Manoj Rathinaswamy is a biochemistry enthusiast engaged in Ph.D at the University of Victoria, Canada. His current work revolves around proteins instrumental to various cancer signalling pathways. In this interview, he shares his experiences.
A curious person from a young age, Manoj was often found asking “Why?” to his parents even when he did not receive good answers. Noticing this, his father motivated him to pursue science. He opted for a B.Tech Biotechnology undergraduate degree which would offer him a way out if research did not appeal to him. However, life science research fascinated him and so began his exciting career. “Another thing that pushed me to science was my tendency to hate repetitive things. I can, for the most part, wake up every day to a new challenge as long as I am in science.”
Manoj has been working to uncover molecular details on proteins that are involved in cancer signalling to develop potential drugs. His primary areas of research are structural biology and biochemistry. “I work on lipid kinases called phosphoinositide 3 kinases, which constitute a major signalling pathway that controls a whole host of things from survival to metabolism to immunity. We are in an era where we have found reasonable solutions to most of the infectious diseases (except in cases like COVID-19. We’ll get there!). Diseases of excess like cancer and metabolic diseases are largely the last frontiers. Cancer cells find intelligent ways to evade immunity and treatment and this has always been interesting to me.” Although his research question is challenging, the arsenal of advancements in structural biology offer hope that they will find answers.
A common conundrum faced by young students is choosing between a Master’s or Ph.D directly after their undergraduate education. Manoj feels, “A Master’s is a mini-Ph.D (as long as it is research-based and not course-based). If you’re unsure of pursuing a Ph.D, a Master’s can give you an idea of how independent research feels like. If your mind is made up, you could make the jump to a Ph.D like I did. I had, however taken a year and a half off after undergrad and worked in a lab to figure this out.”
Soon after, comes the decision about where to pursue one’s Ph.D. Does aiming for a Ph.D abroad give us a better foundation in research than one within our country?
“I think the foundation for a good researcher lies largely with the mentor, and India too has some great PIs. I think a good mentor is one who is not dogmatic, willing to listen to students’ ideas, has contingency plans if things fail and is patient.”
Taunts from people can dissuade young researchers from pursuing education outside the country. “To maximize one’s potential at anything, they must be in an environment where they are the most comfortable. People go abroad seeking this. Some people come back. Some don’t. I think this choice should be purely personal.” Funding and bureaucracy are some key factors driving students to look for opportunities abroad, where the ambience is collaborative and focussed on science. “India has seen many scientists return to the country and start labs. I think we will see better research being done when they start implementing ideas they picked up from their experiences abroad”, says Manoj.
Searching and applying for positions can be frustrating. Applications to Europe and Canada entail communications via email summarizing a student’s interests and aspects of the PI’s research that excite them. US Graduate programs require detailed statements of purpose. Both of these are usually followed by interviews. It may seem daunting but Manoj advises, “If you have a research area in mind (you don’t have to be very specific), try looking for the big scientific conferences in this area (EMBO/Keystone/Gordon). Zeroing in on a topic of interest can be facilitated by potentially exploring multiple disciplines. Look for PIs who present in multiple conferences and based on which country/city you want to go, build a list. Then it’s just a matter of convincing the PIs.”
A PhD can be truly enriching if one is invested in it for the long term. There is a lot of failure to be seen, but with patience there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. “A PhD can turn negative if you are in it for a degree or as a career step and think you will discover something massive every day. If you are excited about your research and want to push the boundaries of reality (no matter how minor this push is), a PhD can be very rewarding.”
In the current research landscape, internships play an important role in shaping our choices and ideas. Manoj has been instrumental in implementing the NGSF Internship Program to encourage students to take up science. Science communication has been one of his integral endeavours and the NGSF team and their founder, Ramakrishnan have helped him realize one of his dreams.
Graduate programs influence us in several ways both inside and outside the lab. An open mind and patience go a long way in these endeavours. It is always good to pick some hobbies to avoid burning out. While not the most outgoing of people, Manoj can still be found enjoying sports with his lab colleagues. He engages in a plethora of hobbies ranging from “trading on the stock market to watching movies and coding” to take his mind off science. Travel plans are another leisure activity and he visits a new country every year. Although COVID – 19 has thrown a spanner into this plan, Manoj is still optimistic that there will be a silver lining soon.
- Average salary in INR in Canada for PhD students: 1 to 1.5 lakhs
- Savings left after taking care of the basic expenses: Depends on the city. (The West Coast is expensive so you don’t save very much.)
- Amount that newly admitted students carry to start their life in Canada: Around 1 lakh should be sufficient
- Average cost to fly one way to Canada: 40 – 70k INR
- Some good universities or institutes to start a Ph.D in Canada: Toronto, McGill, UBC, McMaster are some of the big ones. My university, UVic is an up and coming university.