Lessons from a scientific sojourn

Karishma is a Ph.D student and DAAD fellow at the Technical University of Munich, Germany. Her research revolves around plant-fungus interactions. In this interview, she recounts her scientific journey so far, replete with memorable experiences.

In the symbiotic relations between plants and fungi, the fungal partner facilitates uptake of nutrients from soil to plants while sugars and lipids are transported to them by the plants for their nutrition. Karishma says, “In this light, we are focused on which lipids are transferred from plants to fungus and the mechanisms of this transfer.”  She became intrigued by lipids, their structure, transfer, and association of fungi with the legume plants while digging into research papers. In India, work on the legume plant on which her studies are based, i.e. Lotus japonicus is not noticed. She thus aims to glean knowledge from her Ph.D experience and apply it to work in India. When not in the lab, she passionately explores Europe on weekends. 

Karishma’s interest in science as a career was moulded largely by her professors and peers and the ambience at Delhi University while pursuing her Masters’. The exciting experiments on Arabidopsis, drew her passion toward plant biology. A step into the vast arena of science can be daunting for students with new challenges every day. This was not new to Karishma either. “I used to feel very low but more importantly, I decided to never look back and tried to further my interest in science which inclined me towards research”, she says.    

And thus began her journey. The DAAD fellowship is one of the most coveted grants among young researchers, which Karishma is a recipient of. She shares her experience in this program, and how she applied for it. “The DAAD seminar was a turning point in my life. I saw many students discussing research, colleges and professors I hadn’t even heard of before then. I barely knew where Germany was! After reaching home, I took a plain white paper and wrote Germany in big letters and stuck it on my wall so that I could remind myself every day about my aim.”

After several long hours of searching for labs, endless emails to various professors and multiple drafts of her project proposal, she received the chance to attend an interview. With the help of her friend, Shivam, she realised the basics of writing a project, and the nuances of applying for a scientific position. She received her interview letter nearly three months after submission of her proposal. “During the twenty-minute interview, they mainly asked about the project. In March, I finally received the scholarship letter”, Karishma recalls. 

She also appeared for the TOEFL exam while searching for positions abroad. “In preparing for TOEFL, one does not need any coaching.  A few hours of preparation a day for a month is more than sufficient.” She had incorporated this preparation within her daily travelling schedule. “Keeping an organised file containing names of suitable professors, universities, deadlines of applications is another pointer.” She also advocates joining a social media platform like Twitter as it can help students remain informed of available Ph.D positions in labs. In all, online resources and lecture series helped her in clearing the examinations.

The pursuit was tiring, but her Ph.D experience is blossoming now, inside the lab while learning new experiments every day. “Sometimes I am amazed by the fact that there is so much to learn, for instance, when my supervisor taught me how golden gate cloning works and about transient hairy root transformation. Now I can plan my whole thesis work independently!” The experience has made her learn how to efficiently plan experiments while gaining insights by interacting with her colleagues and professor. She emphasizes on the importance of designing alternative plans in advance if the experiment goes wrong. “I have become responsible while carrying out lab and home duties. My confidence has increased by handling everything on my own, be it in the lab or in daily life.”

The independence to plan experiments and manage time have been hallmarks in her Ph.D journey. A well thought-out plan of executing her research while leaving enough time for leisure on weekends is something she regularly employs. However, the scholar also adds, “With the help of collaboration projects, I have got the chance to meet new people from different research fields and learn more, which seems to be a never-ending scenario. So, Ph.D. so far has been all about overcoming my own limits, challenging myself to perform better and working hard to accomplish them.” 

When asked about one euphoric moment and one dark moment in her scientific journey till now, she says, “Learning and performing new experiments is always joyous for me. I was always excited during my M.Sc. experiments. It was a good feeling when I performed ELISA in 3 different 96 plates with 8 or 10 different antibodies. It gave me immense pleasure when I got the expected results which seemed to give the feeling of a cherry on the top.” There were downfalls as well. “One that I recall is the time when I moved to another institute and did not even find basic commodities like a shaker, magnetic bead, NaCl and autoclave machines. Luckily, I was able to resign from that lab within 15 days.”

Research involves many trials and tribulations. There are times when getting the desired results are tiresome. “Sometimes even the simplest thing like colony PCR doesn’t work which drives me really crazy. It is very important to have patience in Ph.D. with which I am still struggling. Experiments fail directly building up frustration, demotivation and negativity. Most importantly, it is best advised to never ever lose hope. During tough times, it is useful to take a deep breath, sit somewhere peaceful, and think of alternatives.”  

It is a long and arduous process, but at the end of every day, we can find something to keep the excitement and passion alive! 

Rapid Fire! 

  • Average salary in INR in Germany for PhD students: Currently, 1 lakh
  • Savings left after taking care of the basic expenses: About 400 euros per month. (I spend on shopping and travelling!)
  • Amount that newly admitted students carry to start their life in Germany: With a friend to share the burden of rent with, you need 1200 euros. If not, you surely require as much as 2000 euros which includes hotels (At the start), house, rent, food and travelling (Day tickets are expensive).
  • Average cost to fly one way to Germany: Approx. 300 euros
  • Some good universities or institutes to start a PhD in Germany: 

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