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.
In our first entry from Italy, Arun Kumar, an alumnus of Bareilly College and a postdoc at Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics, Siena tells us the good and bad of being a researcher in an industrial set-up. He also gives some very practical tips for researchers looking at postdoc positions in Italy.
Doctor, engineer, scientist?
In high school, I always wanted to become a doctor or engineer and didn’t know anything beyond these career options. My father always prodded me and my brothers to study science. However, I got inspired by my elder brother’s friend, who was doing an MS in biotechnology. Although he never advised me to choose this profession, I decided to follow him and be a scientist.
My attraction for immunology started during undergraduate days at Bareilly College, Bareilly. After completing an MSc in Microbiology, I joined the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi (IITD) and All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) for a jointly-hosted PhD. These places are excellent for research in India but for me it turned out to be a bad decision. I resigned within an year and took up a fellowship by the Centre for International mobility (CIMO) to broaden my international working experience.
A career in immunology
I joined a PhD programme in the laboratory of Prof. Klaus Hedman and Dr Rauli Franssila at the Haartman Institute in the University of Helsinki, Finland. I was exploring human T-cell immunity against newly discovered and previously known human DNA viruses e.g. Human Bocavirus (HBoV), Merkel cell polyomavirus (MCV), Trichodysplasia spinulosa-associated polyomavirus (TSV) and parvovirus B19. The clinical and pathogenic roles of these viruses are little known. However, they have been found in symptomatic patients, and some have been shown to cause severe infectious illness, or cancer.
During my doctoral studies, I successfully established comprehensive methods for the assessment of antiviral immunity against all these emerging human DNA viruses, and wrote papers in international peer-reviewed journals.
Before moving to Finland I didn’t know anything about the country. But now I feel it was a perfect decision. The working environment in Finland is quite flexible and the PhD curriculum very impressive. Like other European countries, a Finnish PhD is very qualitative because the student must produce at least 3-4 first author publications during his/her PhD. After graduating from a Finnish institution your acceptability increases globally as a scientist/postdoc.
Language, bureaucracy issues in Italy
I have been awarded the prestigious Marie-Curie Fellowship by the European Commission. I am working as a Marie-Curie researcher at Novartis Vaccines & Diagnostics (NVD), Siena, Italy. The division focuses on developing treatments and instruments for prevention of infectious diseases. NVD is a research-oriented company hosting top class scientists. The Siena center has a strong record of accomplishment in coordinating successful research and training projects. It facilitates rigorous scientific training, labs are equipped with modern equipment and HR support.
The Italian climate is very pleasant and perfect for running, my favourite outdoor activity.
Integration in Italy was not difficult because I am quite familiar with European culture. Before moving to Italy, I had visited the country several times and had many Indian friends here. So, I already knew about the Italian environment. Being an Indian it was pretty easy to acclimatize with Italian working habits, which are fairly similar. It is also very easy to get all Indian grocery items in Italy.
However, language is the big barrier, only a few people speak English. In daily life you have to face problems because of the language. I am also not very happy with the complex Italian bureaucracy.
Personally, I don’t care about the prosperity of a country but I do care about quality scientific work. Leaving Finland and my lab after six years was sad since I had developed a lot of attachment.
Working in a company is very different from academia because sometimes you do not enjoy the freedom of expressing your ideas in the industry. Industries mostly focus on profitable projects.
Italy has a good network of the world-class universities and the scientific quality seems satisfactory. But the salaries are quite low. Therefore I recommend that postdocs come with their own grant or apply to European Commission-funded project positions (EC salaries are very high). Of course, you get enough salary to survive because living expenses are low.
I miss my family and friends. The two places in this world I like most are: my home town Powayan, a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and Helsinki. The joy of roaming around with friends during evenings in India is unmatched. I plan to come back to India some day but still have no idea when that day will come. I will start looking for positions in my country 2-3 years later.
The work culture in India is not yet favorable for science and scientists. I believe that we have enough funding and infrastructure for science but political disinterest is destroying our scientific zeal.
Tips for postdocs
It’s always wise to start looking for postdoc/job positions at least one year before your thesis completion. According to my experience, following points should be kept in mind:
- Set your goals before starting your application for a position. You have to decide where you want to pursue your career, in academia or industry.
- In industry there are many advantages over academia e.g. better salary, no need to worry about funding or writing a grant application, more networking.
- Try to get your own funding. Marie-Curie Fellowships by EC, European Molecular Biology Organization (EMBO), Humboldt Research Fellowship and the Human Frontier Science Program (HFSP) are good grants. These fellowships in a researcher’s CV can open many doors in future.
- Communication skills are a great asset for a scientist. Start attending conferences in the last year of your PhD. This will allow you to network well in the scientific community.