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.
Today we feature Akhilesh Gaharwar. Akhilesh is currently a postdoctoral associate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, and will be joining Texas A&M University, USA as an assistant professor a couple of months later. He tells us about his fascinating academic journey from an undergraduate student in India to a faculty in a leading US University. Akhilesh exemplifies two things — that hard work has no alternative and that you can never go wrong if you follow your heart.
Follow your heart
I was always interested in engineering and wanted to design and develop complex machines as a child. During my undergraduate years, I realized that I didn’t want to go into the software industry and opted for core engineering through campus placement. While working in one of the biggest multinational engineering conglomerate in India for a year, I realized that this is not what I want to do for the rest of my life!
Then, I decided to join Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay (IIT-Bombay), and quit the well-paying job. Choosing research work over industry was one of the biggest decisions of my life. I am glad I followed my heart! I realized that immersing myself in learning, research and technology is what I enjoyed doing the most. While working for my master thesis in Germany/India, I recognized that I can apply my engineering principles to the medical field. I was always fascinated by the most complex machine known — the human body. One of the aspects that particularly grabbed my attention was the healing properties in the human body. Although man-made machines can mimic many of the functions of humans, they completely lack the ability to heal themselves. I was interested in finding out how applying engineering principles to medical science can enhance this remarkable healing ability and to probe that aspect deeper, I decided to work in the area of regenerative medicine.
The academics dream
After a masters from IIT-Bombay, I moved to Purdue University (USA) for a Ph.D in biomedical engineering. I started designing new materials that can talk to stem cells and instruct them to make certain type of tissues. I joined the David H. Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University as a joint postdoctoral associate. I decided to join MIT/Harvard, as I was very excited to work with the Demigod of Biomaterial – Prof. Robert Langer along with Prof. Ali Khademhosseini on “Living Legos”.
At MIT/Harvard, I started designing complex tissue architecture to mimic native tissue structures using smart nanomaterials. These experiences trained me well for my dream job — a tenure-track faculty position. In August this year, I am joining Texas A&M University as an assistant professor and will be directing the “Inspired Nanomaterials and Tissue Engineering (iNanoTE) Laboratory”.
From postdoc to faculty
I am enthusiastically looking forward to my upcoming transition from a postdoctoral associate to a faculty member. I aim to leverage principles from nanotechnology, experimental stem cells biology, bioengineering and materials science to address some of the daunting challenges in regenerative medicine and tissue engineering.
Tissue engineering is a process of restoring, maintaining or enhancing tissue function by replacing or regenerating human cells, tissues or organs. I am devising new ways to instruct human stem cells to regenerate and restore damaged tissues. I anticipate shedding new light on some of the remarkable properties of nanomaterials and hope to introduce new customs that will revolutionize the way we look at regenerative medicine.
Freedom of thought (to cultivate creativity) and a word of appreciation are two things that a researcher desires. From my experience, USA is a perfect place where you can get both simultaneously. Your hard work will be appropriately recognized. Apart from this, intellectual stimulation and feeling of getting constantly pushed (to think outside the box) are other notable factors to consider about USA. Moreover, while working at MIT and Harvard University, I also learned about time management, organization skills and supervisory skills, which are of utmost importance to be successful in an academic career.
Understanding cross-culture communication
Adjusting to a new culture can be a daunting challenge. Fortunately, as a child I had to change cities, schools and friends every three years as my father was in a transferable job. Before coming to USA, I was in Europe for a year and I also did an internship in Singapore for a short time. My European experience has made a significant impact on my thinking and provided a new outlook.
In Germany, I enrolled for a “cross-culture communication”workshop and it made me inquisitive about other cultures and customs. As the world is becoming a global village, we as a scientists need to unify our ideas to work towards a common goal. It is so much fun to work with people from diverse backgrounds and culture. We get to learn so many new things, meet interesting people, and know new cultures/customs. Apart from that, I also enjoyed sightseeing in Europe, USA and East Asia. There is so much to see and feel in this world! Life is beautiful out of the research laboratory as well!
Missing Indian culture
With the advancement of technology, world has become a global village. Almost all materialistic things are available in USA. But, I miss two things about India – my parents and Indian culture! I always feel disconnected with India as it takes around 15-20 hours to get back home. But this did not deter my enthusiasm and I visit my family every six months. I hope I can continue this trend in future as well. Compared to a regular industrial job, working in academia gives us a lot of flexibility in our daily lives, and I love this!
Aim high, nothing is impossible
A postdoc position is the next big thing for a Ph.D student. I would advice Indian students to follow their passion. I acknowledge that the academic journey is not easy, but your motivation, knowledge and hard work will empower you to get through the toughest of times.
I would suggest you to give careful consideration to all the aspects of life. Don’t just jump at the first available position. Always aim high.
And most important follow your research interest. If possible visit the laboratory before making a decision. If you are good, you will be in demand! To be good, you need to publish high impact papers. For undergraduate and graduate students, I would recommend that you explore international opportunities and get some research experience before making any big decision in your life.
Find all the 24 Indian postdocs featured so far in this blog in the interactive Away from home map pictured below and updated every Wednesday. Please feel free to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.