The ‘Away from home‘ blogging series features Indian postdocs working in foreign labs recounting their experience of working there, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences and what they miss about India. They also offer useful tips for their Indian postdocs headed abroad. You can join in the online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
This week we have Arnab De, an alumnus of the Presidency College, Kolkata and a postdoc from Columbia University, USA telling us his formula of success — some intelligence, lots of hard work, communicating with colleagues and a smiling face. Arnab, whose PhD dedication to cricket star Sachin Tendulkar made him the subject of another blog piece, says “its one world” and boundaries don’t make a country, people do.
My father, my first guru
My father is a medical doctor practicing medicine. He was engaged in applied work in the hospital and always encouraged me to study basic sciences. I owe my initial interest in research to my dad. My brother chose to follow the medical profession like my father. My interest in the basic sciences grew enormously while studying at the Presidency College, Kolkata because of the active interest of the faculty in inculcating a curiosity for the unknown among students.
Choosing between Ivy leagues
I am very proud of the education I received at Presidency College, Kolkata. For the PhD, I had offers from three ivy league universities — Brown, Dartmouth and Columbia. I chose Columbia for two reasons. It is in New York City, giving me an opportunity to collaborate with scientists and meet people from all around the world. It also has the world’s premium medical center (affiliated with New York Presbyterian Hospital), business school, law school and the famous Pulitzer School of Journalism. Besides, it has the highest number of Nobel laureates by university-affiliation. At Columbia, I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to work with the pioneering Indian-American immunologist, Prof. Sankar Ghosh. I have just defended my PhD thesis at Columbia University.
Exploring a new pathway
During my PhD, I was involved in two projects. Around the time I started my doctorate, it was appreciated that a single gene called A20 (a tumor-supressor) was mutated in a large number of cancers and other autoimmune diseases. While there were models that proposed how A20 might work, it was not known how this gene worked in animals. To understand this, I made a transgenic mouse, deliberately altering the genome, in order to precisely dissect the action of A20 in living animals. In the second project, I discovered a novel site of phosphorylation in an important immune—regulator and the corresponding kinase. One thing led to another, and early results strongly suggest that we might have uncovered a new biological pathway that is essential to respond to various infections and other diseases.
Imbibing scientific vision, leadership
Prof. Sankar Ghosh was previously at Yale before joining Columbia as the chairman of the department and ours is one of the most reputed immunobiology labs in the world. Besides being an eminent scientist, he is a visionary who broadened the horizons of the department by incorporating the field of immunobiology (our department previously focused on microbiology alone). Working at close quarters with him has given me an insight into his scientific vision and leadership, something I hope to be able to execute for the rest of my life. New York City is the melting pot of the world, and one can meet the world everyday at Times Square.
Living with Indophiles and snow
NYC is somewhat different, but even the smaller college towns present the exciting prospect of getting to know students from everywhere in the world. So you will find many Indians anywhere you go. One reason I personally did not find it as difficult to acclimatize to the new place was that I found a great partner (Rituparna Bose, who completed her PhD from Indiana University, Bloomington in geology, we are married now). I also did my MS in Chemistry at IU, Bloomington and my mentor, Prof. Richard DiMarchi, was a very understanding individual who knew a lot about India. That helped too.
Let me put it this way, home is where the heart is, always! So I miss India. But if I wanted to be in another country, I would want to be in the USA. I am originally from Kolkata, rather hot and humid. Hence, the snow here has proved to be a major challenge. The first flurries are pristine; the second snow shower might not bring as much joy.
Look at labs as well as institutions
USA is the land of hopes, dreams, opportunities and immigrants. Hence, I would encourage students seeking out the USA for post-doctoral opportunities. The clichéd advice is to be research-specific and look at labs, not institutions. I would look at both the ongoing research in the lab as well as the institution. Why? Just like in India, there are the good and ‘not-so-good’ institutions in the US. You can always switch labs if you are in a big research institution (if something goes wrong in the lab). This might not be possible in a smaller institution. Also when the funding looks bad, smaller institutions are likely to suffer more than the more famous counterparts. Just a fact of life!
India is changing, growing
My parents, my little brother, food and cricket — I miss them here. NYC has a lot of ‘desi’ restaurants, but none of them have ‘mishti doi’ or ‘luchi’ (two divine Kolkata-based delicacies). I miss playing quality cricket (and practicing in the terrace with my younger brother). I missed being in Mumbai when India won the cricket World Cup (2011). Sachin Tendulkar (the way he adapted to the challenges over his career) is my inspiration and I dedicated my PhD thesis to him. While some may criticize me for that, I am incredibly proud of that decision. India is changing/growing. I see that in my nephews and nieces and I welcome that change.
I am happy to work anywhere in the world which allows me to contribute to my fullest ability. If India presents me an opportunity, I will certainly be interested in giving it a close look.
The India story
People ask me about the differences between India and the USA, about what it takes to be successful in the USA. As I see it, the difference between India and USA is the availability of resources, and certainly not intellect. A decade or two ago, the discrepancy in resources was stark. As resources become more balanced, Indians will succeed in India too.
In my opinion, the recipe for success is exactly the same here and in India: some intelligence, lots of hard work, communicating with colleagues and a smiling face. Communication might be understandably somewhat easier in India because of language barriers. All things considered, it is not all that different whether in India or the USA. It’s really one world. Indeed, the hopes and dreams of the immigrant have helped to shape the legacy of the USA in more ways that we can imagine.