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.
Our postdoc blogger today is Ankur Singh, an IIT-Bombay alumnus and a postdoc in Mechanical Engineering and the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB) at Georgia Tech, USA. Ankur is preparing for an exciting stint in academia as an assistant professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University.
Merging disciplines: engineering and medicine
I was born and brought up in India where the education system is still traditional. The society in general and family in particular expects you to choose between engineering and medicine. Mine was no different. Combining the best of both worlds in the literal sense, I chose engineering and went on to apply it to medicine.
My undergraduate training in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology originally motivated me to make the next generation wine and beers using engineered microbes and agriculture produce in India. But someone close to me suggested in jest: why ruin lives, try saving some! This changed everything for me. I qualified in the Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering with an national rank of 13 and chose IIT-Bombay for its outstanding biomedical engineering programme, with eminent scientists working at the interface of engineering and cancer biology, neuroscience, and cardiac electrophysiology.
IIT-Bombay and working with Prof. Rinti Banerjee towards my M.Tech have been the monumental milestones of my life in carving out the scientist inside me. The working hours at IIT-B were intense and the institute provided a hi-tech research environment which gave me an opportunity to realise how materials-based drug delivery platforms work to cure diseases like cancers. Many of my friends and family urged me to for pursue biomedicine given that the field was under-represented in India at that time, but I followed my heart.
I moved to the US in 2006 to gain experience in two prime emerging areas of research — stem cells and engineered vaccines. In my postdoc at Georgia Tech, I worked with a special type of stem cell called the human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells,which can be derived in the lab by reverting the human adult skin, blood, or even urine but behave like embryonic stem cells to form any mature cell in the body. Derivation of these cells is a non-trivial process and requires state-of-the-art culture facilities like the multi-million dollars funded Stem Cell Engineering Center (SCEC) and the Parker H. Petit Institute for Bioengineering and Bioscience (IBB) at Georgia Tech, where I did a significant part of my research work (published recently in Nature Methods).
Working in IBB, where my postdoc advisor Andrés García’s lab is housed, has been a unique experience. Faculty of most disciplines (biology, engineering, medicine, physics, chemistry) are housed under the same roof in this hi-tech building along with some of the finest biomedical research equipment. These resources have helped me establish connections with my peers and foster transdisciplinary collaborations, which I found was difficult to do in India where I had to travel for two hours in Mumbai local trains and buses to reach the collaborative institute outside Mumbai. One of the great things I have enjoyed living and working here is the mixed culture and the global talent pool that the US is able to draw.
A postdoc is a temporary position and several institutes in the US (like Georgia Tech) offer competitive salaries and benefits along with subsidized health care, retirement planning, and childcare. However, a major downside is the high level of competitiveness among the postdocs and you literally have to be on your toes to publish, protect ideas and grow. I have also struggled in finding fellowship opportunities similar to those accessible to US citizens. This is sometimes disheartening and could be of potential concern if your advisor runs out of money.
I worked with Prof. Krishnendu Roy (’93 IIT-Kharagpur) for my Ph.D. in biomedical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin to develop biomaterials based vaccine platforms that could be used to engineer immunity. Among the peers, there was a big respect for IIT students — I was praised for my mathematical abilities as an engineer, and yet questioned for my knowledge of biology, something attributed to the misconception about the education system in India. When I started my work in Texas I realised that while we had a sustainable research environment at IIT-Bombay, there was more government funding to support research in the US. I did not have to wait for several weeks for research material to arrive from vendors. There were well-established state-of-the-art core facilities with some of the best imaging, testing and analytical tools to support biomedical research. These helped me significantly to achieve my goals.
On the move
I have been fortunate to live in some of the best cities in the nation — Austin and Atlanta — and now moving to upstate New York, known for its incredibly beautiful landscapes and notoriously cold weather. My wife Shalu (’05 IIT-Bombay and a biomedical scientist) and I often miss India — our parents, siblings, cousins — and celebrating festivals with them. Although technology cannot really replace the human touch, the warmth and blessings, it still forms the best alternate when you want to pursue your dreams.
My strong research interest and interaction with peers in the field motivated me to become a professor in the biomedical field. I am starting as an assistant professor in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, an Ivy League research university in upstate New York. I am extremely excited about this transition to the faculty position and am currently in the process of setting up my research lab — Immunotherapy and Cell Engineering Lab (ICEL). Moving forward, I realize the initial years of a tenure track faculty position are going to be highly demanding as I set up my research lab, hire students and postdocs, travel, and balance my life to concentrate on my family — my wife, daughter, and parents in India. The current recession puts most of the researchers on the edge of economic precipice, but we are in the same boat enjoying the unique funding situation around the globe.
For aspiring postdocs
Finding a postdoc position is easy. Finding a great postdoc position is rather tricky and very tough. My recommendation to aspiring trainees is to work hard, publish well, and do your homework before you accept a postdoc position. Look for publications, mentoring style, funding, and where the past trainees have transitioned to. You need to be clear on what you want out of that postdoc training. This phase of your life is extremely crucial, fundamental to your long term future. I also suggest actively looking for funding opportunities and attending conferences to establish connections.