Please tell us about yourself
Meet Siddharth Pattnaik, alumni of 2017 IIT Madras Biotech batch who is pursuing his Ph.D. at The Centre for Neural Circuits and Behavior, Oxford University. He talks about his path to research, internships, research projects and his research goals.
The Typical Day of An Oxford Scholar?
My day usually starts at 7 and goes on till 9. The classes are usually from the morning to afternoon. Since I am in my 1st year I am not formally part of a lab yet. However, since I have already been a part of the lab during my internship, I work there during the evenings. Then I do some analysis in the night before going to bed.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
I was not quite sure about pursuing research during my first year. However, my internship at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore during my 1st-year summer changed it. NCBS is the kind of place which gets you addicted to research. That’s what happened with me. My guide played a crucial role in instigating my interest in research by introducing me to several people working in this area. This greatly influenced me and I decided to take up research in the area. From my 2nd year, I started focusing more on my academics and tried to get as much research experience as possible. The ideal time to start is as soon as possible because when you are in your 3rd year you do not have sufficient time to orient your CV towards it. You also don’t get sufficient time to develop research experiences. Maybe if you are in a 5-year course, you can start a year late, but the earlier the better.
Tell us about your research goals
My aim is to understand the development and execution of innate behaviors. I want to discover the neural circuits that are crucial for the “innateness” factor and how these circuitries are affected by acquired memories. I am also interested in studying various neurodegenerative and mental retardation disorders which affect memory and lead to personality disorders. I wish to develop non-invasive therapies for these diseases which make life miserable.
But my research did not take this direction straight off. I had a course a cell biology where I got interested in signaling in neurons. I joined a lab working in signaling in neurons. Neuronal signalling is a broad field and while working on it, I got exposed to a field called courtship behavior (more like sex in flies!). I started working on the sexual behavior of flies. That’s when it hit me that there are behaviors that are specific to each one of us which makes us what we are. On the other hand, there are behaviors like breathing which are innate. These are not taught to us. A baby is not taught how to cry when it is hungry. It is innate. What I believe is that these behaviors are transferred across generations. But, memory as a trait is not hereditary. This conundrum intrigued me and I decided to study this. I wanted to address the question of how such a memory is created and transferred. I want to know how it got engraved in the genome. So basically, you start with something broad and then you get your specific interest through that.
Projects with Professors?
There are several misconceptions among students about taking projects under professors. We are actually afraid of being rejected. Some of us are intimidated by them. But actually, there is no problem in approaching them. The worst-case scenario is a rejection. Again, that’s not a big thing which you can’t deal with. But there are certain things you should be careful about. I would suggest approaching professors whose work interests you. It is tough for them to reject you if your interests match. At the end of the day, you need to gain experience. And gaining experience is done by trying out new things and not sticking to one area. You actually don’t know where your niche is and the only way to find this out is by trying.
The Intern Factor
My interns were chronological. During my 1st year, I worked on light sensitivity in NCBS. That was a simple neuronal regeneration project. I had actually joined the lab to learn about microscopy but I got interested in neuro-sciences. Then I joined a lab at NBRC which worked on Memory and Learning during my second-year summer. My instructor there wanted me to work on behaviors affected by memory and learning and I ended up choosing sexual behavior. I worked for about 5 months in that lab (summer and winter) on characterizing sexual behavior in various mental retardation syndrome mutants in fruit flies. Since there weren’t others working on this particular area in the lab, there was a lot of pressure on me to read and learn more. As I started reading more I got more interested in it. Then during my 3rd-year summer, I joined a lab in Oxford which worked primarily on sexual behavior. It was here that I realized that I was actually interested in innate behavior. That’s what I am working on now.
I would suggest you look out for programs. But these generally choose students with higher CGPA. Most programmes like the Indian Academy of Sciences and JNCSR usually choose the student with the highest CGPA. There are also good opportunities abroad notably KHORNA. These are hard to get but you should still apply for all of them. And even if you get none you shouldn’t be disheartened. You can always go to right away mailing a professor who depending on the vacancies will select you. Since there is always more than one professor working in a field you have a significant chance if you mail the professors working in your field of interest.
I had 2 research publications both of them through my internships. Research projects are pretty important. The more research experiences you possess better is your chance. Your resume should definitely have one publication and if it is from Oxford you are definitely through. Even a 2nd or 3rd author publication is considered good as an undergrad. But having said that, lacking a lot of research experience is not the end of the road. You can compensate that with a brilliant academic record. Also, even if you have a less amount of research experience but if they were very successful you still stand a decent chance.
Oxford asks you to apply through one of their major funding programmes. For me, it was the Wellcome Trust. But even if don’t get through these, there are other programmes for which you automatically become eligible. So, funding is not an issue in Oxford.
Oxford looks for a consistent academic performance. Either you should have an ever increasing or a consistent performance. I had an 8.3 CGPA. The thing is CGPA as such does not matter. What matters the most is how well you have done in the courses which are important. They will mainly look at the courses related to the research. My core course CGPA was quite high.
The recos are another important factor. They need not necessarily be from professors who have taken your classes. I asked for recos from my intern guides. Since I had done 3 internships I submitted all the three recos from my intern mentors.
Going about with your SOP
What makes an SOP tough, is the word limit constraint. I first wrote a long one and then cut it short according to the word limit. When you are applying for a grad school they expect you to have found your field of interest or at least have a broad idea of what your field of interest is. The first paragraph should be a brief introduction about yourself and what your ultimate aim is. Then you should go about telling about your interns and how they have shaped up your interests. Then finally you say about what you want to do in Oxford. You should also say, how the program will help you in achieving your ultimate goal. It is very advisable to mention the name of the professors whom you would like to work under.
I did not have any PORs. I did not work in Shaastra or Saarang. People say that PORs are important for placements, but even there they are needed only for consultancies. A third person does not know about the POR and thus do not have an idea how important it is. Frankly, a person from Oxford does not know about Shaastra or Saarang. I actually used to tell them about Saarang and Shaastra. Of course, they are not a waste of time. It is good to celebrate science and technology and it is good to celebrate literature and culture. But if you are working only because it will look good on your resume don’t do it, it is a waste of time. If you are doing it because you like doing it then it is amazing, do it.
I actually sat just for one BT core company which opens for BT and EP departments. I finished the last round but then they decided not to take anyone from BT. So that was my placement experience! I was focused on grad school applications.
Choosing the Institute
I applied to quite a few universities in the US: Harvard Medical School, Berkeley and MIT and in the UK, I applied to Cambridge and of course Oxford. International rankings are attractive but are also delusional. It is better not to go solely based on university rankings. There are some universities which are not in the top 50 but which do have wonderful opportunities and professors. I would rather suggest you apply based on who you would like to work with rather than where you like to study. Of course, the brand tag matters but if your guide is a bigshot in the field, that is all you need.
Advice for students?
Pursuing research, especially in biology is not very welcome in the society. There is a lot of pressure both peers and parents, to earn money and settle down in life. You should never be misguided by these. Of course, they are well-wishers. For instance, my sister has been my biggest support during my whole scientific journey so far. But at end of the day if you end up doing something you are not interested in, then it becomes very difficult for you. So, if you are really passionate about something go about with it. Convince your parents and prove them that you can make it. One way to do so is by publishing papers. After a stage, they actually do give up!