We are delighted to bring to you the 25th entry in our ‘Away from Home’ blog series. Every Wednesday, the 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.
We hope you have had as much fun reading these wonderful success stories as we have bringing them to you. You can join in the online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
For the 25th edition, we chose to feature Arun Kumar, a PhD from the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi and currently a postdoc scientist at the Centre for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona, Spain. Arun’s incredible journey is a story of hope, grit and ambition — from small town India where he couldn’t take up mathematics for want of a maths teacher to researching molecular mechanisms of cancer cells at a premier lab in an exotic location. It is stories like these that inspire the next generation of scientists.
We hope you enjoy this narration.
The tough path to science
I come from a very small town called Jhajjar in Haryana, where people aspire for a government job with retirement plans or want to join the army or police. If these options don’t work out, they settle for farming. If you are exceptionally intelligent, people expect you to become a doctor or an engineer. These were the ‘options’ I grew up with. So my becoming a scientist was a completely new thing in the entire neighborhood. Here was someone who had dared to do a PhD in science and walk on new grounds.
My pull for science began with the TV show “Turning Point” presented by Prof. Yash Pal on Doordarshan. And thanks to the public library in my town, I got to read science books and magazines. I was curious about how things work around us to the extent that I dismantled all electronic gadgets and toys to see how they worked. I generally ended up destroying them for good as I could never put them back together!
I wanted to be a topper in school. But that never happened despite working hard for the exams, except in the science subjects. I was very good in mathematics. So another turning point came when I chose biology over mathematics in senior school. The reason: there was no senior school teacher for mathematics at the government high school I studied in.
Later, I completed graduate and postgraduate studies in life sciences from Maharshi Dayanand University, Rohtak, Haryana. During masters, I got a CSIR research fellowship which meant good money (equivalent to a government lecturer’s job!) and motivation to go for higher studies (PhD). I enrolled for PhD at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (IGIB), Delhi. From childhood to adulthood, my reasons for doing science had changed. Now, I wanted to do something novel to escape the monotony of regular jobs and make a career that would also get me international exposure and an opportunity to experience new cultures.
I was excited to get a break after PhD to work in one of the topmost biology labs in the world, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory at Heidelberg, Germany. I worked as an interdisciplinary postdoc. Despite the wonderful opportunity to work with the best biologists of the world, soon I realised that I was not at the right place given my research interests. Some time later, I got an opportunity at the Centre for Genomic Regulation, Barcelona and instantly grabbed it since it was closer to my research aspirations.
I love working at CRG not just because of the good working environment but also because of its location — its on the beach! What more can you ask from life if your workplace is on a sea beach. Whenever I feel tired, stressed or clueless about an experiment, I come out to see the waves and people playing on the beach. I feel almost instantly energised and come back to attack my work problems with renewed vigour. If you are looking for nice sunny weather and a wonderful place for research that offers the best work-life balance, CRG is the best.
I work with the group of Manuel Mendoza in the Cell & Developmental biology unit of CRG. Our group is focused on studying coordination of chromosome segregation and cytokinesis. A failure of this coordination can lead to improper chromosome conditions like aneuploidy or polyploidy which lead to cancer cells.
I have been pursuing a new research question in the lab about studying asymmetric nuclear cell division in yeast. It is interesting to note that yeast cells give rise to new daughter cells upon mitotic division, which are different from mother cells in many aspects. For example, certain extra chromosomal DNA do not get transferred to daughter cells during cell division and remain in the mother cells. This sets the age of mother cells (life span) as they die after 30-32 divisions while the age of daughter cells that do not receive this DNA is set to zero. My research is now aimed at exploring different molecular mechanisms on how yeast achieves asymmetric nuclear cell division. As mammalian cell gives rise to different cell types using these asymmetric principles, my work could shed light on these molecular mechanisms in future.
Workplace a breeding ground for new ideas
I like the work environment in my lab as our principal investigator Manuel has enough time for day-to-day discussions on research. New ideas are always welcome in the lab and he provides a lot of freedom at work.
I like the Spanish culture with its plethora of festivals sprinkled through the year and cuisine that’s close to India’s. Spanish people are very warm, enthusiastic and helpful. You will find people laughing, enjoying and talking loudly on streets, which is not common in many European countries. I feel infected with their enthusiasm for small day-to-day activities.
Communication, weather could be issues
Sometimes, it is not easy to communicate with locals in hospitals, administrative offices or police stations if you do not know the native language. If you are sick or need medical emergency, it is not very easy to use the medical facilities in town.
Earlier, I faced harsh winters in Germany with no sunshine for many weeks. If you are used to sunrises every morning like in North India, it could be depressing to live in the such dull weather. It also affects work efficiency a lot. However I enjoyed the snowfall in Germany.
If you are a vegetarian, you could have a hard time in many European cities. For example, if you ask for a vegetarian sandwich in a shop, you might end up getting a fish sandwich. It was shocking for me to see people consider fish as a vegetarian dish here. For them only red meat is non-vegetarian. Quite funny!
For fellow postdocs
Following is my advice from experience:
1. Don’t overwork yourself, think well and enjoy: Indian PhD students are trained to work very hard and stay longer in the lab including on weekends or holidays. I would advise you not to overwork yourself. Try to minimize effort in experiments by thinking hard through it first. Increase productivity, which might not mean more number of hours in the lab. If possible, don’t force yourself to work on the weekends. This will allow you to find time for yourself to become more creative and productive in life.
2. Choose the best mentor: When you are looking for a lab for postdoc, do not just consider publication record or the institute’s name. Pay enough attention to see the group leader’s abilities as a mentor. For example, look at how many ex-lab members are established in their scientific careers. What kind of relation did they share with the group leader? You will be more productive and enthusiastic if your PI gives enough time and encouragement to your scientific accomplishments and acts as postdoc mentor rather than a scientist or boss.
3. Choose questions wisely: I would say your success as a postdoc is not by chance but by the choices you make. If possible, try to find a good project with important questions to study. You should avoid the rat race of publishing many papers or worrying all the time about academics jobs. After all, postdoc is the best productive time of your scientific life and you should enjoy doing good science as much as possible.
Spicy food, chaos, movies: miss them
I miss the roadside chaat shops in Delhi. Also hanging out with friends to generous helpings of my favourite snacks pani puri, samosa, aloo tikki and the pointless gossip. Reading newspapers in the morning and watching movies in the theater are not possible here. They are not in English most times. The chaos and bustle of people all around in India is missing in some European cities. This could make lonesome at times.
Giving back to the society
It would be great to go back to India and put to use the knowledge I have gained over these years. I know that getting a good job in academics or industry is not always easy. I would love to associate with or visit local high schools and colleges in my area to provide free education about modern science and to create awareness about new scientific career options. If I continue to work abroad for a long time, I would like to associate with local people who do not have access to such information. It would give me immense satisfaction if I can give back something to my own people.