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 feature Sushil Kumar Tomar, a PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK) and currently a postdoc researcher at The RNA Center, Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus, USA. Sushil has a fascinating formula to find success in life: he calls it ‘absolute success’. Read on to find what it is.
My superheroes: Shapeless Amoeba and immortal Hydra
My father was my first biology teacher. He used to inspire me with stories of shapeless Amoeba and rejuvenating Hydra. Electric outages were too common those days (actually even now) and there were no invertors back then. So sleeping on the terrace was a common practice. My father and I talked about several exciting things – monstrous mosquito eating plants or giant dinosaurs or plant pigments filling the world with colors. Later, partly due to inept mathematics teachers and partly due to my biology fantasies, I opted for biology in senior school. I was extremely fortunate to choose St. John’s Pharmacy College, Bangalore, where I found several fantastic teachers in my undergraduate years. Among them Dr. Elisha Injeti deserves special mention as he was the first teacher who inspired me towards research and higher studies.
Basic Science is the key
Destiny also played a huge role in my career. Upon completion of my B. Pharmacy, I was inclined to take Medicinal Chemistry for my future studies. But, due to some unconnected mysterious events I reached at the multidisciplinary department of Biological Sciences & Bioengineering at Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur (IITK). It had a totally different flavor for basic science in contrast to my interests. After the first few months of disappointment, I began to realize the strength of basic science. I found that it is basic science which gives birth to applied science. I realised it was important to understand normal (health) first before exploring the abnormal (disease). I started looking for postdoctoral opportunities. For my PhD, I worked with Dr. Balaji Prakash, an X-ray crystallographer by training but he encouraged me to explore the power of molecular biology and biochemistry. During this period, I attempted to elucidate the role of bacterial GTPases in a complex and essential process of ribosome biogenesis. I generated immense interest for RNA world. After profound search I selected the laboratory of Dr. Irina Artsimovitch at The RNA Center, Ohio State University (OSU) Columbus, USA for my future work.
Transcription, a potential hub for large macromolecular interactions
Here at OSU, I am working on the transcription factor RfaH. It is a unique protein that is capable of undergoing tremendous structural change. I am exploring the folding/refolding properties of RfaH. Transcription is coupled to various other cellular processes such as recombination, repair and translation. In future I am looking to explore these communications in detail. My current group is relatively small but efficient. Irina is an excellent mentor and very supportive. Sometimes I feel that it was better if the group had few more people. That could have generated larger interactions but this lacuna is fulfilled by other research groups on the floor. Weekly joint meetings provide plenty of opportunities for such communications.
Inscrutable Americans and cryptic Indians
Before coming to America, I had been to Germany three times for conferences and collaborative work during PhD. Honestly, I did not have a very pleasant experience there. This was also partly because of a language barrier and my introvert nature. But in comparison to that America seems very open and I easily mixed in. Though I still find it difficult to understand their expressions and jokes at times, it is also equally true for my fellow American friends. Overall it has been a nice experience so far.
Look for absolute success
My tip for potential postdoctoral candidates is that one should look for absolute success. Do not compare your selection with that of others. During this time most candidates have families. It means apart from science, their time is also important for the family. In a few places, work culture could be very competing and demanding. Also you need to make careful decisions based on your choices between academics/industries or planning to stay in USA or returning to India. You need to check the history of a laboratory to see how many past members have successfully achieved specific goals. So do not get overwhelmed by the numbers of publications you see from a lab on PubMed. If you do not accomplish your final goal, then even an additional good publication could leave you with an empty feeling.
Home is always better than paradise
At least for me, a postdoctoral stay is like a long work holiday in a five start hotel. Whatever facility and comfort it offers, I still miss my country every day. America seems like paradise when it comes to living standards and progress-driven culture, but home is always home. A bird could fly to distant places for fun but in the evening it needs to return to its nest. The feeling of being with parents and friends is absolutely gratifying. For now it seems couple more years before I seriously start looking for positions back in India.
Anticipations and obligations
If I had an equal opportunity in India, I could have stayed back. Right now, there are few grant agencies which offer good salary and independent research funds. This improves the economic state of the candidate but unfortunately in all institutes (even the big ones) the social status of the postdoctoral fellows remains unchanged. They are treated as graduate students when it comes to residential or any other facility on campus. For a married family it is impossible to stay in a hostel kind of environment. The overall socioeconomic status needs to be improved. Postdoctoral fellows should be treated equal to “faculty at contract basis” at least in institutes of national importance. If I become part of system some day, I would like to contribute towards these changes. After all, postdoctorate is one of the most important times in one’s scientific career.