Dr. Sriram is currently a faculty of biology at the School of Arts and Sciences at Azim Premji University. He received his undergraduate degree in computer science and engineering from IIT Kanpur, India and his Ph.D. in biology from Rockefeller University, USA. He completed his 1st postdoc from University of Pennsylvania and the 2nd one from University of Wisconsin-Madison (Wisconsin Institute of Discovery). He was one of the founding members of Sci-ROI in 2015. The following is an edited transcript of an interview that took place between Dr. Sriram and the Sci-ROI Blogs Team.
During your postdoc, when did you realize that you were ready to apply for a job in India?
In the beginning, I wanted to test the waters. I applied to the YIM (Young Investigator Meeting)
held annually in India, but my application was not selected. Then I realized that there are some issues in place, for example, I was older than 35 at that point. There were challenges that came up and nobody ever told me that. I realized that if I wait longer, my problem will only become harder, and now I understand why. Then, by a stroke of luck, the opportunity at Azim Premji University came through. My brother was associated with the postgraduate program in the university for years before they started the undergraduate program, and he put me in touch with the director of the undergrad program, and that is how the process started. It was as the phrase goes, “being in the right place at the right time”. I was also confident that India is now full of opportunities and I will find something, if not an academic job.
Did you have any mentor in India or abroad who helped you during the application process?
I would say the decision to move was a bit sudden. I spoke to friends, not necessarily any mentor, about whether to move back, and how to make the transition. Once I made the decision, I did speak to several people, including Dr. Aseem Ansari, about what it entails. This is how we got into talks about starting Sci-ROI.
You were a member when Sci-ROI was founded in 2015. How effective was being a member of the Sci-ROI organization for your transition?
Sci-ROI brought me in contact with a group/community of people who were in a similar situation as I was. Any kind of transition is challenging to make, hence it is good to have a ready network. This network also assists me in keeping in touch with mainstream science. I have a sense of what is going on, what are the difficulties and opportunities, and what can be done due to the network.
What kind of jobs were you looking for when you started to think about the transition?
When I first thought about applying seriously, I thought about research-based academic positions. But over time, my attitude changed towards that for a couple of reasons. University of Wisconsin offers the Delta program
to get trained in teaching and develop instructional materials and a teaching philosophy. It was the first time I seriously thought about teaching and I was always very keen to go to a place which had an undergraduate program. I feel that undergraduates bring a lot more energy. I also wanted to work at a place which is open-minded to the kind of research I do. Of course, that is very difficult to figure out unless you join the institution.
Could you tell us about the application process for a faculty position in India?
The application process is relatively standard for most places. At Azim Premji University, the teaching statement is looked at very seriously. Now that I have been on the selection committee, I can tell you a bit more about the selection process. We do open calls, then we have a screening process after which we schedule an interview among the selected candidates. If they reside within India, it is easier to schedule. If they reside outside India, then we wait for him/her to visit India. In my case, I came back to India in Sept 2015 with an interview scheduled right away and then I had my offer in hand by Feb 2016. But now, the application process takes longer since the logistics and scheduling have become much more complicated.
I submitted 4 recommendation letters for my application and having good recommendation letters is definitely important for your application. We have moved away from a model where we knew the candidate through our network to a system of open calls where a lot of people apply. Hence, good recommendation letters will be very useful.
For research positions, people apply for external funding or fellowships. How did that work for your position?
I am in a unique position here since the university is willing to spend on some basic infrastructure for undergraduate education. So we have some molecular biology equipments, PCR, centrifuge, etc. available, which you will not find at other primarily undergrad places. We get all these through institute funding. We also get small annual research allowances, around 2.5 lakhs INR, which is enough to run an undergrad research lab. You need to apply for additional funding if you wish to do research work. Some of my colleagues have received grants from DBT and DST.
What was the X-factor in your proposal that you think helped you in getting the faculty position?
This is what I think was my X factor. The program I was applying to in Azim Premji University was a liberal studies program and not science. In fact, scientists are a minority in the university. One of the things that worked in my favor is that in Wisconsin, I was working at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. The whole point of this institute was to have a very inter-disciplinary environment. There were scientists, social scientists, economists and artists, and we were encouraged to talk to all of them. I took advantage of that and connected with people who I wouldn’t meet otherwise. Because of this, my application showed that I had the ability to collaborate with people from very diverse backgrounds and disciplines, and I would be a good fit for organizations where such structures exist. My background also worked in my favor. I could teach different types of courses like computing, programming, quantitative data science courses in addition to traditional biology.
What were the necessary criteria that you absolutely wanted in your potential academic institution?
This was a new institution, and because it was new, I had a chance of starting from the beginning which was quite exciting. Since it is a private university, we had a substantial voice in the curriculum design and academic processes. The university was open to new ideas and wanted to do things where there was limited former experience. That kind of luxury is hard to get in any other institution.
How did you negotiate your start-up package?
I was informed that my salary is matched to the standard UGC scale and I accepted it. With regards to a package the university did not have any policy back then. Partly because there were very few scientists at that point. But they made clear that if a case for betterment of education is made, the university will consider it and by and large, we have seen that happening.
Now that you are a faculty at Azim Premji University School of Arts and Sciences, can you elaborate about your teaching methodologies/philosophy that you use in your classroom?
One of the things I have tried to do is ‘incorporate technology in the classroom’, but not just for technology’s sake. I love using the blackboard and chalk, but at the same time, to make things interactive, I use simulations and other tools. My specialization is actually giving students very hard exams (chuckles). But the students also realize that I am trying to make them think. That has largely been my philosophy and what I feel comfortable with. I have spent a lot of time coming up with interesting questions and exercises. Now, there are a lot of good resources available online which can be used directly or modified according to our needs.
Another important part of teaching is to create a balance between the basics and current methods, especially in biology as it is such a diverse subject. This ensures that if some of our students do end up pursuing research, they should not find themselves in a completely new environment. I also help students navigate through the transition between studies and doing research.
What are the resources available to assist you in your course/classroom? What kind of modern technologies do you use in your classroom to make it more interactive?
HHMI produces a lot of excellent educational materials. They are meant to be used in classrooms along with worksheets. I introduced a course called creative computing. I took advantage of something called Scratch, which is a graphical programming language meant for teaching computing to kids. Students really enjoyed the course and we could actually solve some problems combining programming with image processing.
Did you have any prior teaching experience while you were in the US. If so, how did you get the opportunity to do so?
Not much. I had given a few guest lectures in a couple of courses. I was tutoring friends about mathematical procedures in UW-Madison, but nothing formal.
Could you elaborate a bit more on the teaching course (Delta Program) you took in UW Madison?
The Delta program offers several courses to develop science educators. The course I took was called Effective Teaching with Technology. This course was about how do you effectively use technology in the classroom, the challenges of taking online classes, designing video lectures, engaging in multimedia and designing materials for visually impaired students. Technology can be very useful in this regard.
How has your experience been in designing a new data science course?
There is a standard process in a university. Some kind of prescribed format has to be submitted to the university committee which evaluates all courses and curricula that the university offers. The usual process is that you first figure out the course objectives. The objectives of the course should reflect the capacities that students should develop at the end. For example, if it is an introductory biology course, one of the capacities should be that the student learns how to use a pipette, not how to describe the working of the pipette. Then, you decide the content to include that will help you reach the objectives. One of the most important things of the course is to determine how to assess the students. Ideally, course assessment should be designed in such a way that the student learning is facilitated. For example, in our university, we follow a continuous assessment model. Students are assessed throughout the semester and not just based on mid-sem and end-sem exams. Otherwise, assessments become high stakes.
Do you have a tenure track system at your university? What are the norms they follow?
In principle, there is a 2 year probation period. But generally the assumption is that if you are being hired, you are hired for good. Of course there are certain expectations. For example, you are expected to teach a certain number of courses per year. If you are not doing that, that might be a cause for worry. There has not been a case like that, so I don’t really know what happens. During the selection process, we make it clear what the expectations are. As a new university, the expectations were not very clear when I joined. We are slowly developing all the guidelines, especially for newer faculty. They will have more guidance and structure.
Now that you have established your teaching position, what do you think are the advantages or disadvantages of being a teaching faculty in India compared to the US?
I suspect that in India, the number of ‘good’ educational institutions are small, whereas in the US, I will be in one out of many institutes. It is unlikely that I will make a dramatic change in the US, but I can see making small changes with big implications in India. The charm of being in India is that there is a lot to do and everything counts.
Do you think that Indian students will benefit from having virtual classrooms and having direct interactions with faculty abroad? Do you foresee any challenges in implementing such virtual classrooms in India?
In India, we can’t take internet access for granted. We have several students from disadvantaged backgrounds. What our university has done is that they have managed to contact each one of them and provide support with expensive data plans. I don’t think that this level of support is present in most institutions in India. Secondly, online classrooms are great for theory discussion. But there are also merits in working with other people. Those kinds of things don’t happen in a virtual environment. A very important skill in life is to learn to work with people who do not think like you, which a virtual classroom cannot provide.
What is the current funding and collaborative scenario in India?
One of the things I would like to suggest to people is that while they are abroad, it will be helpful if they could figure out who they would like to collaborate with. It is much harder to do that once you are in India.
Do you think Indian universities have started enough number of degree granting courses or training programs?
I don’t have a sense for India as a whole. The reality is that only a small population of India ever gets an undergraduate degree. If we want everyone to get an undergrad degree, we are nowhere near that. The reality is also that we don’t have enough qualified people to teach specialized courses. In that sense, even if we want to strengthen our undergraduate education for everyone, I don’t think we have the faculty strength for that yet.
If you decide to start a research lab with your undergraduate students, how would you go about it? Do you see any potential challenges?
You have to be realistic about the type of students you get outside some elite institutions. In general, there is very little exposure to research in most undergrad and masters institutions in India. Students may want to do research but they don’t know how to do it. So a lot of mentoring is required as students are not ready on day 1. Things that are very obvious to you will not be obvious to them. So you have to be very patient. It’s remarkable to see the progress if you provide mentoring and have patience. Then, you can get a lot done.
According to you, when should early career researchers start thinking about transitioning?
There is one advice which I wish someone would have given to me. I did not get my PhD in India and hence had no network in India at all. That is one thing I wish I had developed. I would therefore encourage you to come to India for some conferences just as an exercise to get to know people. With regards to applying, there is no set deadline for many institutes. I would again encourage people to visit India and get a sense of the lab culture. They should be aware of certain realities of doing experimental research in India.
What are the soft skills you think people should inculcate during their PhD/post-doc?
Science in India is a small community. So whatever field you are working in, you might be the only person. So develop a habit of writing research proposals to a broader audience. An expert in India may not be available to understand all the details you have in the proposal. For example, as a systems biologist, you can write for a biology audience but not for the specific small group of systems biology. The other point is if you can adapt what you are doing in the US to the Indian context, that would be great.
Do you think a network of young faculty like you across India will be helpful, and if so, how?
I think so. Sometimes, frustration builds because of some unexpected events. It is good to have someone to talk to who has been through the process. They can help with some aspects. The other reason I feel is that if you have a network, it will help with understanding the depth and high quality of Indian science. Even if someone is not in a highly established institution, they can benefit by being a part of the network and setting up collaborations with institutions with better facilities.
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