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.
We feature Rohit Saluja this Wednesday. Rohit is a PhD from the Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow, India and currently a postdoc fellow at Charité – Universitätsmedizin, Berlin, Germany. He invests his energies in making use of the newly discovered “good” functions of mast cells and to find ways of controlling effects of “bad” mast cells. His postdoc tip: look for a salary if you are headed for Germany, not a fellowship.
Academic environment fueled curiousity
I was always curious about things. How and why were questions I always asked my parents and teachers. I wanted to gain knowledge about facts and to know the reason behind everything. My schooling was in a small place near Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh. I grew up surrounded by engineers. The environment around me was academic and that inspired me to do something good in life.
Nobel laureates & Karolinska
My PhD was from Central Drug Research Institute, Lucknow, where I trained with Dr Madhu Dikshit. I gained knowledge in the field of immunology and cell biology research. I evaluated the human and rat nitric oxide synthase (NOS) from a biochemical and molecular perspective in normal physiological and pathological conditions in different immune cells. After PhD, I got the opportunity to join the lab of Prof. Gunnar Nilsson at Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm (Sweden). He has been working in asthma immunology and allergic inflammation. I felt proud to be the part of Karolinska Institutet, which awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine every year. I also got the opportunity to interact with Nobel laureates in 2010. They talked about their science, career, experiences and discoveries.
After the successful completion of the project in Karolinska Institutet, I got an opportunity to work as a senior postdoctoral fellow with Prof Marcus Maurer at Charité – Universitätsmedizin, Berlin (Germany). He is one of the leading scientists in the field of mast cell biology. The work environment of this lab is very nice and cooperative. The best part of the lab is that I have complete freedom to design and execute my project. We are a very big group, multicultural group of dedicated clinicians and researchers. Our lab is well equipped to research on finding the solution to cure allergy and take it from bench to clinic.
Of good and bad mast cells
The major goals of my research are to make use of newly discovered “good” functions of mast cells and to find ways of controlling “bad” mast cell effects. The structural goal is to strengthen an interdisciplinary network that will (1) assess the relevance for the human system of mast cell functions discovered in mice, (2) identify and characterize pathways and signals of mast cell activation and its subsequent effects, and (3) develop ways and tools that target and regulate these pathways and signals so that we can make use of mast cells and their beneficial functions. Recently, I have started working on a very exciting project where I am exploring the role of lL-33 on mast cell functions. IL-33 is a recently discovered cytokine that can activate different immune cells including mast cells. I am also exploring the role of the mast cell and IL-33 axis in different allergic diseases.
Paperwork woes, bone-chilling winters & helpful mates
I had initial hiccups but after some time when I settled and got used to the new place, life became much easier. The main problem that I faced was the language barrier. Official affairs (tax office, registration office) are a little bit complicated here because they only speak German. Thanks to my lab mates who helped me with this. Thereafter it was very easy to live here. However, winter in Germany is typically a grim and dark and, a chilly damp that goes straight to the bones.
Salary versus fellowship
It would be helpful for young researchers looking at postdoc positions in Germany to keep the following things in mind.
1. Before joining the lab, ask your supervisor if you will receive a fellowship (non-taxable) or a salary (taxable, covers all social insurance). Try to get a salary so that you can avail of all the social benefits.
2. Look how authorship is handled. How often and where does the lab publish?
3. Where is the mentor along the tenure-track timeline? Senior PIs with productive track records are safer. But junior faculty members may be more eager to get higher publications.
4. Will the mentor help you apply for small grants or fellowships? How stable is the current funing?
5. Is your potential mentor friendly to collaborations with other labs?
India, a part of me
I have not disconnected myself from India, not for a single day. I always keep track of what is happening in India. Thanks to all advanced technologies and internet, I never feel that I am not part of India. But still, I miss a lot of things from India: first of all I miss Indians and Hindi. I also miss my friend-circle and dhaba tea. During our PhD that was the best place to discuss science and a good platform for troubleshooting. I also miss the festival season of India.
I would love to come back to India in the near future once I get a good opportunity. I am living a privileged life because of the basic education I obtained in India. I really want to do something in return for my country and contribute to research in India.