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Transition from Bench to Investor relations and Patient engagement-Face to Face with Dr. Michelle Avery

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Nida Siddiqui (NS), interviews Dr. Michelle Avery (MA), who tells us about her love for science communication, and how she used skills learnt during her PhD, to transition from bench research to being the ‘Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement’ at Summit Therapeutics.

NS: Could you tell us about yourself?

MA: I loved science since an early age, and even volunteered at a local science museum when I was old enough, but I could never have imagined where it would take me. I earned my undergraduate degree in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College. While I was there, I had a professor who told me that in order to have a career involving neuroscience, you had to have a PhD. And so, off I went to get my PhD, which I obtained from the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where I studied axon degeneration in Drosophila. I knew that I wanted to branch out from academia and so opted to not do a postdoc. After graduation, I joined a life sciences communication agency, called MacDougall Biomedical Communications. I’m now the Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics, a small biotech company developing drugs in Duchenne muscular dystrophy and C. difficile infection. I also compete nationally in ballroom dancing in my spare time.

NS: What were some of the exciting projects that you did during your PhD/Postdoc?

 MA: I was a very fortunate grad student – the vast majority of my experiments went very well and resulted in several publications, two first authored papers and two others. My work centred on understanding axon degeneration. For the most part, I worked on a fusion protein that was originally discovered in mice about 20 years before I got to UMass, but its mechanism was still a mystery. We found that a protein, called Wlds, can stop axons from degenerating during injury and in some models of disease, a process that was previously thought to be passive one. I used Drosophila genetics to unravel how Wlds functions, and demonstrated that it acts through mitochondria. I also participated in a forward genetic screen, where we created thousands of mutant Drosophilas to find ones in which their axons didn’t degenerate; further proving that axon degeneration is an active process like apoptosis. We found several mutants that many others in the lab followed up on (and are continuing to follow up on).

 NS: Did you have a dilemma after your PhD, to choose from a postdoc/industry position?

 MA: My heart was not in research – I loved every aspect of it, except for doing it. I knew it wouldn’t be fair to myself or whichever research team I go to if I continued onto a postdoc. I was lucky enough to have a PI who was very supportive of me and my decision to go into industry, although some of my thesis committee members tried to pressure me into doing a postdoc.

 NS: When did you decide it was time to move on and transition to industry?

 MA: I decided a couple of years into my PhD that I wasn’t likely to continue on in academia. I’m a big believer that one should always love what they’re doing and make a change if they don’t. I did chat with several of my friends about whether to drop out of the PhD program or to finish my degree and most of them responded with “you’ve come this far, you’d probably regret it if you don’t finish.” I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but am happy to leave the bench behind.

NS: What are the skills that helped you crack your current position?

MA: Four main skills are crucial for my job:

  1. Learning – People often take for granted the main skill that we are taught in any PhD program. How to learn and then apply that learning. This ability has allowed me to learn the business of science, read and decipher scientific papers for the masses and be able to effectively research any challenge and come up with solutions.
  2. Problem-solving – They don’t call it research because you do it just once. Science has taught me how to expect the unexpected and find a way around it. Every company has unique challenges and figuring out the best way to address them is key to good communication.
  3. Communicating – In my career, it’s very important for me to be able to tell a compelling story to a wide variety of audiences – from young patients to other PhDs who have now turned into investors. The overall message stays the same, but the details change, based on the level of knowledge each group has. Having the opportunity to present to different groups during grad school has helped immensely in this regard. In addition, my PI was great at preparing us for presentations – any time we presented in a conference or other event, we practiced in front of the entire lab and received detailed feedback on every slide, from the words we used to describe to the content of the slide.
  4. Confidence in questioning authority – We all know that science would not advance if researchers weren’t bold enough to question the reigning dogma. We’re taught to prove the null hypothesis and question every aspect of ours and others’ data. This is a very useful skill when it comes to shaping a communications strategy, crafting the message that conveys your story and preparing your team well for a question and answer session with different audiences. It ultimately gives more credibility to the company, which is a company’s greatest asset in biotech.

NS: Could you describe your role as the Director of investor relations and patient engagement?

MA: In smaller biotech companies, investor relations and corporate communications are one and the same. The life of a biotech company depends on its ability to raise money and fund research. For that, you need a compelling story, honest and frequent communication and a good relationship with Wall Street. These three tasks fall under my purview.

A compelling story should start with a simple message that permeates through all communications of the company. Therefore, I’m responsible for all external written and oral communications – the vast majority of which I take the first draft on, whereas some others (mainly scientific presentations/posters) I simply review to make sure they support our story. The communications I draft include, website text, press releases, presentations, conference call scripts, Q&A documents and financial filings (as a public company, we have to file certain forms with the Securities and Exchange Commission).

On the honest and frequent communications front, I typically map out a year or two worth of upcoming events (e.g. conferences, corporate and scientific announcements), identify gaps in the frequency of communication and come up with clever ways to fill those gaps, such as targeting a scientific publication for that time far enough in advance.

In regards to maintaining a good relationship with Wall Street, there are three categories of Wall Street folks that I interact with: bankers: that help us to raise money; buysiders: the investors that buy our stock; and sellsiders: who write reports on our company recommending whether to buy, hold or sell our stock.

NS: Could you elaborate on investor relations strategy?

MA: An investor relations strategy includes interactions with the bankers, buysiders and sellsiders; a plan for continuing the relationships, and also building them. Thus, I spend a lot of time traveling with my Chief Executive Officer and Chief Financial Officer. Each bank typically holds conference during the year, where we present and get to meet one-on-one with buyside investors. Usually, we take a day or two on either side of these conferences to meet the sellsiders or other investors who weren’t at the conference. We also conduct what are called non-deal roadshows, meaning we’re not looking to raise money, but rather are out meeting with buyside investors at their offices. We try and conduct a non-deal roadshow every three months at different locations both in the US and Europe. For sellsiders, we frequently call and meet ones that write about us to make sure they’re as up to date as possible. We also seek out and educate sellsiders that write about other companies in our space. It’s important for them to know as much as they can about a disease space, so we make sure they have an accurate picture of our company which may increase our chances of getting mentioned in research they cover about other companies. In some cases, you can even persuade a sellsider to start writing reports about your company. Another incredibly important aspect of my job is to make sure that we all stay out of jail. All joking aside, there are certain obligations that a public company has in terms about what and when it discloses certain information. I tend to say I’m the nosiest person at the company because of this task – I need to understand what’s going on with every group within the company to know whether or not we need to make a disclosure and when we need to do so. It’s also great to have a head’s up when something like data might be coming, so I can plan the scenario and ensure we have all the right messages and materials ready when it’s time to get the disclosure out. There are many other aspects to investor relations, but these are the main components.

NS: Could you describe the concept of patient engagement?

MA: Patient engagement is relatively new in biotech companies. More and more, biotech companies are realizing that patients are very important for the development of their drugs. In order for a drug to get to the market, you need patient enrolment in clinical trials, and therefore, they need to be designed with patients in mind. So, this role is a two-way street – where we need to educate the patients and in return we need to be educated by them. On the educational front, I spend time traveling to patient organization meetings, to present our approach towards treating Duchenne muscular dystrophy and our clinical trials. These meetings are a great way for us to be educated about the patient population – the questions they ask and discussions they have could be very informative. We also set up periodic webinars, send around newsletters, use social media and keep the patient and family website up to date. Another way that patients educate us is through an advisory board, where we get their feedback on clinical trial protocols, what’s most important in their quality of life and what attributes they look for in a potential drug. It’s great to be at a company that cares about its patients and works to involve them in our drug development as best as possible. It’ll be even better if one day I can tell the patients that we have a new treatment option for them.

NS: What would be your advice to PhD students and postdocs looking to transition to the industry?

MA: I would advise students and postdocs to follow their hearts first and foremost – if you want to make a transition, you can do it and be successful no matter what pushback you may or may not receive from various advisors. Make sure that you openly communicate about your desire to transition – it could help open up doors to networking with others who may have made the transition. Look for other ways to network with those who have made a transition – your city may have a biotech organization that holds events, there may be alternative career talks at your institution or LinkedIn can be a good way to find people to connect with. Finally, look for ways to enhance your skillset for whatever career you may be interested in – if it’s communications, see if there’s a blog you can contribute to on a topic of your choice or sign up for presenting whenever you get a chance. Best of luck to you!

About Dr. Michelle Avery:

Michelle Avery, PhD, is Director of Investor Relations and Patient Engagement at Summit Therapeutics. Previously, she held various positions of increasing seniority at MacDougall Biomedical Communications with her last position being Senior Account Executive. She earned her PhD in neuroscience from the University of Massachusetts Medical School and BA in neuroscience and dance from Skidmore College.

 

About Nida Siddiqui:

 

Nida Siddiqui is currently pursuing final year PhD at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @siddnida.

Editors: Paurvi Shinde, PhD and Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

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. Follow her on Linkedin.

Sayantan Chakraborty is an IRTA postdoctoral fellow at the National Institute on Aging, NIH, Baltimore. A geneticist by training, he’s now exploring the realms of transcription factor dynamics in T cells using quantitative microscopy and systems biology tools. His interests extend to being the Editor for NPR Office Hours and Friends of Joe’s Big Idea. As he grows, he’s looking forward to interacting and networking with fellow science communicators and outreach managers across the globe. Additionally, he’s also a Crisis Counselor with the 24/7 Crisis Text Line. Follow him on Twitter @ch_sayantan

Cover image: Pixabay

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

 

Transitioning from Bench to Pharma – Face to face with Dr. Sourav Sarkar, Senior Scientist, AstraZeneca, UK

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Dr. Sourav Sarkar (SS) shares his academic journey with Nida Siddiqui (NS) and describes the factors that led to his transition into the industry. He also provides some invaluable pointers for future “transitioners”.

NS: Could you tell us about yourself?

 SS: I am an experienced research scientist with broad knowledge and understanding in cell biology and biochemistry. I did my masters in Biochemistry from Calcutta University, India followed by PhD in Genetics and cell biology from Bose Institute, Kolkata, India. After completion of PhD, I joined University of Warwick, UK to pursue postdoctoral research in understanding molecular mechanism of chromosome segregation in normal and cancerous cells. Currently I am working in AstraZeneca, Cambridge, UK as a senior scientist where my role is to screen different classes of compounds to find candidates that are effective, as well as selective against targets in different cancer types, and to gain a better understanding of the molecular mechanism of action of specific compounds against a target.

 NS: What were some of the exciting projects that you worked on during your PhD/Postdoc?

SS: I have mainly worked on understanding the molecular mechanism of chromosome segregation during mitosis and meiosis, and how genetic alterations affect this process in cancer cells.

I have been involved in several projects during my research career and most of them have been very interesting, but if I must choose then I would say that the following projects have been particularly exciting.

  1. a) To understand the role of fusion gene(s) in chromosome segregation, and its contribution towards development of aneuploidy, and consequently cancer. There is considerable evidence that suggests potential links between fusion gene(s) and cancer, so it is very important to understand the molecular basis of this association.
  2. b) To understand how cells respond to nutritional status in the environment, and trigger entry into quiescence/gametogenesis program for their survival.

NS: Did you have any dilemma after your PhD, to choose between a postdoc/industry position?

SS: After completion of PhD, I decided to continue my research work in an academic setting. Frankly speaking, I never had any thoughts of moving to the industry after my PhD.

NS: When did you decide it was time to move on and transition to the industry?

SS: To consider moving to the industry was not an easy decision for me. However, successful scientific research is not a product of ideas alone. Other factors, such as research funding play a crucial role, and I have personally experienced research getting affected due to the lack of funds. It was during my postdoc that I realised that staying in academia was not going to be an easy task. There is constant pressure of publishing articles, getting grants etc. and this to some extent I believe led to a situation where “publish or perish” became a harsh reality.  Considering all these factors, I thought it would be a good time for me (after my second postdoc) to move to the industry, where I could still be involved in science, and address relevant scientific questions. Moreover, I felt that joining a pharmaceutical industry would give me the perfect opportunity to work more closely with experts from different fields towards a common goal of developing new medicines and improving human health. 

NS: What are the skills that helped you crack your current position?

SS: My research experience during PhD and postdoc gave me the invaluable opportunity to learn various technical skills ranging from cell and molecular biology to protein biochemistry. In addition to my technical skills, I also got the chance to develop my inter-personal skills over this period. Interacting with researchers from various fields of expertise has helped shape my research career. The set of skills I acquired from these communications turned out to be highly valuable towards obtaining my current position in this company.

 NS: How has PhD Career Support Group (PhDCSG) played a role during your transition period?

SS: PhDCSG is a great initiative and I must thank all the people who are behind this. CSG has helped me better prepare myself during the transition stage. The vast variety of posts by people from different areas, starting from CV writing to preparing for a job interview etc. are very useful. One learns a lot from CSG as people share their personal experiences on topics relevant to early-career scientists, which to me is extremely valuable.

 NS: What would you advise PhD students and postdocs, looking to transition to the industry?

SS: I would suggest few points to work on before making the move.

  1. First ask yourself whether you are prepared for the move.
  2. Be honest, be prepared to take risks, and believe in yourself.
  3. Continue to learn and develop skills in your area of specialization, but also keep your mind open to picking up new skills in other areas, as and when an opportunity presents.
  4. Understand your subject very well and develop the quality to address pertinent questions.
  5. Both, technical and inter-personal skills are key during transition.
  6. Don’t hesitate to interact with people, reaching out to them, and making yourself visible in the job sector.
  7. Attend conferences, meetings, networking events etc. where you would get an opportunity to meet people from different industries.
  8. If possible, attend courses on career development.

And most importantly, remember, employers won’t come and knock on your door; you will have to create opportunities for yourself.

 

About Dr. Sourav Sarkar

Dr. Sourav Sarkar is a senior scientist at AstraZeneca, Cambridge, UK. He completed his PhD from Bose Institute, Calcutta, India followed by two postdoctoral stints at the University of Warwick, UK.

 

About Nida Siddiqui

Nida Siddiqui is currently pursuing final year PhD at the Centre for Mechanochemical Cell Biology, University of Warwick, UK. Follow her on LinkedIn and Twitter @siddnida

Editor: Arunima Singh

About: Arunima obtained her PhD in Computational chemistry from the University of Georgia, USA, and is currently a postdoctoral researcher at New York University. She enjoys traveling, reading, and the process of mastering a new cuisine. Her motivation to move to New York was to be a part of this rich scientific, cultural, and social hub.

 Cover image: Pixabay

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.

Let’s start with the first stepping stone

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Editor’s Note: Enrico Fermi said, “There are two possible outcomes: if the result confirms the hypothesis, then you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery”. In her career transition tet-a-tete with Rituparna, Riya Binil reveals how her leap of faith from the ivory tower of academia was a perfectly measured career move and also ensured the discovery of the purpose of her scientific training. As we begin the next season of Gurukool, we hope Riya’s experience will help you realize the power of altruism that propels peer-sourced mentoring in Gurukool. – Abhinav Dey

 

Whether we are freshly minted Ph.Ds. or rich with postdoc experiences, sometimes uncertainty beckons us and we yearn to venture away from the trodden path into a different kind of future. Although our training equips us with the ability to reason out and calculate the trial and error rates, transitioning into broader STEM-Careers may seem like an insurmountable challenge, but all that we need is the first stepping stone towards it.

Dr. Riya Binil reinstalled my (Rituparna Chakrabarti) faith in this and made it much stronger, as we spent a Sunday afternoon Skypeing about her recent job transition experience as Biotech Analyst at SGS Canada Inc. Riya patiently narrated her story highlighting the importance of seeking help and building networks with the right person at the right time. She urges young PhDs to take a leap of faith from the ivory tower.

RC: Congratulation Riya, tell me more about where it all started?

RB: Well I am an applied chemist by training, I got my M.Sc. from Cochin University of Science and Technology, India. I wanted to pursue my Ph.D. but my younger version was equally excited to meet new people and enjoy new experiences. That’s why I moved to Bangalore to do my Ph.D. at National Center for Biological Sciences. Here, I gained most of my laboratory skill sets and grew passionate to work at the intersection of Chemistry and Biology. During that period, I mainly worked with GPI (Glycosylphosphatidylinositol, a glycolipid) and GPI-APs (GPIanchored proteins, glycolipid-tethered proteins). These proteins are ubiquitously expressed in all eukaryotic cells and perform diverse cellular functions. I synthesized fluorescent GPI analogs as well as ligands for the GPI-AP receptor to specifically study the plasma membrane organization of GPI-APs.

By the end of my Ph.D., I started looking for scopes where my skill sets can be implemented on larger scale projects and I made up my mind that I wanted to transcend beyond academia. More or less at the same time, my family relocated to Canada. It’s always quite challenging with these relocations, especially when your family is entangled with you and your decisions. So, I decided to take up a postdoctoral position at Ottawa Hospital Research Institute, but in parallel, continued to dig in more about opportunities in the industries and developing my CV towards it. My latest relocation from Ottawa to Greater Toronto area, Ontario thankfully came at the right time where I had my first reality check; ‘In Canada, you might have a Ph.D. but that might not be enough for you to land up with a job.’

RC: So how did you circumvent this obstacle?

RB: This can be quite nerve-wrecking and a long experience for most of us but I guess you find a way about it. I was very sure about this transition for quite a long time. I did not care too much about the pay scale to start with but kept my eyes open for opportunities which matched my skill sets. One thing that I was very clear about was ‘I need to get my very first industrial exposure’, therefore I was flexible to learn and adapt to the system. By this time I came across CSG (Career Support Group) and Ananda Ghosh prompted me to get associated with CSG Gurukool Initiative which helped me immensely to custom design my CV and groomed me for the interview.

RC: What are the objectives of SGS and what are your current roles as a Biotech Analyst?

RB: SGS (Société Générale de Surveillance) is a MNC based in Geneva, Switzerland. They are one of the global leaders carrying out inspections, verifications, testings, and certifications for their client’s services and products. They set a global benchmark by delivering high-quality services in a wide range of sectors (13 of them), starting from ‘agriculture & food’ to ‘oil & energy’. I joined the biopharmaceutical division within the life sciences department. As a Biotech Analyst, my major responsibility includes various bioanalytical analysis to ensure quality control.

RC: What were the skill sets you highlighted for your current job?

RB: I was always interested in research and had a vast skill set to get absorbed in this department. After looking at the job ad, I observed that I full filled most of their requirements. But the trick is you have to tailor the CV and cover letter smartly. I was picky with my skill sets and highlighted only those which were mandatory for this particular position. I highlighted my expertise in cell cultures, cell-based assays, chromatography and gel electrophoresis. In addition to this, I highlighted my strongest soft skills like good communication (both verbal and written), openness to collaborations (within and outside interdisciplinary team of scientists), innovative outlook and flexibility.

RC: What was the biggest lesson you learned during the process of transition?

RB: For me, the biggest virtue I learned was to be persistent and patient throughout the process. It takes the time to understand the job market. It needs a lot of self-effort and diligent networking. CSG and CSG Gurukool provided me the required support, as well as a sound networking platform.

RC: How did CSG Gurukool help you?

RB: Everyone knows the importance of social media and networking, but initially very few of us actually take this process seriously. I took my time to get accustomed to this procedure as well. The CSG inhouse mentor-mentee program is a great platform in order to know people from different walks of life. They hand pick few CSG members every 6 months based on their CV and cover letter and assign them to set of mentors with the similar background. I got in touch with Swayam Prabha and Ravikiran Ravulapalli as my mentors, who understood the Canadian job market specifically. At the start, I was a bit shy to approach the mentors directly. I always wanted to provide them with the well-furnished CV, so I kept editing the CV without knowing the right approach. It won’t be surprising for you to know that it was not the correct way. It is an open portal and both mentors and mentees learn from one another. It is always best to work through the materials and evolve together in the focused direction. They also provided me with useful tips like spreading the keywords well throughout my CV and LinkedIn profile so it is easier to crack the CTS (Computer Tracking Software). Most importantly I learned that one has to be proactive in order to make an impression among the mentors because you might get a referral to a particular industry via your mentor. The best part of this experience is it is a free open access source which anyone can utilize once motivated and enrolled. I pursued it diligently and was successful. I am now looking forward to the new cycle of CSG Gurukool, as it’s my turn to give back to CSG as a resourceful mentor.

RC: Thanks, Riya I am sure this will help many of our readers. Do you have any suggestions for future aspirants?

RB: Study the job market carefully; jot down what you want to do and what your priorities are. Once you have your first draft take help from your friends/peers who made the similar transition or get associated with programs like CSG Gurukool. Start applying well in advance. Generally, it is a long process and earlier you start more confident you will feel about it. Informational interviews are great tools and I highly recommend everyone to exploit this medium.

 


This interview was coordinated and conducted by Rituparna Chakrabarti

Rituparna 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 years, she has gained technical expertise in electron and high-resolution light microscopy, in order 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.

The editor Vignesh Narayan Hariharan

Vignesh is a molecular biologist at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India with a passion for science communication. When he is not peering into bacterial signaling networks or playing with his fluorescence microscope, he tries to simplify science through his writing. He loves talking about science almost as much as he loves writing about it and wishes people would pay for him to just travel the world talking and writing about science….or anything else for that matter.

 


Cover Image source: Pixabay

Profile image courtesy Riya Binil,

Content Image sources: Pixabay

References:


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.

 

Transitioning from Bench to Academic management: Tête-à-tête with Dr. Viswanadham Duppatla

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In Club SciWri’s transition interview series, we highlight the journey of Dr. Viswanadham Duppatla (Visu) today, who is the COO of MNR Foundation for Research and Innovations, India. Dr. Duppatla is a multifaceted research professional who envisions establishing an efficient system for training science graduates in India. He’s continuously striving for a change in the higher education standards and is playing an important role in improving rural education in India. He is a man who has mastered the skills of transforming challenges and hurdles into success and his career is a perfect example of it.  In his conversation with Abirami Santhanam (AS), Dr. Duppatla provides some inspiring insights to young scientists looking to move back to India as well as for transitioning to newer STEM roles.

AS: Please tell us about yourself.

Visu: I come from a very remote village in South India. Due to my limited exposure, I took a lot of risks in life. At this stage, I feel they were all worth it. I’m an average person who learned where and how to get things done, and therefore, I can promptly set things in motion. Furthermore, I help my network and ask for help without hesitation.

I was fortunate enough to graduate from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore where I learned quite a lot from fellow students. Thanks to my PhD supervisor I could explore opportunities like the DAAD short-term visiting fellow and European Union Scientist exchange programs during my PhD. My participation in these programs catalysed my selection in the Marie – Curie Industrial Network Program (Foldamer Applications in Protein-Protein Interactions) at the University of Würzburg, Germany. Thanks to the rigorous training during my PhD, I could handle an independent lab soon after my graduation.

AS: What’s your role in the MNR Foundation for Research and Innovations?

Visu: In one sentence: To encourage the Research and Entrepreneurial culture among faculty and students of MNR educational trust institutions with a special emphasis on Medical college. We have started the process of establishing an incubation platform for graduate students who can start exploring their start-up ideas with limited internal funding. We are actively collaborating with young minds in the biomedical space with a mutually beneficial outcome.

AS: How was your academic journey and what were your memorable moments?

Visu: The most fortunate event in my life was studying in the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya where quality education is provided to rural students with free boarding and lodging support (I would like to stress the importance of this as it enabled me to be what I am today). Like many of you, I enjoyed my bachelor’s in Biochemistry (Andhra university), simultaneously working at a telephone booth (entrepreneurship) during the night. Passing several MSc entrance exams tremendously boosted my confidence. Thanks to the DBT sponsored program at the University of Calicut, I pursued my Masters in Biotechnology. Thereafter, I earned my PhD while focusing on DNA Mismatch repair (Indian Institute of Science). Exploring a career as a Marie-Curie Industrial Network program fellow at the Biozentrum, University of Würzburg, Germany and that too in an independent position was the most satisfying moment. My academic journey is a continuous effort and now  I am doing a Strategic Management course with IIMK.

AS: Did you set any goals during your early scientific career?

Visu: Like most of the Indian science students, I didn’t plan my career. I was just a part of the race and luckily ended up at the IISc. The academic atmosphere at the IISc was very stimulating and competitive. Sadly, I had limited mentorship regarding my scientific career (Inferiority complex due to not so posh English language skills). I just followed what everyone else thought was better. Having said this, my PhD mentor was very helpful throughout my stay, especially at times of distress when I was looking for a change.

AS: How did you develop your network during your research career? How important was it for you to reach to your current position?

Visu: Friends call me a ‘people’s person’. I was an extrovert outside the classroom since childhood, but somehow, I could not just get up and clarify my doubts in high school as I wasn’t the smartest of the lot (and I repent a lot for this). I try to put a conscious effort in staying in touch with people in everyday life. The purpose of my networking was never for any gain. I always reach out if I can help. Whenever I have a problem I have people around me who assist me in troubleshooting. PhDCSG (PhD Career Support Group) helped me greatly in widening my network. It was through networking that I came to know about my current job. As a COO of MNR-FRI, I assist with connecting people from different walks of life, and it is this networking which has made my job easier.

AS: At what point, did you decide to move from academic research to academic management?

Visu: Like many postdocs, I too was interested in an academic career. It was during my postdoctoral time when I was searching for opportunities to come back to India that I thought about this transition.  I don’t have an extraordinary CV in terms of publications, though I have prestigious national and international scholarships and two first and corresponding author publications. Unfortunately, these achievements were not enough for getting me an academic position in India. Instead of letting myself down I seriously thought about my strengths, which are networking and management, for which I was greatly appreciated both in India and abroad. I used these qualities as my trump cards and created a new niche for myself – academic management. This area is still in a budding phase in India, with lots of opportunities in the coming years.

AS: Why academic management in particular?

Visu: I realized that researchers have limited options for exploring their entrepreneurial spirit, though the government has various schemes to encourage them. I felt that the paperwork was the major limitation for researchers. Therefore, I wanted to simplify these procedures for fellow researchers who want to explore their own ideas and develop marketable products. I am already seeing the effects albeit on a small scale.

AS:  What persuaded you to move back to India?

Visu:   ‘A foreigner is always a foreigner in a foreign country’. In the west, the system underlying science and the ecosystem for kick-starting a scientific company is well developed with very little space for tinkering. Whereas in India, there is an enormous scope for improvements. Hence, with a well thought structured effort, one can bring about a huge change and have an impact on the Indian ecosystem. Therefore, I always wanted to be a part of it!

AS: Can you elaborate on the role of PhDCSG in your career?

Visu: PhDCSG played a very important role in my transition and even present operations. Most importantly, #ClubSciWri was very instrumental in sharpening my social skills, especially on Twitter: @visu_bio. The assistance of several of my friends and many PhDCSG members have been instrumental along the way. Most of the specialized seminars organized in our medical campus were done with the help of the CSG members. Thanks to the active network, we could coordinate international travels with the institutes of choice. The programs organised in conjunction with the PhDCSG members were the most successful. Special thanks to Prof. Nikhil Gupta for his valuable contributions in organising a fruitful workshop on 3D printing and its applications in medicine and dentistry. As you might have realised this support network stood by me at every step and I enjoy being a part of it.

AS: Can you share the difficulties you faced while establishing a network in a new environment?

Visu: Surprisingly, I enjoyed interacting with people during my transition and I knew I was going to enjoy my future role. These are the people I was interacting for 10-15 years in various capacities. I was very much convinced of seeing myself in a management role at an educational institute. I was always open about it to my circle. I accepted my shortcomings and tried to improvise by attending career workshops and constantly updating everyone in my circle with “What’s Next”. It’s very important to be fearless in accepting your limitations and constantly learning the much-needed skills. If you love what you are doing, you will find a way to cross any barrier.

AS: What are the advantages and hardships one faces after coming back to India?

Visu: The answer could be a broad one and opinions could be divided based on a person-to-person basis. I can talk about what I felt.

Hardships:

  • Approaching for jobs is not straightforward.
  • It takes time to get a response (if you are lucky).
  • Most jobs are through some sort of reference though most deny it.
  • Many applicants don’t mean what they say! It becomes difficult to gauge the situation.

Advantages:

  • The system in India has been the same since I left India in 2009 with only marginal improvements in its functioning. So, it’s easy to work in a familiar place which is better than anywhere else – my home.

After getting used to a super streamlined and organized system in Germany, it was a bit difficult for me to unlearn and relearn Indian things. But familiarity helped me in settling down quite quickly.

AS: Can you share your vision for the future of MNR FRI?

Visu: The major objective of MNR FRI is to establish a research centre with an entrepreneurial spirit catering to the regional health care challenges of lower socioeconomic strata. My major goal is to create a PhD program where graduation means running their own company!

AS: You are an avid user of social media. Could you share some useful tips for using social media for one’s professional development?

Visu: It’s very important to define what you want to share and why. Spend defined and limited time on social media. I would strongly suggest everybody to update themselves with technology. Link your LinkedIn profile with Twitter and connect your Tweets to Facebook. So, once you post in LinkedIn it finds its way to Facebook via twitter. It saves a lot of time. Most people ask me whether I spend a lot of time on social media. The truth is that I hardly do so in reality. You can schedule your posts using various technologies. Be professional on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. Depending on your geography and future career, modify your discussion from the standard format. This is where people can approach you without you saying it out loudly. Your social profile should truly reflect your personality.

AS: What is your advice and suggestions for PhDCSGians who are looking for a career transition?

Visu: Career transition should not be a secret and a single person project. If permissible, let your well-wishers and friends know about it as early as you can. Be vocal on LinkedIn and Facebook discussions. Employers are always looking for good applicants. Have a tailor-made resume for each job (CV for academia). I was invited for interviews without submitting any formal application. Hence, it all depends on how others perceive you when they are interacting with you. The present job was offered to me when I went to see if I could help out the MNR group. For me, your daily activities should reflect your career transition and you should make it as natural as it can be. If you are looking for a job in the Indian academic system, you should start very early, at least 2 years ahead. Strictly speaking, I won’t recommend last-minute job applications. There are seniors who are willing to help. Approach politely while asking for guidance. Your strengths are your skills and your network. There is always a job waiting for you – you just need to recognize it. You are your strength – talk to yourself, take the risk and enjoy your life.

Here’s my favourite quote that drives during the toughest of times:

You are not superior, you are not inferior; You are not even equal, you are just unique, and You will become what you want!

AS: Thank you very much Dr. Duppatla for this clear, detailed interview and your time. I can see your enthusiasm and passion for academic development as well as the optimism towards approaching your goals. This interview will definitely help us in paving our path to a passionate and successful career.

 

About the author:

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

Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

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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