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.
NS: How did your journey begin? What was the motivation?
MB: My journey did not start with science, I was interested in sports and I did not get the greatest grades in school. I got into Chemistry because that’s one subject I could pursue with my sports qualification. I was a decent chemist and did quite well. I did not know an iota of biology and my chemistry degree was with physics and Math. This was the period of early days of biotechnology in India. Masters in Biotechnology I thought will be an interesting next step. I wrote the entrance exam and I passed it. It was the first batch of Biotechnology program in India that was done through a national level entrance test. That led me to MS Baroda University, which was my gateway to my career in academic research.
I found genetics and molecular biology very interesting and started interacting with Late Professor Bharat Chattoo, an excellent scientist who had just come back from Switzerland. He was a plant geneticist by training and was busy setting up his lab at Baroda. I did my master’s thesis with him and I found science as a natural extension of chemistry, molecular biology, biochemistry very intriguing. It was during that time that I got intrigued by genetics and did the first cloning in Baroda. It was very exciting since it was the new era of modern life sciences, especially in India. People were doing microbiology but not molecular Biology. I also made a library from rice. Baroda had a reputation those days of being an intellectually stimulating environment because the microbiology department and the biotechnology program were tightly knit together and classical genetics, phage genetics were taught at a very high level of sophistication and the department inculcated the habit of reading current literature so we would know for e.g., self-splicing RNA (which was my favorite topic by the way). We had a great resource at Baroda. You get to read all the current discoveries almost immediately after they got published. We did not have the equipment and setup but there was enough intellectual framework and by being around Prof. Chattoo and working in his lab it was clear to me this is what I want to do because there were thousands of open questions and the technology was relatively new at that time. So, it was really exciting to go from a chemistry background into molecular biology and all thanks to one person, whose approach to science was so special that 6 to 7 of my classmates are professors in top places in the world, Vishi Iyer, Head of Life science at UT Austin, Pradeep Kachroo in University of Kentucky, Naweed Naqvi at TLL, Karuna Sampath at University of Warwick, would agree that it was Late Chattoo that got them into science. To me Prof. Chattoo was an institution in himself.
NS: How did you move to Canada next?
MB: I wanted to work on plant biology because in Prof. Chattoo’s lab I worked with plants so I wanted to continue working on plants. I did apply to a few other universities but the University of Saskatchewan gave me a scholarship and that was a huge factor so I went there. At that time, there was a study that got published in Nature (1988) on the discovery of chaperonins (these prevent proteins from misfolding). Chaperonin was the hottest topic in biology during that time and I found Sean M Hemmingsmen to be the best person with whom I can pursue my Ph.D. I approached him and he readily agreed to take me as his Ph.D. student. I was working on two different projects, one on Chlamydomonas and the other on a tobacco plant. I generated a cDNA library here since Baroda had taught me that very early on. Sean had to go to Oxford for a sabbatical to the lab of Paul Nurse. Once Sean returned from his sabbatical he told me that Paul Nurse had done a genetic screen for cell cycle mutants and he gave me some of Paul’s papers and he said Paul is also willing to give all these mutants – “do you want to work on this?” Sean’s lab was primarily a plant biology lab with no expertise in yeast. But he was persistent, “This is a very exciting problem and I would love to get involved, do you want to do it?” I said, “yes, sure.” I read up on all of Paul’s work and those that were coming out from the labs of Leland Hartwell and Marc Kirschner. The topic was really exciting and cutting edge but it was incredibly competitive. I was alone in this lab in Saskatchewan and I decided to work on cell cycle but not on mitosis or S phase which the big labs were pursuing vigorously, but cytokinesis. I cloned three of the cytokinesis genes while I was in Sean’s Lab, tropomyosin, myosin light chain, profilin.We had mutants for these, raised antibodies for two of these, localized one protein which is when I graduated. It is going to be 30 years and I am still fascinated. Visually it is a beautiful problem. You can see the cell divide, you can see it contracting and the problem keeps us busy even now. That’s how I got into this field of research.
NS: Tell us about your postdoc at Vanderbilt, how did you decide this was the right place
MB: It was very straightforward, I finished my Ph.D. in 1992. I wanted to go to a place where I could take all these genes and continue working on them. Kathy Gould had just set up her lab at Vanderbilt University, she did a postdoc with Paul Nurse. I heard she was hiring and I approached her and told her that I wanted to work on cytokinesis. So, I continued working on the genes I took from Sean’s lab. My colleague Dan Mc Collum and I got very excited with cytokinesis and decided that some of the key proteins in cytokinesis had not been discovered in the Nurse’s screen. So, I carried out another large genetic screen and we got hundreds of mutants defective in cytokinesis and we identified close to twenty different genes and the main motivation was to identify Type 2 Myosin heavy chain. That screen led us to everything – ring positioning, ring assembly, ring contraction. We had a blueprint on how cytokinesis happened. Kathy is a very generous person. When I left her lab she let me take the mutants I isolated. Looking back I realize how incredibly lucky I was to have been associated with very generous mentors during the initial years. Prof. Chattoo taught me the intricacies of molecular biology, Sean allowed me to take my work with me to Kathy’s lab and Kathy allowed me to take what I generated to set up my own lab in Singapore.
NS: After your postdoc – Did you have a dilemma: Academia or industry?
MB: Ever since I saw Prof. Chattoo and the life of pure excitement he led in science, I did not think of anything else but a career in experimental research. Mentoring was another aspect that I loved. In Vanderbilt, I was taking care of undergraduate students in Kathy’s Lab and graduate students from the neighboring labs would also come to me for advice occasionally. People would tell me that I would make a great mentor. Even to this date that is the thing I enjoy the most. Now I have to do administration and so on but to spend time with your younger colleagues and go through the process of discovery is still the most exciting thing for me.
NS: Tell us about your transition to Institute for Molecular and Agrobiology, Singapore. What were the challenges during initial years of opening the lab? Have the dynamics of those challenges changed or they are the same?
MB: While I was in Kathy’s lab, I received a phone call from Nam-Hai Chua, who was setting up a new institute in Singapore. He was looking for a fission yeast person and offered me a position. The present generation applies to thirty-forty places, interviews seven-eight, lines up starter packages, but in my case I accepted the Singapore offer immediately. It was one of the best things I did since it was core funded and I did not have to write grants. I did not write grants for 16 years in Singapore and I could work on practically anything I wanted to work. That was an offer you would not want to refuse. Most of the time what happens is, for a starting PI it takes a couple of years to get a grant, you don’t have sufficient manpower to work on your ideas and you are slogging to get your first grant. So, for me walking into an institute and being able to recruit three people was a real luxury. Nobody told me what to do. When you write a grant, you fit the idea to a certain framework, addressing a disease or cultural problem but I could just work and not justify anything to anybody. The only expectation was to do something interesting and publish papers and create new knowledge. It was the easiest path that came in front of me, there was no struggle. I was given the money and asked for the equipment needed and there were technicians who would set up the equipment before I arrived. I also recruited a student before I moved there and he ended up on a paper I published before I even saw him. It worked out great.
NS: What were the factors you considered for your next move to UK? When did you know it was time to move?
MB: The 16 years I spent in Singapore was fantastic. During that time we went from a lab that did only genetics and molecular biology to a lab which did genetics, molecular biology, synthetic biology, reconstitution experiments, and biophysics. We could add new dimensions to work with progression in time. 16 years is a long time and you live only once so if you want to do something different you have to make a choice at some point and we took a big risk coming here to Warwick because coming from a core funded institute to a granting system is a challenge. But my feeling was, if I don’t make it in a granting system then my success in Singapore was a fluke. If I do make it in the granting system then maybe I am competitive enough. It was a bit of a challenge that I threw at myself and I think it’s good once in a while, although I would hate to have not succeeded in which case I would be thinking every day why I left my core funded job. But fortunately, it all worked out well.
UK has a very rich tradition of fission yeast research and it is an English speaking country. I chose the University of Warwick because of their core strength in Cell Biology. In particular, I was looking forward to having colleagues like Robert A Cross and Nicholas J Carter who were (and still does) doing a branch of Biophysics which I wanted to incorporate into our research. There were fantastic cell biologists like Andrew McAinsh, Masanori Mishima, Jonathan Millar, Anne Straube and a number of people whom I ranked very highly as scientists and thought that would be an excellent environment to work. I think Rob was the key and his presence made me choose to come to Warwick as opposed to a few other places which also offered me positions.
NS: What do you look for in students when you decide to mentor them?
MB: I really don’t know except that it works out well in the end. I have trained about 20 students, 16 have graduated, 4-5 of them are already group leaders some of them are associate professors with tenure doing very well. I have had about 20 postdocs of which 7 are PIs, 2 are professors, 1 is a Wellcome senior investigator at Crick. To come back to your question I don’t know, there is a feel I get when I talk to people. You can tell that they care about research. I don’t like people who come and talk about what they expect from their research. Like I want to get a job there, I want 2 Nature papers. I think research is about enjoying the process not waiting for the results. You can tell from talking to some people that they enjoy the process and If you do the process properly you will get something. I don’t have any formula but I have been incredibly lucky that more than a quarter people I have trained are successful group leaders all over the world and many others are doing successful postdocs. It’s not working 6-7 days a week, it’s how much you care about the experiment, how you prepare for the experiment and by being your worst critique. For example, there is a Malaysian student in my lab. She did an internship with me during her undergraduate degree. I asked what’s going on, she said “I see certain things but I did not want to tell you till I repeated this and I did not to want to mislead you”. I thought these are the people I want in my lab because they have high standards, they want to repeat things and it’s important in science to repeat things. For an undergraduate who hasn’t been in a research environment, to come to that mental framework is a feat in itself– To me that’s the kind of people I want in my lab, not someone who tells me that I want to finish my Ph.D. in three years with Nature papers without actually talking about the science. In science, many times it’s the feel that matters. It’s hard to precisely tell what you are looking for but it’s how much you care about science that matters.
NS: With the paucity of funds and slowing academic job growth, what do you think Postdocs should do in terms of career advancement?
MB: There is a big shift in how science is being done, nowadays it’s a lot of collaborative science. When I started my Ph.D., it was very common to pick any of the top journals and find papers that have only 2 authors. There is a first author and the senior author. There were even papers that had one author. This was all possible those days. But if you look at papers now there are too many authors. The problem with that is it takes thirty human years to finish a project and there is a team of people and four joint first authors and a senior author. There aren’t going to be enough jobs. The way science has evolved requires large teams to accomplish the jobs and many of them may not make it because to accommodate that many successful postdocs you need to quadruple the intake. It is only natural since people have to earn a living and have a good quality life. Other options, like an industry job, is becoming more and more common.
There is a problem and what I would like to see is that some of these core-funded institutes to have staff scientists posts and these are for the very best postdocs – a chance to be independent and not with the expectation of running huge groups. People might love to do their own research -have just one technician. The way universities work these days that kind of a post doesn’t exist anymore. That’s one thing that I would like to see. The other is that – it’s nice for big labs to have continuity and there maybe people who do not want to run a lab but would be very valuable for a senior professor who doesn’t have that much time on a day to day basis. These are other options that people can think about. But it is a real problem.
NS: How should postdocs prepare for academic job transitions in the current scenario?
MB: One should be excited about their science and that will be the best way of finding good jobs. You should have curiosity, enjoy the process and read a lot. If these three elements are there, success will come on its own.
NS: What are the major criteria one looks at when they hire a new faculty?
MB: I should declare that I am a signatory of DORA (The San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment). I don’t look at metrics. I read the CV and look at the papers to see what the person has done. If it’s interesting and if they are attacking an important problem, using interesting approaches then that’s the kind of person I would like to recruit. As somebody who heads the Warwick quantitative biomedicine program, funded by the Wellcome trust, We have recruited 2 independent fellows and we will be recruiting more assistant professors very soon and we will use these criteria – good common sense, judgment of science. We won’t fall for metrics because then, only people who work in a few areas which are heavily populated get recruited, and you would not be recruiting people from areas that are not heavily populated and most likely that’s where your major insights are going to come from. You have to look at new exciting opportunities that are very early in development. We will look for people who want to make a difference in science, who have research problems that they are excited about and they think about all the time. We are looking for people who want to solve challenging problems by overturning conventional wisdom, asking big questions and for those who have a passion for science communication to teach the next generation of young students. As an assistant professor, you should do a good job of putting enthusiasm in undergraduates. We want people who have the enthusiasm of talking about science, about their own research and scientific methods as valuable tools, something they cherish every day. That’s the kind of people we want.
NS: What will be your suggestions for the new investigators as they venture out to start their labs?
MB: Be curious. If you want to answer a problem, think quantitative, don’t be qualitative or descriptive. Medicine and Biology are increasingly becoming quantitative sciences. The way surgeries are done now are nothing compared to how they were done 20 years ago. Present day biology will incorporate quantitative data analytics, physical, engineering, chemical sciences to solve its major problems. That’s the way you can create an edge for yourself. Science is a business for smart people. You are trying to understand nature by doing clever experiments and there are thousands of clever people out there so everyone needs to have some edge. If you employ one or two of these other approaches together with your traditional strengths, I think you are likely to succeed in answering those questions.
NS: Any final thoughts for students pursuing PhD
MB: Read a lot, be curious, enjoy the process and communicate your science both in writing and orally. Those are the most important things at all levels. You could be sitting right next to somebody in a train and you should be able to explain your science in a simple language which he or she can appreciate. Success is a very strange word, without these qualities it’s very difficult to answer the questions and if you are able to do that, to me that is a success.
About Mohan Balasubramanian:
Mohan Balasubramanian graduated in chemistry from Madras University in India and pursued a post-graduate program in microbiology and Biotechnology in Baroda, India. He carried out his Doctoral research at the University of Saskatchewan, Canada, where he initiated his study of cell division in fission yeast. Following post-doctoral research at Vanderbilt University, USA, where he furthered his study of cell division, he joined the Institute of Molecular Agrobiology Singapore in 1997 and the Temasek Life Sciences Laboratory Singapore in 2002. He moved to The University of Warwick, UK in 2014.
Edited by Ananda Ghosh
About Nida Siddiqui:
Nida is currently pursuing final year Ph.D. at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. She completed B.E., Biotechnology from Sir MVIT, Bangalore, India. Following which she worked as a Junior Research Fellow in MRDG, IISc, Bangalore for a period of 2 years.
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