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.
Our ‘Away from home’ interactive map now features 40 bright Indian postdocs from around the world. Please feel free to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.
My journey began in a small town called Shahdol in northeast Madhya Pradesh, India. Throughout my childhood, my mother remained a live example of the ‘Chase your Dream’ philosophy. She was a single female parent with three children and worked full-time as a lecturer. Regardless of her demanding life, she dreamt of having her own home and overcame many hurdles to finally own one. Her focus and determination taught me that no matter how difficult the path is, courage and perseverance always see you through. My mom encouraged me to leave our hometown and go to a city school.
For masters, I went to the Indira Gandhi institute of Development and Research (IGIDR), Mumbai. It was my first time in a big city but I overcame all the anxiety related to it soon. With naïve thoughts that my research would discover new drugs to cure deadly diseases like diabetes, I got into my first job at Zydus Cadila Research Center, in Ahemdabad, India. I worked on screening new drugs for Type 2 Diabetes. During those days, I read James Watson’s ‘The Double Helix’ on one of science’s greatest mystery (DNA double helix model). The book inspired me and further strengthened my belief that pursuing one’s dreams is what life is all about. The book taught me that success in life hinges on one key point: “finding hard work you love doing”. This motivated me to pursue my Ph.D. with a dream that some day my science would contribute to a major discovery in biomedicine.
Ask big questions
During my Ph.D at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, New Delhi, I was convinced that translation of genomic knowledge is going to be the focus of science in the coming years. I worked on developing bioinformatic tools to dissect the complex diseases like Type 2 diabetes. Being in a genomics lab, my focus was always on the big picture of how disease associated variations cause perturbation at the molecular level. The wiring diagram of the genes and their products are surely influenced in disease state and such network-based thinking was established by the construction of “human disease network” by Prof. Albert-László Barabási’s lab in 2007.
After my Ph.D., I decided to join postdoctoral research at the Lund University Diabetes Center (LUDC), Sweden, the largest diabetes research center in Northern Europe that has contributed to many genetic discoveries on Type 2 diabetes. At LUDC, I tried to explore the relationship between protein interaction networks and human complex disease.
The post-human genome-sequencing era had brought new hope of personalised medicine. But at the same time, it brought us new challenges. I was sure that the answer for solving the mystery of complex disease lies in targeting networks. The perspective needed to be shifted from gene-centric studies to a network-centric approach. This thought brought me to the Center for Complex Network Research at the Department of Physics in Northeastern University, a mecca of studying networks. The center focuses on how networks impact our understanding of complex systems. I admire the postdocs’ nights where I need to explain genetics and molecular biology to statistical physicists. During my postdoctoral research at the Barabasi lab, I learnt that disease biology is complex and the network medicine approach can help us unwind the complexity of diseases. My research focuses on the big picture of translating discoveries of network biology to therapies for complex diseases.
In a recent interview, James Watson said researchers should be encouraged to ask what the big five puzzles in their field of research are and go after one of them. “Do something as important as you can, aim for something which, if you win, people will get excited about.” I am really excited about my transition from an associate scientist to a faculty member. I think research is all about your own passion, about what you are doing, and you should always be open to options and be willing to change directions.
I really miss the colorful and collective culture of incredible India. I surely miss that part of living together in an extended family and enjoying the festivals of Diwali and Holi. The best part of Indian culture is it teaches you. Bollywood is not just an entertainment, it is a way of life. Evenings in my hometown, when the hush descends, farmers and workers drift homeward on a river of bicycles — one of the things I miss. Flying kites, an Independence Day tradition, is so memorable. During my Ph.D. days in Delhi, I gorged on the variety of street food in Kamla Nagar and near the Red Fort.
Never give up
Never ever give up. Postdoc stress has its own pain and pleasure, it impacts your mindset. You might wake up early in the morning anxious about not having high impact publications. But it has its own moments of learning and getting prepared for the big responsibilities.
In my opinion, the most important thing in your academic career is to keep publishing. The clock ticks faster in the postdoc research field, so keep thinking two steps ahead. You are not going to find the missing pieces of the puzzle at the first shot. Success in your postdoc is about learning the rules of the game and coming over the publication pressure. Science is technology-driven now with lots of big data around us. We should think about doing good science by asking the right questions. As Vivekananda said: “This is the first lesson to learn: be determined not to curse anything outside, not to lay the blame upon anyone outside, but stand up, learn and determined to achieve your goals”.