Scientists Simplifying Science

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October 2017

When PhDs become leaders, future unknowns become unambiguous

in Face à Face by

It’s well established that having a PhD does not necessarily mean that a career path is well defined and laid out in front of us. As a PhD in training or a post-PhD professional, one must constantly reanalyze their passion and what would help satisfy their career needs. Additionally, it’s imperative to inculcate transferable skills in one’s arsenal for the career they so desire. Such skills are not necessarily learned ‘on the job’, whether academic or non-academic, but also from hobbies, volunteer activities or any other task the individual can be a part of.

In conversation with Club SciWri (CSW), Vania ‘Vay’ Cao (VC), founder of ‘Free the PhD’ and Manager of Scientific Content and Training at Inscopix, elaborates on how her passion evolved with time and what led her to being an entrepreneur and a successful STEM PhD professional.

CSW: Let’s go back in time. What were your career plans while you were a PhD student at Brown University and NIH?

VC: To be frank, I didn’t have any – one of the commonly shared reasons I struggled more than I should have when ready to transition out of the academic path. As a college and then graduate student, I went with the flow to see where the current would take me, and as many know, this can be quite dangerous if you’re not paying attention to where you’re going from time to time.

I enjoyed the ride because I took detours when I saw something that interested me. Those detours eventually let me take control of my career direction, paddle against the current when I wanted to change direction, and end up in a different river taking me on a new journey that I’m quite excited about – working in the business world!

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos.

CSW: How did your passion evolve over time?

VC: During tea breaks between experiments, I always threatened to run away from lab and open my own lemonade stand with my classmate. But that didn’t quite happen!

What did happen was this: you know that little voice in the pit of your stomach, the one that tells you something is a bad idea? Since my undergrad days, that voice had been telling me that bench research wasn’t for me, and it just got louder over time. I tried to forge ahead despite that voice, because I wasn’t sure if it would change with a change in research topic.

But as I got older, I started thinking about what I really wanted to do – not what I thought I was supposed to do. Ultimately, the decisions you make will directly impact how happy you will be day to day, and sometimes you’re just not a right fit for a particular environment, no matter how hard you try.

Eventually I started spending more time outside the lab – working with international students on community events, interviewing people for articles, and making my own music videos (Genius in a Lab Coat). These activities kept me energized to finish my thesis project, and also taught me invaluable skills that were directly responsible for getting me employed.

CSW: You are currently working with Inscopix. How has your growth been?

VC: I started out at my company as an Application Scientist, a role that is responsible for the success of the company’s customers. Since Inscopix is a neuroscience company that created a new technology platform for preclinical brain imaging applications, my PhD background and personal interests in writing, communication and education made me a great fit for both the company and the role. I have a lot of fantastic colleagues and an impressive number of fellow PhDs at Inscopix because we highly value the ability to serve our customers – fellow neuroscientists – in accomplishing their experimental goals. It’s been a great way to leverage my research background and experience, and stay connected to a field I love.

As startup companies grow, employees can grow with them.  From directly addressing customer needs, I’ve moved into managing the educational infrastructure that supports them. My latest role also includes training new members of our field team to become masters of our technology for both sales and support roles.

Young companies are dynamic, living entities, and if you find one that you mesh with, you’ll never be bored!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills.

CSW: And amongst all this, you never gave up on your passion for singing and being a beauty queen finalist for the 2013 Pacific Miss Asian America Beauty Pageant.

VC: I’m a singer and competitor by nature.  During grad school, I participated in karaoke contests and joined an acapella group at the NIH. Music is an amazing anti-depressant, and singing practice helped me through many tough days of failed experiments!

To really get out of my comfort zone, I competed in a local beauty pageant in my final year of grad school.  It took me two years to get my nerve up, but a good friend of mine encouraged me to give it a try.  Even though I’d spent most of my life as a nerdy tomboy, I figured well, why not?

Although I had no idea how to walk in heels or put on makeup, I approached the situation as a scientist would – do some research on what you don’t know and run some experiments, just like in the lab! I did a lot of Googling, YouTubing and analysis of fashion runway videos to figure out how to strut my stuff, and got placed in the top 5 as the oldest and possibly nerdiest contestant that year. Even my pageant Q&A answer featured Bill Nye and the need for more science communication!

The funny thing is, even karaoke contests and beauty pageants come with useful transferable skills. For example, I will be the “Master of Ceremonies” for a company event for the second time this fall, due to my past experience in the spotlight.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

CSW: How did “Free the PhD” come into existence?

VC: My transition outside academia was one of the most stressful times of my life. Many competing emotions and fears ruled my life in those last 2-3 months before I finalized the transition. I was afraid of moving on. I was afraid of letting myself and my graduate advisor down from what I thought was the “right” career path. After building a wonderful community in graduate school, I was terrified to move across the country to a new place where I knew no one. It was imposter syndrome to the extreme when I started at my company. I had no idea what I was supposed to do or pay attention to in a workplace with such different priorities and concerns than in academia.

So many of these fears were unfounded – and so much stress could have been avoided – if I had had access to a resource where I could learn from people who had made this journey before me in an efficient, organized and empathetic manner. I felt alone during that transition process, and wished for a resource that spoke to both my intellectual and psychological needs during one of the most defining moments of my professional life.

That’s why I founded Free the PhD – a learning and career coaching resource for fellow scientists who are ready to move into the world past the bench. I want to pass on the knowledge I’ve gained from personal experience and from interviewing fellow post-academic PhDs to build a community – one that people can benefit from through multiple transitions and new adventures. I’ve put hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars into this passion project because I care about empowering fellow PhDs to enter and impact all sectors of society, from industry to education to government.

I want to change the definition of what it means to be a PhD, and free fellow scientists to pursue the personal path that is right for them.

After all, if we want to change the status quo, it’s up to us to take the lead!

Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you.

CSW: Very encouraging! What would be the take-home message that you would want the fellow PhDs to keep close to their heart?

VC: One of the reasons it’s so hard for fellow PhDs to leave academia is because we’ve grown accustomed to deriving personal value from the academic environment. That’s all many of us have ever known, and that’s OK. Just remember that your current environment is not a reflection of your personal worth– it can shape you, but it does not define you.

Your PhD experience will inform and enrich the rest of your life, no matter where you go next. Choose to make an impact on the world with your skills and knowledge, inside or outside the lab, in the most effective way for you. That is the path to success.

About Vania:

Dr. Vania Cao is founder of Free the PhD, a career resource and training platform for scientists looking to transition to a life they love. She works at a neurotech startup by day and still performs in a band in her free time.




The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Path of a TIFR grad student to an NIBR investigator – Face à Face with Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh at NIBR

in Face à Face by

My first encounter with Ajeet Pratap Singh (APS), then a graduate student was when I joined Prof. Veronica Rodrigues’ lab at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), Mumbai in 2006 as a freshly inducted Master’s student. Sharing the work space, Ajeet was my daily dose of inspiration, support, comic relief and poetry; from his undying love for ghazals and poetry, and an accomplice in watching cricket together in between experiments.

Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh at MPI for Developmental Biology, Tübingen, Germany

Undoubtedly, the one thing that everyone in the department could vouch for Ajeet is his single-minded focus on science. He is grateful to his postgraduate mentors, especially Dr. Suvendu Ray at Tezpur University, Assam, India for instilling his enthusiasm in the life sciences. “He would tell us about the most recent scientific discoveries in the field of Biology. These discussions opened a different world for us. Most of us were used to the matter of fact training that we get in our schools, with limited focus on free thinking. He was a big motivation for me to pursue a PhD and get a first-hand experience of the excitements in the field of science,” says Ajeet.

During his doctoral work on neuronal modeling under Prof. Veronica Rodrigues and Prof. K. Vijayraghavan, Ajeet benefited from their ‘complimentary approach to science’ and the comprehensive PhD program at TIFR. Ajeet credits his PhD program for emphasizing strongly on learning new skills. He is thankful to Prof. Vijayraghavan for having played a huge role in shaping his career even after his graduation from TIFR in 2011. It was his guidance that inspired Ajeet to pursue his postdoctoral research with the phenomenal developmental biologist Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard, popularly known among colleagues as Janni, and a Nobel laureate of 1995. Things worked out for Ajeet and he soon moved to the beautiful, German university town of Tübingen to work with Janni at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) for Developmental Biology. He was also a proud recipient of the EMBO long-term fellowship.

A glimpse of Tübingen summer punting, by Dr. Anurag Singh
Ajeet with postdoc advisor Prof. Christiane Nüsslein-Vollhard. Picture courtesy – MPI for Developmental Biology /

Ajeet fondly recalls his experience with Janni, learning basic concepts of developmental biology. In addition, the multidisciplinary and international research environment only made it all the more stimulating for him. He feels that interdisciplinary education is undermined in the Indian schooling system, and he encourages everyone to seek opportunities to learn from different fields to be able to deliver quality science in the current age of collaborations.

Ajeet is now an investigator at Novartis Institutes for Biomedical Research (NIBR) in Massachusetts, since August 2016. However, the transition from his postdoc lab to NIBR didn’t happen overnight. While studying color pattern formation in zebrafish (for his post-doctoral research), he observed that the fishes liked to stay together (shoaling), and this inspired him to develop a system to study social behavior. Alongside his postdoc, he kept working on his idea and developed genetic tools to study it further.

Janni provided him the platform and freedom to pursue his ‘additional’ interests. Ajeet invested on developing simple behavioral assays to measure social behavior of zebrafish, made several gene knock outs to probe into the genetics behind this shoaling behavior.

Opportunities often come to those who are prepared – and Ajeet was prepared.

Towards the end of his postdoc in 2015, he came across an advert from the NIBR – looking for scientists interested in genetics of zebrafish social behavior, aimed to better understand human social behavior and the disorders related to them. As it was so closely related to his line of work and interests, Ajeet found a perfect fit and was offered the job the very same day as his interview. Commenting on the differences in research foci in academia and industries, Ajeet opines, “In general, the long-term goals of industry and academia are clearly different – both have a prime emphasis on the generation of knowledge base, but in industrial research knowledge, those that would seem to help solve diseases of humankind get immediate priority. However, at NIBR, fundamental research is highly encouraged – our work on zebrafish is basically like any other basic research.” Despite his spectacularly successful academic track so far, Ajeet acknowledges the imbalance between the increasing number of PhDs and postdocs coming out each year and the paucity of jobs in academia that cater to them; something that has been described as a Ponzi scheme by others. He feels that it is imperative to spread awareness about careers beyond academic tracks for researchers.

As Ajeet grows his group at NIBR to understand complex social behaviors in zebrafish and to utilize this model organism for drug-discovery in the longer term, I see his story reminding me of many crucial lessons in planning a successful career. It is a story that highlights personal commitment towards developing and working on independent ideas, and active mentoring at every crucial step of one’s career. With the synergy of the two, chances are high that one is ready to embark when the right career opportunity comes by. More importantly, these are pivotal in creating independent lines of ideas and research – the only way to nurture and pursue science.

More about Ajeet: Follow Dr. Ajeet Pratap Singh’s research works here, and get in touch with him here.

Author: Somdatta Karak, PhD works with Club SciWri as a writer and editor of articles aimed at helping Indian scientific community in research as well as entrepreneurship. You can get in touch with her here.

Editors: Mathura Shanmugasundaram, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The cover image was designed by Vinita Bharat, PhD. Follow her work as Fuzzy Synapse at Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. The inset images were kindly provided by APS, Dr. Anurag Singh and momentum-photos.

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

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


Revolutionizing STEM Networking: STEM Peers 2017

in ClubSciWri by

What was brewing?

Here’s the sneak-peak into STEM Peers 2017

Where inspiring Scientists convened

To voice, what it takes to march

On an unconventional career track.

Be it research, be it business or management,

Communication and entrepreneurship transition stories;

The insider struggles, the rewarding moments

And the recruiter beans

All spilled out without filters to steer our pursuits clear.

As the evening advanced, the mix of beer, good food and IMON

Stirred up the enthusiastic pitches that came out loud

Amidst the formally dressed attendees

The Fedora hat & Yellow Suspenders cast a strong charm

And blared the message to stand out in the crowd

While you network, create, share and lend a helping hand

To smoothly sail The Career Transition ship

Through the opposing storms of doubt.

Composed by Meghna Thakkar, PhD (Post-Doctoral Researcher, MDC-Berlin)


STEM PEERs took place in Boston, the emerging hub for biotech/pharma industry on the east coast. The venue- Aeronaut Brewing Company turned out as interesting and stimulating for the brain as the event itself. The meeting was loaded with enthusiasm of the organizers/ volunteers and curiosity of the participants. An untainted rendition of real life experiences from professional journeys lent a personal touch to the event and inspired the participants to aim higher and be smarter, while chasing their dreams. A first hand detail of the event is accounted in the section below by some of the participants. As stated by most people who attended the event, this meeting offered a great opportunity to network and showcase creativity, while enjoying food and drinks amidst great minds.

Here are some expressions from our STEM Peers

Shyamtanu Datta, PhD

(Post Doctoral Scientist, UT Southwestern University)

“En route STEM PEERS-2017 from my hotel, I complained to the cab driver that I liked the city of Boston but I found it unwelcoming since I had not seen the rays of the sun since I had arrived. The cabbie told me “Boston never disappoints, sir. Today will be one of the nicest and sunniest day in your life, and I hope you take home lots of wonderful memories of this day.” And trust me, all his words came true. As soon as I arrived at the venue, the sun was up, smiling. As I entered the Aeronaut Brewery (the venue of STEM PEERS, 2017), I could smell the sweet aroma of the hops. It seemed that the pragmatic spirit of the brewery coincided with the “caring, sharing and growing” spirit of more than 100 participants, panelists, and organizers. Being an introvert, I know what a nightmare the word “networking” is to the nerds, but I never felt the burden of the word “networking” in that space. With a cup of coffee in my hand, I started meeting the participants one by one. There were different colored stickers on the badges that the participants wore. The different colors indicated the mentors, the volunteers and the ones who needed help/advice.

As soon as we all settled in, the organizers (Abhinav Dey, Ananda Ghosh, and Ranjith Anand) lit up the stage with their introductory speeches. From then on, there never was a dull moment. Whether it was about the entrepreneurial journey of Melina Fan (co-founder of Addgene), who started Addgene for the sheer love of sharing, or Vinay Eapan’s (Jane Coffin Childs Fellow, HMS) cool strategies of grant writing as a postdoc, or Nick Deal’s excellent suggestions on how to think from the recruiter’s perspective and how to be on the top of the pile, they were all inspiring and informative. Besides these speakers, there were star-studded panel discussions. The panel discussions were divided into four parts – industry research careers, academic careers, careers in the business of science, and careers in science communication and management. Each panel discussion not only broke many myths about STEM careers, but also broadened the horizon of career choices of biomedical scientists and yielded a lot of take-home messages. All of this was invaluable to aspirants like me. Among all these serious discussions, the organizers didn’t forget to entertain us. During the lunch break, there was a live music performance by IMON, a New York-based band composed of talented musicians like Ananda, Sahana, Sutirtha, Radha, and Simon! I am an avid follower of IMON and was looking forward to this event. From Chhaap Tilak to Jagao Mere Desh, the versatility of IMON blew me away.  Post lunch and after all the panel discussions, Smita Salian Mehta, Ragoo Raghunathan, and Anshu Malhotra devised a unique way to encourage the young aspirants to learn the art of networking. I must say even the most introverted people would have felt comfortable with networking after this session. The day came to an end with Syam Anand’s closing speech, which was full of hope and encouragement to take this event forward beyond all borders of nations. How I wished the event would have lasted a little longer and I could meet every single person present at the event…However, with the hope of meeting again with all the existing and many new members of CSG, I bid goodbye.”

Dolonchapa Chakraborty,PhD

(Freelancing Consultant)  

“I studied toxin-encoding viruses in my PhD. These viruses, similar to most other viruses, hijack their host machinery and co-exist with them in a dormant state. Try killing their host, and they get to them before anyone else. They escape their dead host and infect fresh meat. Your next question would be why does the host even bother to carry these ‘ungrateful’ viruses. Well the host survive in big colonies and some of these host cells graciously entertain the viruses for the benefit of their pack. You see, when the virus kills their host, they do so by releasing toxin that is also used by the rest of the host pack (mourners at the time for their deceased friends) to ward off predators. We call our dead host, public goods, and the mourners, cheaters. I find the above phenomenon very apt and relatable in my daily life. This is why when Melina Fan mentioned that after two years of research, she knew she had to make a self-sustaining product, it caught my ear. Hold on to this thought, I promise I will come back to it.

Why was I at STEM Peers? Because I am in my early career and networking is good I’m told. Moreover, I wanted to find out more about all the possible opportunities that’s out there for PhDs like me. When I started my PhD, the obvious next career step was research. This is not because without-research-my-life-has-no-purpose or some melodrama; it’s because I did not know any better. A friend introduced me to the Facebook CSG group when I told him I was feeling so lost regarding what to do. STEM Peers was in a month from when I joined and brought me back to one my favorite cities.  

What I expected from STEM Peers was what I usually get from talking to people in the field- suggestions, advice, dos and don’ts etc. Much to my surprise, I got conversations instead. People told me stories that made me relate to them. I did not feel so lost anymore. They talked about their past experiences; experiences that I could connect with. The hopelessness in me was waning. And since we were conversing, I was telling them my stories too. My stories weren’t naïve and childish but apparently inspiring; hah! I asked questions (that were probably silly), and people answered them. While there was encouragement when required, there were also no lies and sugar coats at other situations. The panelists made themselves sound real; I liked that. They credited part of their success to their families. They called themselves lucky. They talked about ‘real’ problems. When a career transition takes time, but you need to pay the bills, what do you do! Things like that.

The closing speech was about how CSG was founded. And how we will have to give back what we are taking now to make it a self-sustaining system. We cannot be like the cheater bacteria (well, technically, some of us will be). We are all in the same boat. And we have to pitch in whatever way we can. STEM Peers was not ‘just’ another networking event for me. It left me with some great contacts, yes, but mostly with the hope that may be PhD isn’t as bad as people (they who shall remain unnamed) make it to be.”

Ajit Kamath  

(PhD Researcher at Boston University)

“On a beautiful Saturday, I entered Aeronaut Brewery like I had done countless times before. Only, this time it was 8am, I was dressed in formal wear and was ready for the first annual meeting of PhD Career Support Group (PhD CSG), STEM Peers 2017. The event began with greetings from enthusiastic volunteers who handed us welcome packages followed by a light breakfast and a warm welcome by Abhinav, Ananda and Ranjith. Networking and learning was the main theme of the event. We were encouraged to forge meaningful relationships and make the most out of this opportunity to collect first hand information on different career paths.The keynote talk by Melina Fan, (Co-founder/CSO Addgene) about her journey and experience with Addgene was inspirational. She epitomized the saying “If you don’t like something, be the change to make it better”. Her efforts led to sharing of plasmids among the scientific community.

Next, a series of panel discussions walked us through the journeys of various professionals in different fields. Ranjith Anand, Smita Salian-Mehta, Ambrish Roy, and Richa Jaiswal gave insights on how they transitioned into industry careers. They gave us their perspective on stepping out of the ivory tower and what it takes to succeed in job searches. The recruiter’s’ perspective on hiring in Industry by Nick Deal (Recruiter at Stratacuity) and importance of connecting with recruiters who understand the job seeker’s career needs was an eye opener. It was assuring to meet recruiters like him who cared about the candidate’s needs and background to place them in the right career. The panel on academic careers by Nikhil Gupta, Mishtu Dey, Jagan Srinivasan, and Harpreet Singh told us a story of perseverance. Vinay Eapen followed this by his unique take on grant writing as an academic. Syam Anand, Ragoo Raghunathan, Subhalaxmi Nambi, Rajnish Kaushik, and Ananda Ghosh held an enlightening panel on the Business of Science. As scientists working the lab all day, we forget the business side of things which keep the gears of innovation turning. They illuminated careers in Technology Transfer, Intellectual Property and Marketing, which scientists like us can shine in. Ragoo gave us new networking ideas about talking to sales people in our lab and at conferences. The next time you go to a conference, talk to the reps at various stalls and learn about their companies. You will learn about new careers, meet amazing people and most importantly, score some freebies.

Post lunch break, we discussed interesting concepts of science communication and management with Abhinav Dey, Colleen Brady, Ana Batista, Sutirtha Dutta, and Muthu Dhandapani. They told us about their passion in science communication and how they matured in their careers. Efficient science communication is more important than ever today and these stories inspired the part of me that wants the world to appreciate science. Finally, we had an effective networking session orchestrated by Smita Salian-Mehta. The small group networking was very effective in connecting people. Ragoo, with his fedora and yellow suspenders, gave us a great lesson in standing out in a crowd. The day ended with Syam Anand’s closing statement. He talked about a hopeful future and how we can all help each other out. His vision of CSG is of an organization surpassing all borders. I left the Brewery on a high, feeling hopeful. I made a few meaningful connections that day and hope to keep nurturing those for a long time. I look forward to the next annual meetup and meeting old and new CSG members again.”

The STEM Peers organizers followed-up with the participants to rate STEM Peers based on their experience and we are grateful to have received more than 9 STARS out of 10.

Anonymous suggestions on areas for improvement/additions for STEM Peers 2018

  1. “Maybe increase the panel size for each category so that we could get a broader sense of the different opportunities available. Can include people who transitioned into industries right after PhD (without a post-doc) to get a sense of working on OPT. Also can include a CV writing/resume writing workshop. Maybe can keep a separate workshop for green card related questions and suggestions, as I did not get much input on my questions during the short networking/questions sessions.”
  2. “Grant/fellowship writing related session”
  3. “More time to Networking and panel discussions”
  4. “1. Limit number of attendees to 100, same like this year’s (allows better interaction). 2. Run parallel sessions, so that more panelists can be involved for the same career track. 3. Have some motivational talks by people in any stage of their career who are steering their profession. 4. Audio friendly environment. 5. Open doors to participation of Non-Indian nationals (extensive advertisement across campuses).”
  5. “More time per discussion session, could collect questions for panelists before hand”
  6. “Add a panel or talk on finance and tax related issues. I am encountering a lot of PhDs as librarians, it would be good to add this career choice. Role of professional societies in career development can be highlighted. An on-site proposal review panel can be convened to review the grants application written by the participants.”
  7. “Include STEM’s from other nationality, maybe a bit more in-depth information on the role PhD’s can play in management consulting, career progression in various related field etc”
  8. “I would suggest to bring some synthetic chemistry people either industry/academy”
  9. “I think there shouldn’t have been any panels, instead we should have spread out tables for speed networking with the panelists sitting at different tables to get a proper discussion going. The speed networking, as it happened, was way too crowded and it limited conversations. I do understand the space and time limitations with such a setup. Overall it was great, but this is just something to think about for next time.”
  10. “Venue was echoey and distracting during panels, though it was nice for networking.”
  11. “A two day retreat. Time was too short.”
  12. “Maybe more time for networking session”
  13. “Need a quieter place for more efficient networking sessions. A lot of things said were not audible in the back.”
  14. “A printed schedule for the day’s activities would be very useful.”
  15. “Please advertise it as a complete solution (career front) for PhD/ Postdocs where non-academic careers are not the only focus. At present it sounds like getting academic careers anywhere are impossible so let us start discussing about other careers. If academic careers are kept in focus, it will attract extremely serious scientists (PhD/Postdoc levels) who will just focus on academic careers.”
  16. “Better selection of panelist (consulting, finance, MSL, workshops)”
  17. “More time to discuss with mentors”
  18. “Entrepreneurship & Data Science careers”
  19. “More hands-on workshops for résumé and coverletters. Hands-on workshops for networking strategies.”
  20. “none”


STEM Peers will continue this yearly journey to serve as a confluence of STEM Professionals globally. We are always open to new ideas and available to support the ambitions and aspirations of our members. STEM Peers-2018 will be hosted in New York city and the preparations have already begun. If you would like to be a part of STEM Peers, please shoot us an email at



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Image Credits: Danika Khong, Smita Salian Mehta, Ananda Ghosh, Ranjith Anand, Ragoo Raghunathan

Featured Image: Felicitation Plaques created by Studio Artinuum (

Editors: Abhinav Dey and Anshu Malhotra


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Turning immunity ON and OFF

in Reporting from the Lab by

Our immune system is a fortress with multiple layers of protection to keep invaders out of the body. But now and then, traitors arise within this fortress, turning the body against itself, causing what are called autoimmune diseases. Does the body have patrols to keep such traitors in check?

Scientists led by Dr. Jan Carette at Stanford University recently identified a new protein, DDX6 that controls the immune system. It makes sure that immune genes are turned OFF in a healthy person and  turned ON when the human body is attacked by microbes. Without this protein, the immune system would be continually active even without infection, turning the body against itself, destroying healthy cells and increasing the risk of developing autoimmune diseases. These findings were published recently in Cell Reports.

Harmful microorganisms trigger the immune cells in our body to release defense proteins called cytokines. Sixty years ago, the first cytokine, “interferon” was discovered. Today interferons are widely used for the treatment of Hepatitis C infection. Taking a closer look at interferons, they set off a cascade of events in infected cells, turning ON hundreds of other immune response genes to attack and kill invading microorganisms. But even after six decades of interferon research, very little is known about what keeps the interferon cascade in check and turned OFF in healthy cells when they are not challenged by foreign invaders.

Researchers in Jan Carette’s group selectively inactivated every gene in the human genome to find genes that turn OFF the interferon cascade. This led to the discovery of DDX6. When DDX6 was deleted, cells started producing large amounts of cytokines and were better at fighting many viruses like Dengue, Venezuelan equine encephalitis and vesicular stomatitis viruses. However, the cells did not know when to stop. The cytokine genes were turned ON even in the absence of infection resulting in a hyperactive, uncontrolled immune system. Hence, while the absence of DDX6 helped the cells fight against viral infection more robustly, it also triggered an inappropriate activation of the immune system.

Overall, the paper highlights the importance of DDX6 as an immune suppressor. This discovery puts many previous unexplained findings into perspective. Earlier scientists had noticed that there were many mutations near the DDX6 gene in people with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. From this study, we know that DDX6 keeps the immune genes under control and thus can suppress autoimmune responses. Any mutations near the gene can disrupt its function and cause the body to attack itself. Exploring the link between DDX6 and autoimmunity is important in understanding the emergence of autoimmunity and could help in developing new therapeutics.

Article in spotlight : 

DDX6 Represses Aberrant Activation of InterferonStimulated Genes. Lumb JH et al. Cell Reports 2017 Jul 25;20(4):819-831.

Image source:

About the author:

Shwetha Shivaprasad is a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at Stanford University. She is a virologist by training and loves to learn something new everyday, expanding her knowledge base and skill set. She is currently in a phase of career exploration and trying her hand at science writing and reviewing. But nevertheless, she is irreversibly drawn towards the charm of a career in academia.

Editors : 

Radhika Raheja, PhD

Sushama Sivakumar, PhD

Research Integrity: Integral to Good Science

in Poli-Scie by

Editor’s note: Integrity is the founding stone of scientific discoveries. Often without which the interwoven and complex structure of research falls apart. It is the need of the hour that the delicate bond of science and community is strengthened with the values of trust and honesty. However, with the boom of technological advancements- the availability of “excess” and sometimes clouded vision of individual benefits in the face of adversity, weakens this bond.

Uma’s first article in this series aims to highlight some of the challenges faced by the scientific community in upholding research integrity and ethics. She carefully dissected out the scientific misconduct and how it threatens society? Our aim here is not to tell you what to think, what to do, or to provide a tailor-made solution to circumvent the problem. However, I hope that Uma’s article will give you a realistic picture of the regulations existing globally and the expectations of inculcating research integrity as a mandatory curriculum. – Rituparna Chakrabarti


Arthur Galston, during his graduate years at the University of Illinois, discovered that use of 2,3,5-triiodobenzoic acid substantially increased the number of harvestable soybean pods. This boosted agricultural productivity, but when applied at higher concentrations led to the shedding of leaves and buds, ultimately destroying vegetation. The basis of his discovery became the infamous Agent Orange, a weapon that the USA deployed in full force during the Vietnam War from 1962 onwards. Appalled by the twisted use of his scientific contribution, Galston consistently lobbied towards outlawing the use of Agent Orange as a chemical weapon. He eventually succeeded in convincing President Nixon that defoliants such as Agent Orange be phased out from use.2

Admittedly, most scientists’ day-to-day research dilemmas within the lab do not correlate accurately with this example. But how many can deny having faced some kind of a “To do or not to do” through their research careers? Most scientists, at some point in their careers, face a mental tug-of-war between choosing the correct approach over the practical one. Science & research is certainly not an easy and comfortable career path. To be a successful scientist, it is important to overcome the difficulties associated with designing studies, analysing complex data, presenting research, and interacting fruitfully with peers and public.

If we break down the scientific discipline, it rests on five essential principles (as described in this short video by Neil deGrasse Tyson):

  • To question authority, and not to accept things as facts without evidence
  • To question and think for oneself
  • To test ideas, and accept them as the truth only after rigorous experimentation
  • To follow the evidence as the only guide
  • To accept that one can make mistakes

While doing so, scientists must uphold the values of honesty and integrity in designing experiments and reporting the results. Fairness in dealing with colleagues, openness in accepting opposing viewpoints, and respect for other scientists’ work are an integral part of the process. Pressure to make a position for oneself in a cutthroat work environment, earn name and fame, or a ‘gentle’ push from influential seniors, can make an otherwise law-abiding scientist resort to scientific misconduct.

What is Scientific Misconduct, its Causes, and Repercussions?

Fabrication, falsification of data and plagiarism are considered the “worst” forms of scientific misconduct. Equally questionable are scientific malpractices of failure to maintain confidentiality in peer review, allocation of research credit, amongst others.2

A meta-analysis of surveys that sought information from scientists regarding misconduct revealed that up to 33% of scientists admitted to using questionable research practices, while 72% admitted to questionable practices on the parts of their colleagues.3

The causes of research misconduct can be manifold and can be classified into five main groups4:

  • Individual traits (ego, vanity)
  • Circumstances (financial, personal reasons)
  • Organisational factors (complex interpersonal relationships at the workplace, inadequate mentoring)
  • Structural elements (like ‘publish-or-perish’ culture)
  • Cultural factors (difference in understanding what constitutes good scientific practice)

When a scientist shows a lack of professional ethics, it is the entire society that suffers as a result. There is considerable loss of time and resources, hindering the advancement of human knowledge. On a personal front, scientific misconduct could permanently damage the scientist’s reputation. Thus scientists not only have an obligation to themselves and to the research fraternity who build on previous findings, but also to the society, which funds their research.2

In response to several cases of research and medical malpractices in the past, the research community globally came up with several measures. In the interest of the brevity, we highlight a few notable ones here.

What Are the Regulations and Regulatory Bodies in Research?

At the end of the Second World War, as an outcome of the many unethical experiments on human subjects during the war, one of the first documents to codify responsible conduct in research was drafted in 1947. The Nuremberg Code laid down a set of research ethics principles on human experimentation. This was followed by the 1964 Declaration of Helsinki, which was the first significant effort by the medical community to regulate research on human subjects.

In 1981, shaken by four prominent cases of alleged fraud in the USA concerning fabrication, falsification of data and plagiarism, research misconduct became an intense topic of discussion in the US Congress5. Increasing public attention to cases of research misconduct led to the creation of the Office of Scientific Integrity in the USA in 1989. Today, as the Office of Research Integrity, it ensures institutional compliance with research integrity, carries out inquiries into allegations of research misconduct and investigations. Its recommendations to deal with scientific misconduct are

  • to adopt a zero tolerance to unethical behaviour in research
  • to protect the whistleblowers
  • to clarify the reporting of misconduct
  • to train mentors and to set up a model for ethical behaviour in research

In Europe, Denmark took the lead in establishing institutions dedicated to ensuring integrity in research, with the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty founded under the aegis of the Danish Ministry of Higher Education and Science, in 1992, initially on a trial basis. Recently, since July 1, 2017, the Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty have been replaced by the Danish Committee on Research Misconduct.

In 1997, a major scandal involving two biomedical researchers came to light in Germany. A 4-month inquiry panel consisting of scientists and legal experts came to the conclusion that the two researchers had manipulated or falsified data “to an unprecedented extent”, over an extended period from 1988 to 1996. It was found that data in at least 37 papers published by the duo were questionable6. Thoroughly disturbed by this scandal, the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG), the government agency responsible for funding academic research in Germany, established a panel of scientists and experts to publish ‘Safeguarding Good Scientific Practice’, a white paper on integrity in scientific research. It made 10 recommendations to prevent scientific dishonesty, directing them primarily to scientific institutions and also to all individual scientists.

In India, scientific wrongdoings are on the rise as well. In 2011, at the Workshop on Scientific Ethics in Chennai, Prof. T.A. Abinandanan, affiliated to the Indian Institute of Science, presented his findings on the rate of scientific misconduct in India. He reported that 44 articles per 100,000 published were retracted due to scientific misconduct (mainly plagiarism) in the decade of 2001-2010. Sadly, this was higher than the world average withdrawals of about 17 (due to both misconduct and genuine errors)7. Very often, Indian researchers who indulge in scientific malpractice are novice regarding the code of ethical conduct in research, especially when it comes to sharing or presenting their work. In addition, insufficient training (e.g. data management, writing skills) can also play a pivotal role in inadvertently turning them towards plagiarism. To circumvent this loophole, the Society for Scientific Values was established by a group of scientists in 1986, led by Prof. Avtar Paintal. So far, this is the only independent ethics body that acts as a watchdog upholding research integrity in India. The lack of a statutory body to deal with alleged cases pushes individual institutions to take action on an ad hoc basis. This manifests in the absence of a uniform code and appropriate responses toward research misconduct in India. However, the lack of consistent outline is a worldwide phenomenon challenging research fraternity.

The World Conferences on Research Integrity stemmed from the lack of gold standard definition of research integrity and overarching regulations. They aim to achieve a consensus to deal with unethical research practices. At the Second Conference on Research Integrity in 2010, the Singapore Statement on Research Integrity was developed, wherein 4 principles for scientific integrity were laid out:

  • Honesty in all aspects of research
  • Accountability in the conduct of research
  • Professional courtesy and fairness in working with others
  • Good stewardship of research on behalf of others

Additionally, responsibilities of researchers were laid out, including integrity, adherence to regulations in different aspects of research, authorship guidelines, reporting research misconduct, and societal considerations.

Why is Research Integrity Training the ‘Need of the Hour’?

In 2009, a good scientific practice curriculum was developed by the “Ombudsman for Research” in Germany, targeting doctoral students. The feedback from students, post training, highlighted the fact that more than half of the students had experienced research misconduct that had a bearing on their work. Also, a staggering 1 in 5 doctoral students (76/387 students) had been involved in at least one form of severe scientific misconduct, including plagiarism, data manipulation, fabrication or theft, honorary authorship, and duplicate publication. The authors of this study speculated, following this course, that students had gained a clearer understanding regarding what constitutes scientific misconduct, and hence could admit to the widespread scientific malpractices in their work environment. This study also threw light on the fact that training in this subject was sorely lacking, also at the supervisor level.8

Therefore, it is important to include such curriculum as a mandatory subject right from the under-graduation and graduation levels. This will help individuals to identify the problem firstly, and then take the required steps to overcome it.


In the end, we would like to summarise with an excerpt from the white paper published by the DFG in 1998, for you to ponder upon:

“Every case that occurs is one case too many. For dishonesty – in contrast to error – not only fundamentally contradicts the principles and the essence of scientific work, [but] it is also a grave danger to science itself. It can undermine public confidence in science, and it may destroy the confidence of scientists in each other without which successful scientific work is impossible.”

The courage and confidence that Galston showed in pursuing the consequences of his research are indeed remarkable and inspiring. However, this conviction can only be achieved from a strong sense of research ethics, morals and dedication to upholding all the good science stands for. As Galston quoted, [the] responsibility [of a scientist] to society does not cease with publication of a definitive scientific paper.

Sound knowledge of and adherence to research integrity are imperative if we are to leave a positive imprint on humanity with our work.

In our following articles in this series, we shall see in greater detail what constitutes scientific malpractice and misconduct, conscious ways a researcher can remove themselves from involvement in such practices, regulations about authorship and publications, and conflict management when faced with research misconduct.



  1. Galston Science and social responsibility: A case history. Ann NY Acad Sci. 1972;196(4):223-35.
  2. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, and Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. On Being a Scientist: A Guide to Responsible Conduct in Research: Third Edition. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2009.
  3. Fanelli How Many Scientists Fabricate and Falsify Research? A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Survey Data. PLoS One. 2009;4(5):e5738.
  4. Davis MS, Riske-Morris M, Diaz SR. Causal Factors Implicated in Research Misconduct: Evidence from ORI Case Files. Sci and Eng Ethics. 2007;13(4):395-414.
  5. Gold 6, Congressional Activities Regarding Misconduct and Integrity in Science. In: National Academy of Sciences (US), National Academy of Engineering (US) and Institute of Medicine (US) Panel on Scientific Responsibility and the Conduct of Research. Responsible Science: Ensuring the Integrity of the Research Process: Volume II. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 1993.
  6. Koenig Panel Calls Falsification in German Case ‘Unprecedented’. Science. 1997;277(5328):894.
  7. Abinandanan Scientific Misconduct in India: An Analysis of Retracted Papers in PubMed. Abstract of a talk presented at the Workshop on Academic Ethics. 2011 Jul 15-16; Chennai (India).
  8. Gommel M, Nolte H, Sponholz G. Teaching Good Scientific Practice: Results from a Survey and Observations from Two Hundred Courses. JUnQ. 2015;5(2):11-16.


Primary author and content research

Uma Turakhiya, currently works as a regulatory medical writer at Trilogy Writing and Consulting (Frankfurt, Germany), having previously completed her Ph.D. in biochemistry from the University of Freiburg, Germany. She enjoys writing about science and believes that simplification of science and communication are the key to creating a scientific temper in the society. Apart from having a voracious appetite for books, she is enthusiastic about learning new languages, meeting new people and occasionally playing the piano.


Primary editor, contributed to the research, infographics and blog design

Rituparna Chakrabarti, pursued her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Georg-August University (Göttingen, Germany) and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Biostructural Imaging of Neurodegeneration (BIN), Göttingen. Over the years, she has gained technical expertise in electron and high-resolution light microscopy, to study the nanostructures of specialized chemical synapses in the sensory systems. She likes to have a bird’s eye view of her undertakings and gets excited with analytics. Passionately believes in, correct simplification of science, therefore engages in different scientific communication and public outreach projects. To unwind herself she plays mandolin and eagerly looks for a corner at a coffee house to slide herself in with a good read or company.


Paurvi Shinde, did her PhD, in Immunology from University of Connecticut Health and currently works as a Post Doc, at Bloodworks Northwest in Seattle. She’s loves editing and proofreading scientific articles, to convey the message behind it, in a clear and concise form.



Our art team

  1. Cover image: Kindly provided by Vinita Bharat Ph.D. Follow her on Fuzzy Synapse (on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram).
  2. Inset image: Courtesy of Ipsa Jain. You can find more about her works at IpsaWonders (on Facebook and Instagram)



The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs). This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

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