Why I became a Microbiologist – Career Talks
We had the opportunity to have a sit down with Mrs Shubhangi, a microbiologist, research scientist and Marie Curie fellow. Read on as we find out more on what kindred her interest in science, specifically in the field of microbiology. And also, how she came to be a Marie Curie fellow.
Having been born in an era which had fewer distractions as a child; to learn and understand the world around her back then, all she had to do was to run out and get her hands dirty.
“My parents always encouraged me to do whatever I wanted to do”
Fascinated with the workings of the world around her, she had been bitten by the curiosity bug since her childhood at a very young age. The need to unravel and understand these mysteries of the world’s workings naturally lead her towards science. One particular instance that she recalls as a child is being mesmerized by the process of metamorphosis. And so to get a better understanding, she conducted her own experiment with a caterpillar and a jar. Weeks later, a butterfly fluttered to life.
She was awestruck at what she had witnessed. It was at that epiphanic moment that she decided, that this is what she wanted to learn about. How organisms transformed and responded to their environment. To study the smallest unit of life, its workings and how it builds tissues, organisms and everything else in between.
How then did you decide on the field of microbiology?
“The real world begins when you complete schooling and make the first choice about your career” she quipped. After schooling, she wished to help others and impact lives on a greater scale. This vision led her to two final career paths, she could either be a doctor or a researcher. Just as many science students still do, she gave the central examination for being a doctor as soon as her schooling ended. However, she picked being a researcher instead as it allowed for a larger impact and a broader reach than being a doctor could.
After that, she opted for a major in botany at a time when everyone considered the subject dead if not ancient. While her peers felt that she was making a mistake picking botany her parents support saw her through until the end of her masters.
During her masters, while conducting an experiment on soil, she learned of microbes and their extensive role in the various biological cycles. This piqued her interest as she wondered how something so tiny could have such drastic and far-reaching effects in addition to holding a pivotal role in the circle of life. After a brief discussion with a professor, she was intrigued with the micro world of these organisms. And concluded that life could be improved considerably through research and advances in the field of microbiology.
And the prestigious Marie Curie fellowship, did that seem like the next obvious step?
“No not at all”, she simpered. The fellowship’s story goes as follows. While completing her masters and hunting for an internship, the Director of her institute suggested that it would be best for her to look at internships abroad; if she were truly keen on research and development (R&D). The idea seemed interesting and peculiar at the time, and so she gave it a try.
It was at this juncture between preparing SOP’s and research proposals that her first contact with the scientific and academia world began. She started reading and reviewing published papers and literature. And finally wrote her first research proposal which she promptly sent to several professors around the globe.
Soon after which she was selected for an internship in Germany, and loved everything about it. At the end of the internship, she decided that Germany was definitely where she’d like to grow her career. To pursue this decision she applied to several scholarships such as DAAD, wrote proposals, etc. 5 years hence after being rejected twice and absorbing as much as she could between jobs. She finally got the opportunity to be a Marie Curie fellow. One of the most prestigious scholarships known the world over. Her golden ticket had arrived.
In addition to completing one’s PhD, the fellowship was also a training network of sorts. It helps and trains candidates in becoming the next generation of researchers in their respective fields.
“They train you to practice what you learn in a lab and apply that to the real world, so that you might help create a product to tackle problems based on your research.”
So what’s it like being a research scientist?
Being a research scientist means shouldering a tremendous amount of responsibility she says. One has to view one’s work critically. Honest analysis, as well as criticism in the right light, keep research as well as researcher on the right path. However, without appreciation, drive and motive lose momentum. Hence every research scientist needs to seek out a balance between the two.
Additionally, every research project is unique. Irrespective of whether it has been worked on previously or if it is a whole new endeavour, as from one research would stem many other projects. All likely funded by public money. Hence your research is accountable. You are accountable.
Thus, in a nutshell, the life of a research scientist is about achieving harmony between responsibility, hard work, and collaboration. This balancing act at times gets too much for many and hence several candidates quit their PhDs after a while.
What are your views on automation?
“The computational parts of all kinds of work is increasing and it is for the better. You no longer need to be brawn and brain behind any experiment or research. Instead, you can focus on being solely the brain behind it. Most research fields have become extremely interdisciplinary and hence at some level or another of your research, you’d require the ease of computation. In fact, in the last ten years, we have gathered more information than in the past three decades due to the ease of computational biology and automation.”
Any advice you have for students and teachers?
“Be curious and if you aren’t, then get curious. Get your hands dirty. Want to know how something works? Open it up. Don’t be afraid of failing.”
‘Persist in your efforts and if that doesn’t work, then persevere in them.’ Are the words that Mrs Shubhangi would like youngsters to advocate, in alliance to their youthful exuberance.
She insists and requests teachers to take the practical aspects of subjects much more seriously than they currently are, especially in India. As the Chinese proverb goes “Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I’ll remember. Involve me, I’ll understand”. Once someone does something with their own hands they automatically think about it, why does it happen, how does it happen? And so they are taught ‘how’ to think and not ‘what’ to think.
Any major difference in you’ve noticed between research here and in Germany?
“People are fearless over there have the courage to say ‘I don’t know but I am willing to find out.” Almost everybody is comfortable with the fact that no one knows everything. The important thing is that one must be willing to find out. We’re all in a constant state of learning and hence “I don’t know” is accepted overseas as a valid, albeit temporary answer. Compared to India where stating the words “I don’t know” could mean the end of your academic proficiency in the eyes of your peers and professors. Thus to save face an unspoken law of silence prevails amidst faculty and peers similar to the wall of silence present in a classroom between professor and student. This is equivalent to pulling the wool over one’s own eyes for mutual self-gratification and we are all the poorer for it.
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