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Animesh Shukla, a biotechnologist from Meerut Institute of Engineering and Technology in Uttar Pradesh, India who went to Carnegie Mellon University and Indiana University of Bloomington in the USA for PhD. Animesh, who works as a scientist designing ELISA assay kits for Meso Scale Diagnostics now, says planning ahead of time for a postdoctoral career could open up several doors in the land of opportunities.

The biology dream. How did you choose an offbeat, unconventional and  interesting career such as this?

My school teacher Jessy Kuruvilla sparked my interest in biology. She used to explain the subject in such an interesting way that I still remember many things she taught us. I don’t remember much of any other subject. In high school I was interested in both biology and physics (specifically fluid dynamics). I never used to score really high marks in these subjects but had very good understanding of the basics.

I used to catch and collect live and dead insects or small animals and used to look at them. Some of my friends used to make fun of me (they still do) but that is what friends are for!

Doctor? Engineer? Biotechnologist?

I am from a small town called Nagda in India’s Madhya Pradesh state. The trend among students during my high school days was either a career in engineering or medicine. I wanted to pursue research but people who cared about me persuaded me to embrace engineering since it was a paying career. I was not interested in becoming a doctor, so I did not appear in any medical entrance exam. Soon I got introduced to a new subject — biotechnology — a perfect combination of biology and fluid dynamics. It was easy to convince everyone that it has a bright future since it was an engineering discipline — “I can get a job after B.Tech in biotechnology.”

I got selected for several engineering institutes. However, I joined Meerut Institute of Engineering and Technology (MIET) that introduced a Biotechnology B.Tech for the first time that year (2001). As far as I know, it was the first institute to offer an engineering degree in Biotechnology in North and Central India. I had little idea what was going to come next. I selected this discipline because it was a perfect middle ground between what I wanted to do and what everyone else wanted me to do.

When I was at MIET, bioinformatics was a hot subject. I got interested. Computer programming was not tough for me. At the campus interview, I got a job as a marketing executive at CADILA pharmaceuticals India. I have no idea what they saw in me. I was good in science but not a good marketing person. Anyway, the pay was decent.

Balancing it out

One of my good friends tried reasoning that this was not the job for me. He was leaving for a PhD to a US university and also encouraged me to apply to American universities. With time I realized the job was really not for me. I applied to a few good US universities and got a partial scholarship for the masters programme in Computational Biology at Carnegie Mellon University. My parents were very supportive and they took a loan to send their first born to the US.

My work involved computational programming and there was no bench work involved. I wanted to do both: programming and bench work. So one year later, I applied to the PhD programme in Dr. David Kehoe’s lab at Indiana University. Fortunately he agreed to have me as a graduate student. David encouraged me to have a project where I could do both bench work and computational programming. His guidance and support allowed me to have a very productive PhD followed by a good postdoc at NIH.

Recently, I began work as a scientist at Meso Scale Diagnostics, LLC (MSD), a world leader in ELISA assays. My job is to design and conduct experiments to develop a highly sensitive ELISA. I also manage a small group of research associates. I spend about half my time working on product documentation and writing Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Prior to this, I was a postdoctoral fellow at the National Cancer Institute at NIH. I worked on identifying and developing diagnostic markers and therapeutic targets for brain cancer.

Resources, cultural diversity a big plus in USA

The best thing about doing research in USA is the availability of resources. Can you imagine waiting for a reagent as simple as a DNA primer for approximately a month? I have worked in other developed countries such as France and Japan as a visiting fellow. The ease of getting reagents or an apparatus in USA is not even comparable to any other country. Most of the global biotech companies are located in the US and this makes it easy and efficient (and probably cheaper) to acquire resources here.

Cultural diversity is also a great asset here. MSD, a mid-sized biotech company with about 500 employees, has employees from more than 22 countries. Even at NIH, a significant number of postdoctoral fellows are foreign nationals.

In USA, everyone in the hierarchy is treated equally. The fate and future of projects are decided collectively. I have been fortunate to have advisers who let me perform experiments of my liking. To summarise, independence in doing what you want is a luxury as well as a responsibility — this you learn in the US.

I got tremendous support from Dr. Ravi Kant Pathak , the founder of Bharat Uday Mission, during my early days in the US. He is a man of Gandhian philosophy and a renowned scientist. He helped me overcome the culture shock that many Indians face here, especially the accent, semantics and slang that are initially hard to understand. However, having worked in France and Japan, the culture shock was significantly lesser in the US since it is a diverse country.

Plan ahead of time

I changed fields several times — from biotechnology to marketing to computational biology to molecular biology and then to cancer biology. I committed the mistake of not talking to people about their experiences in the field and not planning ahead of time. I hope no one makes that mistake. Before deciding anything talk to experts in that field, read blogs, forums and learn as much as you can ahead of time. On the other hand, I was able to tackle every change because of persistence and hard work. Even if you make mistakes, be persistent and perform as best as you can. You will be successful.

If you have a dream to do something, this is the place to be. Don’t come to US just for the sake of it. There are thousands of Indian postdocs in the US. Most are here because they are interested in science. And those people are doing great. However, I have also met few postdocs who came to the US just because they contacted a PI and got the opportunity. You can only succeed in your career, especially here in US, when you have the desire to do research. Postdoc is not a 9 to 5 job. US is not just what it seems to be in the movies. It is a land of opportunities for those who know how to grasp that opportunity. Be prepared to work hard, really hard and at the same time work smart.

Before coming to the US it is extremely important to know your institute well, and more specifically your lab and PI: the work culture, working hours, job responsibilities, publication authorship policy and work-life balance are some of the most important aspects you need to clarify before taking the plunge. I know some postdocs who worked extremely hard for several years, but did not get anything out of their postdoc work. They did everything right except for clarifying some of the above mentioned before joining the lab. Instances like this are rare, however, I would recommend you to cover your ground beforehand.

Another extremely important thing is that you need to know what you want to do next. Postdoc is not a job. It is a transition phase from your PhD to a real job. You need to know whether you want to join academia or industry. Select a lab and type of work for postdoc based on that. All research is not the same. There is basic research and there is translational research. I am sure you can figure out which leads to an industrial job and which to academia. Some labs perform just basic research, some just translational work. There are others that do both. That is why it is extremely important to know the lab and the type of work they do before committing to your postdoc. Ask your potential PI or research online where the former postdocs from that lab have landed.

US institutes and labs are more open to your taking up other activities or education in your spare time. I completed a certificate course in ‘Business of Life Sciences’ while doing my PhD and my PI was perfectly fine with that. My department even paid for my tuition. While doing the postdoc I was taking courses in ‘Technology Transfer’ and my PI paid for that from his grant. Overall, institutes and labs want you to excel in your career. You just have to be proactive and ask for the opportunity.

One extremely useful experience I got in US was while volunteering for a non-profit organization called the ‘Center for Advancing Innovation Inc.’ Volunteering not only gives you extra knowledge and experience but also helps network. There are thousands of postdocs in the US. To stand out in crowd you have to have some extra skills/experiences and you need to have a good professional network. Although Facebook and Twitter are great resources, networking does not end there. Use LinkedIn and Research Gate — they are extremely good for professional networking

India just a day away

I miss my family, everyone does. But the best way to console myself is that it takes about 24 hours by flight to reach India, which is less than what it takes to reach Bangalore from Delhi by train. I used to miss the food, not any more because gradually I learnt to cook well. Some people say that a good chemist or a biologist can be a good cook because they deal with precise measurements. I guess I have proven them correct. Jokes apart, most people learn to cook well here. Necessity is the mother of invention, and believe me the first few dishes you make are nothing short of inventions.  One thing I miss though is fresh food. My wife and I work, so we cook over the weekend and eat it throughout the week. Many people cook daily. It depends on your energy level and time at hand.

One comforting thing that might be of consolation to your parents is that Indian stores in US have virtually everything you need.

Till last year my wife wanted to go back to India. But when we visited India in December 2014 she felt it might be more and more difficult to get settled in India. We have acclimatized to the American way of life and might not be very comfortable in India. India has changed significantly in the past 5-6 years. Most people who come to the US stay here and there is a very good reason for that. Additionally, once you have kids it becomes more difficult to go back to India.

However, depending upon the situation and opportunities things may change. My suggestion to people who want to go back to India after their postdoc is: plan ahead. First, it takes time to find a job. Second, consider what your family wants and whether it is feasible or not.