Nature India | Indigenus

How to beat loneliness in a research career

Ramya Nandakumar, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark, says research stints in a foreign land can get lonely. It’s prudent to invest in good friendships to beat the depressingly long winters, she says.

Ramya Nandakumar

Inspired by Fleming

I always wanted to become a scientist. A picture in my school textbook of  of Alexander Fleming, nestled in a comfortable corner of his laboratory, looking up into his staph plate appealed deeply to an introvert, curious young me.

Years later, this fascination took me to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi where I worked on a Masters project at the department of transplant immunology. Later, I was offered a three-month internship in Germany as part of a collaborative Indo-German project. When the calls for PhD opened, I applied and continued my research in the same lab. PhD was an extremely steep learning curve, after which I took up a postdoc at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Postdoc is the time to define your career trajectory

To make the best of a postdoc stint, it is advisable to think of it as a ‘stepping stone’ to your career of choice. Having a plan can help you leverage your postdoc to establish a career within or outside of academia. Easier said than done, though a broad understanding of where one intends to go after postdoc can enable supervisors to put you on a trajectory, if they are so inclined.

A good rule of thumb when investing in a research career is to look for a well-funded lab with an investigator preferably with students of several nationalities.

In my current lab I have colleagues from Spain, Germany, China, Iran, Greece and England. While some benefits of multiculturalism are obvious, in a divided world, it is reassuring to see that scientific research has a non-discriminatory way of accepting everyone regardless of where they are from.

It is also worth mentioning that when applying for positions, the cover letter is your best friend. Use it wisely to describe yourself and highlight why you have written to that specific Principal Investigator (PI).  Make it personal if applicable (…I heard you speak at the conference at …., I was inspired by the article you recently published.). This might help you stand out from the many applications the PI receives, especially from India and China.

During my research career, I have been challenged plenty, mostly by my own preconceived notions. Stepping out of one’s culture is a great way of questioning one’s very conditioning.

Tackling winter blues

Denmark is extremely expensive but as a researcher in a university you pay less tax (~32%) than the average Dane. With immigration rules getting tougher, it has become increasingly difficult to bring dependents to Denmark (except spouses and children under 18). Parents and family can get visitor visas but they don’t normally qualify as dependents. This could be a problem if you are the sole caregiver to ageing family back home.

Life in Denmark is lonely, a feeling compounded by the dark and depressingly long and rainy winters in this part of Europe. Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as ‘winter blues’ is quite common around here.  Good bright white light and a dose of Vitamin D can do their bit, but investing in good friendships also helps immensely. Winter blues for the trailing spouse is a reality one must consider. I came to Denmark alone and did not know anyone here. Therefore, a room in an international dormitory came as a blessing.  The shared kitchen was a melting pot of a wide array of cuisines, strong political discourses and diverse viewpoints. This is where I made most of friends I have today, friends from all over the world I share interests with despite our very obvious differences.

Take rejections in your stride

What wasn’t there in that picture of Fleming was a folder thick with rejections: failed experiments, grant rejections, soul-crushing article reviews, and numerous applications that are unfortunately symbolic of today’s research. Although Fleming looked content in his corner, research today is hardly independently run from the confines of a room. The emphasis on networking, being social and collaborating with researchers from within and outside of one’s own discipline. A successful scientist today, is as much a scientist in the typical sense, as he is a collaborator, entrepreneur and writer. These skills are essential, not just desirable any more.

[Ramya Nandakumar can be reached at]


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