Every Wednesday, our ‘Away from home’ blog series features one Indian postdoc working in a foreign lab recounting his/her experience of working there, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences, what they miss about India, as well as some top tips for postdocs headed abroad. You can join in the online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
This week we have Bhupendra Verma, a PhD from the Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, India currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland. Bhupendra gives postdoc aspirants some brilliant tips to chose their lab as he slowly comes to terms with the harsh weather, the beautiful Northern lights and the long periods of darkness in Helsinki.
I was fascinated with biology as a subject in school. That led me into science and this field of research.
The real motivation for research came during my PhD studies. My PhD supervisor had always encouraged me to do best.I did my PhD in the laboratory of Dr. Saumitra Das in the Department of Microbiolgy and Cell Biology at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Then I worked at the New Jersey medical school in the US as a visiting researcher.
During PhD, I worked on internal ribosome entry site mediated translation of Picorna viruses. I worked on host-viral RNA interaction using advance molecular biology techniques.
Understanding complex cellular machinery
Since I worked on viral RNA during PhD, I decided to increase my understanding further in RNA biology but with a different system. Now I work on one of most complex cellular machinery involving hundreds of proteins, pre-mRNA splicing. That is how I landed in my current lab at the University of Helsinki, Finland. I work as postdoctoral researcher in the laboratory of Dr. Mikko Frilander at the university’s Institute of Biotechnology.
My work focuses on pre-mRNA regulation centered on splicing of U12 type introns. In humans there are approximately 600 U12-type introns which are linked to important cellular functions as transcription, translation, DNA replication/repair, and signaling pathways. Abrupt splicing of these introns is implicated in human diseases.
Great work environment
The work environment in my lab is great. We get enough time and space to think about our project. New ideas are always welcome. Everyone has a positive pressure which drives them to deliver their best. The other thing I like about this lab are the collaborations. I am part of many collaborative projects inside the institute and in different institutes across Europe.
The best thing about Finland is the country’s integration plan for foreigners. I was really worried for my family, especially for my wife, as to what she would do there. But things here are very systematic for foreigners. They integrate foreigners into the system according to their qualifications.
Another cool thing is that you don’t need a car as Finland has one of best public transport.
The cold shock
I came to Finland in January, which was one of coldest months here. It was -27 oC when I landed in Helsinki so it was a 40 oC difference from Delhi. Weather is very adverse in this part of the world but life never stops here in Finland. One can’t but appreciate the Finnish society for being well prepared for adversities all the while. That’s why they are at the top as far as living standards are concerned.
The weather is really harsh. During the dark phase of November and December, everyone tries to go India for a vacation. I don’t like the long winter which restricts all movements. Another amusing part is we need to draw our curtains during June/July after evening to make rooms darker so that we can sleep. Sunshine even at 11 p.m can make you crazy! The longest day — June 21 — has almost 19 hours of sunlight.
Initially, it was a little tough for my daughter, especially in day care where people are not fluent in English. But they are very helpful and try their best. Now, life is better and my family is enjoying their stay here.
My tips for greenhorns
Before finalizing any lab for postdoc across the globe, you must
1. Look at publications: they are the currency of science. The publication profile of the lab reflects its funding status.
2. Plan carefully: whether you want to be part of big group or a small one. Both have its pros and cons. Small groups are better as you get more attention.
3. Switch your field: It is always worth changing your research field partially at the postdoc level. That helps broaden expertise scientifically and practically. It will help you in the long-term when you become a group leader.
4. Look out for independent funding: If you are planning to come Europe, always keep an eye out on funding opportunities. Special mention here: EMBO fellowship, Marie-curies, Human frontier science program, Academy of Finland.
5. Get a PhD publication: Try to get your PhD work published in a good journal before you leave. For all these fellowships, the publications during PhD, leadership quality (part of collaborations during PhD) and integration to postdoc lab are important points. Also try to attend some national and international conferences in the form of poster presentation or as speaker.
I think everyone should take a postdoc stint abroad. It is really necessary to be part of another scientific culture and to evaluate yourself. Take the risk and join labs according to their merits and your own interest, not according to the reputation of institute.
Chai-pakodi, I miss you
I miss India a lot in Finland. The things which I miss daily are the roadside chai/pakodi stalls, because I am a tea-addict. Also the festival seasons of India. Being a Rajasthani with a Gujarati wife, I miss Navratra (Dandiya) and Diwali a lot. And being an IIScian, I miss the Holi celebration at IISc.
I will definitely come back to India and will continue my research projects once my current commitments are over.