Here’s bringing you a new story in the ‘Away from home‘ blog series. In this series, we feature promising young Indian postdocs working in foreign labs. The postdocs featured here recount their experience of working in foreign lands, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences and what they miss about India. They also offer useful tips for other Indian postdocs headed abroad. You can join their online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
Our ‘Away from home’ interactive map now features 44 bright Indian postdocs from around the world. Please feel free to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.
Today, it’s Sneha Rangarajan, a postdoc at the Institute of Biosciences and Biotechnology Research, University of Maryland, USA. Sneha completed a masters in biotechnology from the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College in Mumbai, India before enroling in a PhD programme at SUNY Albnany, New York. She offers some some practical tips to postdocs in times when there have been concerns about visas to the US.
Biotechnology: A fascinating cocktail
It was that time of my life when I had to make a career choice after 12th grade – a choice between the “popular” like IT/engineering, especially since my grades would get me into a good programme, or the new bachelors programme in biotechnology that our college had just introduced. I chose biotechnology simply because it seemed like a fascinating cocktail of my interests and I didn’t want to do choose a career just because everybody else was choosing it. During the three years of bachelors programme, I learnt a lot about molecular biology principles which made me realize that I took the right decision. Later, I did a masters in biotechnology from Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Medical College in Mumbai.
It was around the same time that I became aware of the US as a land of opportunities for the field I had chosen. Several of my senior colleagues had enrolled in PhD programmes doing cutting edge research on topics I had studied only in theory. I also learnt that if you get accepted in a PhD programme your tuition fees most likely gets waived. This was a very important piece of information since I did not want my father to spend an enormous amount of money on my education abroad.
Another key factor was my parents’ permission to let me go to the US considering I had never stayed away from home and was now talking about going thousands of miles away. I still remember how pleasantly surprised I was when my dad said if it is for education and the prospects of a bright future, he would be happy to let me do so. And that is how I reached Albany, New York.
Turning theory into practice
I remember being truly excited over actually performing a PCR, something I had learnt only in theory. With my masters in India, I had a solid background in the basics of molecular biology and biochemistry.
As it turned out, I could transfer credits from similar courses I had taken in the Indian university. Not many people are aware of this possibility but it is a huge time saver! You can bypass the same courses and spend time and effort on learning new and interesting things instead. I transferred almost all of my basic courses and was able to enroll directly in advanced level courses in the first year itself. I joined Dr. Joachim Jaeger’s lab of crystallography, where I learnt a great deal of analytical skills along with the ‘art of troubleshooting’.
After PhD, I moved to the Institute of Biosciences and Biotechnology Research, University of Maryland, for a postdoc with leading structural immunologist Dr. Roy Mariuzza. My work focuses on vaccine development against Hepatitis C virus (HCV). I express and purify various HCV antigens from mammalian cells to identify the best candidates with increased neutralization potency against the virus.
I like the diversity in my work place and the fact that you get to learn a little bit about languages and cultures across the world. One thing I absolutely like about this country is that you could major in music and biology at the same time or could to university at 50 and nobody will raise an eyebrow. You are limited only by your own imagination!
Of ‘Good Mornings’ and weather shocks
The transition into a new culture and environment was made easier by the people around me. My PhD mentors were kind and helpful, always going out of their way to help students, especially the international ones, in adjusting to the new environment.
Moreover, I always found it interesting to discover differences – be it in the English language or the professor-student relationship or the norms of interaction in society, all of which differ from what we are used to in India. I still remember my experience taking a bus to the University campus where the bus driver politely greeted me with a “Good morning” as I got in and people thanking him as they got down. I liked the idea and imagined how it would be if I did this in India (would this make his day?).
However, depending on which part of USA you are coming to, you could be in for a major “weather shock”. I personally prefer the cold but sub zero temperatures may not be everybody’s cup of tea.
My postdoc tips
- If you have an idea about what you want to do research-wise and have been unable to achieve that because of lack of means, then this is the place to be. In USA, there are tremendous opportunities and it is up to you how you use it to achieve your goals.
- One practical visa tip in these times when there have been some concern about visas to the US. I am not sure if many of you know but you can now extend your Optional Practical Training (OPT) to as much as 24 months as opposed to the 17 months earlier. You can do that by using the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) extension. When I finished PhD, I did not get my OPT extended using STEM extension because I wasn’t aware of any advantages to doing so. But now, looking back, I can tell you that it was a mistake. Extending your OPT gives you the option of switching to an industry job if you so desire without worrying about a H-1B visa since the company doesn’t have to file for your H-1B until those 24 months. If you choose to continue in academics, it serves to increase your time in the US since you now have those 2 years plus your H-1B tenure.
- Don’t wait for an advertisement. I did not. Just email the investigator whose work you like and describe how you would be a good fit to his/her lab and if they have the funding, you may just get accepted, like me!
- Don’t be afraid to apply to labs that don’t exactly match your previous work. As long as you have a genuine interest and willingness to learn, people are usually open. Try to widen your skill set, that way you also broaden your future opportunities.
On returning home
I take one step at a time. For now, I see myself being here and making a mark in my research field. We are making huge strides in the field of vaccinology and if things go as planned, we should be able to enter clinical trials for the HCV vaccine in the next couple of years. Also, at this point, the infrastructure for my line of work is not very developed in India but who can say, in a few years things might be different.
As of now, I do miss my family and the street food. While there are a tons of Indian stores and restaurants that continue to surprise me with the variety, nothing can beat the vada pav or chaat from the streets of India!