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Transcending the realms of Equity Research with a life science PhD

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Biology – market – finance are all quite diverse fields, but do intersect paths at certain points. Did you ever wonder whether your PhD training could be relevant to financial markets? As it turns out, a PhD graduate is skilled in teamwork, critical thinking and has strong analytical prowess. Add some other important ingredients and the recipe for a successful transition into the corporate world is ready.

Kumaraguru Raja (KR), whose career trajectory evolved from being a microbiologist to an equity researcher, discusses his journey with Parul Chachra (PC). He earned his PhD from the Bowling Green State University. After two postdoctoral stints, KR went on to pursue an MBA from the University of California San Diego and found his calling in equity research.

PC: What does your role as an equity researcher encompass?

KR: I’m involved with equity research in pharmaceutical and biotechnology sectors. Our research is instrumental for institutional investors in composing their investment decisions. I provide insights and detailed analysis on a number of companies whom I cover in the aforementioned sectors. Based on our recommendations and their own analysis, our clients working in mutual funds and hedge funds decide on which companies’ stocks they would like to invest in and how to change positions in stocks they already own. On a day-to-day basis, we do an in-depth research on the companies we cover. We assess factors that have an impact on market valuations and stock prices of the companies – factors pertaining to clinical data, product differentiation, intellectual property, and status in the competitive space. We provide our views on market developments to our clients. Typically, for any company, it starts with initiation reports. Initiation reports consist of an in-depth review of the company, financials, potential of the pipeline, its management and why our clients should invest in them. We also provide coverage reports over time, wherein we provide updates based on the market developments or when the company provides additional data.

PC: What kind of teams exist in equity research? What kind of people do you interact with daily?

KR: The teams typically consist of a senior analyst and a few associates reporting to him. In the healthcare sector, there are various areas like medical technology, medical devices, biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. Each analyst typically covers 15-20 companies with the help of his team. Initially, I started out as a senior associate and at that time our team consisted of one senior analyst and three associates. Currently, I am a senior analyst, and have an associate working with me. We interact with managements of companies we cover, institutional investors, institutional sales and traders.

PC: How did you shape your career trajectory after earning your PhD in microbiology?

KR: I briefly worked as a postdoctoral researcher in Mayo Clinic after my PhD where I focused on cancer epigenetics. From there, I moved to LA BioMed where I pursued research on tumour biology. I always had an inclination towards the business aspect of biotech. I decided to move to the corporate side and opted to pursue an MBA. I went on to join the UCSD management school and graduated in 2010.

PC:  When did you decide to go into equity research? How did you zero in on it?

KR: I was looking for opportunities where I could utilize my background as a scientist and the skills I had developed in management school. I have always been inquisitive about the stock market and biotechnological innovations. Further, my interests revolved around understanding the commercialisation of academic discoveries and innovations. That was the impetus for me to go for an MBA. After starting management school, I didn’t have a clear idea and I was interested in various opportunities. I found that there were certain areas where my skillset could be useful. That’s when I thought about equity research, especially covering biotech and pharma stocks, as a potential starting point for my career in the corporate world. In this niche, we analyse a lot of companies and it also provides us an opportunity to interact with the management of different companies.

PC: Your answer brings me to another question. When was it that you decided to do an MBA? Did you view it as a necessary step to enter the corporate world?

KR: My postdoc supervisor was a very qualified person. During that time, I saw the challenges that he faced for acquiring grants and a skewed work-life balance that he efficiently managed. That was when I decided that perhaps doing an MBA would be a good idea to diverge from an academic career. While a lot of people manage to transition successfully right after their PhD or early postdoc years, I did not take that route and thought that an MBA would be helpful.

PC: How supportive was your PI when you showed interest in pursuing an MBA?

KR: I didn’t discuss it with my PI at the time. At a later stage, he wasn’t very encouraging when I told him that I was wrapping up my postdoc to do an MBA.

PC: How receptive do you think business schools are towards PhDs or postdocs who haven’t ventured much into corporate and aspire for an MBA degree?

KR: Some schools are more receptive compared to others and that was one of the reasons for me to choose UCSD. They had a lab-to-market course and the focus was on bringing innovations from lab to the market. When I applied in 2008, the program at UCSD was also relatively new, so they were actually very excited about me joining them.

PC: Can you name some schools which welcome incoming MBA candidates with a PhD or postdoc experience?

KR: Rady School of Management at UCSD, The Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell, and Indian School of Business to name a few. Most management schools strive for a diverse student population and are open to students with advanced degrees.

PC: At what level can people enter into equity research without an MBA degree? Do you have colleagues around without a business degree?

KR: Equity research has a comparatively flat hierarchy and people without an MBA degree start as associates. I have had several colleagues without a business degree who joined directly from academia, but they knew the expectations the role demanded and were prepared for it.

PC: How much credibility exists for self-preparatory courses in your field? Does it impress the employer?

KR: I think compared to someone who doesn’t have similar credentials, it helps you to differentiate yourself. To the very least it shows that you took an initiative to inform yourself. Obviously, your understanding will be tested during the interview process and the decision will be based on that. At the end of the day, even if you go to a great academic institution, it all depends on what you learnt and how you leverage it and contribute to the job.

PC: In what way was your PhD and postdoc experience useful during your MBA and later when you continued as an equity researcher?

KR: There are a lot of skills one develops during their PhD training. The essence of team play is very important in academia and holds true in corporate too. I cover the biotech sector, so we do a lot of fundamental research and look at case studies where drug development is involved, for example, looking at how different molecules work and how they are different from competitive drugs developed by other companies. Also, we look at the different pathways that are affected with a sense of looking at the off-target effects and the side effect profile. These are the attributes that we garner while being trained in science.

PC: You did talk about the challenges of being in academia. What kind of challenges do you face in the corporate sector, especially as an equity researcher, and what do you love about your job? What are the aspects that you are still learning and working on?

KR: Every job has its own advantages and challenges. There are some similarities between doing a postdoc and equity research. This line of work is very competitive and involves long hours. Often it happens that I need to think ahead of time, like what catalysts are coming up and be prepared. I need to do my analysis and get it to clients in a timely manner. Many a times, relevant company announcements are made at 6 in the morning. Some US companies collaborate with their counterparts in Europe/Japan so they release data according to their time zones. One needs to be prepared for all these events. Furthermore, there are press releases after the close of business. As you might guess, being an equity researcher involves investing long hours, which I believe many researchers can relate to. We get to know point-in-time whether our predictions regarding a stock or a clinical trial stood correct. Sometimes we are right, sometimes not. We learn a lot while on the job, plus one gets to interact with a lot of smart people. We routinely interact with CEOs, CFOs, research analysts, portfolio managers and other management team members from mutual funds and hedge funds.

PC: How does the career trajectory of an equity researcher evolve?

KR: Some pursue equity research as a career and continue for a long run. There are others who would move on to corporate finance roles or join as research analysts and portfolio managers in mutual funds and hedge funds after investing a few years. Some move to business development, while others become CEOs or CFOs of companies. There are several exit opportunities for people in equity research.

PC: What kind of equity research opportunities exist in India and overseas?

KR: A lot of equity research options exist in India. For example, people can work for banks and/or cover stocks that are listed in the stock market. Also, a lot of investment banks have research departments based in India and employees in these departments collaborate with employees in the US, UK or Australia. Many teams have their research analysts based in the US/UK and their associates in India and I think that’s a good starting point for people based in India. I have also seen people who took this path and later moved overseas. Additionally, there are opportunities in similar capacities in competitive intelligence which involve expertise that overlap with the skillsets required for equity research.

PC: What kind of quantitative skills do such departments look for?

KR: It depends on the field. In healthcare, we are looking at how clinical trials are powered and we are also involved in market projection. For example, in the case of prostate cancer, you look at the therapeutic space and determine different treatments being developed. Therefore, you also make a lot of estimates in terms of how big the market opportunity is and how many patients can be treated, how a particular drug is differentiated from what is already in the market, and the other drugs that are being developed in the market and then you come up with the potential market share. Additionally, you also do revenue projections. You build profit and loss models, balance sheet, cash flow and you also do a lot of valuations in terms of discounted cash flow. These are some of the skillsets needed for evaluating a company and a candidate possessing such may be the best fit.

PC: Do you suggest pursuing a postdoctoral fellowship if a mid-career graduate student has decided on transitioning into corporate eventually?

KR: It depends on that individual’s situation and it is not necessary to do a postdoc if one has made up their mind to enter corporate. It varies from person to person. Some are successful in landing a position in corporate immediately after their PhD. For others, it doesn’t work out that way. It all depends on how much time you need and being a postdoc provides you that additional time where you prepare yourself for the successful transition.

PC: How crucial is networking for a person who wants to transition from academia to corporate?

KR: Networking is very important and it also helps to converse with people in the field in order to understand what a typical job involves and what are the skills needed. It also provides a better idea on how best can you put yourself in those shoes and determine if this is what you would want to pursue. You also need to base your decisions on personal situations. Some people are married and some people have kids by the end of their PhD/postdoc. I guess one needs to take a holistic view of your their circumstances and then decide what would be the right career for them.

PC: What advice do you have for PhDs and postdocs who are looking forward to a transition and is there anything that they can add to their inventory for better preparation?

KR: One of the aspects that I strongly believe that you should invest in is networking. It is important! People are open to helping out students, communicating with them or mentoring them. And, I think PhDs and postdocs should reach out and find a mentor. Another important point is to differentiate yourself from the crowd. That’s the key to success. When you are working in a lab, or preparing for a transition, you need to individuate yourself. You need to demonstrate why they should choose you over someone else. In my opinion, that is what will get your resume to the top of the pile and ultimately help you in landing the job that you so desire. For example, it helps to take courses in financial modelling or entrepreneurship as a graduate student. It will equip you to differentiate yourself from the herd.


 

About K. Raja:

Kumaraguru Raja (KR) pursued his PhD in Microbiology from the Bowling Green State University. Thereafter, he briefly worked in Mayo Clinic, focusing on cancer epigenetics and later moved to UCLA to conduct research on tumour biology. After two short postdoctoral stints, he earned an MBA from the University of California San Diego and transitioned into equity research. Presently, he is the Vice President Biotechnology Research at Noble Life Science Partners in New York.

 

 About the author:

Kumaraguru Raja was interviewed by Parul Chachra. Parul is a research professional with training in life sciences and specific expertise in neuroscience & data analytics. She pursued PhD in Neuroscience at Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai and is currently a part of healthcare analytics team at GE Global Research Center. Towards the completion of her PhD, she started ‘Beyond your PhD’ initiative at her institute to develop a platform for an open discussion on ‘alternate’ career paths for science graduates and how they could approach them. She is also a strong advocate of mental health and works towards creating awareness and eliminating stigma associated with mental illness.

 

Edited by: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of the 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.

 

 

 

Planning ahead – From academia to Siemens Healthcare

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

Moving across continents

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

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

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

Academic roller coaster

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

Understanding industry

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

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

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

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

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

The transition

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

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

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

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

The informational interview

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

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

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

Take home message

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


About Sarmistha

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

I defended my PhD.

in That Makes Sense by

A year ago today , I defended my PhD.

It wasn’t easy. I was in a new country, a non English speaking country. I remember the first few days upon reaching, I was so naive and so excited. All I had known about Paris till then was the romantic Eiffel tower and the historic streets of Paris, the ever beautiful image that media always portrayed.

Paris was vastly different, in far so many ways than I could describe here. It was as if I was redefining myself and all that I had learnt the 20 odd years throughout my life were being slowly replaced or altered- and at most times, I did not even realize it.

This was probably the biggest challenge I had faced and a real one at that. I landed in a country barely knowing anyone, barely knowing the language and barely knowing what it held for me and yet I knew for the first time, I had a one – way ticket and I did not know when I would go back.

I remember not having a friend or a family beside. I remember my fears trying to break in and mingle.I recall the days I spoke so little or none at all. I remember seeing an Indian guy at my residence one day, whom I approached so gladly to speak to, only to realize he didn’t speak a word of english and barely understood me. I recall being ill not being able to go to an English doctor, lying in bed in my little studio, alone, without a voice for a week, realizing how I couldn’t run to my mother or my friends. I remember going to a bakery not knowing how to order for a bread I wanted and walked off not wanting to hold the queue. I remember drawing out experiments so people I worked with could understand what I meant, I remember mastering google translate as all the emails came only in French, yet only to understand less than half of it. I remember I missed the registration for the french language classes because even those emails were in french. I remember how French cuisine smelled so delicious and yet since i didn’t eat meat, there were mostly only boiled vegetables and French fries that often ended up on my plate.

I recall how I lost track of my friends back home, how their lives carried on and how I could never fit in right back. i remember the nights I spent on Facebook looking through the photos my family or friends had uploaded and wishing I was a part of all that. I remember loved ones falling seriously ill and me not being able to be there and feeling helpless. I remember the loss of a loved one and I remember helping others cope with it. I remember how my mom could never cook my favorite dishes and how my family did not enjoy them till I was back a week each year. I recall my first lone birthday and I also remember handling and going through all sorts of cultural shocks. I remember speaking home once a week because the timings were always so bad and calls back home were expensive. I remember speaking properly (or tamil, my mother tongue) that once a week as well. (There was no whatsapp or at least, It wasn’t at all popular during that time).

I remember a lot more… I remember the coldness of Paris, the cold nights I walked alone facing my fears, facing a different reality and pursuing my dreams…

Gradually of course, the winter got better and the coldness gradually subsided. Spring and summer did come. I wondered if it was because I had become accustomed to all this coldness but I was sure I felt so warm inside. I formed a new found family, friends I had never thought I would make. A support that led me defend my PhD, people whom I would forever be grateful for.

Some days I would lose hope but Paris always taught me life was worth it and that my dreams were worth the fight. I learnt the way things worked. My system got rewired. I went for three evening French classes apart from work. I broke my fears, I would go to a boulangerie to order my favorite baguette, I could watch a French movie without subtitles, I tried to speak french and I hung out with french mates (who later grew to become family). I grew to realize I cannot be at two places at once and grew to accept growing apart as growing up too. I learnt that the place I left wasn’t the same place I had in mind whenever I went back, places I had frequented disappeared, new buildings appeared, people had also matured and changed just like the places did. It felt strange. However, I soon realized I wasn’t the same person who left too. I had changed just like them and I realized change wasn’t a bad thing. I was finally merging in and moulding a life in Paris: One that later got filled with beautiful friends, rich memories, new hopes and aspirations and a new found strength.

And at the end of these extremely special four years, I defended my PhD. I got certified in French. I wrote my first three pages of my thesis dedication part in English, Tamil and French, respectively. I could converse my delight in French and feel appalled about the affinity I felt to it. The doctorate was a lot more than a dissertation. It was symbolic to my beautiful years of warm winters and cold summers.

Now, I have left that beautiful nest, the little home i built, that has transformed me so much and will forever be a part of me. I have moved around so much in my life and Paris will always be a part of me just like, or even a little more than, the other lands I belong to and am proud and grateful for.

I miss you Paris and I thank you for my doctorate, not just in science, not just from Pasteur.

And as for you, USA, I am eagerly waiting for your warmer days…

P.S I am so thankful and grateful for having all of you. Thank you for believing in me.

This is for all of you… and to all those people who travel away from family, friends and everything they knew… only to slowly build a new little home away from home.

About the author:
 Mathura is a Medical Science Liaison (MSL) in the field of Personalized Medicine/Pharmacogenomics and at present a Research Scholar at Harvard Medical School as well. She has extensive scientific research experience and training from top international institutions in Europe, Asia, and the USA.
She is not only deeply passionate about personalized medicine but strongly believes in using advances in science and technology to optimize and improve healthcare and is constantly working towards that one pursuit. Mathura graduated with an Honors degree in Biomedical Sciences from the National University of Singapore, Singapore and later obtained her Ph.D. with Distinction in Genetics from Institut Pasteur, Paris. Among her various interests, she has a keen passion for communicating science and culture – through writing and photography.
This blog was originally published by Mathura on Linkedin

Finding antibodies in the haystack…

in Entrepreneurship by

Face to Face with Thomas Leung, CSO, BenchSci.

 

The first day I started my postdoc in the Bremner lab, I remember talking to Tom, a graduate student working in the “Epigenetics” wing of the lab. Being fun-loving and most importantly coffee loving, we instantly bonded and formed a team…doing Science and talking non-sense. I witnessed the BenchSci growth closely…it is amazing how Tom took his idea forward, pursued relentlessly and now successfully launched his startup, raising money from both angel investors and VCs. Within a short span, the BenchSci team won University of Toronto Banting and Best Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship (BBCIE) Fellowship 2016, Ontario Centre of Excellence (OCE) Smart Seed 2016 and the Brightlane Entrepreneurship Award (BEA) 2016. To inspire potential start up seekers in CSG, I interviewed Tom recently about his journey with BenchSci.

 

ME: Tell me about BenchSci?

TL: BenchSci is a machine learning software that analyzes and decodes scientific papers to extract antibody usage data in the form of figures. These figures are then further indexed and aggregated to make them easily accessible to the research community.

ME: So, how did the idea get started?

TL: During my PhD, one day I was planning a new experiment, which required a lot of new antibodies for this huge Western blot. I was sitting in front of my computer, using conventional search engines and looking through PubMed to search for antibodies that have been validated in peer reviewed papers. After many hours, I thought to myself, “wouldn’t it be nice if there was a database somewhere that I can just input my favorite protein and I will be able to see all papers produced with different commercial antibodies against that protein?”. I started looking online and realized that such database does not exist, so I decided to build one on my own.

ME:  How did you go about it? What’s the process involved and how did you form a team?

TL:  To build this massive database, I know that I am going to need someone with superb programming expertise. My whole academic career was in Life Science and I do not know many people in Computer Science. I know that UofT is a great place with awesome ComSci talents, so I logged into my LinkedIn account and typed in “UofT, programming”. The first result was David Chen, who became our Chief Technology Officer. Amazingly, David is both an adept programmer and a PhD researcher in Neuroscience. I invited him out for a drink and we chatted for many hours and that’s how the team got started. I continue to look around UofT and assembled an awesome team right here, including our Chief Executive Officer, Liran Belenzon, MBA from Rotman, our Chief Database Officer, Elvis Wianda, PhD from Medical Biophysics, and our Community Architect, Maurice Shen, PhD from Pharmacology.

ME: How did your exposure in University of Toronto (U of T) help you in this pursuit, from a lab to a startup?

TL: UofT has many incubators aiming to nurture and support new ideas. We took advantage of this great opportunity and went to a few of these wonderful incubators such as the Hatchery at the Department of Engineering, the Creative Destruction Lab at Rotman Business School, and H2i at the Faculty of Medicine. Also, being a research scientist myself means I was able to talk to many professors and researchers to get valuable feedbacks and comments. For instance, our scientific advisors Dr. Jim Woodgett, Director of Research at Mount Sinai Hospital, Dr. Ruth Ross, Chairwoman of the Pharmacology Department and Dr. Ioannis Prassas, Staff Scientists at Mount Sinai, gave us many great suggestions that helped us develop and improve the BenchSci platform to better serve the scientific community.

ME: How is your platform different from the several antibody validation websites that already exist, like Antibodyreview, Biocompare, etc…?

TL: We are a true validation platform, meaning that we directly showcase experimental usage validation of antibodies in peer-reviewed journals. As a researcher, I realize the importance of seeing a figure more than anything, that’s why BenchSci is designed to show scientists antibody evidence-of-use directly in the form of figures, and not just a mere citation number.

ME: So right now what’s the design of your BenchSci website?

TL: It is very straightforward. All you need to do is go to our platform, type in the protein you are interested in and press, “enter”. We will show you a list of figures produced by commercial antibodies that target your protein of interest. You can continue to narrow down your search to fit your experimental criteria by applying multiple layers of filter including technique, tissues, cell lines, and disease models. We have a demo video on our website at www.BenchSci.com. For one minute of your time you will immediately realize how simple it is to use BenchSci.

ME: Do you plan to move to other reagents, other than antibodies?

TL: Yes for sure. BenchSci is a powerful software that can decode scientific papers, and we are also planning to target other experimental reagents that require validation information before making a purchasing decision.

ME: Is the software the end product that you will sell, if so, what is your future direction after that?

TL: We are offering BenchSci free to use for all research scientists. We truly believe that BenchSci would be helpful for researchers around the world. Many PhD students that we talked to had one recurring comment: “oh how I wish I have something like this earlier in my career!”.

ME: You mentioned to me that you are the CSO, but not the CEO of the company, although the idea is yours. For scientists like me who do know much about startups, can you describe how these titles work out? What or who decides these things?

TL: Each of our founders plays very specific role in the company. As the Scientific Officer, I am responsible for all things life science and biology related during product development, from backend data collection logic to frontend user interface search mechanics. I am not directly involved in the coding (which is done by David and Elvis), I design the scientific reasoning behind the code. Our CEO Liran is responsible for all things on the business side of our company. It is a triangle: Science, Technology and Business, each of the founder’s specialties in each of these components makes the team strong.

ME: There are two types of people who are getting into startups. One kind, like you, start with your own idea. On the other hand, I was attending a talk recently and the guy wanted to start a startup and he did some research on what’s hot right now and came up with an idea and went about it. According to you, which type is more sustainable? Or do you think both will work the same?

TL: The story that you build from the idea is the important element. A good story will resonate with people and bring more impact to the idea. However, the idea can either be something that took place in your dream, or something that was triggered after hearing another person’s seminar. The only difference is that, if you are creating a solution to a problem close to yourself, it is easier to convince others the value of your solution. It is more credible for a cell biology scientist to create a solution for the reagent problem than, for instance, an outsider from mechanical engineering. Let’s say I realized this terrible traffic problem on the highway and wanted to build a transportation system to solve this problem. This idea itself might be very good, but since I have no computer or engineering background, it would be more difficult for me to convince people about this idea.

ME: Finally, do you have any advice for beginners, who want to start a startup?

TL: Imagine a road parked full of cars, looking for a parking space is not going to be possible. If your car is your idea and the road is the market, with so many other solutions already out there, it would be tough for your idea and product to develop and grow. To build a startup, good “product-market” fit is important. Do not try to find parking space on a road already filled with cars. Instead, create solutions for problems that do not yet have a good solution. Maurice, our Community Architect, wrote a very good article for students who are thinking about startup, you can read more here.

 

 

You can find more information about BenchSci, see the following:

Company info: http://www.benchsci.com/about/.

Demo/Introduction video on www.benchsci.com

Company statement: http://blog.benchsci.com/2016/09/15/the-benchsci-story/ “The BenchSci Story”

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/report-on-business/small-business/science-startups-make-research-faster-cheaper-more-accurate/article32270645/ “Science startups make research faster, cheaper, more accurate”

 

About Thomas Leung:

 

Tom Leung completed his MSc in Virology and PhD in Epigenetics at the University of Toronto. For his PhD thesis, he investigated the molecular mechanism of repressive genetic bookmarking during cellular division and the potential application of reversing these bookmarks as alternative cancer therapeutic approaches. As a molecular biology research scientist, Tom experienced first hand the inefficient organization of biomedical publications.

Tom is very passionate about the development of a solution to better organize the vast amount of data in scientific literature in order to bring the most relevant information to scientists to facilitate the next big biomedical breakthrough.

 

About Manoja Eswara:

Manoja did her PhD from University of Guelph, Canada, where she worked on unraveling nuclear cytoplasmic transport pathways for transfer RNAs (tRNAs). Currently, she is doing Postdoctoral fellowship at LTRI, Canada, on Cancer Molecular biology and Epigenetics. Her work is focused on understanding the epigenetic factors involved in regulating replication and gene expression in Cancer cells and the potential use of small molecule inhibitors targeting them as Cancer therapeutics.

 

Featured image source: Pixabay

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

Transitioning to a faculty position in Australia: Face to Face with Ranjay Chakraborty

in Face à Face by

The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs has brought you stories of career transitions from United States, Europe and India. This time around we go ‘down-under’ and have tete-a-tete with Dr Ranjay Chakraborty (RC). Ranjay is transitioning from a postdoctoral position at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) to academic faculty position at Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia). In his Face-t0-Face interview with Abhinav Dey (AD) he talks about his aspirations, his efforts and his future plans in Australian academia.

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

RC: After completing my PhD at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane (Australia) in 2013, I was excited to join my first postdoctoral position at Emory. In addition to geographical and cultural changes, I was looking forward to my transition from human visual optics research to visual neuroscience research in animal models. I feel, 3.5 years of postdoctoral experience at Emory provided me optimal exposure to the world of academia, and helped me better understand the bigger picture of being an academic. Of course, with time, I matured as a scientist, and started feeling more confident about looking for academic positions. By third year, I made some good publications from the current lab, and was working on an Early Research Career Development award. At that point, I started looking for academic positions (mostly outside the USA due to visa restrictions), and was lucky to get one.

AD: What was your motivation towards an academic career?

RC: I enjoyed doing vision science research during my PhD and postdoctoral fellowship. I have invested so many years in research that I was absolutely sure of continuing it, wherever I go. Although I didn’t get to do a lot, I loved teaching visual optics in India, and during my graduate studies in Australia. I was looking for a platform, where I could bring both research and teaching together. This was my strongest motivation for an academic career. In Australia, my position would also allow me to see patients in the clinic as an optometrist; something that I totally enjoyed in the past.

AD: How do you foresee the academic research environment in Australia?

RC: Similar to the US, establishing a research career in Australia is challenging. From my previous experience, I know that NIH equivalent, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council fundings are extremely competitive. I am looking to develop collaborations within and outside the Vision Science dept. for making competitive grant applications. I will also be looking for industrial funding.

flinders-university

Image courtesy: Ranjay Chakraborty

AD: How did your postdoc training make you competitive for an academic position?

RC: My postdoc training at Emory has been truly instrumental in preparing me for this academic position. It helped me to develop a range of analytical and research skills that were crucial for this position. In addition to basic science research, I learned about academic writing, mentorship, journal and data review, data presentation, collaborative research and many other things that helped me to develop as more mature and confident professional. It has been a magnificent journey from my grad school to the end of this postdoctoral position. I am really thankful to my postdoctoral mentors Drs. Machelle T. Pardue and P. Michael Iuvone for this precious postdoctoral training opportunity at Emory.

AD: What advice do you have for postdocs to make best use of their time?

RC: This is my first position, and I am too young to advice anything in particular. Postdocs are generally very disciplined and assiduous, and they exactly know that it’s time for either “publish or perish”. One small advice – try not to restrain yourself to just “lab and experiments”. Every once in a while traveling and time with family and friends help becoming more productive and focused at work.

AD: Can you briefly describe your plans about the size and mentorship style of your laboratory?

RC: Australian academic positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. In the 1st year, my primary focus would be preparing the lectures, and set up the lab. I am going to take it easy, and keep my lab small at the beginning. I plan to hire a research technician to get started with my projects. I would extend my research group in the future depending on projects and funding situation. I intend to hire people who are deferential, good team players, and inherently motivated to do good research. I would design robust policies in the lab for running experiments, ordering materials, lab meetings with individual lab members/groups, data management and storage, authorships, attending meetings and developing collaborations. I would want my group to be transparent, and feel free about discussing their issues with me and each other.

AD: Do you have teaching responsibilities?

RC: As I mentioned previously, Australian faculty positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. I do not have a lot of teaching experience, and I look forward to this new role in Australia.

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

RC: Yes, a number of courses/workshops from Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education have been really helpful in introducing me to several critical aspects of academic positions in the US. I was particularly benefited from K award grant writing course, laboratory management course, and responsible conduct of research ethics course offered by the Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education. I also attended workshops for “how to prepare teaching and research statements”, “how to look and apply for academic positions”, and “preparing CV and NIH statement”. These courses helped me to evaluate whether or not I really wanted to pursue academia.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs about grant writing and successfully obtaining funding?

RC: I do not have any major funding to myself, so I am not the best person to advice on that. But, from my postdoctoral experience at Emory, I have learned that early grant applications based on solid pilot data are imperative to applying for successful academic positions. Early applications within the first two years of postdoc (such as departmental grants) do not have to be too extensive, but they set you up for the habit of grant writing. Of course, publications are equally important. As we all know, first 4 years of postdoc are critical for several early career grants in the US.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs making the transition to an independent career?

RC: As I mentioned earlier, the key is to decide whether or not you really want to pursue an independent career. If you do, it doesn’t harm to start applying sooner. With a clear and well-structured research aim, decent publications, adequate skill sets, and strong references you could have a decent chance to get a tenure-track position, perhaps stronger than you might think!

Ranjay Chakraborty was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri

(https://www.linkedin.com/in/abhinavdey)

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

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From cloning genes to directing X-rays: Face to Face with Nishant Kumar Varshney

in Face à Face by

Dr Nishant Kumar Varshney is working as a Beamline Scientist on an Indo-Italian Macromolecular Crystallography beamline XRD2 at Elettra Sincrotrone, Trieste, Italy, which will be open to Users in start of the 2017. The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs caught up with him about his career and experience while working in an unconventional postdoctoral career of a Beamline Scientist after a PhD in Structural Biology.

He did his bachelors in Chemistry from DU and Masters in Marine Biotechnology from Goa University in 2005. Completed his PhD in 2013 from Biochemical Sciences Division, CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, India on structure-function relationship of three enzymes that has industrial and therapeutic applications. During his PhD, he received Commonwealth Split-Site Scholarship to work for an year in York Structural Biology Laboratory, University of York, UK, where he developed his interest in the field of Structure Based Drug Discovery field.

me_2

In Nishant’s (NKV) words, “First, I would like to thank Abhinav Dey (AD) for adding me to CSG group and now giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about new Indo-Italian joint venture at Elettra Synchrotron, Trieste, Italy which we Inaugurated last month.”

14711082_1239623179443730_8023412272330443242_o

(XRD2 Beamline; Picture source: NKV)

AD: During your graduate school, when did you realize you wanted to try a different research-based career than conventional postdoc?

NKV: Actually the thought and the opportunity came after the PhD, when I was working as Research Associate (RA) in National Center for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune. During my PhD, I was working both at the bench (cloning, expressing, purifying and setting up protein for crystallization) as well as collecting data at our home source for my proteins and sometimes helping other collaborators. Like most of the graduate students, I dreamt of getting a conventional post doc position abroad and coming back after few years for some decent permanent position in India. It was during RA-ship, that I saw the ad for a Beamline Scientist position at the new Indian beamline at Elettra. I thought of it as a good opportunity to not only learn about the working of beamlines but also having plenty of time to play and learn with data collection strategies to get best out of your protein crystals. Moreover, the idea of helping different users with different projects and, if possible, making some worthy contribution to their projects excited me too.

AD: What is your typical work day like?

NKV: Most often our day starts with a black filter coffee at 9 🙂 and ends around 6pm. Currently, we are at the final stages of commissioning the beamline and implementing an automated instrument on the experimental table. Since working at the beamline is a first time for me, my work schedule usually revolves around my local supervisor and Head of our group, Maurizio. We help our supervisors with the work and learn out of it. Everyday there is something new to learn. We set small targets with deadlines and sometimes we work till late to meet those deadlines. Also being an industry, there are many other usual administrative/non administrative appointments also to be taken care of.

AD: Do you think having a PhD was an advantage for you in the current job?

NKV: Yes. Experience and a degree in structural biology were the essential educational qualifications for this job. I was brought into the field of X-ray diffraction, protein crystallization, three-dimensional structures etc. in practice during my PhD only. Having hands-on experience with these techniques and a visit to a Beamline in Diamond, UK during my Commonwealth Scholarship tenure gave me experience and confidence to apply for this job. Some technical terms and what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch was totally new to me in the beginning but I think I am getting better day-by-day.

AD: How was the transition from a bench to a synchrotron?

NKV: I would say transition was not that easy. Coming from enjoying a mostly wet lab, handling buffers/proteins and transitioning to the technical aspects of a synchrotron where I was expected to understand as well as install beamline components, alignments, installing vacuum etc. was initially too much technical for me. Mathematics has not been my strongest subject so I am still trying to get better with the numbers.

AD: What would you recommend as first steps for students/postdocs interested in pursuing a fellowship in handling this kind of job?

NKV: If one is coming to synchrotron as a user, I would say, apart from having familiarity with data processing programs and knowing your proteins, you need not to worried about what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch. Beamline staff should teach you how things work at the Experimental table and how to collect data. But if someone wants to be a Beamline Scientist or a Beamline Postdoc, first step is to develop your love for the technical aspects of a beamlines. Brushing up your Physics or say Biophysics will also help you to understand your work. It is also important to keep in mind that it is not a 9-5 job and you should be ready to devote long days sometimes.

AD: Having gone through interviews as an applicant yourself, what are a couple of things that could help a PhD standout from the crowd?

NKV: Especially for a job at the Beamlines, working knowledge of the beamline, however little it may be, through regular visits to the synchrotron for data collection and processing the data on your own will make you stand out. Familiarity with different programs for data collection to structure deposition will help you for the job. Apart from that, one should enjoy working with the users and be ready to help them to sort out the technical as well as practical problems outside the normal office hours.

AD: Was there anything (positive or negative) that you were surprised about this job/profession that you didn’t expect until you were in it?

NKV: As a matter of personal opinion, anyone who starts the unconventional career, will wish to have a sense of stability in his/her tenure. As I am working in an Italian Industry, as a visiting Scientist on an India-funded project, there is always an insecurity regarding the length and timing of the next extension. Moreover, the absence of funds available for in-house research and for attending/presenting work in the conferences was not what I expected.

AD: Please tell us about the new Indo-Italian venture and what do you foresee of this collaboration for the development of science in India?

NKV: Till the date, India is either renting beamtimes for macromolecular crystallography e.g. BM14 beamline in ESRF or funding visits to other beamlines of the world. This is the first time when India is a partner right from the design, construction, commissioning and maintenance of two beamlines at synchrotron. The XRD2 and Xpress beamlines are a part of a scientific partnership between India and Italy under a project administered through the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore with financial support from Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India and Elettra Sincrotrone,Trieste. The Xpress experimental station has been constructed to study the structure of materials under high- pressure using the technique of X-ray diffraction of samples subjected to the action of two diamonds that can exert higher pressures to 50 GPa. In this way the researchers will be able to access the possibility of synthesizing new superconducting materials, harder and more resistant. This beamline will also be applied in other areas, such as mineralogy and geophysics. XRD2 is a dedicated beamline to determine three-dimensional structures of proteins and biological macromolecules with application in biology, medicine, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. XRD2 is an highly automated and tunable beamline with state of the art instruments which will allow to collect faster X-ray diffraction data from protein crystals in highly automated way better than collected using home source. With 50% share in the project, now Indian crystallographers and High Pressure diffraction groups will have plenty of beamtime accessible to them. Once the proposal has been accepted, DST will provide the travel and daily cost funds.

AD: What are the career possibilities after being trained at the cutting edge of your field?

NKV: The field of macromolecular crystallography is still in a developing stage. There is lot to explore and develop in the field right from the data collection step to relate the structure to its function. With the experience at the synchrotron, prospects of developing your own research in the field are always open. Working in Pharmaceuticals Industries mainly involved in Structure based Drug Discovery is another option. With all the knowledge of the structural biology, a career in academics is also a possibility. Moreover, with the advent of Free-Electron lasers and new developments in alternative techniques, three-dimensional structure determination of macromolecules using serial crystallography and Cryo-Electron Microscopy and Cryo-Imaging techniques are the new open fields where experience in structural biology is a desirable qualification.
I hope, these facilities will be very beneficial to our Indian researchers.

 

 

Nishant Kumar Varshney was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri

(https://www.linkedin.com/in/abhinavdey)

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

Featured image source: Pixabay

Stick or twist: finding teaching experience and the postdoctoral dilemma

in That Makes Sense by

Halloween is on its way… and we are familiar with “trick or treat” during that time.

But, are you familiar with “Stick or twist” (a postdoctoral dilemma)?

This is the name of the same game where finding teaching experience during postdoctoral research draws a parallel to trick-o-treating during Halloween. Although first one is fun for kids, the latter is a dilemma. The dilemma being,

  • “Should I stick to pouring all my energy towards high-quality publications in Cell, Science, Nature and prepare for grants proposals with a hope to extend my academic career in research and eventually find tenure;” OR,
  • “Should I twist my working life instead of chasing this dream of being a successful and acclaimed scientist.”

Of course, we all try our best to chase that dream. Like, at the beginning, everybody thinks that a postdoc appointment is meant to serve as the stepping-stone to victory in academic science or a probable position in industry. But let’s be honest, every postdoctoral fellow will not able to secure a job in a top-notch University/Institute due to the current scarcity of academic positions. However, the harsh reality among postdoctoral fellows is that many of us are either realizing this too late, or waiting too long to make a plan with tangible contingency options.

Never expect your mentor to be looking after you, instead you have to look out for yourself, and you have to remember that your boss’s priority is their own career. After all everybody is trying/struggling to survive. Keeping these things in mind, we need to redirect our career goal.

Nowadays, there are a wide variety of academic options available, ranging from research scientists, scientists in industry, science teachers, science writers, science legal consultants, and science policy professionals, etc. If you observe keenly, you might notice that a vast majority of academic careers require a person to be able to teach, either in classroom or in some other format. Thus, learning some teaching skills during postdoctoral research will help you become more suitable for a job in academia.

Now, someone may argue that we don’t need any teaching experience when belonging to a top-notch research institute. But lets keep in mind that every one is not from an exceptional category. May be I’m an oddball. When I began my postdoctoral study, I knew I wanted to be a faculty member who focused on research as well as teaching. After a year, I (perhaps naively) informed my PI that I’m here because I want to be in academia and I don’t want to devote all my time to research. Instead I wanted to spend some time in class room teaching and hence, looking for an exposure. After a couple of meetings and discussions, he understood my goals and he supported me.

Nonetheless, I did face some “fear factors” commonly experienced by many other graduates/postdocs who aspire towards a career in teaching during postdoctoral research. One of them being, “Would I be marked forever as a second-rated scientist by redirecting/refocusing on teaching?”

A career in higher education can be wonderfully rewarding. However, in these uncertain economic times the better prepared you are on entering this career, the more successful you will be. After some deep breathing, I realized that teaching skills are those skills that everyone can use at workplace regardless of career choice.

A few questions/points bubbled in my mind.

#1) What type of teaching skills do we need?

• Look for effective classroom teaching meant for a variety of students in terms of pedagogy
• Ability to convey the competence in subject matter and confidence in one’s ability to teach
• Ability to help students understand the general principles and concepts underlying a particular lesson, (i.e. explain both basic and difficult concepts clearly as well as to present a specific lesson in a larger context, like clinical relevance)
• Ability to ask good questions (testing and studying case histories) and provide feedback to students
• Ability to evaluate teaching performance and adjust lesson plans based on information garnered from students’ questions
• Ability to foster an effective learning environment which includes showing respect for the student, encouraging their intellectual growth and providing them a role model for scholarship with intellectual vigor.

#2) How can we find or get the teaching exposure/experiences?

Mentors as Resources: As starters, you can ask your PI about the possible opportunities in universities or colleges in your neighborhood.

Institutional Resources: You can explore your institutional resources by checking with your office of postdoctoral education for upcoming opportunities.

Funding Resources: There are some new teaching postdoctoral fellowships available nowadays. As for example, I recently discovered a job advertisement for a “teaching postdoctoral fellow” in one of the universities. After I submitted my application, I did get an interview call. During the telephone conversation with the Chair of the search committee, I learnt that they were looking for someone just like me–someone who would use the teaching postdoctoral fellowship as a stepping-stone from postdoctoral fellow to a faculty position by devoting equal effort to teaching and research. There is a possibility to be promoted as a tenured track faculty position within the department after successful completion of another round of interview. I think this type of postdoc can provide an advanced education beyond what is typically provided in graduate school. Just like a traditional research postdoctoral appointment, the training of the teaching postdoc generally focuses on science education instead of science research. There are several programs that are available like FIRST , PERT, SPIRE, PENN-PORT, NU-START , MERIT, IRADCA.

Other Resources: There are other ways to develop and refine teaching skills during postdoctoral training, such as to utilize excellent teaching resources available both as hardcopies and online resources and attending training conferences.

#3) Tips for getting teaching experience

• Discuss your topic/s of interest in getting some kind of teaching experience with your PI/mentor. This should be done early (possibly during your interview for the postdoctoral position) so that training opportunities can be accommodated during the postdoctoral period (if available).
• If your research mentors cannot commit their time to the teaching development, find an independent teaching mentor or alternate persons who can be involved/helped in the training process.
• Try to attend classes, workshops, or seminars on teaching that are offered at your institution, particularly courses that offer in-depth preparation for teaching and professional development as a future faculty (PFF Program). I have attended some classes of graduate course work just to learn how the professors deliver their lecture in the classroom here in USA.
• Explore teaching publications and online resources to learn about teaching techniques and best practices.
• Arrange to observe a faculty-taught class session in your department and discuss with the instructor about his/her approaches to teaching. If possible, ask for a supervised teaching and feedback session with a faculty mentor.
• Teach! Give your shot to a variety of teaching experiences (leading the lab or discussion sessions, review sessions, lectures, individual tutoring or team teaching).

#4) Teaching and research is not diametrically opposite

You may hear that teaching will take an inordinate amount of time during the first few years to settle down everything. Popular opinion is that teaching “takes time away from my research”. We should remember one thing as professors/mentors we are expected to be educating students. At least in my opinion, being a “good teacher,” can have many advantages, not the least of which involves assisting in your research program. Let’s try to think in this way, if you subscribe to the philosophy that your research can benefit your teaching and your teaching can benefit your research, then I believe that teaching can have a remarkable pay-off for your research program. In other words, as a new assistant professor you may not have the luxury of having a good graduate research assistant to help you with your research. One probable solution to this is to recruit undergraduates to become involved in your research. It will be a good help for the early career independent scientist. But even this would be herculean if you are not viewed as a passionate teacher who cares about his/her subject and encouraging their mentees’ intellectual growth.

#5) Challenges associated with teaching.

Every job has their own challenges, without facing those challenges, you cannot move forward and you have to face them everywhere. In the teaching job the following are included:

1) Time management: You have to find and manage time to prepare everything (i.e. setting aside time for class preparation, reading, and grading). The course coordinator may provide the course material and in that case you have less pressure. Another important point is to be always being chained to the lectern. In other words, movement is important in teaching because it gets you closer to the students and it indicates that you are interested in teaching them. Of course, always try to be “present” in the classroom (always be enthusiastic; modulate the pitch and cadence of your voice to give the impression that this is the greatest thing imaginable that you are talking about).

Being a good teacher demands putting in time and effort. More importantly, it demands that if you want to be successful at teaching then you should not be simply seen treating it as a necessary evil. I know it’s hard but you can do it.

2) Building Blocks (promoting respect for cultural diversity in a multiethnic classroom): A teacher needs creativity, extra effort, diligence, and courage to discover the diversity. Teachers in multiethnic classrooms must be open to their students. They should put forth the effort needed to get to know their students both inside and outside of class. The students will become estranged from one another and the teacher if a teacher is hesitant about being open. In order to be open, teachers must be interested in their students and willing to adapt to avoid taking things personally, or from getting judgmental.

3) Overcoming Stereotypes: To cope up in a multiethnic context and to engage students effectively in the learning process, a teacher should know their students and their academic abilities individually. Avoid relying on racial or ethnic stereotypes as well as on any prior experience with other students of similar backgrounds. Based on their student analyses, the teacher needs to plan the course accordingly so as to make the material accessible for all students: be it the syllabi, or the course assignments. Overcoming stereotypes will also help you in understanding the potential classroom dynamics and in learning how to deal with sensitive moments/topics.

So basically the cardinal rule is: 1) Learn as much as you can about racial, ethnic, and cultural groups other than your own and be aware of their sensitivities. 2) NEVER make any assumptions about an individual based on the racial, ethnic, or cultural groups he or she belongs to. Treat each student first and foremost as an individual.

Final thought??

Finally, be willing to pursue an unusual career path if your intuition tells you that it may be suitable to your passions and interests. The “teaching postdoc” was not a position I envisioned for myself 2-3 years ago. Yet, in this position I have found an opportunity to do what I love and impact the way that a university teaches undergraduates and prepares graduate students for faculty careers that emphasize teaching and learning. In my opinion, the joint research and teaching postdoc is ideal for the greatest depth of academic jobs. This is because they are getting supervisory and multitasking experience.

So find a place that has top-notch research facilities but also cares enough about teaching and go for it. Yes, such universities along with special programs do exist.

Tuhin Das

About the author:

td-photo

Tuhin Das is currently working as a Visiting Investigator in Cell Biology program of Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, New York City, New York. He is interested in exploring the role of tumor microenvironment in regulation and enrichment of breast cancer stem cells (CSCs) in 3D nanofibrous scaffold platform by application of evolutionary dynamics in cancer drug resistance. He is studying the mitotic delay in response to centrosome loss using CRISPR-CAS9 system.

In addition, Tuhin is serving as a consulting editor of the journal “Breast Cancer: Targets and Therapy”. He has served as an academic editor for Journal of Cancer Therapy and a reviewer of several high impact scientific peer-reviewed journals.

He is an active member of American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and American Society of Cell Biology (ASCB). He is also an associate member of American Association of Cancer Research (AACR).

Edited by: Abhinav Dey

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The grass is always greener….or is it?

in That Makes Sense by

As a PhD student in India, I was in a relatively privileged situation. I was in one of the best institutes in the country, a department with good resources, a good lab and a decent project to work on. Nonetheless, you learn pretty fast in grad school that, no matter how good your situation may seem from the outside, PhD is and always will be a hard process on one level or the other. Not just a bad day or month but rather a phase that can last years for some. At such low points, social media doesn’t really help. I would see pictures of many of my college batch-mates who, unlike me, had managed to secure a PhD position abroad and seemed to spend a significant amount of time roaming around and having fun. Granted that social media, at best, gives you a highly rose-tinted and biased view of a person’s life. But knowing that, didn’t necessarily help keep away the pangs of jealousy. Lab seniors, now working abroad, would visit and tell stories of abundance to the point of wastage, kits that reduced work-time to half or less and the luxury of weekends off that you could rely on. From the point of view of a struggling grad student, who felt guilty taking even a Sunday off, this certainly did sound like paradise. I don’t know what did it, whether it was years of watching English movies or all the conditioning from others’ experiences, but I knew I wanted to work abroad at least for a while. Even when I was questioning research as my career path, one of the allures of a postdoc was the option of experiencing a life outside of India. It may not be the best way to make a decision, but I was and still am unashamed of my motivation.

Ever since I moved to the US, I’ve been really intrigued at getting to know the system here. As a postdoc as well as a potential teacher, I am really intrigued by the education system here and how it contrasts with India.  It’s been a lot of fun quizzing people here about their system and I’ve learned a lot in the process. One of the first big surprises for me when I came here was the age factor. Back home, I was used to using a person’s academic level to calculate their age. The math is pretty simple. A biologist’s life graph is pretty predictable; Bachelor’s degree at 21, 23 at Masters, finish PhD by 29 and 5 years for postdoc. Then you frantically apply for faculty positions before the dreaded 35 hits and so on. If a faculty position in India is what you want, then that pretty much has to be your trajectory. And if you don’t want to be in academia, then what you do doesn’t really matter anyway (or so my PhD mentor would say)!! Which is why, it was a huge shock to me when I realized that my roommate, who is a final year PhD student, was 38!!! And it’s not a one off case. I know a number of people who are approaching 30 and are in the early phase of their grad school or sometimes even medical school!! I’ve heard some of their journeys from high school students to undergrad and finally grad school and each one of them is unique and remarkable. Whether it be economic hardship or just figuring out what subject truly interests them, each one of them has had to walk a road of self-discovery before entering grad school. And the beauty is, that they can! The system here seems to set no store by age whatsoever. All that seems to matter is that you really want to be here and that you have the ability to succeed. It makes me really wish our system in India was as open, that an unconventional path was cherished rather than looked down upon, that confusion and lack of clarity was met with patience and compassion rather than rejection. No doubt there are students here who follow the conventional path, or who join grad school because it seems like the easiest or best option. But every once in a while, you get grad students who’ve fought against the tide because this is really what they want to do. I bet there are people like that in India too and we should really open our arms and welcome them into science because they are so likely to want to make a real difference. It’s made me feel a lot more compassion for myself and my own confusion after seeing this.

What’s been rewarding in turn, has been the appreciation I feel (and also received from others) for the kind of training we went through as Phd students in India. And no this isn’t about our willingness to work long hours and work weekends. No doubt that, in many ways, research is made easier here by the availability of resources. Time is considered better spent doing work rather than preparing reagents. But corny as though it may seem, all those hardships and cutting of corners has given us an advantage. I personally feel that the quality of mentorship and training given to me by my lab seniors has been invaluable. Not only did we have to make everything from scratch, but also learn the why and how of everything as we made it. I remember my first 6 months in the lab, just being incessantly quizzed and grilled whenever I learnt something new. But that training pays off every time I have to trouble-shoot, every time I have to design an experiment. That is something working with kits could never have given me. The abundance is so taken for granted here that there just isn’t any need to learn the details. It also makes me really glad that I had the chance to train Masters students in grad school. It seemed absurd to me at the time, training students who were only a year or two younger than me. But I think I learnt more while I was mentoring them than I did as a student. Even something which seemed onerous like lab and department presentations has trained us so well for public speaking. It’s an invaluable asset and it’s surprisingly rare among the students and even postdocs here. We undervalue our own skills way too much.

One of the things I was most curious about when I came here, was the quality of mentorship. I had a pretty bleak view of mentorship in India, especially in the life sciences, and wondered how things operated here. In my limited time here, one thing I’ve come to realize is that good mentorship is rare no matter where you go. No doubt, the expected working hours tend to be much more reasonable here than in India. But even then, you continue to find PIs who micromanage their students or monitor their coming and goings, as if the number of hours spent in lab is an indicator of productivity. Fortunately, I have had the chance to work with two people who are excellent mentors and they have really made a huge impact on my life. It is truly heart-warming and rewarding to work with a boss who feels that their success is tied to your success, who feel like it is their responsibility to look out for your personal growth and enable you to reach your life goals. I must say that I am pretty much spoilt for life now. Such people can really change how you feel about your work. I find myself wanting to do better, not necessarily because I love my work that much, but because I want to help them succeed the same way they want me to succeed. No doubt the systems, both in India and in the US, are cut throat and you need to push the limits of yourself as well as your subordinates to survive and excel. I’m not saying that being nice and lenient and supportive gives you the same kind of success that a whiplash does.  It may or may not. But it’s heartening to know that such people exist and that they can survive in the system. I know a lot of people who would rather be in a renowned but high pressure lab, because even though the life there is tough, it guarantees them the high profile papers they need to move ahead in life. If that is what you want and need, then by all means make that choice. But it’s important to know that you need not sentence yourself to that life for lack of other options. The rat race isn’t a bad thing, but it’s our choice whether we want to be a part of it or not.

It’s been a valuable lesson, learned the hard way but I am glad I got to where I am. It’s been eye-opening to talk to so many people and learn from them. There’s just so much out there if only we are willing to listen. Something as simple as reading university emails every morning has opened up avenues I didn’t even know existed. This is true no matter where you are and what you are doing. You don’t necessarily need to be in the “right” place for good things to happen to you. You just need to be in the right frame of mind to make the best of the opportunities that come your way.

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