Nature India | Indigenus

Away from home: Doubling research fun with twin subjects

Our ‘Away from home’ interactive map features 49 bright Indian postdocs from around the world. Write to us at npgindia@nature.com to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.

Varun Warrier, a postdoctoral researcher at the Autism Research Centre in University of Cambridge, UK, talks about the beautiful marriage of genetics and neurosciences . And how he has come to combine these two complementary subjects to carve out a meaningful research career. An alumnus of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore, Varun works on the genetics of autism and related traits.

Varun Warrier

It helps to know what you don’t want to do

When I finished high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I knew what I didn’t want to do, and in retrospect, that was very helpful. I didn’t want to study engineering or medicine. I didn’t have the inclination for the former, and was too squeamish for the latter. I ended up pursuing a degree in zoology, something I was reasonably good at.

At the end of the three-year undergraduate programme, I was faced with exactly the opposite problem. I knew what I wanted to do, but had to make a choice. I was lucky enough to get a three-summer undergraduate fellowship at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore. There, I worked with Anuranjan Anand on the genetics of stuttering. We searched for genetic regions linked to stuttering using an old genetic mapping technique called genetic linkage mapping. Many of the interesting genes were involved in brain development or neural signalling. I soon realized that I was as excited by neuroscience as genetics, and I had to decide between the two for my graduate programme. Since I already had some research experience in human genetics, I chose neuroscience for master’s at University College London (UCL).

People ask me if it was a big jump from zoology to neuroscience. I don’t think it was. The zoology degree was panoramic and, in effect, a life sciences degree. So, while some concepts like cognitive neurosciences were new, I was never completely at sea.

At UCL, I was required to conduct a 9-month research project. I was very much looking forward to this. Perhaps I wasn’t adventurous enough and ended up choosing a genetics project again! I worked on an extremely rare and debilitating childhood neurogenerative disease called Neuronal Ceroid Lipofuscinoses and thoroughly enjoyed it.

Coupling favourites

Towards the end of the project, when I had to make another choice, it came easy. I was enjoying the beautiful coming together of the two disciplines – neuroscience and genetics. I wanted to investigate research questions in neuroscience, using genetic methods. These silos are all a bit arbitrary though and don’t really matter too much. Once you start working on something, you’re likely to ‘borrow’ ideas from multiple fields.

It was this happy marriage of genetics and neuroscience that got me working with Simon Baron-Cohen at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom for an MPhil and a PhD. Getting into Simon’s lab was a matter of being at the right place at the right time. I had read some of Simon’s work, and wrote to him. I didn’t expect to get in. But as luck would have it, Simon had genetic data that needed to be analysed.

At Cambridge, I gradually pivoted towards human genomics, which required a lot of programming and statistics. I worked (and still do) on the genetics of traits related to autism, such as empathy, emotion recognition, and an interest in systems. People are surprised when I tell them of my work on the genetics of these traits – many don’t think something like empathy is genetic. But all human attributes are partly genetic despite what my sociologist friends will tell you.

Autism is complex, and no two autistic persons are alike. There are subgroups within the autism spectrum. Large scale genetic studies have had some success in subgrouping this spectrum by identifying variants in specific genes linked to specific syndromes. My most exciting research so far suggests that the two core domains of autism – social interaction difficulties (the social domain), and the unusually repetitive and restricted interests and behaviour (the non-social domain) – are genetically dissociable. I am not the first to suggest this as there have been a few studies to come to similar conclusions, but ours was the first to provide molecular genetic evidence in support of this hypothesis.

Choose your lab, supervisor well

So much of this journey has been made less arduous by very supportive and inspiring mentors and supervisors. When you don’t get along with your supervisor, your project can be extremely stressful. It’s always important to think carefully about doing a PhD, and finding the right supervisor. A PhD is always challenging, and it’s meant to be.  To paraphrase the author Jhumpa Lahiri, writing a novel is like jumping off a cliff and not knowing where you’re going to land. I think this is true of a PhD as well. Ideally, you’re doing something new and you’re never sure if you’re going to get it right. That for me was the most exciting aspect of the PhD.

When I embarked on doctoral research, I knew three years would be enough for me to decide whether to stay in academia or not. I found the PhD experience so enjoyable that I’ve decided to stay on at the University of Cambridge, and have transitioned into postdoctoral research.

The first few months as a postdoc were daunting. I guess the lack of a structured medium or long-term goal is difficult to get used to. I’m now used to the rhythm of a postdoc, and continue researching the genetics of autism and related traits.

Something that people don’t necessarily tell you but becomes quickly apparent is the number of rejections you get as an academic. Experiments fail, manuscripts are rejected, applications are unsuccessful. Perhaps this is true of all human endeavour, but I have nothing else to compare this to. I am still learning to develop a thick skin and take failures and rejection in my stride. But it’s not always a rejection – the intermittent successes are enormously exciting and make everything worthwhile.

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