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Please tell us about yourself
NS: What launched your scientific journey? Any underlying motivation?
AS: I think my journey began with a deep interest in maths and physics in high school. This is when I realised that I’d like to train myself to undertake fundamental research in natural sciences as I had great teachers for these subjects at the time. My interest in biology, or mostly molecular biology & biochemistry, developed when I became fascinated with metabolic pathways and molecular machines like the DNA polymerase!
I eventually enrolled for a BSc in Microbiology & Biotechnology (instead of Physics) at Ramnarain Ruia College, Mumbai. This is where my love for infectious diseases originated and continues to date. Credit for this goes to my teachers at Ruia.
My journey really took-off when I joined the Integrated MS-PhD program (Microbiology) at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. Here I worked in the laboratory of Sandy Visweswariah and studied cAMP-signalling in mycobacteria. For my postdoc, I decided to switch fields and study host immunity to bacterial pathogens. This was at the Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, USA. Broadly, these are also the themes of research in my laboratory at the Imperial College – molecular basis of host-pathogen interactions.
NS: How was your experience at IISc and what led you to the next step in academia?
AS: I had an exceptionally good time at IISc. This was for two reasons – the project I was working on moved along superbly, and I had an excellent mentor. I learned a lot of new things during this time, but most importantly the philosophy, fun and excitement of doing research at the bench.
I was interested to pursue basic research by the end of my high school and during BSc. I kept thinking about my PhD and postdoc as essential steps towards starting my own research group. Obviously, it had to be in the area of bacterial infection-biology.
NS: How did you choose your postdoc position at Yale (in terms of place, project and funding)? What kept you motivated?
AS: A lot of factors played a role. The geography – US north east/NYC area – was based on personal reasons. However, this did not limit me too much as there were/are excellent laboratories in this area. I was quite selective (bacterial or mycobacterial infection labs), and it took well over 8 months to find a position I liked. While I waited, I had (unsuccessfully) applied for fellowships with John MacMicking, who eventually offered me a position when his grant was funded. Persistence helped as I repeatedly wrote to people I was keen to work with; it helped that I had met some of them at conferences. Once I arrived in Yale, I applied for several postdoctoral fellowships unsuccessfully, but eventually received two one-year fellowships during my 7-year stint.
The start of my postdoc was the toughest time for me and there were no good results for about 18 months, yet I decided to hang-in and keep trying. These were high-risk high-gain projects and my experience was not uncommon. Eventually things clicked and I had a great project!
NS: What was the most exciting project that you worked on? What fuels your passion for science?
AS: I have enjoyed all the projects that I have worked on! If I had to pick one, I will say it is a cross-disciplinary chemical biology project that’s ongoing currently. The chemists bring a different perspective to the project. We are designing new probes to dissect ubiquitylation processes during infection.
My passion for science is essentially fuelled by an unsatiating appetite for unearthing how things work the way they do. My interests are mainly molecular mechanisms, and we apply this expertise to study infection-biology.
NS: Could you tell us the factors you considered while choosing the position at The Imperial College, London?
AS: I did my postdoc at the Dept. of Microbial Pathogenesis at Yale, which I consider to be one of the best microbiology departments in the world. By the end of my postdoc I had recognised how much I loved (and benefited from) being in an environment that lived-and-breathed pathogens and host-defence. This was in sharp contrast to my PhD at the Dept. of Molecular Reproduction, Development and Genetics (MRDG). As fun as my PhD was, as a microbiologist I had no interest in the biology of reproduction or development! One could argue I am too focused on infectious pathogens – but this was the main reason for joining the Imperial College, and that they (we) attract the best students. The MRC CMBI at Imperial has some of the leading pathogen-biologists (Holden, Frankel, Filloux, Young, Robertson, Gründling, among others). When I was made an offer, there was no way I could refuse! My job-visit to Imperial had gone well too, and my other options were general biology or immunology departments. And of course, London is a fantastic city and the neighbourhood of South Kensington is a great place to work.
NS: What were the challenges in the initial years of setting up your lab?
AS: The main challenge for new PIs is getting grants. This can be a slow and demotivating process. I went through two major disappointments in my first year, but eventually got grants. However, more immediate concerns for new labs relate to finding the right people to join you – PhD students, technicians or postdocs. Almost everyone advised me to be careful and selective, I was, and this has paid-off. I have terrific PhD students and together we have managed to start a great scientific program from scratch! I cannot stress how important this is – finding the right team. Another challenge can be finding the right collaborators and saying no to others.
NS: What is your idea of mentoring in the current academic scenario?
AS: Mentoring is a two-way street. It did not take too long for me to realise that different people need different kind and/or amount of mentoring. This does not mean there are favourite people or favourite projects! Given my background and training, I am better at passing-on academia-related skills to mentees. Luckily, I am involved mostly with Masters by Research (MRes) and PhD programs where this is appropriate. Apart from bench work and project-specific mentoring, I often get asked to provide feedback on projects/grants/manuscripts. Personally, I received good mentoring at the CMBI which helped me understand the process of grant applications and reviews in the UK. The CMBI has also tried to address issues around lack of female faculty and set up a team that offers mentoring to female scientists to encourage them to stay in academia. While this only addresses a part of the larger issue, I think some students and postdocs may benefit from it.
NS: What advice would you give to PhD students and postdocs who are looking forward to become independent researchers?
AS: Think hard to identify what really interests you, focus and be decisive! The passion is what got me through, and I cannot help thinking that a drive is a must and it will also help face disappointments. Sketch out a plan on how to achieve your goals and try to stick to it as much as possible. Also plan your first grant or project well – this is essential for getting that academic job!