We should be the change we want to see in academic science!

This interview is part of a Series
This interview is part of a Series

Interview with Dr. Karishma Kaushik

Dr. Karishma Kaushik, Assistant Professor; Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, talks about how she decided to become a physician scientist; her experiences running a lab; the role of science communication; and best practices for researchers, mentors, and supervisors.

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We should be the change we want to see in academic science!

I am in conversation with Dr. Karishma Kaushik, the physician-scientist who returned to India after a decade abroad, to apply her experience to start her own research lab. In this segment, Dr. Kaushik shares her experience running a lab, talks about the importance of mentorship in academia, and provides some great tips for mentors and PIs.

To know more about Dr. Kaushik and her work, read the first part of this interview series here.

How has your experience setting and running a lab/research group been? What are your most important learnings as a lab head?

It has been a huge and steep learning curve! I often liken it to how I felt as a new mother (the experience was uncannily similar although after a gap of 8 years), because it is a first-time experience, there is no ‘right way’, and you are bound to make rookie mistakes!

The first step was overcoming that daunting feeling of ‘this is all on me’, to remind myself that ‘this is the once in a lifetime opportunity’ that I have been seeking. Starting off in a ‘new’ ecosystem (I returned to India after 10 years) as an independent investigator can be isolating. I recognised this, and one of my best decisions was to hire our first member Snehal Kadam. She had the opportunity to help build a group from the start, and I had a team member to initiate the research, bounce off ideas, bring new perspective, and help chart our group vision, all of which are critical in this early phase.

Another thing I think I did right was to keep the group very open to new people joining us. This is how we engaged with several students in local colleges wanting to work on short-term theses or projects, which helped with the infusion of new ideas and talent into the group, and also led to our second research assistant Vandana joining us.

With two senior members who I trusted, I adopted the approach of being open and communicative about every aspect of running the lab. They weighed in on financial discussions, hiring undergraduates, prioritizing research agenda, and even administrative matters. I believe these interactions helped us understand each other’s personalities and motivations — a critical requirement for a young team!


Above - Cultural Day at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University.

In the past two years we have activated our first grant, been awarded a second one, moved host institutes, worked at an incubation centre, presented our work at an international conference, started publishing our work, pivoted our work priorities in the face of a pandemic, and supported four undergraduate theses. Through this we have seen tough times, when we stored consumables in the back of my car (when moving to a new host institute) and dizzying highs (when we were awarded the Innovative Young Biotechnologist Award from the Minister of Health, Government of India).

Above - Receiving the Innovative Young Biotechnologist Award at the DBT Foundation Day Program, February 2020.

But, even during bumpy times, we always kept the science and research group agenda moving, and never let the ‘system’ or situation ‘get to us’!

On a personal note, I often remind myself, that just like that new motherhood phase, as long as the bumps and bends along the road are not irretrievable or irreconcilable, I should consider that I am doing very well!

What tips would you give to PIs?

In one line it would be, ‘Build it better than you saw it’.

Early-career PIs start a lab with a gamut of previous experiences, some good, and some otherwise. By all means replicate what you think worked well, but proactively focus on improving things that you felt could be done better.

I think a great starting point for this is promoting an open and communicative team environment – share your grants, get members involved in financial decisions (is the article processing charge worth it or should we look for another journal?), and seek their inputs on hiring new members – these are easy places to start. Think of the team as stakeholders in the success of the group - saying she works ‘with’ me, and not ‘for’ me, can do wonders! Foster that win-win approach, by thinking how the team can benefit, and accounting for career goals of the team members. Will this opportunity help their CV? Will it foster her goals to work in science communication?

Traditionally, academic science has most often not worked like this, so there might be some unexpected outcomes of this approach. But, I still believe, that we should be the change we want to see in academic science!

What role do you think a mentor plays in a researcher’s life? How was your relationship with your mentor? What role did they play in shaping you as a researcher?

A huge role for sure, both consciously and subconsciously! Of course, mentors ‘teach’ you science and research, but they also imprint behavioural patterns that we find ourselves emulating in later life. Honestly, mentorship experiences and mentor contributions are something I have understood and appreciated more in hindsight, and as I evolve along the professional journey. Looking back, through my education and professional life, I have had four mentors who, at different times and roles, shaped my personal attributes and professional growth. My earliest memory of a ‘mentor’, (even before I knew the word!) was a school teacher Ms. Lira D’mello in Mumbai, India. I was a dynamic and vocal person, possibly coming across as ‘in your face’ to others! She helped me get comfortable with my personality and, importantly, the responses it evoked from others. Those lessons have stood with me through my professional life, as I navigate dynamic, sometimes complex, inter-personal interactions. In medical college, Prof. (Col) AL Sharma, who then headed the Department of Community Medicine, possibly identified these traits as good skills for communication, and helped me leverage them. He encouraged me to lead public health discussions and health awareness talks. I discovered the ability to address and engage large audiences; this has been a huge asset as a researcher and educator. During my MD, I interacted very closely with Brig (Dr) K Kapila, who headed the Department of Clinical Microbiology at Armed Forces Medical College, Pune. I not only observed her navigate a largely-male professional space, but also imbibed the sheer commitment and dynamism she displayed at work. She embodied this one line, that I follow dearly in my professional life ‘make each day count!’ Moving to the US for a PhD, I worked with Prof. Vernita Gordon, a woman physicist, who had transitioned into biological physics, and was starting her independent group. She was only a few years older than I was, I was her first PhD student, and we delivered babies one week apart! This mentorship experience has by far been the strongest influence while starting my independent research career. Though this experience I learnt the value of ‘culture’ in a research group, and that one can ‘do good science’ and ‘enjoy’ doing good science, at the same time! I make it a point to remember this as I build my own research program.

I would say, that it helps to seek many mentors, and mentorship experiences. This adds to the richness and diversity of individual growth, and engaging with different mentorship styles, make us better mentors.

Of course, I have had at least one experience, with a faculty in the US, who I looked up to, and they did not live up to the trust I reposed. Strange as it may sound, mentorship is also a case of ‘finding the right match!’ The mentor has to be comfortable with themselves, confident in their role, and not view the younger colleague as competition!

And what are some of the things mentors expect from their protégés?

If I had to say one attribute I would expect, it would be ‘ownership’ - ownership towards the experiment or task, to the role, and to the group. If one keeps that as the objective, everything else falls in place. Ownership means you will plan the day (to optimize resources), maintain open communication (to keep the work moving forward), and figure a way to build working relationships all around. This also encompasses drive, motivation, enthusiasm, and that ‘let’s give it our best shot’ approach. I value this for one simple reason. In science you cannot measure a person by ‘success’ or ‘results’, because rejections are intrinsic to an academic career, and experiments are going to fail all the time. All I expect from people working with me is ‘give it all you have’; for me that is success irrespective of the outcome!

You also have considerable grant writing experience. Any tips to share on writing the perfect grant proposal?

I actually enjoy writing grants, they are an intellectual feast! In my group, when we write grants, we first frame the story; just a simple outline works. Then, we usually start making the relevant figures. This helps the proposal ‘come to life’, as well as needs some looking into the literature, but not so much reading that one gets overwhelmed. After this, we start writing it out, often in small parts. This gives a sense of accomplishment along the way, as well as, helps ‘weave’ the story. The final part is getting it reviewed within the team. This is important, as the one writing the grant (usually me) is often too engaged with the nitty-gritty details to get that ‘zoomed’ out view. My team members have given me invaluable insights that I would not have seen as ‘missing links’. And what better way to make ‘getting’ the grant a team win; we all put in the work and we all reap the gains!

How has the COVID-19 situation affected the research work carried out by your lab? And how have your lab members been adjusting/coping?

We have completely pivoted to online work mode. I prefer to say this, rather than ‘we have stopped work’ because that will not be appropriate or fair for the team. While we stopped wet lab work as soon as the lockdown commenced, the last several months have brought forth many new ventures! 

The first thing is that the team rallied around each other and the group as a whole. That’s the best part of a young group, that mutual feeling of ‘we should not lose the momentum we worked so hard to build’. The second thing is that we built even more flexibility and ‘ownership’ into our work. For this, we would talk every once a week (via Zoom or phone) and set weekly goals. Then, we used email to keep each other updated. This way, everyone had the time and mind space to tackle daily-life concerns, while not fretting about the perceived ‘lack of progress’ at work.

On the science front, we started with getting out a few preprints and publications, which we were almost ready to write before the lockdown. We also used the time to get ahead on a couple of grants we were planning to submit. As we started feeling more comfortable with the ‘new normal’, we took on some more tasks such as on-boarding undergraduate students as new lab members and reviewing thesis submissions from undergraduates in our group.

A major set of activities we have undertaken during this time, has related to taking science ‘beyond the bench’ and to the community. This included both young students and researchers, and even young children! For our younger colleagues in Indian science, we organized a series of professional development webinars. We thoroughly enjoyed these sessions and the interactions with participants, and in a time of lockdown and ‘social distancing’ reached out to more than 1000 colleagues from across the country!

Another initiative that involves young children (6-16 years), is very close to our hearts, and I’ll speak about that shortly! Briefly, we set up a platform titled Talk to a Scientist, where we share science with young minds each week. Our first session was appropriately on COVID-19, and since then we have delved into a vast array of topics such as biofilms (our work), microbes in food, dengue fever, and even a hands-on experiment to study microbial ecology in a jar! Our sessions are highly interactive, one hour long, and include participants from as far as the UK, US, Singapore, and Dubai. We are now into season 3, focused on science relevant to India, and have also received the 1st IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant for this platform.

All in all, we have tried to push forward, but given the circumstances, we are trying to do so in a stress-free and enjoyable manner!

Read the whole interview series with Dr. Karishma Kaushik:

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Published on: Oct 08, 2020

Passionate about scholarly publishing, always looking to have memorable conversations with researchers and industry professionals across the globe
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