Observing the activity of human cells through a microscope is fascinating especially if you have a background in scientific research and imaging techniques !

Anil Shukla (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Advanced Imaging Specialist at Nikon Instruments USA, trains and helps people with their research in the field of microscopy, which enables them to see things that could lead to new discoveries in science.

Anil talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his role in bridging the gap between technology and science by helping scientists and researchers dissect their research through information, training and tools in the field of microscopy.

For students, it is always exciting to leverage your scientific background to support innovations that address real world problems in the field of healthcare !

Anil, can you take us through your background?

I grew up in a village near Malihabad, Lucknow (UP), India. If you like Mangoes, you probably would have heard about Malihabad. Although I am now thousands of miles away from my village, it is still the place dearest to my heart, and all the childhood memories are fresh like it all happened yesterday. I studied in a primary school in the village until 8th grade. It was all so much fun- going to school with my friends, the strict nature of teachers, playing cricket and volleyball after school. I am literally smiling right now remembering those moments. If I get a chance to be a kid again, and relive those moments, I will do that in a heartbeat! 

My mother is a homemaker, and my father was a school teacher (retired and enjoying life now). Wherever I am in my career today, it is all because of my family back in India, my wife and my teachers/mentors. My Dad (Daddu) used to always encourage all kids (six of us and I am the youngest☺) to study hard, and I heard him. My wife, Swati, who is also a Scientist, has always been a great support throughout my career. I always wanted to be a doctor and go to America, as there was an uncle from my village who was a doctor in the US and he had a big impact on my career. Yes, I am a doctor (PhD), and in America today. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did Masters in Biochemistry from Banaras Hindu University, and PhD in Biotechnology from Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Guwahati, India, and then was a Researcher/Scientist at National Institutes of Health (NIH) and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) USA before joining my current position at Nikon Instruments.

Tell us, what were the key factors that contributed to where you are today?

I really enjoyed doing experiments and giving presentations during my Masters. Hence, I decided to pursue my career as a Scientist. In the field of Life Science, in my opinion, a PhD is extremely important in order to acquire the experience and knowledge that is needed to be a Scientist. So, I decided to do a PhD in Biotechnology under the supervision of Dr. Vikash Dubey. Dr. Dubey’s extremely calm nature and excellent guidance always encouraged me to do better in my research, which also enabled me to get a postdoctoral fellowship at one of the world’s best places for research-National Institutes of Health (NIH), USA.

During my initial research career at NIH, I fell in love with microscopy/imaging. A big credit goes to my supervisor at NIH, Dr. Jadranka Loncarek. I used to spend several hours, sometimes days on the microscopes to look at what is happening inside human cells having cancer. That’s when I realized that I enjoyed research in imaging/microscopy the most. I was lucky enough to get a job at the healthcare division of Nikon as an Advanced Imaging Specialist.

Can you talk a bit about your career path?

Though I worked on several problems/projects during my PhD, the main project that I was focused on was to develop drug candidates against a disease called Leishmaniasis, commonly known as Kala Azar. This disease is common in some parts of India. We were able to find several potential drug candidates against the disease, and the research was further carried out by my juniors in the lab. 

Then I joined the National Cancer Institute at NIH which solely focuses on Cancer research. Who isn’t familiar with Cancer these days-it’s a deadly disease with almost no cure in late stages. I was working on understanding the mechanism of cancer development at the cellular level. I continued working in the cell and molecular biology field at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). After a few years I was offered a position as Senior Scientist in the Industry where I was involved in the development of early detection techniques of cancer as that’s the only way to prevent serious consequences of cancer. During all this time, my love for microscopy was always there, and when I got an offer from one of the world’s best microscopy companies, Nikon Instruments Inc., I took the position. Now, I help scientists and researchers to dissect their research by providing them information, training and tools in the field of microscopy.

How did you get your first break? 

In my last year of PhD, I applied to multiple postdoctoral positions in the USA and Europe in my research field, went through several interviews, and was offered positions in Sweden, Germany and USA. Having gotten an offer from NIH, I felt it was a no-brainer to join there.

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The main challenge I think everyone faces when applying for jobs is that 95% of the applications are never seen/replied. It is very important to focus on exactly what you want to apply for, and design your CV/resume and cover letter specifically to that position. I see that many resumes coming for jobs are not specific, which only makes landing a job extremely difficult. It always helps to talk to someone in the role you are applying for, and learn about the job and application process.

Where do you work now? What problems do you address at Nikon Instruments?

I am currently an Advanced Imaging Specialist (Field Application Scientist) at Nikon Instruments, USA. Most people know Nikon as a camera company. However, Nikon’s healthcare/microscopy division is pretty big. If you pay attention, you can probably find Nikon microscopes in research lab scenes from movies like Jurassic park. Nikon makes different kinds of microscopes which are used in all divisions of healthcare i.e. hospitals, universities, private institutions, industry etc. My role at Nikon is to teach users about the microscopy technology, demo the instruments, and help with pre-sale process, and post-sale support. Having a background in scientific research and microscopy tremendously helps me with my current role at Nikon.

Nikon multiphoton microscope

What are the skills required in your role?

My job involves training people on different microscopy techniques (like wide field fluorescence, confocal and super resolution microscopy), and helping in business development. To do this job efficiently, some qualities/skills are essential like teamwork, time management, love for teaching, being technically and scientifically sound, communication skills etc. are important. I absolutely love my job. It gives me an opportunity to meet and help different kinds of people. I like traveling and the job requires a lot of travel. 

How does your work benefit society? 

As I mentioned earlier, my job is highly focused on training and helping people with their research in the field of microscopy. It is very satisfying when researchers can find out something new in science using the microscope I trained them on, which they could not see earlier due to the technological limitations.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

In my academic research career, the first most exciting moment was when my 1st paper was published during PhD, and second exciting moment was when the Nature publishing group published my research findings in the field of cell biology.

In my current role, I work with a big team and deal with exciting challenges everyday which makes each day memorable☺.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Dream, and work hard to transform that dream into reality! There is no shortcut, and no substitute to hard work.

If you want to get into a research career and become a scientist in academia or industry, you need to have a strong bond with science and be ready to spend a big chunk of your life studying. In my case, I qualified several national level exams required for a research career i.e. GATE (AIR-6), NET-JRF etc. to get into the Masters/PhD program where my research career started. It is also important to keep applying for any other fellowships available to you, and attend national/international seminars, conferences and publish good quality papers. Once you have completed a PhD with good papers/conferences/patents etc., there are many career opportunities in academia or industry. 

Future Plans

My future plan is always to make myself better at whatever I am doing. I will keep helping people and scientific society in whichever way I can!