A career in research not only teaches you to respect failure as a pathway to success but also equips you to handle gruelling experiences in your journey, and in the process, imbibes the lessons of life that are priceless.
Navjot Kaur, our next pathbreaker, final year PhD scholar at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore, develops point-of-care (POC) compatible molecular diagnostic tests for diagnosis of infectious diseases or genetic disorders. She also runs her scientific outreach youtube channel where she shares her career journey and experiences with students.
Navjot talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the anxiety and excitement of testing a diagnostic tool that she had developed for tuberculosis diagnosis on patient samples, realising the responsibility of addressing a real world problem for society and feeling the actual weight of it.
For students, you have unprecedented opportunities to build your career the way you want it. But you need to take the initiative by exploring the options, making key decisions and learning from your failures. Keep experimenting until you discover what is right for you !
Navjot, tell us about Your background?
I am the first child of two doting parents who fortunately didn’t and still don’t differentiate between a boy and a girl. I think this significant virtue that my parents have had has played a very crucial role in allowing me to explore different dimensions of my personality and the world. My father served in the Indian Air Force when I was born, and my mother continues to be a loving homemaker. I have a lovely younger sister who is a constant source of energy and positivity in my life. When I look back today, I feel my childhood experiences of living in Air Force campuses across the country made me sensitive to the importance of discipline, punctuality, accepting cultural diversity, and sports in leading a healthy and peaceful life. Except for the first few years, all my schooling has been in Kendriya Vidyalayas (KVs), another system that helped me work on my skills and personality a lot.
I used to be a sincere student. Teachers at all the different KVs I studied at recognized this fact and encouraged me to develop my intellect further. I used to participate in Olympiads, quiz competitions, debate competitions, youth parliaments, read out news or poems in the morning assembly, performed in annual functions, participated in annual sports meet (I was a part of my school volleyball team for two years and later played lawn tennis from 7th to 11th standard). All these experiences helped me get rid of stage fright at a very young age. This doesn’t mean that I do not get butterflies in my stomach when I get on a stage today, but I just have done it many times by now which is like on the job training. Over the years these experiences also helped me with my communication and interpersonal skills. More importantly, these experiences taught me the significance of taking initiative and doing things, without worrying about whether I would win or lose. The times I won made me more confident about my strengths but more importantly, the times I lost trained me to handle failures.
Another point that I would like to emphasize about the parenting style of my parents here is that even though I was studious and scored well, my parents always encouraged me to participate in sports and other extracurricular activities. The story has been the same for my younger sister as well. My parents used to take her every week for her Bharatnatyam classes. I strongly believe that such exposure is essential for overall development of children and current generation parents should be mindful of the same.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I did my undergraduation in Chemical Engineering from Panjab University, Chandigarh and I am currently pursuing my PhD from Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore. I had recognized my passion for research during my undergraduate degree and had started carving out my career path accordingly. After my undergraduation, I worked for almost a year as a process engineer at Fluor India Pvt. Ltd. to become financially independent to take care of my finances when I got into the PhD program.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?
I don’t think pursuing careers in research is that offbeat and unconventional anymore, I have so many fellow researchers at IISc and the global research student community is pretty huge now. Having said that, I agree that in every batch of undergrads there will be very few inclined towards getting into research. I think that the best thing I did was to get exposure to different kinds of professional profiles one could have, and those experiences helped me identify career options I might like or dislike. I approached a senior professor in my department at the end of first year of my undergraduation and requested him to teach me more about the world of research. Since I was too young at the time and didn’t know anything about research, the professor assigned me a few reading tasks and asked me to get back to him with whatever I learnt from the experience. While I didn’t understand much from my readings at that time, I got really interested in knowing about the way the world of research operates. So I went back to him and told him that while I do not understand much right now, I am highly interested in learning more. He obliged my request and asked me to assist a PhD scholar in his lab. I worked closely with her on experiments studying fluid flow characteristics of nanofluids and that was the first time I thought of how one designs scientific experiments to gather new information.
I also took a research-based internship at Thermax Pune, in the Solar Energy division, at the end of third year of my undergrad. This experience helped me learn about how researchers worked in industrial settings and took me out of my home for the first time (an experience everyone should have after they are 20). Apart from financial reasons, another reason I took up a job after my undergrad was again to test the waters. I wanted to see the corporate work culture and evaluate my interest in the same. Since I was in the professional work environment for a year before I joined my PhD, I feel that the time management and people management skills I learnt during my job came in very handy during my PhD.
What have been the role of mentors in your professional and personal growth?
My first mentors have been my parents, who continue to teach me even today, about many essential skills required to face the real world. My father always uses real life scenarios to mentor me and my sister to be independent, then interdependent, confident, fearless, and considerate to others. He is a very jolly person who loves everything around him (kids, people, animals, nature) and always encourages us to do things which are good not just for us but for people around us. Similarly, my mother always made sure that we learn all the essential life skills whether it’s cooking or driving a car. My sister teaches me a lot about music and how one can use it to be more upbeat in day-to-day life!
Professionally, all my teachers in school have been great mentors. While they were excellent at the subjects they taught, they made sure to pass on life lessons in the process. I believe that because my parents and all my teachers always encouraged me to ask questions, however silly they might be, I started to develop rational thinking at a young age.
In terms of research, it was Prof. R.K. Wanchoo at Panjab University who kindled the budding researcher in me. He would have long conversations with me about the research work he was doing and how I could plan my future career path. He appreciated the small steps I would take and would challenge me with tougher questions as time passed. Dr. Pooja Sharma, the PhD scholar I assisted was the first person who introduced me to experimental research.
After joining the PhD program, prof. Narendra Dixit at IISc Bangalore was my first mentor. I was going through a really tough phase in the beginning. He helped me rediscover my strengths and work harder on my weaknesses. Conversations with him about research and its impact continue to make me understand the essence of research in much deeper depths, questions one should be asking and right ways of answering them. We even have had many philosophical discussions on encouraging youth to pursue science, being a mentor, problems of national interest and a lot more. I think he has been the biggest contributor in improving my critical thinking abilities. My PhD supervisor, prof. Bhushan J. Toley has been another great mentor in my life. He introduced me to the field of point-of-care diagnostics, trained me on techniques used in our field of work, had extended scientific discussions with me to help me understand the field and science behind the technologies we work on, supported me in all my professional endeavors and guided me during the very tough phases of my PhD. He ensured that I was provided with ample opportunities to grow as a researcher by encouraging me to attend international conferences and events, involving me in ideation and writing of research grants and also allowing me to accompany him to a company visit. All these experiences have helped me to gain a lot of exposure and information that many PhD scholars do not get during their PhDs. I have also learnt a lot about the art of teaching by attending courses taught by prof. K.S. Gandhi and prof. Sanjeev Kumar Gupta at IISc. Prof. Rahul Roy at IISc had very kindly allowed me to use multiple equipment and facilities in his research lab, which has inspired me to support young researchers in future.
My friends from undergraduation and at IISc have been another cushion to fall back on, especially my best friend Gaurav Jotwani. While I used to be a very serious person, he showed me value in enjoying life as we go along. Interactions with him led me to start travelling around more often, chatting with strangers more freely (not irresponsibly though), becoming more outgoing and taking more frequent breaks to rejuvenate myself than I did before. Especially during the course of my PhD, I have come to realize that it is absolutely indispensable for researchers to take breaks and do things outside of their research to prevent burnouts. My seniors at IISc, Dr. Sagar Bharatraj and Dr. Disha Jain helped me manage my initial tough phase at IISc by honestly sharing their own initial struggles. A big shoutout here to all my friends, colleagues, juniors, seniors, and collaborators for adding joy and satisfaction to my life experiences.
Have there been any turning points in your life and how did they impact your career?
I believe there have been two major turning points in my life:
- Joining IISc: I had mostly lived at home or quite close to home till the time I joined IISc in 2016. It was only then that I actually went out of my comfort zone for a prolonged period of time. The initial few months were extremely challenging, at times I used to question myself on whether I took the right decision and should I go back home? I was in a very sad state and would cry every now and then. My character as a person was badly tested in this phase and as they say, all this adversity brought out the best in me. Being fortunate to have a supportive family and having found the right mentors and friends, I slowly realized that the challenges I was facing are inevitable and I needed to start working on myself to face the obstacles better and eventually conquer them. I started studying harder, worked on my health, started participating in cultural events at IISc, communicated honestly with my PhD supervisor and reached out to people who were experts in my field of research to learn more.
- Consistently failing research project: I had taken up a challenging research problem for my PhD. The basic technique on which my entire project was based was known to be troublesome in the literature and researchers around the world were struggling with it at that time. I was facing similar issues and having invested more than a year and a half, things didn’t seem to be progressing. With all these failures, I had reached a point where my PhD supervisor and me started discussing the idea of changing my PhD project altogether. That would have meant losing out on all the work I did for the last 1.5 years. While I started developing the new project idea, I kept on working on my failing project, trying to troubleshoot the problems I was facing. To my delight, my consistent efforts to address the consistent failures paid off and I eventually figured out the major source of error along with other precautions I could take to optimize my workflow. Once I started fixing all the small issues, the bigger picture started to change. I have now successfully developed a DNA/RNA-based testing tool using the same technology that looked like a dead end once.
Both these experiences reiterated my faith in two important principles in life:
- There’s nothing one cannot do if you keep faith in yourself and continue to work hard on your objectives. While the experiences were quite grueling, the life lessons they taught are priceless.
- Nothing in life is irreversible. If you find that you do not like your current job or partner or home or school, there are always ways to go back to the version you liked or create a new version altogether. Most of us don’t risk taking a chance just because we are too scared to step out of our comfort zone. Now, one could definitely argue in absolute terms that someone dying is irreversible and similar such things, but what I want to emphasize here is to develop an attitude that makes you handle even death as irreversible.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
I had chosen Chemical Engineering out of the available options I had at the time of admission by looking at the nature of jobs chemical engineers do in the real world. I liked the potential career options that I became aware of at that time and felt that those work portfolios could satisfy my professional and personal aspirations. I had even tried to find out the average salaries for the different profiles I came across. Similarly, I tried to know more about research and life of researchers by getting involved in a research project at my college. I also undertook a two-month research internship in industry. Every few months I would introspect, and I continue to do that even today to get a better sense of what I am feeling and where I am headed. This exercise helps me align my actions better with my thoughts.
I was a recipient of the Prime Minister’s Scholarship for the duration of my undergraduation. I was also awarded a cash scholarship by Panjab University Alumni Association for my academic performance. PhD scholars who join after GATE qualification are provided scholarships by MHRD. I became aware of all these details by having conversations with my parents, seniors and exploring the internet.
As explained earlier, I had gotten into my first job to attain financial stability before I got into the PhD program. So while I delivered on all my responsibilities as a design engineer at Fluor India Pvt. Ltd. I prepared for GATE simultaneously as it was required for my PhD applications. I used to spend my time after office hours and on weekends to prepare for the GATE and gather information about the institutes and labs I would like to apply to in future.
Given the size of our country and the number of undergraduates and graduates the country produces every year, it is a crystal-clear fact that the world has become highly competitive. In order to excel in such scenarios, it is really important that students are thorough with their preparation. They work on themselves and inculcate skills that make them employable, and one such significant skill is to have a strong professional network. The way companies hire individuals is changing and they depend highly on employee referrals than random emails from applicants. But a more important reason to have a sound professional network is to be among people who inspire you to grow. I have realized this over and over again in my professional and personal space that my ability to think big and deep is highly impacted by the group of people I am surrounded by. Highly motivated, ambitious, clear headed, focused, kind and respectful personalities bring out the same in you. While angry, despiteful people who complain about things around them eventually make you complacent and bitter.
How did you get your first break?
I believe my first break was getting an opportunity to work with prof. R. K. Wanchoo just after the first year of my undergrad and I got that break simply because I took the initiative to go and start a conversation with him. I decided to take responsibility for things I wanted to do at that time and acted upon my thoughts. In addition, he was also very kind in accepting my request.
My first professional job break was through campus placement.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Knowing about potential professional development opportunities. I started becoming more proactive, going out and participating in college fests, talking to seniors and elder cousins working in different companies, doing research, doing MBA and following other career paths. I started becoming more familiar with professional platforms like LinkedIn that I could use for reaching out to people in my field of work.
Challenge 2: Mentoring undergraduates with different personality types and backgrounds. As I started training interns under my supervision during my PhD, I became more sensitive to the fact that different students come from very different backgrounds and have highly varied levels of academic training. It is therefore a very challenging task as a mentor to train such a wide variety of students and make each one of them feel satisfied about their experience. Extended conversations with prof. Narendra Dixit from IISc helped me understand the fundamentals of mentoring. Gradually I learnt the art of supporting each student in finding their best version and it is a work under progress.
Challenge 3: Managing time between professional and personal aspirations, and family. I am someone who loves what she does and likes to explore different aspects of her personality. Such aspirations demand a lot of time, energy and effort. While my explorations have been highly rewarding so far, there were times when I had to try hard to manage my work life and the time I can devote to family and friends. Hence, a major value I now keep on top of my values list is to make sure I spend time with my loved ones and on personal care. I set reminders on my phone or write in my journal to ensure I stay on track.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your research
Currently I am a final year PhD scholar at Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. I have also created my own science outreach initiative via my YouTube Channel (https://www.youtube.com/c/MyPhDLife_NavjotKaur)
What problems do you solve as a researcher?
Research: I work on developing point-of-care compatible molecular diagnostic tests. These are DNA/RNA-based tests which can be used for diagnosis of infectious diseases or genetic disorders. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted many loopholes in the current diagnostic setup. My research aims to address all these challenges to develop accessible, affordable, user-friendly, equipment-free, reliable and robust molecular diagnostic tools, which can be administered at the point-of-care. Point-of-care diagnostics are testing tools that can be used at home or small pharmacies, at the point-of-care for patients. I have developed a prototype during my PhD for tuberculosis diagnosis and tested clinical patient samples in the device to evaluate its performance. I have also worked on developing other kinds of biosensors and contributed in improving understanding of the technologies used to build such diagnostic tools.
More details about my research work can be found here:
Science Outreach and career counselling: Having studied and worked in India, I feel undergraduates in India do not get enough exposure to prospective career options if they are not in the top tier colleges of the country. This lack of exposure starts governing their fate irrespective of their capabilities and talent. Many of us eventually gain the required information and exposure to excel in our careers in time. But I strongly believe that a lot would change if students from all schools and colleges have access to quality information and opportunities. This motivated me to start my YouTube channel to talk about the field of science and research, PhD programs, and potential career opportunities.
What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?
Strong observational skills, critical thinking, identifying new and significant problems to solve, reading and understanding moderate to tough academic literature, effective written and oral communication skills, ability to innovate, design new studies, problem solving ability, resource and time management, convincing funding agencies about the merit of your work, generating revenue, building a strong research network are the skills required to be an effective researcher.
There were some skills I had acquired during my research experience in undergrad and professional work experience after undergrad. There were many I learnt during the course of my PhD.
Please refer to these videos for further details:
What is it you love about your work?
I love the freedom one gets to explore the field of their interest in a PhD and the sheer magnitude of new things one gets to learn. This liberty is dependent on many factors like the institute/department/lab one works in, the working style of your PhD supervisor, nature of opportunities available etc. But as one progresses in their career, researchers can choose which field of science excites them the most and what are the areas they would like to contribute to. One can also design projects the way they like and look for answers that interest them. As a PhD scholar, I also liked the fact that this job gave me a chance to mentor young undergrads who are interested in the field of research. I have trained four undergrad interns under me and that helped me in building mentorship skills.
How does your work benefit society?
As I have mentioned earlier, I think it was my father who taught us about always giving back in some way and this was one of the major factors I considered while choosing my PhD research project. My research focuses on developing diagnostic tools which will help take the power of modern diagnostics, currently limited to sophisticated labs, to people in low resource settings. In general, it is the economically weaker sections that are affected the most by infectious diseases, as has been made evident by COVID-19. It is therefore essential to develop technologies that could be affordable and accessible by such populations. In addition, such diagnostic tools will find application in all kinds of healthcare settings as a majority of the world population cannot afford the rapidly increasing healthcare costs.
My science outreach initiative is another way in which I wish to give back to society by sharing the learnings and experiences I have had over the course of my career till now.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Research: I distinctly remember the two days over which I tested clinical patient samples using the diagnostic tool that I had developed for tuberculosis testing. I had been working on developing the diagnostic tool for almost two years by that time and had performed hundreds of experiments by then. Never had I experienced such anxiety and excitement about the technology I was developing as I experienced that day. Those were real patient samples I was working with and while I was always aware of the responsibility of developing a reliable diagnostic tool, it was that day that I felt the actual weight of it. These were real patient samples, and I felt the test results could change the life of a person. Of course, we were doing this work for research purposes and the actual patient test results were declared using the conventional tests performed at the hospital already. I planned my experiments really well in advance, fabricated enough number of the devices required for testing twenty patient samples that I had received from our collaborator at CMC, Vellore. I started my day at 8AM and by 10AM I had the results for the first three samples I tested. I worked till 12AM that day and it was followed by another long day at work the next day. We then shared our results with our collaborator so that they could match them with the hospital test results and tell us about the efficacy of our technology. I had my heart beating way too fast on many occasions in those two days. When we finally received the results, our technology had performed pretty well with some scope of improvement in terms of test specificity. Both me and my PhD supervisor were elated at this initial success of our diagnostic tool.
Science outreach: As I have started working on my science outreach initiative, sharing details about how I went about my career in research till now and inviting other researchers on The Science Chat Show to share their research journeys, I have now started to get feedback from my viewers. The heartwarming response I got for the videos I made on my struggles during the initial phase of my PhD and my tips for things to focus on in the first year of PhD has been really amazing.
The two videos I mention can be accessed here:
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My top three suggestions to students would be as follows:
EXPLORE: Continue to explore opportunities for professional and personal development. Take initiative whenever you can and feel completely responsible for your career and life. It is only then that you will try to get out of a job that you do not like or a relationship that you feel stuck in. Till the time you keep on blaming your parents, teachers, boss, supervisor, circumstances, friends and lover for the situation you are in, it is highly unlikely that things will change for the better. But make sure whenever you talk to people, listen to their stories, read this interview of mine; you take all the suggestions and thoughts as valuable information but ALWAYS TAKE YOUR OWN DECISIONS, as only then will you feel strongly connected to them.
HAVE A SET OF VALUES: Human beings keep evolving with time and things you might like today can turn out to be things you despise a few years down the line. Living a fast-paced life with a lot of information overload makes life even more complex and tangled. I have found that the set of values close to my heart have been the guiding light in all tough situations I faced in life. They remind me of why I took up a particular assignment, got into the PhD program, volunteered for a task, participated in an event, started my YouTube channel, have the people I have in my life, and made any other major life decisions. They also help me to clear my head and make impending crucial life choices. This set of values, whatever they might be for you, will also make you feel more satisfied and fulfilled as an individual as you go through different phases of your life.
NOTHING IS IRREVERSIBLE: Having failed innumerous times in different research projects during my PhD instilled this feeling in me and I have come to realize the power of this beautiful thought. Whether it is work or personal relationships, please know and believe that you can pass the exam you flunked earlier, fix a presentation you messed up, rework the project idea that failed and fix a friendship that was broken for some reason, ONLY IF you have an honest intention to do so. Whenever you feel it is worth the risk, take that one step, take that chance and have faith that worst case if it doesn’t work out, IT IS NOT IRREVERSIBLE!
Practicing what I preach, I gathered faith in my aspirations and started my YouTube channel, tagging myself to be a science conversationalist. While I was clear with my goals for this initiative, it was something completely new I decided to build from scratch. I knew I was going to devote a lot of energy and time to this effort and did some mental calculations to evaluate if I will be able to balance it with my research goals. Three months into being self-employed at MyPhDLife (https://www.youtube.com/c/MyPhDLife_NavjotKaur), the response I have been getting from the audiences is encouraging. I have also been invited for career counselling sessions at three college students’ sessions by now. I plan to continue on this journey and motivate young students to achieve their career and life goals. I am also looking forward to wrapping up my PhD sometime next year and start the next chapter in my research career.
Readers can follow my work here: