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

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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.

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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.

Featured image source: Pixabay

 

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

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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.

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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.”

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(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

Transitioning to a faculty position in India – skills that defines one during screening

in That Makes Sense by

As in case with any other academic position, applying for a faculty position in India can be likened to skillful maneuvering of a ship through the storm. After working relentlessly through his/her training phase, a faculty job aspirant finds himself/herself into a more challenging situation where one has to skillfully present the honed skills to be in reckoning in the highly competitive bottlenecked academic job market. I had a quite a long discussion with many of my colleagues planning to transition into the academia in India. Indeed, a great CV with a good publication record is something that definitely pushes the application forward, but our general perception was – there are certain skills that speak volumes of our ability to become future group leaders.

During PhD and post-doctoral tenure, one develops a vast array of skills. However, when it comes to the final destination that is, obtaining a faculty position in a good institution, everything zeros down to the trait that defines the person for the position. In general, a person’s capability to run an independent lab is usually judged during the personal interview stage. However, many faculty position ads (in biological sciences, India) asked for enlistment of skills that one has acquired till the time of application. We found it very peculiar and unusual for an academic position because these kind queries are generally associated with industrial settings. We soon realized that other than scientific output, the initial screening of candidates also involved his/her understanding of the nuances for running an independent group and how he/she has developed skills other than technical, to be proficient in it. A positive attitude on this aspect during the personal interview stage may also result in scoring important points.

The Career Support Group (CSG) discussion on this aspect brought in opinions from Siddharth Tallur, Dileep Vasudevan Thenezhi, Smita Salian Mehta, Hirak S Basu and Kaneenika Sinha whose general suggestion was to focus on the set of skills the selection committee might be looking in their future colleague and hence, highlight them in the application. These are the areas of expertise a faculty aspirant must develop during the training period in order to present oneself more positively in front of the committee.

A broad perspective was obtained, which is summarized below:

1.     Independently mentoring students especially graduate students that also involves ability to describe the problem to them lucidly

2.     What kind of service did you provide to the scientific community? Services such as reviewing papers, organization of conferences/workshops tutorials

3.     Setting up fruitful collaborations which may comprise inter-research groups or with one’s own PI

4.     Writing independent grants – this in fact, shows how a person is able to think independently in spite of working in a research group. Here both successful trials and important misses can be highlighted.

5.     In real sense, applying for a position with an approved grant scores highly in the academic corridors.

6.     Development of a new area of research in PI’s lab and describing what kind of skills, achievements a person has gained towards the completion of the project. This area of research might become one’s core research focus in future and any kind of past publications in the area (as first/co-corresponding author) will go a long way in defining that person’s independence in the field.

7.     Any kind of experimental techniques that one has developed or may have in-depth expertise which he/she can develop in the scientific community and mentor.

8.     A definitive research plan for five years that includes how one intends to supervise the PhD students

9.     The teaching responsibilities donned/shared by the candidate during the training period and the subjects/areas he/she will be comfortable teaching/initiating in the host institution.

In summary, a person aspiring to transition into academia needs to develop/highlight the expertise gained during the training period that depicts how as a prospective faculty, the person has evolved from a co-worker to an independent mentor in the research group. May be these nine points are not that exhaustive, but surely can be further developed by incorporating more challenging experiences shared by the community.

Devanjan Sinha

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Presently, I am Assistant Professor at Institute of Science, Banaras Hindu University, India. I completed my doctoral dissertation from Department of Biochemistry, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. I briefly worked as a Research Associate at IISc, before transitioning to this position.  Further details on my academic journey is available on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/dr-devanjan-sinha-195a8880

Image source: Pixabay

Edited by: Abhinav Dey

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

Odra Noel- A Scientist by day, Artist at other times

in Sci-Pourri/That Makes Sense by

Cosmologist Lawrence Krauss had said, “Science and art ask the same questions.” Hence, it may not seem surprising that many inventors and scientists have pursued artistic pursuits alongside scientific research. Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian man is a reminder that art and science complement each other. It is a perfect example how the skill of illustration proves to be invaluable for exploring as well as communicating scientific ideas, even across language divides. While the approach to answering the same fundamental questions may be different, there is a common element of wonder and curiosity. While the laboratory is the temple of scientific discipline, curiosity and imagination have been at the helm of some scientific discoveries. Kekule found/discovered the structure of benzene in a dream, imagining a snake seizing its tail. A story has been popularized that a rescue operation against cannibals resulted in the invention of the sewing machine by Elias Hawke. Einstein’s wild imagination of him riding a light beam has brought humanity so far. It is therefore not surprising that some of the great scientists also dabbled with art, music, and painting. Richard Feynman played the bongo and Einstein played the violin.
But, can  passion lead to a sustainable profession? To pursue the question that intrigues me of late, I started researching on the lives of modern scientists who are juggling between their profession and passion. Not very long after I started my research, Odra Noel caught my attention. Odra, who is a trained doctor from the University of Basque and a Ph.D. from the University of London, dabbled with cell culture, dissection, intracellular organelles when she realized that her enthusiastic interest in scientific art could be combined with scientific art creation. My quest to know about her transition into the world of scientific art (a subject which is very close to my heart) I reached out to Odra to know about her work and transition. “I always knew I was an artist. I had the soul of an artist. But making a living from art is even more difficult than making a living as a scientist, for the simple reason that we need many more scientists than artists. I never left science, my main activity, and the one that pays the bills is science. I do art in my spare time and use it to balance my life. I use art to think, to understand and to communicate science” Odra said when I asked her when did she realize she wanted to be an artist. Realizing from my experience that how hard such a transition can be for someone who is trained to work in the lab, solving problems to have a deeper understanding of life for several years at a stretch, I couldn’t resist myself to ask “so how was the transition?.” “My transition was partial and seamless. I always had made art on the side, so to make it a bit more ‘official’ was not difficult” she said, adding “It takes a lot of planning and energy. Having two lives is fun, but you need to make sacrifices because there are only 24 hours in each day.” I realized for a graduate student to pursue hobby vis a vis his/her lab life one needs a supportive mentor and so I asked: “how supportive was your alma mater/PI when you made the choice of a nonacademic career?” Odra’s response was “people are generally very supportive. But you need a certain amount of evidence that you know what you are doing. Not an unplanned ‘follow’ your heart in my case.”
My short interview ended with her claiming to be a ‘nongame changer.’ Well, she is modest about her achievements, but if you look at her work, you will realize that her work efficiently communicates science in a fun and artistic way. She also sets an example for us (PhDs) to have wholesome lives where our lives are more than our research jobs.

Just a few more lines about her:
Apart from training in science (Ph.D.), she has gained training in arts and aesthetics. She mainly paints cellular processes, membrane and cellular organelles on silks. Chloroplast and mitochondria are her favorite subjects. She ensures that the colors are vibrant and catchy to an uninitiated buyer, but when someone buys her product, they take a scientific concept home. Her art cover has also featured in scientific journal covers and science art exhibitions. She juggles her life between art and science.

So that was my way of knowing someone who is a full-time scientist and an artist. It is already well past midnight, and I need to finish my next set of illustrations…..

To find out more about Odra Noel’s artwork, please visit http://odranoel.eu/gallery/. For those in London, some of her pieces will be part of the exhibition ‘Transplant and life’ at the Hunterian Museum in the Royal College of Surgeons, London, from 22 November 2017 to mid march 2018.

Image is taken from Odra Noel’s Facebook page with her permission.

 

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Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She is grateful that Diptadip Dattaroy and Ananda Ghosh took the pains of editing her poor writing.

Mid-Career Transitions Across the Oceans

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Recently I had a discussion with a friend regarding mid-career transitions across the continents. I thought these discussions may be useful for this forum, hence this posting.

Freedom is intoxicating and dangerous. It is like spicy food. Once you get the taste, you do not like blunt foods. Same is true with freedom. Once you get the taste of freedom, you do not want to go back. Same is also true with working at places that see your value and provide an opportunity for you to grow. At times, those who spent a few years at a top-rated institution in the USA,  go back to their country either because of idealism, or family reasons, or got an opportunity that they misjudge as equivalent to what they have been used to in the USA. Some of them adjust, some resign and say “well, I can’t do much”, and very few turn the odds around to an opportunity. The first person that comes to my mind of the third category is “Satish Dhavan” and the second person is “Roddam Narasimha”. Interestingly both have worked in Aerospace and Space Sciences. There may be many more examples like Dhavan and Roddam – I’m sure.

If you do not have the tenacity that these brilliant people have and if you think you should have stayed back to have a better career future and if you have already spent close to a decade after your PhD in your career, here are some hard facts and challenges that you need to keep in mind, when you try to make a mid-career transition across the oceans.

Keep in mind that these words here are not hypothetical and each word has heavy experience of going through toughest times since I left India to USA for postdoc and USA to Germany for mid-career life – where I did Habilitation (tenure track) and started my family life with my German girlfriend (now life partner), but then left Germany at the age of 40 back to the USA to take a deep dive into the US career culture, but now with three daughters and little savings.

Number one: Healthy financial situation is critical and of utmost importance. If finances are good, many problems can be solved. If the finances are bad, many healthy relationships are screwed-up and destroyed.

Number two: Whether academia or industry that you are trying to make a transition. You need to have someone who is your advocate, who really thinks you have the “spark” that is outstanding, and who buys into your abilities to succeed and contribute. If you do not have such a colleague (not a friend, who is not in your area of expertise), you need to start from the bottom again where you left a decade ago.

Number three: If you are ambitious to establish in academia – DO NOT take up a “research faculty” position, this kills your opportunity to get into tenure-track faculty career. Research faculty is in most places a “glorified postdoc” on soft-money, though there are exceptions.

Number four: If you have a partner and children, it is a must that your partner works as well and that one of you should NOT be career oriented, as the children would have very difficult time adjusting to new culture and one of the parents must have time to cushion their fears and comfort them with confidence. But two pay-checks is critical, because if one of you loses your job, you have a temporary financial crisis that can be mitigated through the second pay-check. Keep in mind that you cannot expect friends and relatives to support you in such situations, because many work hard with “thin margins of savings”. Lending a few dollars may be easy, but taking the burden of a family is out of question. You need to start saving the day you start your first job for the college of your children, which based on where they go may cost anywhere between $100 K to $200 K (per child to complete undergraduate studies).

Number five: Irrespective of whether you start at mid-career or back to the beginning (postdoc), you are expected to deliver the worth of $10, if you are paid $1. So, only way to succeed in the US is to deliver – period.

Bottom line is – if you have the courage, health, spirit of not giving up, you are likely to succeed. But, you should be ready to take a failure as gracefully as you would enjoy the success and always have “Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, and Plan E” in the priority list – if Plan A goes South!

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About the Author: Murthy S. Gudipati (aka G. S. Murthy at IISc) is a Principal Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology. His research focuses on the evolution of organic matter and ice in the Universe, particularly the outer solar system, comets, and the potential origin(s) of life on Earth. He worked at the University of Texas at Austin, at the University of Cologne, Germany, University of Maryland, College Park, and at NASA Ames before joining JPL/Caltech in 2007. Murthy obtained M.Sc. at the Central University of Hyderabad (1981), Ph.D. from the Department of Chemistry, Indian Institute of Science (1987), and Habilitation (similar to tenure) at the University of Cologne (1998). He stayed in almost all the Men’s Hostel Blocks, dined at all the three A-C Messes, ran a half-marathon, and developed life-long friendships during his 1981-1986 stay at one of the most beautiful campuses in the world – the IISc. His PhD research was recognized with “Guha Medal – Best Thesis Award”. Murthy is one of the founding members of the IIScAANA.

Born and raised in in Southern India, Murthy lived in interior villages to mega cities in three continents. He at times walked over four miles each way to attend upper primary schools from his village. This experience bonded him with nature and animals immensely. Murthy likes Nature and National Parks and he has organized several hiking and camping trips for IIScAANA. Murthy’s passion is to bring knowledge, information, and education to the next generation humans to enable the future civilizations to treat themselves and the Nature with respect. Murthy’s pursuit of Science is balanced by his interest in World Music, Nature, Vegetarian Cooking, and Philosophy.

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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