Academia Through the Lens of a Postdoctoral Researcher

Academia is the life and world of the students, teachers, scholars and scientists. A very crucial part of academia is the mentor-mentee relationship. A mentor ideally is a person with substantial experience, and who has already overcome most of the hurdles of academia. Therefore, he or she can guide the mentee in his/her efforts to achieve a successful career. However, it is not only the student-mentor interaction that creates a difference but the overall work environment. An intricate balance is very essential to ignite young minds. Dr. Arijit Chakraborty, a postdoctoral scholar at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), Harvard Medical School, Boston shares his views with us.

Massachusetts General Hospital

Dr. Chakraborty did his undergraduate and postgraduate education in Zoology at Banaras Hindu University. Then he moved to the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology to pursue his PhD where he worked on understanding the molecular mechanism of Host-Pathogen interaction. Presently, as a Postdoctoral researcher, he is looking deeper into host-pathogen interactions.

India is of course slowly making an impact at the international level in terms of research and development. However, it seems that we are still lagging despite having the potential to do better. Dr. Chakraborty pointed out, “Working in the USA versus in India has positive and negative attributes. People in general are very hard-working, disciplined and focussed in the US. Research does not depend only on the student or the mentor but also on associated staff members like the technical people, the administrative people, and purchase division who aid the entire process. Like in a cell, if the noncoding RNA are not synthesized, the cell cannot work. Similarly, without the help of well-trained support staff, it is impossible to get good research out of scientists and students. Indian science is bogged down by paperwork and other formalities related to securing fellowships or buying consumables/instruments. Importing chemicals and antibodies also consumes a lot of time and that eventually hampers the pace of work. On the other hand, things are easier in the US and this makes us less resilient; especially when we return to India to do research. Research is about the use of mind and getting things too easily can dampen our innovative skills. So there needs to be a balance between the two extremes.”

Research is a competitive zone and so time is very precious. Ordering and procuring chemicals can often take up so much time that our energy gets drained. Also, PhD tenure is limited so these hurdles often lead to giving up on key experiments and it compromises on the quality of work. Dr. Chakraborty said, “Apart from what I mentioned earlier, the infrastructure is also what makes a difference. The ease of accessing equipment is important as no lab can have all the instruments. A collaborative and sharing attitude is very essential for the proper functioning of any organization. It’s not only the mentors but also the students who raise their voice and demand a proper central instrumentation facility for each institute. A central instrumentation facility might look like a philanthropic venture but in the long run it will help many students grow.”

Mentor-mentee relationship: what are the differences when we compare India with other western countries?

Having a good mentor is crucial to academic success of a mentee as he or she gets the opportunity to develop new skills. Mentees can learn by observing the mentor’s way of dealing with different situations. However, in a way, learning is always bidirectional. “Many researchers, at least in MGH, work with their students and treat them like Co-PIs. There is no spoon feeding and their ideas are valued and they are duly credited for it. Not only graduates but even the trainees are acknowledged. Unfortunately, in India, very often, students are considered as technicians and spoon-fed. Although this reduces the time to publication, it does not help the mentee develop thinking and problem-solving ability. In most of the western countries, students can operate major instruments like NMR, super-resolution microscopes, Flow cytometers etc. This helps develop a thorough knowledge about the technologies. I think in India too, students should be allowed to operate, of course after proper training.”

There are many examples of teachers and mentors being instrumental in shaping a student both career wise as well as a person. Dr. May-Britt Moser along with her husband Dr. Edward I Moser, and Dr. John O’ Keefe were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2014 for their discoveries of a positioning system in the brain. She said1, “I was not always the best student with the highest grades, but my teachers saw something in me and tried to encourage me.”

Dr. Abdus Salam2 was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979 for his outstanding contributions to particle physics that laid the groundwork for the discovery of Higgs Boson particles. He took the medal to his teacher Professor Anilendra Ganguly, who taught him mathematics at the Sanatan Dharma College in Lahore. Professor Ganguly was old and was lying flat on his back.Dr. Abdus put the medal around Prof. Ganguly’s neck and said, “This is your prize Sir. It’s not mine.”

Dr. Salam with his teacher Prof. Ganguly (Source: Twitter/Ehsan)

So, it is important to have supportive mentors!

Let us have a look at the other side of the coin!

As much as mentors are important, mentees also have a substantial role in this entire process. Dr. Chakraborty said, “There is a basic difference in the quality of the students who join research. The skill set also varies but students from Indian universities have more trained hands. Indian students have a much better knowledge base whereas in western countries, students are more specialized and have good technical knowledge. So a student here may know only cell biology, but has an in- depth knowledge. It is not only the PI that matters but also the scientific aptitude of the students which makes a difference. Here too, we have fun and party, but when in lab, we mostly discuss science. Unfortunately, except for a few good institutes, this culture is lacking in Indian academia. Discussing science is really helpful. It is important to be passionate about what you do as there will be hurdles, but keep going!”

A healthy, supportive and scientifically active work environment is an essential requirement for scientific progress. According to Dr. Chakraborty, “In India, graduate students are often trained in harsh environments compared to other western countries. That in a way is helpful in making students tougher and indomitable but sometimes it can lead to physical and mental health issues that need to be monitored.”

As per the study3 by the World Health Organization for National Care of Medical Health (NCMH), India tops the list of countries with the greatest burden of mental and behavioural disorders. When it comes to Indian students, the scenario is even worse. Many factors4 are involved like poor financial support, lack of support from supervisors, unhealthy work ambience, and lack of proper redressal systems. The gender ratio in our work environment is also skewed often leading to problems for the female researchers. Western countries  face similar problems5, but the redressal systems are stronger and there are also dedicated counselling services in most of the academic institutions which are missing in Indian academia. These problems need to be seriously addressed.

“India needs to change its outlook. Students are not merely machines but budding scientists. Our training starting from school life is mostly based on bookish knowledge instead of conceptual learning. Students need to be given equal opportunity to speak and be represented. We often tend to highlight our best students (with Best Grades) but fail to highlight the hard-working ones. Students should be motivated to think and develop their own ideas and skills. We are focussing on age old problems which might not be so important in the present settings. India needs to be dynamic. I think India has the man power, the zeal to do it but what is lacking is proper training and funding. With proper training and access to the right technologies, Indian research can do wonders.”

Dr. Chakraborty’s advice to the graduate and postdoctoral students- “Believe in yourself and do not give up. Be passionate and retain your zeal for hard work. Ask questions even if they seem stupid as it often leads to better understanding! Getting a postdoctoral position in a top institution is not easy nor is getting a grant during postdoctoral training a cake-walk. Even if grant applications are rejected, they are reviewed very well. If you have a broader perspective and a strong knowledge base you will be successful eventually. Good luck!”

References

  1. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/medicine/2014/may-britt-moser/biographical/
  2. https://www.thebetterindia.com/200596/nobel-prize-pakistan-abdus-salam-tribute-indian-teacher-heartwarming/
  3. https://www.lawctopus.com/mental-health-issues-students/
  4. https://www.thequint.com/voices/blogs/why-indian-academia-should-not-ignore-mental-health-phd-scholars
  5. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2017/04/phd-students-face-significant-mental-health-challenges

2 comments

  1. Hey! I enjoyed reading this interview , it is so information and interesting. Through this I got to know a lot more about the research scenario on the other side of the globe.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: