A career in research is all about encountering many challenges and troubleshooting your way to success, by applying the same rigor to new processes, technologies and domains !
Anirudha Lakshminarasimhan, our next pathbreaker, Senior Scientist at TIGS (Tata Institute for Genetics and Society), conducts research in the areas of infectious diseases and rare genetic disorders.
Anirudha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about making the transition from basic research to applied research to explore cost effective solutions and innovations in healthcare.
For students, its always helpful to have a long-term goal with a broader perspective, which helps one define the short-term goals which are dynamic and adaptable !
Anirudha, Your background?
I did my schooling from Chennai, during which I academically fared well, although not exceptional. During the examination time, I remember creating a target-based preparation module, in which I used to allot a specified period for a particular chapter, and complete revising the subjects. In today’s world, when we start our career, we get exposed to this aspect of deliverables based on timelines. The probability of achieving our goal is higher if we have this mindset, which I developed at a very young age. During my school days, I was extremely interested in the art of choreography and pursued it during my school days. Most people tend to dismiss anything other than academics as a waste of time. However, this helped me interact with many people and hone my organizational and management skills, which I did not realize, until I started my career in an industrial set up. My family never stopped me from pursuing my hobbies and encouraged me to do what I wanted to do in my life.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
Although I was good at physics, chemistry and mathematics, biology was something that intrigued me right from the beginning – scientifically understanding the living forms around us. During my bachelor’s and master’s, I studied Molecular biology, Biochemistry and Biotechnology, with additional help in the form of expensive books and research papers. Even during this time, I remember consistently reading for 30 minutes every day after dinner, which helped me gain a foothold on the fundamental principles. After my Masters, I pursued my PhD in Biotechnology at the Indian Institute of technology, Bombay. The project was very challenging and binary in nature. Either we succeed, or we fail, and nothing in between. After a 3-year struggle, without any results to report, with the support of my PhD guide, things started working for me, and in another 2 and half years, I submitted my PhD thesis. During my PhD at IIT Bombay, I never imagined that I would get involved in choreographing events at and for IIT Bombay. I had done close to 30 dance sequences towards the end of my tenure, which helped me build confidence in myself. Even today, although I am a scientist by profession, the artist in me lives on.
What were the drivers that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
When I was three-year-old, I keenly observed doctors during their visit to our home to treat my father. These experiences were deeply engraved in me. That’s where biology took birth inside me. Although I wanted to become a doctor during my school days (In those days, there were only two professions for social acceptance – doctor and engineer), as I liked Biology, I did not get through the MBBS entrance exam but got a seat in Engineering. I turned that down and secured a seat for bachelor’s in biology. During that time, I did not have clarity as to what I wanted to do in the long term in my life. However, I thoroughly enjoyed studying biochemistry, botany and microbiology and wanted to pursue Masters in the same field. I really worked hard to prepare for the master’s entrance exams and got through in multiple places. During my masters, I started reading the subjects of interest outside of the syllabus and completed it with flying colors. While reading about discoveries, I wanted to get involved in this quest of hypothesis and experimentation and decided to do a PhD. During my PhD, after 3 years, I knew that I wanted to work in applied biology and trained myself to complete experiments within a stipulated time, knowing that timeline was an important requirement for fitting in there.
My PhD guide was someone from whom I learnt to think objectively. As mentioned earlier, the binary nature of my project led me to formulate multiple hypotheses to understand a phenomenon in yeast cells. Continuous discussions with my PhD guide helped me develop objective reasoning, which is very much essential for research.
In my life, any change has been slow, painful and had to be worked on with consistency and hard work from my side.
Again, my career trajectory did not have any turns, or U-turn, only a one-degree constant change that led to a significant degree change over a period.
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
After my PhD, I went to Miami, Florida for my postdoctoral fellowship, working on an academic project trying to understand one mechanism in yeast. In just a few months, I made a strong decision to come back to India, because of professional and personal reasons. My pursuit led me to a job in a reputed drug discovery company. Connecting the dots, things started making sense then. From basic research, I started my journey in applied aspects of biology. The learning continued in this company, where I got an opportunity to learn various aspects of drug discovery and protein chemistry.
In my first job at a drug discovery company, I found myself troubleshooting my way to success, simply because I had encountered many failures during my PhD, which helped me think objectively. This was beyond domain expertise, as I applied the same principles to new processes with success. Oncology is a challenging and competitive area where we had to be on our toes, to come up with a differentiated molecule and take it to the market. It’s a high risk, high return business, in which the attrition rate is very high. Owing to the multidisciplinary nature of the field, many teams work together for a common deliverable. I found myself to be natural at teamwork, which I attributed to my extra-curricular activities.
In my first job in the industry, I had the opportunity to work on different projects with 150 plus proteins, over a decade and take on different roles. Starting with a role working on the bench, I worked my way to becoming a group leader and project leader, working with various groups to execute a project.
More importantly, I learnt to manage teams and gained interpersonal skills by interacting with the stakeholders in the field. During this time, I volunteered for an NGO and used to spend my weekends teaching underprivileged kids. The learning that one inculcates here cannot be matched by any formal education. I strongly feel that such modules should be made part of formal education. After more than a decade at the same company, I received an offer to work at an institute focused on solving problems related to health and agriculture. I decided to take the plunge, even if it meant leaving an existing position with great prospects in the same company. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone and take that free fall.
The Initial years at the institute were not easy, as everything, not even a building, existed when I joined there. A year without science, discussions with the engineers, architects, administrators only made me strong. Currently, the journey is still ongoing. I hear people say the word “settled”. This word does not exist for someone whose objective is growth and nothing else, not even success. Success can be a byproduct of this pursuit but not the destination.
My approach at every stage in my life has been to prepare myself thoroughly before taking the next step by understanding the requirements for the next stage and through discipline, changing my current schedule, even if such high standards were not the requirement for the current stage. It’s like you are already in the next stage, by following those processes.
“Today is the day” means that one lives one day at a time in life with the following principles:
Plan meticulously, work hard, take critical decisions immediately when one reaches a dead end, activate your creative consciousness, and finally rest well.
How did you get your first break?
I consider my first job as my first break in my career. While doing my postdoc in the US, I decided to come back without a job in hand. I came back to Bangalore and started applying to different places. I received positive responses from two places, of which I wisely chose the one where I could foresee learning opportunity and growth.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Fear: During my school days I was very fearful of many things – talking to people, public speaking, being ridiculed etc. Though I did not consciously address them, as my hobbies helped me tackle them. Practice of dancing involved interacting with many people in a lighter setting and performance meant facing a larger audience and taking the risk of getting ridiculed. In fact, I have had moments where I made grave mistakes, and became the laughing stock of the audience. I realized that this does not matter, which helped me be natural, and be myself.
Challenge 2: Despair: I used to get into deep despair whenever I encountered a setback in my life and sometimes get into depression as well, without realizing it. This takes a toll on the mind and body, and one ends up wasting a lot of precious time. I finally found the two-edged sword to tackle this – Intense exercise and meditation. The practice in the mornings helped me immensely to overcome this and bring balance in life. Balance is what is needed to live a fulfilling life.
Challenge 3: Everywhere I went, I always encountered challenges, and I am sure many others do as well. I found bottlenecks, which were not in my control and which I could not solve. The frustration that sets in, was channelized to work on areas where one can make a difference. Channelizing the so-called negative energy, results in razor sharp focus and rewards at a later stage.
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do
I work at the Tata Institute for Genetics and Society
In my current role, I started with an administrative role, interacting with architects, engineers, and administrators, for construction and lab set up. This was followed by a scientific role, to train scientists technically and otherwise to execute their deliverables. I also took on the role of an innovator, bringing in new ideas on the table to achieve our objectives.
What problems do you solve?
Our work focuses on bringing value in the field of health and agriculture benefiting the society, in the areas of infectious diseases and rare genetic disorders.
What skills are needed for a job? How did you acquire the skills?
For this job, an application-based mindset, for designing projects with specific end points is needed along with decision making ability. I acquired these skills during my tenure in the industry. Innovation is another important skill, which I developed in an academic environment. Management capabilities were from the events I organized and continue organizing for cultural events. Creativity gets honed by regular practice of music and dance.
What’s a typical day like?
I get up at 5:00 AM and perform 6 rounds of surya namaskar followed by mudgar(Indian club) training, pranayama, and meditation. After this hour, I take my dog out for a walk for 20 minutes and do vocal practice for 10 minutes. I then get ready and leave by 7:30. I take the metro, during which I get 20-30 minutes of reading a book. At the institute, I have many meetings scheduled. I give equal importance to internal meetings as internal growth is instrumental for external performance. I reach home by 7:15 PM and then dance for 30 minutes, before having dinner. I don’t plan anything post dinner and keep that reserved for chaos.
What is it you love about this job?
I love the fact that whatever I am contributing in the lab will eventually translate to an application, making a difference to someone in society.
How does your work benefit society?
Either by bringing in cost effective solutions or innovation to existing unmet needs in the field of health.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
Scientifically, there have been projects in which we may have identified mutants, produced difficult to express proteins, crystallized protein – inhibitor complexes, which has had impact for the overall progress of the project. However, what is memorable is when the students trained by me do well in their lives, and acknowledge that their learning curve was steep during our period together.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
I strongly believe in the phrase “today is the day”. Being sensitive to time is valuing time and life, and not letting time wither away. Unfortunately, one is made to believe in many circumstances, that some things take time. Instead of challenging this, many fall prey to this and embrace mediocrity in life. Today is the day that means planning one’s day ahead, utilizing each and every second, focusing one’s energy on things that can add value to one’s professional and personal life. This needs to be skillfully done, overcoming the unnecessary habits and addictions.
I would continue my work to contribute to the field of art and science. In my opinion, a long-term goal with a broader perspective, helps one define the short-term goals which are dynamic. This helps during testing times, such long-term goals, though obvious, brings one back on track.