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Namaste France and Bonjour India: Connecting two cultures with science

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Namaste France and Bonjour India: Connecting two cultures with science

Like every graduating PhD student, even I had a dream of going abroad for my postdoctoral research to learn more techniques and conducting research in leading labs. This is my story about how this dream got realized and how I ended up becoming a melting pot of different cultures that helped me in my career and personal life.

I completed my PhD in 2013 from the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), one of the best institutes in India. My PhD supervisor Prof. Yamuna Krishnan recognized my passion and zeal right early on in my PhD and fuelled my ambition to go abroad for conferences and internships.

In my 4th year of my PhD, I had already been in Caltech in USA for a conference and I was first Indian student to get Charpak fellowship from India to go to France for a 3-month internship.

Going to France was one of my dreams. As a student, had read stories about Marie Curie, Pasteur and Jean-Marie Lehn, the Nobel Laureate for supramolecular chemistry, the very topic in which I was pursuing my PhD. Imagine my excitement when I got an opportunity to work with Prof. Benoit Dubertret as an intern! He was one of the world pioneers for quantum dots and platelets and I had almost made up my mind to join his lab in Paris for postdoc.

Little did I know that a new turn was awaiting. Just a month before leaving for Paris, my PhD supervisor Prof. Yamuna Krishnan and I attended the first ever joint Curie-NCBS meeting where most faculties and researchers from the Curie Institut participated and we had stimulating discussions.

Yamuna introduced me to Prof. Ludger Johannes from the Curie Institut who was working on the mechanisms of clathrin independent endocytosis in cells and was looking for DNA nanodevices to explore it further. I happened to discuss my PhD project on DNA nanodevices with him.

Ludger had more biological driven ideas using quantum dots than Benoit where he proposed to combine the power of my DNA nanodevices, Benoit’s quantum dots and his system of shiga-toxin and galectin-3 protein to address the questions pertaining to clathrin independent mechanisms of endocytosis. Imagine my excitement!

What happened next was unexpected and the best thing that could have happened to me. I went to Benoit’s lab for internship and came back with a postdoc offer from Ludger involving both Benoit and Yamuna (who had by then moved to Chicago and would be working with us from there).

The year 2013 was one of the most magical years in my career! People sitting in 3 different continents – India, Europe and USA were all guiding me for my postdoc at Curie Institute. France was the country of my dreams where I could pursue not only science but my passion to learn about a new culture and meet new people, which excited me as many consider French culture as one of the best in the world, including me.

What followed was a string of experiences that I could never have dreamt of. I was successful in getting most of the best fellowships like EMBO, HFSP, FRM, and I also participated in Lindau Nobel Laureates meeting.

One of the best things I learnt from my German postdoc advisors Ludger Johannes and Christian Wunder is to “Dream Big but at the same time focus fully on the dream with utmost attention and all your strength”. They taught me the meaning of discipline and dedication which when combined with my dreams indeed took my interest in scientific research to the next level.

My supervisors were German and I was in France, so I could learn the culture of both countries and have imbibed some of the best qualities of both of these cultures within myself for life. Thankfully, the postdoc was also fruitful in terms of good publications and grant, and I was preparing to take the next steps in my career – to apply for independent faculty position.

What I must mention is that while I was appreciating and absorbing the new cultures, my core remained Indian. So it was but natural for me to come back to India to pursue the next phase of my career. I not only missed my family but also my country and wanted to settle down in India. Around that time, I happened to watch the movie Swades where an Indian researcher comes back to India to help his countrymen. This strengthened my want to go back and do my best for my homeland.

Very honestly, my journey from postdoc to faculty was not at all stressful, thanks to my mentors and supporters. I got multiple offers from India and decided to accept the offer from IIT Gandhinagar in Biological engineering.

IIT Gandhinagar is a magical place like Alice in Wonderland. There are no doors in this institute, meaning every student and faculty has full right to go to any lab and use any facility or equipment needed for their research. There are no individual labs either - all faculties in a particular department (we call it discipline) work in the same space and share the space, equipment, reagents and even students.

I joined IITGN on a Monday and on Tuesday morning, I had my first PhD student, a lab space, my first grant and the keys to all the cupboards of the biolabs. I thought I was dreaming but it was all true. I was simply awestruck with the open-minded culture and welcoming nature of all the colleagues here and all this just added fuel to our emerging wings and pushed us upwards.

I am now in the 4th year as a faculty in India. What I feel proud of is that in addition to my core Indian culture, I brought with me the joy of French culture and the discipline of German culture; and I am continuing to pass on this culture to the younger colleagues here. The way my dreams were fulfilled, I am trying to help the dreams of my students and young scientists come true.

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Published on: Feb 04, 2022

Specializes in DNA nanotechnology and development of DNA nanodevices
See more from Dhiraj Bhatia


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