Scientists Simplifying Science

Monthly archive

August 2016

Ten years of sailing aboard a cockroach

in SciWorld by

The story of the cockroach milk protein started about a decade ago with the ‘curiosity of discovering’ and continues with the ‘curiosity of understanding and developing’. While observing these minute crystals inside the embryos of pregnant cockroach females, little did Nathan or Prof. Ramaswamy know that one day it will be popularly known for being the future protein supplement. During these years, while all the authors of the paper collaborated towards the understanding of the protein, we all marveled at the Biology of these cockroaches and the fascinating crystallographic features that the milk proteins exhibited.

Image: Diploptera punctata cockroach (source:

Generally, As an advantage for the organisms, the proteins are under negative natural selection pressure for crystallizing inside their cells. However, the knowledge of several proteins crystallizing inside an organism (in vivo, either in cellulo or ex cellulo) is also known. These proteins are proposed to be under positive selection pressure for crystallizing in vivo with functional importance. The crystals observed by us in the Pacific Beetle cockroaches, usually found near Hawaiian regions, are one of the examples of in vivo crystals. Cockroaches are known to be very sturdy organisms having survived for over 300 million years. During this period, one of the features that it has evolved for higher survival chances is its nature of reproduction. There are three types of reproduction found in the cockroaches; oviparous (eggs-laying), ovo-viviparous (fertilized eggs laid in maternal brood sac without her nourishment) and viviparous (fertilized eggs with maternal brood sac protection and nourishment). The pacific beetle cockroach, scientifically known as Diploptera punctata, is the only known viviparous cockroach till date which gives birth to the young ones like mammals and provides nourishment to the developing embryos. In-keeping with the nomenclature of “milk” used for the maternal nutrition in new-born of mammals, the nourishment provided to the embryos in these cockroaches is also termed the same. The brood sac of the pregnant females secretes this ‘cockroach milk’, which is taken up by the embryos. As the embryos continue to drink the milk, there is a surplus of the protein in their gut. This excess amount is stored inside the embryos’ gut in the form of crystals, which maintain equilibrium with the liquid milk in solution that is readily available to be ingested. Storage of food in the form of crystals allows for a high concentration of food to be stored as well as controlled release of nutrients as needed by the embryos.

Image: From the research article jt5013, showing in vivo-grown Lili-Mip crystals from D. punctata. Polarized microscopy reveals birefringent protein crystals enclosed inside the embryo midgut and an enlarged view of the extracted crystals (inset).

In vivo crystallography is one of the new facets of Structural Biology that deals with structure determination of in vivo protein crystals. Apart from naturally occurring crystals, scientists have also engineered a baculovirus based system to induce in vivo crystal formation. Recent advancements in X-ray free electron lasers (XFEL) and serial femtosecond crystallography (SFX) have resulted in the increase of structures from in vivo crystals. One of the major challenges of in vivo crystallography has been the size of the in vivo-grown crystals that are limited by the volume of the cells that are usually of the micro-nanometer range. However, since these crystals were formed in the gut of the embryos, their sizes were not limited by cellular volumes and were comparatively larger. Therefore, single crystal X-ray diffraction was possible but obtaining the phases of the atoms was tricky. The structure was finally solved using sulfur single wavelength anomalous dispersion method. The protein is a lipocalin with β-barrel forming the lipid binding pocket and a single α-helix. Mass spectrometric and crystallographic studies revealed that each crystal was a heterogeneous mixture of not just multiple protein sequences, but also the sugars bound to these proteins in the form of glycosylation and the fatty acids bound at the binding pocket. More than three sequences of similar proteins (85-95% sequence identity) were found in these crystals. Additionally, multiple N-linked glycosylation sites (3-4 sites) with pauci-mannose and high-mannose structures and variable branching were observed. Further, the fatty acid bound at the pocket was found to be either an oleic acid or linoleic acid. With such an extent of heterogeneity, we were amazed to see that the crystals diffracted X-rays to atomic resolutions of 1.2-1.8 Å.

Generally, in macromolecular X-ray crystallography the rate-limiting step is the crystallization of proteins and obtaining good quality crystals. Usually, when we purify and crystallize recombinant proteins in vitro, we make several modifications such that the protein solutions are homogenous and monodisperse. This usually drives the protein away from its native state in which it naturally occurs. Further, proteins with post-translational modifications have been observed to be heterogeneous and mostly polydisperse in physiological conditions. Hence, when we make these proteins in vitro, we tend to remove all possible glycosylation to enable crystallization of the protein. The high-resolution diffraction of the milk protein crystals and its successful structure determination is till date the first structure reported with this amount of heterogeneity. The precise role for heterogeneity optimized for crystallization in a single lattice is currently unclear. Understanding the molecular structure of these in vivo grown milk protein crystals enables us to appreciate the evolution of viviparity in these cockroaches.

Analysis of the calorific value of these crystals shows that it has three-four times more the energy provided by the equivalent masses of cow, buffalo and other mammalian milks. This cockroach milk protein with proteins, sugars and lipids is a complete food for the embryos. The heterogeneity in the protein sequences provides all the essential amino acids to the embryos. The knowledge of the high energy values gave us an idea that if we produce these milk proteins in vitro in yeast, these recombinant proteins could be used for human consumption as a protein supplement. The curiosity still continues and we hope that this wonderful system can be used for multiple innovations in the future.

Below is the table showing comparison of milk calorific values:

Species kcal (per 100 g)
Lili-Mip 230-300
Cow 66
Goat 60
Sheep 95
Water Buffalo 110
Human 72



About the author:

After completing her Ph.D. from Molecular Biophysics Unit, Indian institute of Science in 2014, Sanchari worked in Syngene International Limited for a very short time. Then she joined the Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (Bangalore, India) as a postdoc. Since the time of joining she has been involved with the cockroach milk protein project. The other areas that interest her are in teaching and education. Her hobbies include dancing and cooking.

To know more, read her paper here: jt5013


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Entrepreneurship and IP Part III: Trade secrets

in Sci-IP/SciBiz by

Tradesecret blog_final_Lipika

Trade secret can be of any commercially valuable information that gives your business a competitive advantage as it is not known to your competitor or public. It could be a formula, physical device, survey method, idea, recipe (e.g., recipe for Coca-Cola), business plan, pattern, advertising or sales strategy, distribution method, document tracking process, consumer profile, manufacturing process or a little tweak involved in the process, computer algorithm (e.g. Google’s search engine), compilation of information (customer list, suppliers list etc.), financial information, that helps the owner gain a competitive advantage in market place.

Trade secret may have a combination of information available in public domain and information unique to the company. And compilation of such information provides a significant advantage to the owner.

How to protect trade secret?

Typically speaking, for trade secret protection, no registration or no government grant is required. You simply need to maintain secrecy of the information. However, few countries (e.g., US & EU) have formal legislation for trade secret registration. World Trade Organization (WTO) recognizes protection of trade secrets. Member states of WTO and counties that are party to the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual-Property Rights (TRIPS) are obliged to provide trade secret protection. Protection lasts as long as the information is kept confidential. Simply saying information as trade secret will not help, you need to take substantial and reasonable measure to keep the information confidential. Once the information is made available to public or if someone discovers from an independent source, the trade secret protection ends.

Challenges of start-ups:

Trade secret policies differ greatly in an established company and in early stage start-ups. Many start- ups and SMEs (Small and Medium-sized Enterprises) exclusively use trade secret to protect their Intellectual Property (IP). Start-ups have challenges in terms of space – many of them operate from incubation centre, accelerator, shared office space etc. However, they should have some policy documents for trade secret identification and protection. Start-ups should at least address the following:

1) Identifying your Trade secret

Every business has some set of information that can be categorized as trade secret.  First, you should identify such information. Take a through look of your company’s asset. It would be very difficult to prove later that a particular category of information is trade secret if you do not have a hard copy document or electronic format stating the same.

2) Maintenance of Trade secret

Once you have identified your trade secrets, you need to set up policies and procedures to protect them. Trade secrets are considered as the most valuable asset for start-ups. You can consider the following measures to protect your trade secret:

  • Signing non-disclosure agreements (NDA) with your third party development partners and manufacturers. NDA is a contractual agreement between you and the recipient of the information.
  • Signing trade secret assignment with employees, independent contractors and consultants. Writing them down makes it clear to the employee and others that these set of information are trade secrets & they should take effort to keep confidential.
  • Marking documents as confidential, password protection, limiting distribution of password & access to priority documents.
  • Locking important folders and listing who can access the information.
  • Reporting periodic status of the trade secret information. During the process of growth & operation some information might lose the status of trade secret e.g., product launch, patent filing etc. Regular auditing of information is required for appropriate maintenance of trade secrets.
  • Marking emails, attachments etc. as trade secret/private/confidential, specific guidelines for document sharing provision and email usage.
  • Having physical security, locks and limited access to the area/systems having confidential information.
  • You must have clear policies as how you handle visitors coming into your space. Your employees should know what information can/cannot be shared, and also not accessing confidential documents/ keeping off desk in the vicinity when the visitors are around. As the company grows, the policies and procedures expand and will become more robust.

3) Patents or trade secret

For start- ups, filing patents may be too expensive but the technology may be entitled for patent protection. In some cases, you can choose ‘trade secret’ as an alternate mode of protection. Furthermore, patent law requires complete disclosure of your invention in patent application in return for obtaining a 20 year monopoly. Some information/technology that you have developed might be of high value but not appropriate for patent protection. And you may also lose trade secret rights for such information by public disclosure in the process of patent filing. In addition, it might just be a gift to your competitor, as the information could easily be available to them.

If the trade secret is about an innovative product, others may reverse engineer and then entitled to manufacture and use the product. You need to know that, unlike patent law, trade secret does not protect against independent discovery of the information. The decision of keeping information as trade secret or filing a patent depends on technology, valuation, business consideration and evaluation of relative benefits of patent and trade secret.

4)  Employee awareness about trade secrets

Notify your employees about the category of information that are trade secret and routinely remind them.

Your trade secret policy should start to roll on immediately, when an employee comes on board and remain until she/he leaves the company. Employees coming on board can also ‘contaminate’ trade secret information from earlier employer(s), that should not happen. When employees leave, remind them about the non-disclosure documents they had signed and ensure that critical information do not leave with them. It is their duty to maintain the confidentiality of trade secret information of the employer for specified period of time (as mentioned in the trade secret agreement) even after their employment.

5) Trade secrets and misappropriation

When a trade secret is leaked out, unauthorized use of such information by persons/competitors/third parties other than the owner is regarded as an unfair practice and violation of the trade secret. In case of misappropriation, you need to show by record to substantiate, that the said piece of information is trade secret and you took adequate measure to protect the information.

The court will look into following while establishing misappropriation of trade secrets,

  • The information was confidential to company.
  • The information was of commercial value, and use of such information in an improper way results in financial damage to the company.
  • Company took reasonable efforts to keep the information as secret through agreements, trade secret policy and procedures.


Trade secret is considered as one of the important form of Intellectual Property rights protection for start-ups. Value lies in information what works for your company, as well as what did not work and not spending resource what did not work. Documentation of such wealth of information (not known to your competitor) over time adds tremendous value to your company.

In case of industries, where employee attrition is very high, special measure should be taken. You should maintain record that you developed specific technologies or strategies independently of your competitor.   It will create a good defence in the long term protection of your company’s IP assets.

Finally,  do not loose valuable intellectual property  rights, just because you did not consider entering into a non-disclosure agreement, data encryption, training employees, marking documents as confidential, password protection of accounts, documenting trade secret policies due to lack of time or so.  Trade secrets are extremely valuable, but that value can instantly vanish, if not maintained adequately.

References: 1, 2, 3, 4

Image source: Author

This post is the third in the series of articles on “Entrepreneurship and IP”.

Link to the First part of the series: “Entrepreneurship and IP Part-I: Starting up right”

Link to the Second part of the series: “Entrepreneurship and IP Part II: Patent strategy and business value”


Disclaimer: The materials in the blog are solely for the purposes of informing, assisting and educating the readers and are not in any way a substitute for professional opinion or advice. They do not constitute legal advice or legal opinion or solicitation.

Dr. Lipika Sahoo, Founder & CEO of Lifeintelect Consultancy Pvt. Ltd., a registered Indian Patent and Trademark Agent having 16 years of experience in academia and industry. She holds a PhD from Indian Institute of Science (IISc). She holds triple masters; MSc from Sambalpur University; PGDIPR from National Law School of India University (NLSIU); PGCBM from Xavier Institute of management (XIMB); and advanced certifications from World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in Patents and Patent Drafting.||

News: The Author will be  conducting a workshop in IIM, Bangalore on IP & Entrepreneurship for start-ups & entrepreneurs associated with IIM ecosystem.


Link to Poster: IP_DrLipika_Poster_24thAug


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

Transitioning to Academia in India- Face to Face with Punit Prasad

in Face à Face/That Makes Sense by

Punit PunitInstt

Most of the graduate school training during PhD and postdoctoral tenure is focused on shaping the minds to tread the academic path. The trainees, therefore, always look forward to academia is their natural progression to move up the academic ivory tower. However, in today’s funding scenario the limited academic options are making PhDs re-think their career path. As scientists by training we are never expected to follow herd instinct, even when it comes to picking and choosing classical vs unconventional career options. You will find resonance in to this fact when you read Punit Prasad’s interview with Club SciWri. Punit recently transitioned from being a postdoc at Karolinska to a Faculty position at the Institute of Life Sciences (Bhubaneswar, India). But before deciding in favor of academia he did test the waters in industrial research, until he found his true calling in academia. Find out more about his planned roadmap to an academic career and start gearing-up early if you believe that academia is the place where you want to be!

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

There are several points that I considered when I thought of applying for a professional position:

  1. Number of years into post doc: It should be 3 years and above such that your application gets some weightage. I gave my first talk for faculty position when I completed 3 years. At this point I was not expecting an offer but wanted to get exposure and experience on my future applications.
  2. Number of first author paper(s): It is important to have atleast one first author paper from your post doc. I had one shared first author paper in ‘EMBO J’ when I started applying. However, at that time I did not have any paper on the area I was planning to work as an independent faculty. It was seen as a negative point as I was shifting from yeast model system to haematopoietic development. Showing preliminary data in your proposal or during the talk does not help much. The screening committee wants to see that you have proved yourself in the area you plan to work. Therefore, I spent a year and half more until I got my paper in ‘Blood J’ accepted for the publication. This atleast gave a better response to my application. Corresponding authorship does help significantly. I had one corresponding author publication, a review. I am not sure if it helped but certainly is a big boost to your application.
  3. Area of research: I also learned that I have to differentiate between my future and my post doctoral research. In an ideal situation one has to have different aspects of study to avoid any overlap/conflict with one’s post doc mentor. This is a very important aspect, which I was asked in all the places I interviewed. I was preparing for it from the beginning of my post doc and I was able to convince the selection committee for the same.
  4. Other credentials: During my post doc I received several post doctoral grants as an independent investigator and was/is a co-supervisor of a MSc and a graduate student. I was also invited for platform presentation in reputed conferences. I think all these factors add value to the application. Personally, I think having independent grants added value to my application.


  1. What was your motivation towards an academic career?

I have several years of experience working in a company before starting my graduate studies. Therefore, I have got flavour of both industry and academics. I loved the freedom of doing science in academia. Through years of experience, I developed concepts and hypothesis to work in the field of chromatin biology and I got inclined to do more basic science. In short, freedom of doing science of my choice is my biggest motivation.

  1. What do you enjoy about being a professor?

Good question!! It’s been few months in my new position at Institute of Life Sciences, Bhubaneswar, Odisha, India and currently it is not fun. I have to learn the administrative processes in every small aspect. It takes enormous amount of time, leaving little opportunity to do science in the beginning. However, I believe it is a passing phase and soon I will get back to the bench. The excitement will be to train the students and do good science.

  1. How did your postdoc training make you competitive for an academic position?

I believe that the training starts from PhD and then continues in your postdoc. Few point that I would like to address regarding this:

  1. Research Projects: I was given full freedom to carry out research within the lab’s overall theme. Apart from my mentor, Prof. K. Ekwall’s interest in understating mechanistic details of chromatin remodelling in fission yeast, I could also initiate my work on understating the role of chromatin remodelling complexes in blood cell development. This gave me ‘space and time’ to develop the research area of my interest which I could carry out further as an independent faculty.
  2. Grants: Writing and obtaining successful grants is very important. I strongly suggest that one should keep writing grants even if they are not successful. I got good training during my PhD with Prof. Blaine Bartholomew, where he allowed me to write my project for the NIH grant. It was a great experience and his training helped significantly.
  3. Courses and workshops: Karolinska Institutet (KI) organises several courses/workshops and open discussion forums for leadership, mentoring, grant writing, lab safety, etc. I have attended some of them and have found them useful.
  4. Student training: I have supervised Master projects and am a co-supervisor of a PhD student at KI. This was a good experience for me as it ‘tuned’ me to handle students, their projects and other professional issues.


  1. What advice do you have for postdocs to make best use of their time?

I have already mentioned several points in response to previous questions. My advice is to follow it from the start of Postdoc as it takes time to acquire above mentioned qualifications, which not only gives you confidence but also makes your CV attractive.

  1. Can you briefly describe your plans about the size and mentorship style of your laboratory?

The size of my laboratory is dependent on number of grants I would acquire. To begin with I would like to have couple of PhD students and a laboratory technician to kick start some projects that are promising. However, when I receive successful project grants, I would like to have one/two post doctoral fellows depending on the grant money. Interested postdocs with fellowship can also join my lab. The advantage of having postdocs is that they will not need basic training and can get going with the projects. Since my projects require significant bioinoformatics, I would need a person as a JRF/PhD/Postdoc with some kind of training in programming and statistical analysis. With this size group I plan to get going for a couple of years before I take any more student.

  1. Do you have teaching responsibilities?

Teaching responsibilities are bare minimum and therefore I can spend almost 100% of my time in research.

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

No, there were no office of postdoctoral education in Karolinska Institutet to groom me for an independent position. However, as I mentioned before, Karolinska Institutet organizes general courses about leadership and mentoring that partially helped me for the future.

  1. Do you have any advice for postdocs about grant writing and successfully obtaining funding?

I have few points to mention:

  • The goals of the projects should be clear and focussed. Vagueness is a definite let down.
  • If there are several goals, they should not be totally dependent on each other. This ensures that if one plan fails, there are backup plans to pull through the overall project.
  • Grants should have defined sections like purpose, hypothesis, specific aims, background, project design, preliminary results and significance of research. Hypothesis should be backed up by previous literature and /or preliminary results. This lends credibility to the proposal. It is also important to discuss caveats of the proposed projects and alternative strategies to circumvent them, if any.
  • The writing should be clear, precise and concise. Succicnt, jargon free write-ups are always appreciated.
  • If possible, do get your grant reviewed by another scientist.


  1. Do you have any advice for postdocs making the transition to an independent career?

Be patient and persevering. If applying to India, be prepared for long waits to get any response. Also keep in mind that there is an unsaid age rule of 35 years or less during the time of application in most Indian institutes. While stellar applications may be exempted from this rule, most applications may get weighed down by this factor if competition is high and the institute chooses to exercise this rule. Therefore, prepare your applications in advance to avoid falling in this category. I also recommend attending YIMs in India to increase one’s productive network and get to know inside information of institutes that are hiring at the moment. Heads of granting agencies also attend YIMs and one should also run by their future proposals by them, if possible, to get inputs on how to improve the proposal.


  1. What suggestions do you have for CSG to improve the postdoctoral networking experience?

CSG is already doing an excellent job in promoting post doctoral network globally in various disciplines. It is also providing valuable information about available positions in academia and industry, grant writing, mentoring, alternate careers, etc. Currently I do not have any more suggestions for CSG other than to keep up the good work. Thank you and wish you the very best!!





Punit Prasad was interveiwed 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 Science PhDs and ClubSciWri


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My Green Card Application Story

in That Makes Sense by


I filed for the EB2-National Interest Waiver for myself and spouse using the services of Mark Harrington at Harrington Law Firm, Houston, TX. I started the process whilst being a Postdoctoral fellow at University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). Mark gave a discount in attorney fees through a referral. He guided me through the process and handled all the paperwork very well.

After 3+ years of postdoctoral stint at U of Michigan, I moved to UAB along with the laboratory with a new hope that things get better. I started updating my Google scholar and ResearchGate accounts. These platforms, specifically ResearchGate, helped me in promoting my achievements that consisted of my research published in several scientific journals. This process in turn helped me receive higher number of article reads and citations.


Usually, people who travel to the US for studies and/or advancing their skill sets,  often go back to their home country and contribute towards its success. However,  due to personal, financial or job security reasons, one may decide against it and go for securing permanent residency.  Through friends and through forums such as the Career Support Group, I learned that there are lawyers who help in getting a Green card (GC). After contacting several attorneys, I started getting responses in the first week of June from Chen Associates, Zhang associates and Mark Harrington (see details on fees and other charges at the end). On top of the above, one has to pay the USCIS a fee of $580 for I-140 application and $1070 per person for I-485 application. In total, it cost us (me and spouse) a total of $7,670.  Having these final numbers in hand, I wanted to start the application process. I decided to go with Mark Harrington. Being a postdoc and the amount of salary we earn, you hardly have any money in the bank account. My parents-in-law came to our rescue and loaned us $6,000 from their hard-earned retirement money.


After reading several blogs on the GC process, I decided to formulate a strategy to successfully put forth my application.  Steps taken to achieve this goal are as follows:


  1. The number of independent citations matter.

In ResearchGate, I uploaded full text of all my articles for a year or so. This earned me a lot of citations. In addition, collaborating with other scientists in the field paid huge dividends. During my PhD, serendipitous discovery of a novel fungus synthesizing anti-cancer drug taxol bagged later around 60 citations at the time of GC application. A friend Mithun Roy also introduced me to a new field “Photodynamic therapy”. Initial encouraging results with PDT compounds; lead the group to accomplish more projects and papers in a row. I had around 140 independent citations while filing the GC application.


  1. Securing recommendation letters can be tedious.

The attorney drafted a few letters. With the templates in hand, I and my friends, wrote 8 recommendation letters, each highlighting a specific research paper (mostly from Abstract). I then selectively sent these letters to referees who agreed to sign. This process can get tedious pretty quick. Most often one has to contact near to 50 people and may get positive response only from a few. If you are lucky, more may be ready to sign on support letters. Finally I had 8 people to sign and vouch for me.


  1. Reviewing others work is important.

This criterion has to be fulfilled for the GC application.  Initially I was requested to act as proxy-reviewer to assess and review others’ work. Once they were impressed with my reviews, I asked for becoming a direct reviewer. Eventually I was invited to review a few papers and got “thank you” letters from several journal editors. If you were a judge or part of a panel in meetings or conferences, feel free to contact them and ask for letters that describes your role. Once we fulfilled all these criteria, I filed both I-140 (EB2-NIW) and I-485 applications concurrently. This option of concurrent application is not available to the applicants from India, China, Mexico or Philippines. Since my wife (Akshaya Hodigere) is from a country where there are no visa backlogs (the dates are current), we could apply using the Cross-chargeability rule (Quoting from, “For example, if Lakshmi, born in the UAE, marries Ravi, who was born in India, both could potentially be charged to the UAE, rather than India. This option is available whether Lakshmi is the primary or the dependent beneficiary in the green card case.”).  Altogether, it took us 8 months to obtain the Green card.


Attorney details

Chen Associates: Fees for I-140- $4,800; for I-485 – $1500 for primary and $500 per additional person. I-485 attorney fees can be waived if you opt for DIY(Do It Yourself) kit.

Zhang associates:; charges $5,000 for I-140 application.

Mark Harrington;; charges $3,600, after 10% discount for I-140 application and $ 1,350 for I-485; no additional fees for spouse.

For more details on EB2-NIW, the following resources may be helpful:

How to follow-up on your Green Card petition:

Trackitt is online discussion forum that allows users to track the progress of other immigration applications. One can create their account and add their cases. Additionally, other applicants share their experience and answer your questions of course not a legal advice apart from estimating the processing times.  
one more
MyCaseTracker helps in understanding the timelines and provides sophisticated statistics about processing status of immigration petition forms

(Image source: Pixabay)


About the author:


Balabhadrapatruni Chakravarthi

I am a Researcher V, working on Cancer biology, in Dept. of Pathology, Comprehensive Cancer Center, UAB, Birmingham, AL, USA. Earlier, I worked as a Postdoc – Michigan Center for Translational Pathology, Dept. of Pathology, U of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI. I completed my PhD from Indian Institute of Science, where I worked on apoptotic activity of fungal-derived Paclitaxel (Taxol). I like to play volleyball and cricket, a passionate photographer and nature lover. Lets connect via LinkedIn !

Changing track with a new postdoc position – a personal account

in That Makes Sense by


Postdoc life is tough. It is the life of a nomad, where you are forced to change base every couple of years, sometimes every year. Add to it further considerations of visas and work permits (because like others before you, you too want to go abroad, mostly to Europe or US, no less!) and you have a plethora of concerns about your next job. In such a scenario, it always makes sense to plan ahead, to know at least 6-8 months in advance if your contract is going to get extended, if your PI has enough funding and if you do want to stay on or move to another place.


I faced similar dilemmas last year when I knew my term at Hopkins would end in 2016. I still had about a year to plan and prepare for my next move. And so, the first step I took was to register for a small conference where most of the speakers were those whose work interested me. This, I thought, would give me a good opportunity to gather information first hand about what was out there, who was hiring and how the PI was in general. I chose a small conference for this as it is better suited for personal interaction than annual large conventions.  


My research interests lie within the realm of systems biology which is one of the few fields that holds a perfect balance between theory and experiment. And, coming from a theoretical background myself, I was keen on working in close contact with experiments, even better if I could do them myself. With these specifics in mind, I set about preparing for the q-bio conference, which was to be held in August 2015. But, this is just what I wanted. Reality could be totally different. In fact, advertised postdoc positions have very specific requirements, and it is possible that you do not fit the bill even if you work in a related topic. Since my expertise lay only on the theoretical side of things and most PIs were looking for someone who could do experiments as well it wasn’t an easy nut to crack. But, it was during the conference that I met a Professor (from the UK) who himself was a theorist but also had very strong experimental collaborations. This was exactly what I wanted. I spoke to him and he showed interest after looking at my CV.


In about a week’s time after the conference, I followed up with him and proposed that we apply for the Marie Curie fellowship. This followed a back and forth discussion of project ideas at the end of which he was clearly satisfied with my dedication to match him. He also went so far as to say that even if the proposal fell through, he would consider me for a position in his lab. This was a relief as I now had a solid connection.


But, my PhD advisor warned me against complacency until I had something concrete. So I set about writing custom emails to several Professors. I got an interview with a Professor at a school in New York. But this fell through, as he probably wanted someone more familiar with virus pathways and such. Like I said, postdoc positions are very specific. In retrospect though, I am glad it didn’t work out, as I got more interview calls from even better places, one among them being with a PI from Harvard.


Incidentally, I had already casually met him at the q-bio conference and I knew he was a friendly person. His lab used both experimental and theoretical tools for research on C. elegans, a model organism in biology. Additionally, with some google search into his background, I found that he was a theoretical physicist who had started doing experiments only during his postdoc. So, I took a chance and in my email to him I wrote that in addition to theoretical modeling I would like to learn and carry out my own experiments as well. This set the tone for the interview process over Skype and then in person, during which he asked me to design an experiment or propose a hypothesis to either test or confirm the results of some ongoing research in his lab. Even though the in-person lasted 1.5 days and I had to think on my feet the whole time, the PI somehow made it seem easy, like he was churning my brain to get the right answers. It was a very fulfilling discussion at the end of which I was certain that I wanted to join his lab the most. Ten days later, I got my job offer. This was in February 2016.


During this time, my Marie Curie proposal fell through, but the Prof. from UK had asked me to apply for a position in his lab after he put up an official advertisement. He too made a formal offer which I politely declined. This was a tough email to write. But, I was glad to be in a position where I could choose between two very good offers.


From my experience, I now know for sure that preparing ahead is always better. I started planning my next move sometime around May 2015, when I first submitted an abstract for the conference. And, it was in Feb. 2016 that I finally got a formal offer. This took many many emails, some interviews, a conference, a proposal and a few turn downs. But, in the end, if you plan it right way in advance and keep at it unrelentingly you can get what you want. This stands true at least for a postdoc position. (Getting a permanent job is a different ballgame altogether.) I joined Harvard this June, and am excited to be taking the first steps toward experimental research on C. elegans.


-Rati Sharma



About the author: Rati Sharma is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University. She is trained as a theoretical physicist, applying the tools of statistical mechanics to model stochastic gene networks, but is now also setting forth into the experimental world on the same. In her spare time, she likes to write ( and try every sport that catches her fancy. You can also connect with her here



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