Struggles and Successes in a Graduate Program

Jyoti is a graduate student working in molecular aspects of agricultural sciences at Academia Sinica, Taiwan. An avid nature enthusiast, she has always been fascinated by plants and their role as pillars of life on earth. She loves to be challenged with something new every day and hopes to give back something to nature from her work. In this interview, she talks about various aspects of her PhD program. 

What was the impetus for you to choose a career in STEM? 

I remember I was asked the same question by my guide when I was entering research. I answered that I find research as doing something ‘new’, but he said that it was more about repeating the same thing every day. I didn’t understand what he meant then, but now I do. The best thing about research is that it keeps fascinating me.

Can you briefly explain your current area of research and how you became interested in plant and molecular biology?

I am currently working in ‘Molecular and Biological Agricultural Sciences’ in the Taiwan International Graduate Program. My project focuses on Iron (Fe) signalling and molecular response pathways for applications to biofortification and phytoremediation programs.

Research was primarily introduced to me by my professors during undergraduate and Master’s. The professors who mentored me during my summer internships (Delhi University) paved the way for my future endeavours. However, interest in molecular biology particularly, developed later when I joined as a researcher in the ‘Plant Molecular Biology’ department at DU. The passion lives in me even to this day as I learn and face hurdles and find solutions to them. 

How do you think your PhD journey so far has influenced you as a person both inside and outside the lab? 

More patience and analytical skills in both personal and professional landscapes. I remember my offer letter contained a line saying, ‘PhD is a journey’. I strongly believe it is. Just like a journey, it has planned and unplanned events which teach us a lot. Recently I was framing the “big question” that I wish to ask. The initial hypothesis was something and then after surveying, I ended up with something completely different! Days of searching eventually helped me draw a link. The more we fail, the more we learn. A smooth drive is not good to bring out the best in you. When there are bouts of frustration, it is important to take care of ourselves. 

You have experienced the research system in India and abroad. What are some factors which embellish the research eco-system in Taiwan? 

Better availability of resources and access to high throughput experiments if required, is a major factor that accelerates the research in Taiwan. Scientific temper is encouraged from school. For instance, a wonderful event is organized each year by universities which showcases current research using simple posters, audio-visual aids and games. The event is open for anyone interested in science, without barriers on age. These foster the spirit of research and education holistically in the nation.

Do you think aiming for a PhD abroad gives us a better foundation in research than one within our country? Any suggestions on how to make the Indian scenario in research more inclusive? 

I feel exposure to research in India is limited to students belonging to very good universities which are relatively rare. State universities are quite lacking in proper amenities. The dearth of motivation and an improper environment can affect the student’s life. Provision and utilisation of funds can establish a better foundation for research to allow students to evolve.

Did you experience cultural shock as a student migrating into a new country? Do you have any tips for students to tackle cultural shock while migrating to study in foreign countries? 

I would like to recall an idiom, ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do’. It is very important to adapt. Reading about the culture of the country or going through experiences shared by students can help develop a positive outlook. 

Did you experience taunts at the beginning of your journey, due to your decision to go abroad and if so, how did you overcome them?

We ourselves make a society and secure it in different ways. It needs to be understood that science has no boundary, no religion and is for humans’ well-being in one way or another. If we believe in this firmly, we can reciprocate this view positively.  I did encounter dissatisfied remarks but staying grounded and true to yourself helps. 

Could you tell us a bit on how you searched for positions abroad? Any pointers on preparation for the competitive PhD entrance exams would be really helpful!

Being from a small place, I was unaware of the procedures and was hesitant to apply abroad. During my research training at DPMB (DU), the zeal of fellow researchers fostered my interest and I decided to pursue education abroad. At the same time, a promotional visit was organized by TIGP in the DU campus. My guide encouraged me, and I started applying for the program, qualified for an interview and eventually was accepted. 

A prevailing notion is that we need to have an in-depth knowledge and understanding of our field before pursuing a PhD. However, several undergraduate courses these days are integrated with a master’s curriculum and try to incorporate multiple disciplines. As a result, we might fall short on gaining enough expertise in one specific field. How do you think students aspiring for higher studies can cope with this issue? 

I absolutely understand that the subjects are taught in an inclusive way in several course curriculums. But there is no harm in that. Nothing in the universe is detached. If one wants to study molecular biology, for example, we need to understand that it’s not just biology and that there are different chemical reactions taking place in the synthesis or degradation of that molecule. These molecules have particular properties, dimensions and interactions. In order to know all these we need computational programs. These course curriculums can provide students a vision to think beyond, integrate and analyse. In the end, hard work and perseverance are the key to one’s goal.

Rapid Fire! 

  1. Average salary in INR in Taiwan for PhD students : 60,000INR
  2. Savings after taking care of the basic expenses : 25,000-30,000INR
  3. Amount that newly admitted students should carry to start their life in Taiwan : Approx. 1.5 lakh INR (Due to COVID-19, probably 3 lakh INR) [The fees can be paid using the complete stipend of 2 months or using savings of 3-4 months]
  4. Average cost to fly one way to Taiwan : From Delhi, 20,000 INR 
  5. Some good universities or institutes to start a PhD in Taiwan : TIGP (research program affiliated by different universities), NTU (National Taiwan University), NTNU (National Taiwan Normal University). Other universities associated with TIGP provide separate admissions as well.

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