference, where I joined the group of a scientific editor.  I didn’t know what to expect, but she planted a seed that this might be an interesting career for me.  A year later, when I saw a job opening at Cell Press I decided to apply.  The interview process convinced me that I would enjoy the work, and when I got the job I was happy to accept it.

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

CB: The traditional academic training in a PhD and postdoc provides many of the skills needed for editing.  Reading and thinking critically about a broad spectrum of science is key to this job.  Changing model organisms and topic areas required a significant amount of research reading when I started my postdoc.  My lab colleagues had diverse projects, and I tried to ask them critical questions about their work and think of key experiments that might advance their findings.  Journal clubs and helping my mentors evaluate papers for journal peer review were other structured ways I worked on these skills.  In fact, I always suggest that people interested in editing should try to get some experience by helping his/her mentor with peer review.

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

CB: The interview process for an editorial position always includes some written and verbal exercises intended to both expose the interviewee to editorial-style work as well as to test his or her aptitude for evaluating manuscripts.  I took these very seriously, and found them fun.  On my CV, I highlighted my strong academic training, prior communication-related work, and publication record.

AD: What are the long-term goals associated with a career in this field?

CB: There are many different trajectories that a career in editing could lead to. The most obvious option is to remain in editing and become a senior editor or even Editor-in-Chief of a journal.  Other editors develop an interest in a different role in publishing.  I have also seen people leave for jobs in academic science as program managers or to work as grant writers.  Scientific expertise, decision making skills, and strong communication skills can lead to many different possibilities.  Being an editor can be a great way to stay involved in science without a job at the bench.

We thank Colleen for sharing her experience with us and we wish her success in her upcoming endeavors.

Colleen Brady was interviewed by Abhinav Dey.
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Featured image source: Pixabay

Planning ahead – From academia to Siemens Healthcare

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Transitioning from academia to an industrial position involves meticulous thinking and planning. In other words, a candidate must exploit all the resources that their academic environment provides them and use them to their advantage for a successful progression into industry. Sarmistha Ray-Saha, a Senior Biochemist at Siemens Healthcare, NY, obliged to share her transition journey with academic professionals at the NYC-PhD CSG Coffee Chat held in February 2017.

Moving across continents

Sarmistha pursued her undergraduate education in Chemistry at the University of Calcutta (CU). But as it is with many students, Sarmistha was confused about the next step. As she would put it, “I had no clue what to do post Bachelor’s. Should I follow the herd?” Since she loved biology (which she still does), Sarmistha decided to explore the field of Biotechnology for her Master’s at the GCGEB in CU. The program was incredibly well designed and structured, introducing students (some for the first time) to a world beyond academia. The department proactively organized regular visits to various research institutes in Kolkata. Students were given the opportunity to participate hands-on in the lab, all the while interacting with scientists in highly applied fields of research.

Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.

“Truly speaking, my Master’s was the most formative in taking me beyond my books and unravelling what biology, technology, research and the outside world is about.” Pursuing a PhD was undoubtedly the appropriate next step. She credits her training at the GCGEB, and NCBS, Bangalore (where she was a JRF) for her eventual acceptance into the MB&B PhD program at Yale University.

Academic roller coaster

Sarmistha thoroughly enjoyed her PhD, however somehow felt isolated. “I would be in my own little corner and would worry about the actual impact of my work with respect to the society.” The feeling of uncertainty with the outcome of an experiment after investing a credible amount of time slowly grew up on her. “When I started my PhD, I had the thought that I would become a professor one day to truly contribute back. I have tremendous respect for university professors, their dedication towards research and their ability to manage laboratories, all the while mentoring students and helping them earn their degree. Two to three years later, I started realizing that it may not be where my aspirations lie. I would like to pursue science within a team and stay in the realm of wet-lab biochemistry and biophysics. Also, in order to pursue a faculty position, I would have had to produce more high-end publications to stand level with the many deserving candidates.” It was time for Sarmistha to explore options that could propel her career into industry.

Understanding industry

If a career in industry was what Sarmistha wished to pursue, it was elemental for her to understand how industries that operate within the scientific domain function. Importantly, one must also learn how to present themselves. Yale University provides a great informational resource regarding career development for its graduate students and postdocs. “I attended presentations by company representatives, career forums, writing workshops and what not. After a certain length of time I could use the newly gained knowledge to write my own resume, cover letter and present myself. I’ll always be indebted to Yale for providing access to such resources.”

Subsequently, Sarmistha started handing over her resumes to the company representatives who’d visit Yale, “We’ll get in touch”, they’d say. It never happened. “It was clear that my resume was not where it needed to be to get noticed.” But the presentations were invaluable. Sarmistha learned about the background of the company professionals, the divisions they work in and the company itself.

One thought nevertheless bothered her, “If others could transition, why not me?” As with many, sometimes it does creep in within us that we as PhD graduates could satisfy the role of a technician in a company. This is not the right thought. If one wants to be a technician, then the transition should probably be made right after undergraduate studies. PhDs are mostly over qualified for such roles. This is what most recruiters would say. A company will likely not want to underpay a PhD. However, most career forums will discuss how PhDs can only be over qualified in the field they are in, but not so if there is a career shift.

So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD.

Many companies do require that PhD graduates undergo a postdoctoral training. Earning a PhD demonstrates one’s capability to execute a project. A postdoctoral tenure highlights that one can do so independently. For companies, this is an important skill! And realistically put, postdoctoral training does lend maturity and confidence in scientific thinking and analytical reasoning by building upon skills learned in graduate school. “So, do not be disheartened if you are not able to transition post-PhD, you can do so after your postdoc. However, network extensively from the start or during your PhD. A solid network is an important part of the industrial job search process, post-PhD”, Sarmistha chips in.

The transition

Since Sarmistha realized that a postdoctoral term would be valuable, she chose to move into more of an applied field – GPCR research at the Rockefeller University. “Yale had provided me the foundation for transition. My postdoctoral term gave me enough time to develop myself, foray into new research projects, troubleshoot, mature further and develop new contacts.”

A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process.

“I was at a resume and cover letter writing workshop where I connected with a postdoctoral services representative from Duke University“, Sarmistha recalls. “She was extremely helpful, provided suggestions and that too selflessly!” Sarmistha realized, which we too should realize, the importance of presentation. A small typo, a wrong punctuation or a misaligned paragraph can close doors for the application review process. One must be very critical of their own write-ups.

Sarmistha found the job advertisement while searching through job links. However, she wanted to learn a bit more about the advertised position before the application. Sarmistha got in touch with a coworker who had a LinkedIn connection at Siemens Healthcare. This connection bore fruit, and the Siemens professional agreed to an informational interview. In this context, it is good to expand the connections in LinkedIn as much as possible. Any contact made during forums, network sessions, trainings etc. can be a connection even if there was no personal meeting, simply by extending an invitation with details of the meeting venue.

The informational interview

An informational interview represents talking/meeting someone who’s in a position that the applicant is interested in or randomly meeting someone who’s in a job that the candidate aspires to be in the future. It’s about understanding the roles that a particular job entails in a broader sense, without probing too much (for instance asking questions pertaining to vacancies). The interview should be leveraged to learn about a day at work, or the feasibility of working from home for that particular job etc. Being too specific during an informational interview makes people uncomfortable. One session should not run more than 20-30 minutes.

Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.

This was not Sarmistha’s first informational interview. She prepared her questions well in advance. Having started her timer right on call, she was ready to wrap up at the 25min mark. The person on the other end reiterated specific points in the job description that are important to the applicant’s skill set. Sarmistha went back to the job ad and read between the lines. “Job descriptions are a great tool to learn about skill sets a particular position demands. It’s imperative to write cover letters and resume specific to the ad of interest, hence providing a better hit on the resume scanning software.”

Take home message

“Be proactive. List your contacts, go to the company page, do informational interviews. Some job advertisements may not directly list your technical enterprise, but terminologies can easily overlap. Careful reading of the description is very important! Be grateful to the rigorous graduate training and postdoctoral research that have honed your analytical skills, and leverage those in your job interview. All those years of research are invaluable for you to develop into who you are.”

Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy.

“There are some other aspects of the industrial environment one must meticulously consider. Finding the best fit is vital, as in, giving a thought about the kind of work that will keep you happy. For ex. consider whether a job that entails a lot of conversation and less bench job would suit you or vice versa; or would you prefer a profession that involves dressing in suits vs. casuals.” Do a personal evaluation, and be honest to yourself.

A job in a company may not allow a lot of freedom to conduct research at will. Such a scenario may not suit those who are comfortable pursuing their own scientific goals. Some companies run wellness programs or workshops where an employee is given the opportunity to develop skills like leadership and communication. Participation in these groups allow for constant growth above and beyond the assigned job.

An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.

“An industrial profession will challenge you periodically. You will have to prove your worth time and again.” This, along with the nature of the work, keeps Sarmistha motivated. Since she works on assay development, Sarmistha looks forward to the day when her products will be used in clinics or hospitals.


About Sarmistha

Sarmistha’s multidisciplinary journey has kindled her understanding towards signaling pathways in diseased states. Her interests overlap exploring protein diagnostics and therapeutics, from conception to assaying. Sarmistha also actively participates in science communication, teaching and outreach activities, as an avenue of bringing awareness about human health in this biotech era.

Transitioning to Pharmaceutical Research: Face-to-Face with Mark Musters from Lead Pharma

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Welcome mixers are great events at conferences. To introduce myself, I generally shorten my name not only for ease of communication but also to save 1-2 minutes in getting the pronunciation right. However, when I met Mark and introduced myself as Abhi he was quick to ask if I am Abhi or Abhinav. I realized my nametag gave that away. We happened to exchange several notes and by the end of the conference he was nice enough to agree to talk about his career transition to pharmaceutical research for ClubSciWri. It has been a pleasure to know about his work and career. – Abhinav Dey (AD)


Mark W.J.M. Musters (born 1980, The Netherlands) obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degree in Biomedical Engineering at Eindhoven University of Technology, followed by a PhD degree in computational systems biology at the same university in 2007. He continued his career at Wageningen University as a postdoctoral researcher by constructing detailed mathematical models of the central metabolism. In 2010, he started as a scientist at Lead Pharma, a small pharmaceutical company that develops innovative medicines to treat cancer and immune-related diseases. He is currently a project leader of an oncology and an immunology project.

AD: Can you briefly describe your role at Lead Pharma? What does a normal workday look like?

MM: Lead Pharma is a small pharmaceutical company (about 30 employees) that develops small molecular compounds to treat cancer and (auto-)immune diseases. I am a project leader of an immunology (atopic dermatitis) and oncology (metastatic melanoma) project. As a project leader, my main responsibility is that the project team develops potent and selective small molecular compound within a predefined time frame. A normal workday consists of structuring and coordinating all activities between the different groups (chemistry, molecular pharmacology, cellular pharmacology), informing team members and management about the progress, communicating with external parties, writing grant proposals and troubleshooting (if necessary). Besides being a project leader, I also analyze large -omics data sets to search for novel biomarkers and new targets that we could work on in the near future.

AD: What made you decide to move into industry rather than stay on the academic track?

MM: After completing my post-doc, I felt it was the right time to move to industry: I only worked for universities and research institutes and I was curious how working at a company would be. It turned out to be an excellent decision. The work at Lead Pharma is diverse and we collaborate in multidisciplinary teams towards a common goal. However, our fundamental research activities are limited compared to (top) academic groups and we do not publish our data either. That is certainly something to keep in mind.

AD: How did you prepare for your current interview? Which skills were essential apart from your scientific skills that helped you make the cut?

MM; I gathered information about the company (history, background of founders, mission, etc.), such that I could ask some questions during the interview as well. Personally, I think that I was hired because my personality matched very well with the company profile and I was honest in answering all questions during the interview. In addition, my pragmatic attitude and pathological optimism might have helped as well.

AD: How did your post-doc experience at prepare you for your position today?

MM: During my post-doc experience, I collaborated much more with “wet lab” experimentalists. Because I had a background in mathematical modeling, this trained me to communicate and understand biological research.

AD: Did you use any of the resources at your postdoctoral institution to prepare for your job hunt?


AD: How do you achieve work-life balance?

MM: Fortunately, our company offers its employees some flexibility and the management recognizes the importance of your personal life, which makes it easier to achieve a healthy work-life balance. This means that sometimes my workday is shorter, but a week later I work the whole weekend to finish an important presentation.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs considering careers in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry? What can they do to make themselves competitive?

MM: Prepare yourself! Read about how the pharmaceutical industry operates.  There are some good books available about drug development (and I don’t mean books like “Bad Pharma”). Ask yourself the questions: what would you like to do at a pharmaceutical company? And what unique expertise do you have that could help the company? That would be a good start.



Mark Musters was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Featured image source: Pixabay

Transitioning from Bench to Business Development: Face to Face with Subhalaxmi Nambi

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In the transition interview series, we are talking with Dr. Subhalaxmi Nambi (SN) today, who is a Business Development Associate at UMass Medical School. It is a very interesting transition story, where she transitioned from a Postdoctoral position to Business Development. In her conversation with Abirami Santhanam (AS), she gives some important insights to young scientists looking for transitioning newer roles in STEM careers.
AS : Tell us about yourself?
SN: I am an easy-going person with a strong aptitude for scientific research and a keen eye for translating research into applications. As early as my first year into the graduate program, I established myself into an effective problem-solving researcher with a knack to discover novel scientific pathways. My principal investigator and other colleagues always encouraged me and believed that I had the potential to start my own lab.
An alternate career was not even in sight. Though, from the very beginning, I knew I wanted to do be in a field where I am not only exposed to a different kind of science but also witness its translation. Now being part of UMass Medical School’s Office of Innovation & Business Development, I finally feel truly satisfied.
AS: What is you new job profile in University of Massachusetts?
SN: The mission of the Office of Innovation & Business Development is to convert the wealth of scientific discoveries made by our researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical School into meaningful human therapies. Our office accomplishes this through many methods (e.g. licensing technology to pharmaceutical companies, forming start-up companies, etc.) We act as a liaison between the research team and entrepreneurs, venture capitalists and industries and help in commercializing techniques that have potential industry needs. Detailed information can be found in
AS: Describe your academic journey and mentionable moments?
SN: After my undergrad, I was contemplating of either doing an MBA or Masters in Marine Biotechnology. As diverse as they may sound, I realized later that I just couldn’t connect the dots then. After my Masters, I got the opportunity to perform research in Indian Institute of Science under the guidance of Dr. Sandhya Visweswariah, I didn’t blink an eye. It was truly an enriching experience to learn on what it takes to be a good scientist. My hard work and with great guidance, I was able to publish many first author publications in prestigious journals, but as they say, I still hadn’t connected the dots.
AS: Did you set any goals during your early scientific career?
SN: I am a very goal oriented person and I like to set some internal goals. The benefit of being a graduate student is that there are no deadlines, but it can be more of a bane and then a boon.
In fact, I was always pragmatic about a project and tried to steer it in the directions where it would fetch me results.
AS: How did you develop your network during the research career? How important was it to reach your current position?
SN: I always believed in the mantra of connecting with people than networking for motive. As I mentioned earlier, I am a very easy-going person and I like to make friends, so it came naturally to me. When a dear colleague was generally chatting with me, we realized we have a common interest in a particular idea that could be developed as a product. We made a perfect team and even worked towards starting a company. We did a lot of leg work and I had the opportunity to communicate with a lot of people from the Boston ecosystem. There was this one time I happened to send an email to a scientist who was a working in an area similar to our startup idea and during a conference I just took the time to meet her in Paris. She was impressed with what we were doing and even offered me a position. It is another thing I didn’t take it for personal reasons, but just want to highlight the power of networking.
AS: Your background is in Mycobacterium tuberculosis research and now you are an Associate for Business development at UMass. How did this diverse transition happen?
SN: My inherent intuition for business has driven me to this current position. It did not happen in a day. As I told earlier it is what I was looking for a long time. This was an internal position and was open for people looking for a transition. Even though it’s an internal position, they had almost 50 candidates who applied for the position. There were several rounds of interview. There was this particular round in which I was given an assignment about a confidential finding and I was asked (i) how will I tweet about it? (ii) if I am a business partner, how will I proceed further? (iii) If I have to file a patent how will my IP look like? (iv) the weakness of the technology. I made sure I did my ground work and during the interviews, my past experiences in with the startup gave me an edge over other candidates.
AS: How did you manage the stress associated with job search? Being with a family needs some career compromises, how did you handle it?
SN: It was definitely a stressful period during the transition. Luckily my husband and I both are appreciative of each other’s careers. He is truly a great pillar of strength to me and together we try to balance our work commitment and at the same time, we are cognizant of the fact that we have a beautiful child and we make sure that we find time to nurture values that we both have inculcated during our lifetime.
AS: Can you elaborate the role of the Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs in your career?
SN: I am thankful to many people in CSG as I got many fruitful suggestions. I got my resume modified by people from CSG and many constructive criticisms on what works and what doesn’t. Being an open career support forum, every person in CSG has a different view and perspective. It is up to us to choose what we want and how to go for it. Never be discouraged by any comments. With the Mentor – Mentee program I got a lot of suggestions regarding the pros and cons of transition which was really helpful.

AS: What is your advice and suggestions for CSGians who are looking for a career transition?
SN: Follow your heart and follow your dream, no matter how hard it is to reach. Reach out, struggle and ultimately do what you like. Do not think about visa situations as a hindrance as things will fall in place when we move towards the goal with a perseverance. Go for your passion rather than compromising it for another better thing as we can achieve a lot when we are passionate about something.

AS: Thanks Subbu for this clear, detailed interview and your time. I can see your enthusiasm and passion for Business development as well the optimism towards approaching your goals. I hope this interview opens up the doors to a passionate career pursuit in many of us.

About the author: Abirami is a research fellow with a focus on ocular research and research administration. She is interested in photography and freelancing.

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Arjun Srivathsa: scientist and communicator and cartoonist

in Biodiversity and Environment/Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

The daily ritual of pipetting cells and solutions made me realize that I’ve been oblivious and was living in a different world. On my journey to becoming a science illustrator, I was under the impression that there were a mere handful of them in the world. As I progressively talked to people, I realized it was only my ignorance. While I try to make my footing as an illustrator, it’s my privilege to showcase my fellow illustrators. Although some of them are exclusive and have a defined niche, I aim to reveal their stories and journeys for more people to learn. I sometimes wonder if I am the child of Horace Slughorn. Like Horace, I see myself at the center of a web where each thread connects an artist. While Horace exploited his network for pineapple candies and free tickets, I am going to use this web to bring out motivating stories for as long as I am able to spin more threads. I had the pleasure to meet Arjun Srivathsa, a wildlife artist and cartoonist. He dons the hats of a wildlife researcher, conservation scientist, and an artist. Following is our conversation:

I.J.  How/when did you make the choice to be a biologist and that too a wildlife researcher?

​A.S. Ever since I can remember. I profoundly loved animals as a child- as most children do, I guess. Starting with high school and all the way through college, our teachers or professors would ask us to introduce ourselves to the class. My stereotypical answer to that was I wanted to become a ‘zoologist’; I didn’t know that wildlife biology was a separate field of study. Following an undergraduate course in life sciences (with Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology as the core subjects), I pursued a M.Sc. in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. A Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Ecology has been somewhat of a natural progression.   

Wildlife tourists By Arjun
Wildlife tourists By Arjun

I.J. When did you realize your passion to be an artist? Was it during your M.Sc.?

​A.S. I have been an artist all my life, although I didn’t learn it professionally. It started out as a hobby that I continued to pursue. I would doodle on all my school notebooks- animals, cartoons, caricatures of my teachers and what not. During my undergraduate years, I spent quite some time on my art. That’s when I experimented with oils for the first time. It continues to remain my favorite medium. But now, I don’t get a lot of time to draw on canvas. So, I’ve switched to digital art. Although I don’t enjoy it much, it’s much faster.

I.J.  What’s your inspiration for art? What are your favorite subjects/style?

​A.S. Most (almost all) of my artworks are inspired by nature and wildlife. I enjoy working with oils on canvas, acrylics, color pencils, etching/stippling and cartooning. It’s been 4  years since I dwelled into digital art. I found it useful for making cartoons (although not as gratifying as traditional media). It also became a very handy tool for combining art and science to create my “science-toons”. I now use these science-toons for science communication and conservation awareness. 

I.J. How has the response been to your art from the scientific and non-scientific audience?

A.S.Art in Science or #SciArt – as it’s known on social media – is a very powerful tool for science communication. A lot of scientists lack the skill of science communication. It is often difficult to let go of statistical jargon and esoteric nuances of our fields and “dumb-down” science for non-scientists. Art bridges that gap in a very effective and innovative way. I also received positive feedback from scientists regarding my work. And the main reason I started communicating science via art was that someone who’s not remotely connected to academics can learn and appreciate the work of Indian wildlife scientists and conservationists. While it is difficult to accurately measure my artistic impact, I think it’s certainly not negligible. My cartoons have been used for fund-raising, creating awareness, sustainable harvest of marine fish, education of school children in distant villages etc.  

King Cobra by Arjun
King Cobra by Arjun

I.J. Is art only a hobby or do you also freelance?

​A.S.  Both. I use art to de-stress from the relatively exhausting academic life. I publish a lot on social media. But, I also freelance when people or organizations approach me with projects. I strongly believe in an endeavor involving goodwill and creative freedom. So, most of my work (if not commissioned) are free for anyone to use as long as their purpose is to create awareness on wildlife conservation or nature education.

I.J. How supportive have your PIs/teachers been when you engage in art as an expression?

​A.S. It’s a bit difficult to answer this question. My PIs/mentors have never hindered my endeavors. Sadly, in our institutionalized academic scenario, science communication or nature education etc. generally do not count as units of success or achievement. It is yet to qualify in the league of conference presentations or journal publications. So, while my mentors have always been supportive, there are no mechanisms (that I know of) where this can be formalized and be given more credence. 

I.J.  Are there any stories/anecdotes that you would like to share?

​A.S. I was giving a talk at a climate change-themed event a couple of years ago, and I used some of my artwork from the science-toon series to elaborate about the sea food crisis and crash in marine fish stocks. I have learnt from my experience that it’s not easy to convince people to change their food preferences. But at the end of my talk, one person raised his hand, thanked me for the information, and pledged to give up sea food. I used 9-10 cartoon panels to convey the scientific information published in some top-notch journals. Although I’m not sure whether those papers made an impact or not, I was glad that the medium I chose was powerful enough to change at least one person’s attitude. I wish more scientists engaged in science communication. They don’t have to do it themselves, but liaising with communicators, artists, and educators can make science accessible to the common man.

Elephant Iworry by Arjun
Elephant Iworry by Arjun

Proust had once said that habits ruined lives. “A blanket or a shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work, and our friends.” He believed it’s the artists who can “strip away this habit and return life to its deserved glory.” While my ignorance about science-artists has been rectified, my appreciation for their work continues to grow. I hope their cumulative work will shine more light in the daily lives of scientists and pave a way for an elegant expression of science.


About the author:

Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at IISc Bangalore, India. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.


Facing adversities with alacrity – the odyssey of an aspiring Data Scientist

in ClubSciWri/Face à Face/That Makes Sense/Theory of Creativity by

There’re always stories about people who flourish or aspire to flourish while tackling challenges and setbacks during their training or profession. This time I bring to you the adventure of Urszula Czerwinska. Urszula, or Ula as her friends call her, is a Ph.D. student at the Institut Curie, Paris. Throughout her higher education, she’s donned the hats of an entrepreneur, a blogger, and that of an aspiring Data Scientist. She’s encountered her fair share of challenges during her education, but as we’ll learn, it’s the perseverance that drives a person to fulfil his/her passion. Ula’s tale highlights the determination and resilience required to achieve what at one point may seem inconceivable.

“I’ll never doubt that my parents have always had the best intentions for me. But they believed in the idea of ‘predisposition’. Simply put, one must perfect their skills for the talent they possess, rather than learning something completely new. That’s why I never got involved with sports, I didn’t go to art school (my drawings were good, but that wasn’t enough). I was shy as a kid and that’s why my parents advised me to choose a career that doesn’t involve a lot of social interaction. I don’t agree with the dogma of predisposition any more. Of course, it’s easy for some to be good in maths and for others in sports. But it doesn’t mean that one cannot learn. People change, I changed a lot through my experiences. I don’t aim for the Olympics, but I feel content going to the gym or dance classes. I previously considered it as a waste of time as I couldn’t be the best at them. And that so because I wasn’t ‘predisposed’ to sports. In my opinion, our future lies in our own hands. We can convert our weakness into strengths, only if we want to, and if we are ready to invest our time and efforts doing that. I also think that we have the capability of changing our thinking – to forge the path of our education and our career. It’s actually a proof that we can always get better and improvise.” – Urszula ‘Ula’ Czerwinska.

The journey begins – there’s plenty to learn

Ula’s Polish. She left for France at the age of 18 to pursue a joint degree in Biology and Mathematics in Roscoff. During her Bachelor’s, she studied an entirely new subject – programming. “And here’s the funny part – I sucked at it in the beginning”, she says. “I had troubles typing on a French keyboard (which is an AZERTY one)! While most of the students were finishing their exercises, I was still looking for the “?” button on the keyboard.” At one point, self-annoyance took a toll on her and she spent a lot of time studying using online resources. “Once I understood the logic of Python, the rest went smooth. I absolutely nailed the final project, and subsequently, I applied for a short internship in Bioinformatics at the end of my second year.” Ula also had the chance to study in Singapore as an exchange student. There, she shared classes with students who had completely different backgrounds than hers, such as, business. It was very enriching for her as she was exposed to the tools they used – like Prezi – and applied it to her own life science projects. She mentions a thought by Walt Disney that drove her, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them – This quote motivated me to take the decision in my early years to go to France and fight for good grades.”

While she was finishing her Bachelor studies, Ula’s heart remained close to biology since it seemed like a mine of complex problems that she could solve with mathematics and programming. After applying to several Systems Biology Master programs across Europe, she finally chose the most flexible one in Paris at the Center of Interdisciplinary Research, supported by the Bettencourt Foundation. The uniqueness of this program was that a big part of the curriculum was designed by the students themselves and involved several internships. The coordinators encouraged the students to take part in initiatives, create thematic clubs, and of course, have fun with what they did. She decided to spend some time in a lab in Institut Curie, what would later become the home for her Ph.D. “I had to program in Java, and I had no clue about it. I spent half the time teaching myself and that too in a specific context of a software on which I had to work on. I felt demoralized as I was not progressing anywhere, and to make things worse, my supervisor left for 3 months. I was completely lost! But I started asking for help from postdocs in my lab and finally succeeded in coding a part of the software – it even got published!”

The following experience, although discouraging (as Ula would put it), was life changing for her – the iGEM competition. It’s an international competition in Synthetic Biology: modifying organisms to solve real world problems, or to the least, have fun. Her team worked all summer as an interdisciplinary unit to develop beauty products that would help people smell better though reprogramming their skin microbiome. The very idea of creating a product, something that people could use in their everyday life in itself was highly motivating for her. Their team also consisted of designers who helped them a lot with product design and attractive visuals. “This made me realize that science is not necessarily research, it’s very diverse.” Consecutively, during the final internship of her Master’s, she partnered with her friend and colleague Cristina Garcia Timermans to launch a startup called Eco-Smart Solutions. It was aimed at designing probiotic cleaners.

Eco-Smart Solutions – a beautiful failure

The startup was co-founded by Ula and her colleague Cristina, driven by their entrepreneurial enthusiasm after the iGEM competition. Initially, their idea was to design a probiotic cleaner containing bacteria that would eat dirt. This product would clean deeper and independently of the surface texture. Most importantly, it would not result in the creation of chemically resistant bacteria. The to-be treated surface’s natural microbiome would’ve been regulated by their cleaning microbiome, hence preventing the creation of a biofilm to which dirt sticks.

They discerned that the Paris metro system would be a great place to start, as it’s very hard to clean. Furthermore, it’s being cleaned using water at a high pressure that has a detrimental effect on the walls. “We even met the R&D team of Paris metro, but they said that the metro was clean, and basically that was it.” The team did not give up yet. Guided by their teachers, they continued with the project, but in the form of studying the microbiome of Paris metro. This would 1) unveil the metro’s micro-diversity, and, 2) aid them with designing a customized product.

Probiotic cleaners are wide spread. They’re used in hospitals across England, and on a regular basis in the USA, especially for cleaning animal farms (probiotic cleaners have positive impact on an animal’s health). Therefore, they also decided to test the existing probiotic cleaners and natural cleaners like soap. “We had a lot of fun in the lab that was not high-tech, and working with a tight budget within a short time.” They spent their days in the metro collecting samples from stations per their own protocol design. “And in the evenings, we would attend startup events and pitch competitions.” The samples they collected were sent for sequencing, but they encountered issues analysing them. “We asked a bioinformatics research team at the university for assistance and it turned out that the DNA we had collected was not of good quality. Hence, we couldn’t draw any conclusions from the analysis.” As conditions would turn out at the end of their internship, Ula and Cristina decided not to carry on as full-time entrepreneurs as at that time they didn’t have enough capital, and in parallel, they both had secured Ph.D. opportunities.

“We failed, but it was a beautiful failure. We created and executed a project form A-Z, learnt about visualizing aids, making a business plan, and studying the market. Although our skills and resources were not sufficient, I am incredibly fulfilled with this experience.” Right at this moment, a Polish saying crosses her mind which as Ula puts, matches one of the negative aspects of her character. “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees” – Emiliano Zapata. She explains, “We need to be flexible nowadays, and sometimes, we need to get down on our knees to stand up later.”

Crafting the path of a Ph.D. – the challenges ahead

Ula started her Ph.D. in the same lab where she previously interned during her Master’s – engaging in unveiling the complexity of transcriptomic data with unsupervised learning. “This was perfect for me! I had to search for factors that drive biological processes in the ocean of noise.” The lab had also secured funds specifically for her, in case she didn’t secure a scholarship. “What I encountered next was one of my biggest failures, and it hurt my ego a lot!” Ula had applied for a Ph.D. scholarship with a career defining project in mind. She’d also apply for an MBA program for Ph.Ds. “During that time, I was convinced that I didn’t want to stay in academia and so, this project was the perfect opportunity for me. I could accomplish as a researcher while gaining access to management jobs right after my Ph.D.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t selected for the final round of interviews, and it disheartened her. “I even thought of giving up on my Ph.D., but I decided against it as I liked my topic of work.

Severely demotivated and lacking a vision for herself, Ula attended a Ph.D. talent fair in Paris. She realized that companies look for analysts with her skills sets – machine learning, R, Python. She received the same impression upon conversing with the representatives of one company. “This moment opened up a whole new universe for me – Data Science.” Following this defining moment, she decided to craft her extra training skills using free online resources and courses to ultimately land the job of a data scientist following her Ph.D.

Ula describes herself as an aspiring data scientist or a budding data scientist. There’s no definitive explanation for Data Science. “To me, Data Science is analytics, data visualization, machine learning, database management and big data.” Or to be abstract, it’s more like detective work: looking for patterns in data, building predictive models from data, and shaping the world based on accessible information.

For a layman – let’s say there’s a playground where a lot of kids are playing. Every kid is different, but they share some similar characteristics – hair colour, dress type, behaviour etc. Now if we look at say five more playgrounds and try to search for the same characteristics, we’ll end up with some properties that are either common or discrete amongst the kids. Using these properties (data), we can try to predict a prevalent picture (model/pattern) of the characteristics/behaviour of most children. Therefore, what we end up with is a meaningful description of the existing information. This is what Data Science looks like. But of course, it’s not this simple.

“Indeed, the Harvard Business Review has cited Data Science to be the ‘sexiest’ job of the 21st Century”, but why is it so appealing? “It’s appealing due to the power it gives to the companies in all sectors – finance, medicine, education etc. Given the vast availability of resources, it’s also not the hardest profession to move into or learn.” What’s sexy about Data Science is that it’s a relatively new field, geographically unbound, and is spreading like wild fire across all industries and disciplines.

Blogging – a tool for personal branding

Ula’s also a Senior Blogger for PLOS Computational Biology. “PLOS Computational Biology is very generous with its titles. I am a regular contributor for them.” She received communication from PLOS while she was about to attend an international conference on computational biology – ISMB in Orlando, USA. They were looking for live-bloggers for this conference. “I was already thinking of setting up a personal blog at that time, and the communication from PLOS turned out be the right trigger for me.” PLOS appreciated her initial work, and therefore, she continues to write for them on matters pertaining to computational biology, in addition to Data Science and associated Ph.D. careers.

Her personal website highlights the versatility of her writing skills – from career transition to live blogging. As she humbly mentions, “Honestly, I don’t think I’m a good writer. My English is far from perfect, but I keep working on improvising it by reading a lot. The Economist has turned out to be a great resource for me. I also think that apart from me writing the articles that I publish with PLOS, the hands of the editors also wean magic and make my scripts smooth. And as far as content is concerned, I try to be honest and share my experiences and thoughts. Funny as it may seem, I don’t take my writing to be versatile as I don’t write about travels, cooking etc. I only cater to what concerns me the most – Ph.D. and Data Science.”

Writing for her takes a lot of time, but once an article is published, it provides Ula a lot of satisfaction as her audience can read and review her point of view. Plus it’s still faster than writing and publishing in peer review journals.

The Pivigo Ambassador – another feather on the cap

Once Ula defined Data Science as the domain of interest for her Ph.D. studies, she started researching in-depth about it – more so about the skills needed and how to acquire them. There were and still is a range of online courses and materials. “I also subscribed to many mailing lists of Data Science websites”, she discloses her secret to me.

Pivigo – The Data Science Hub as it states on its website is a data science marketplace and training provider based in London. Ula’s determination in exploiting available resources led her to this platform and found the S2DS (Science to Data Science) program. S2DS is a program that helps Ph.D. students or postdocs in STEM to transition to Data Science. Their program takes place both in London and online. Students work on real problems of companies and are extended job opportunities following the program. “I would like to consider this as an option at the culmination of my Ph.D.” Interestingly, Ula found an advertisement about their ambassador program in their newsletter. “I contacted their community manager and I agreed to be the Pivigo ambassador in Paris.” Ula was already settling in.

“My role is to mainly spread the spirit of Data Science and information about the S2DS program”, describes Ula. They’ve also proposed that if she organizes any events in Paris that revolve around Data Science, Pivigo would support her. Ula chips in, “Most importantly, although this role is not a formal engagement, it has inspired me to instigate the community and create a Data Science Club at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (CRI).”

Lessons from a journey well taken – an inspiration for everyone

For Ula, the journey as an entrepreneur, blogger, and an aspiring data scientist has not been easy. She deems herself fortunate enough to meet her colleague turned friend for co-founding the startup, and to convince their teachers for investing in it. “Although we didn’t play high risk, we didn’t also lose a lot of money, but most importantly we gained a lot in experience”, she confides in me. “I don’t treat blogging seriously as it’s a new role for me. I don’t even force myself to write regularly – I just follow my inspiration. I guess, the hardest part is Data Science. I realize that I need to prove myself in this field and it’s not easy for me with the workload of being a Ph.D. student”.

The time is ripe for Ph.D. students to explore resources outside their lab in addition to polishing and nurturing both new and existing skills. Curiosity and determination play an important role in achieving success. But some may feel diffident to do so. Ula adds, “I reckon if someone is shy, the best way would be to find a buddy from their lab or institute who can accompany them for some outdoor ventures. It’s more motivating to give a joint effort as we feel less insecure. It’s also crucial to realize that courses and networking are not side activities – they are as important as or even more important than your experiments, if you want to continue your career outside of academia.”

Alice Roosevelt Longworth once quoted, “Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full”. It reflects on the idea of not only enjoying life and taking the best from it, but also share with others our own knowledge, competency, philosophy, and ideas.

Ula’s now following her own plan of gaining skills, reading, and interviewing companies. She also feels that being a part of the Ph.D. Career Support Group keeps her motivated for achieving her goals. She’s optimistic and hopes that future employers will recognize the passion in her for Data Science. And when Ula tastes success in her own terms, we will be there to applaud her.

About Urszula:

She’s a dynamic young scientist with an entrepreneurial spirit and high interest in Big Data, design, fintech & business analytics. She’s a self‐directed innovator working towards creating an opportunity to transition from academia to Data Science companies.

She also runs her own blogging website:

Follow her on Twitter @UlaLaParis

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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This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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.


Featured Image: Pixabay

This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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

in Face à Face by

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.



Featured image source: Pixabay

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

in Face à Face/Poli-Scie by

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 an 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. Follow her on Twitter @ZaneMartinPhD.

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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