Every Wednesday, our ‘Away from home’ blog series features one Indian postdoc working in a foreign lab recounting his/her experience of working there, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences, what they miss about India, as well as some top tips for postdocs headed abroad. You can join in the online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
Today, talking about how marriage catapulted her further into her scientific pursuits is Atrayee Banerjee. Atrayee has a Masters in Environmental Management from the Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management (IISWBM), Calcutta, India and was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Missouri-Rolla. Right now, she works at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Maryland, USA.
Science in the family
I grew up in an environment where education was given the top priority. My parents, specially my father, a Mechanical Engineer by profession always wanted me to study science, it started like that. But then I got more and more interested in biology and the intricacies of it. However, with constant learning and support from my husband (a faculty member in a prestigious private university in the US), science became a part of our daily life, during my PhD here in US.
I completed a Masters in environmental management from Indian Institute of Social Welfare and Business Management (IISWBM), Calcutta. I went to Texas A&M University to pursue a PhD in toxicology, where I worked on alcoholic liver diseases and then joined the University of Missouri-Rolla as a post-doctoral fellow. There, I worked on understanding the role of HIV proteins and addictive drugs in the blood-brain barrier permeability.
Currently, I am working at the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Maryland as an IRTA Fellow in the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). I focus on understanding the mechanism of progression of alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease in HIV patients. My work at NIH is an unique amalgamation of my previous experiences, and thus provides me with an opportunity to carve a niche for myself.
The work-life balance
The best thing about working at NIH is you get to work with the brightest people in your field and have access to the state of the art technologies. I have always found my colleagues to be forthcoming, helpful and collegial. In my present laboratory, I have two fellow scientists who help me with my experiments. Since I am a mom to a two-year old, it is very difficult for me to work odd hours. My mentor has been very understanding and has always helped to balance my work-family priorities.
Incidentally, my husband was also getting a PhD in mechanical engineering from Texas A&M University and we started our married life in a very academic environment. Life was sometimes a challenge, but looking back at what the two of us have achieved in our careers this far, I believe it has been very worthwhile. There have been several proud moments in my career, most notably when I received the Novartis Fellowship from the Society of Toxicology in 2007. The Novartis Fellowship is extremely prestigious and is awarded to one-graduate student every year, from a huge pool of applicants.
Ask plenty of questions
My tips for postdoc aspirants are:
1. Make sure you know what you are getting into, what the expectations are and how long the position is funded. Ask plenty of questions, especially about your long term career growth, and make sure that your mentor is invested in your career and wants you to be successful in life and not be a life-long post doc.
2. US is a land of opportunities but you need to be careful that you end up in the right place with the right person.
3. You would need to follow the mantra of “publish or perish”.
4. Most importantly, plan to attend conferences so that you can network with people. I have been lucky to have worked with people who are extremely helpful and allowed me to publish extensively.
To all young people reading this blog, please keep in mind that education is a marathon race. Do not let a few individuals discourage you or a few lack of opportunities distract you from your ultimate goal. We never know what life has in store for us but please be true to yourself and make use of the opportunities that life presents to you. Hard work and perseverance will always pay off. Do not let negativity surround you and stop you from achieving things in life.
Miss long holidays
In the US there are very few public holidays, so I sometimes miss the long Christmas or Puja vacations back home.
I miss Indian food, the clothes and the constant buzz of people. India is both perfect and imperfect in its own way and I miss the warmth of family, neighbours and friends that I enjoyed back at home. I believe I cherish them more now than I used to when I lived back in India.
I would love to come back and start working in India. However, both my husband and I have advanced (PhD) degrees and it may be difficult for us to find suitable lines of work and good opportunities at the same place in India. But we would certainly like our 2.5 year old son (Adwik) to grow up to learn and appreciate his culture.