Dr. Shubhasis Haldar’s lab at Ashoka University in India focuses on the development and application of covalent magnetic tweezers, a single-molecule force spectroscopy technique. His ardent passion for such techniques blossomed during his Ph.D. under the guidance of Prof. Krishnananda Chattopadhyay at the Indian Institute of Chemical Biology (IICB) in Kolkata. After mastering this technique, he moved abroad to apply it to other biological problems. He studied molecular chaperone motion in Prof. Ulrich Hartl’s lab at the Max Planck Institute, where molecular chaperones were discovered. Driven by his curiosity, Dr. Haldar wanted to explore newer single-molecule avenues. His urge took him to the research lab of Prof. Julio Hernandez at Columbia University to explore force-based single-molecule techniques where he was introduced to covalent magnetic tweezers. During his postdoctoral study, he utilized this tool for understanding chaperone behavior and now it is one of the central methods in his independent research lab at Ashoka.
Dr. Haldar’s major research goal is to answer specific biological questions by applying biophysical techniques. To do so, he was willing to start his faculty career anywhere. He identified the unexplored niches in the field of biophysical science in India and decided that Ashoka University ticked all the boxes for what he wanted for his new lab and institute. His transition was a classic example of being present in the right place at the right moment. Dr. Haldar first learned about the job position at Ashoka from Prof. L.S. Shashidhara in the Sci-ROI 2017 annual event. “During the networking session, we discussed the impact of covalent magnetic tweezers in India and the collaborative scenarios that can originate in Ashoka because of it,” Dr. Haldar mentioned. He visited Ashoka University during his trip to India to learn more about the research infrastructure. While he was finishing his postdoc, he accepted the offer letter and started preparations to acquire all the instruments he would need to set up his new lab. When asked if he received counseling during his transition period, he mentioned that he kept in constant touch with his Ph.D. advisors in IICB. He reminisced that the two most important decisions he made during the transition period were networking during the Sci-ROI 2017 annual event and visiting Ashoka University in-person as a prospective institute.
Dr. Haldar’s delightful story had whetted our appetite for more at this point. We dove deeper to understand the nitty-gritty details of the transition process. We learned that the decision to make this transition should not depend on the number of postdoctoral research years. Instead, it should depend on whether you have enough independent ideas to start a new lab. Everyone should consider the fact that the application process can be tedious and can often take up to one and a half years. Most of the Indian institutes have a rolling application deadline, but they tend to check the applications yearly. As soon as you decide on your research goal, you should start drafting your research statement. You might have to go through multiple drafts, improving it by discussing it with scientists from various backgrounds, including previous advisors. The draft has to be specific about your research goals, but also broad enough that a non-specialist in that area would be interested in collaborating with you.
Additionally, we should look for that X-factor that uniquely defines our research. Dr. Haldar believes that the covalent molecular tweezers served as that X-factor for him. He urges everyone to reflect on that uniqueness that can make them collaborative and carve out a niche for themselves in the host institute. To all the biophysical scientists who are reading this post, Dr. Haldar has some unique ideas for you. Cryo-Electron Microscopy (cryo-EM) is currently ‘THE’ structural biology technique and anyone with expertise in cryo-EM will have an upper hand. Knowing how to fix instruments in your field of expertise as a biophysicist also puts you ahead in the race, saving you and your institute an enormous amount of time and money.
Dr. Haldar also advises to reserve enough time to obtain an appropriate number of recommendation letters. On one occasion, he had to get as many as 8 recommendation letters for an institute! The other important aspect of the application process is securing funding. Although the academic institutions will provide start-up packages to the new faculty, there are multiple fellowship applications that will further boost your chances of re-entry. Wellcome-DBT fellowships and grants, DBT Ramalingaswami Re-entry fellowship, DST INSPIRE faculty fellowships are just a few examples. Dr. Haldar received the INSPIRE faculty fellowship in 2015 and the Ramalingaswami Fellowship in 2018 with Ashoka as the host university. If you are short-listed after applying, the next steps will be the scheduling of a seminar talk and an interview at the host institute.
What happens after you have made the arduous transition successfully and have started as a new faculty in India? Dr. Haldar’s experience teaches us that it is a good idea to visit the host institute before accepting the offer to appraise the working environment, and the advantages and shortcomings of the facilities and staff. Atul had an interesting question lined up for Dr. Haldar next—What are the multiple roles he had to undertake as a new investigator that were different from being a postdoc? Dr. Haldar replied that you have to multitask as a teacher, an advisor, and a manager when you are a faculty member. As a course instructor, one might have to undertake courses outside the field of training. He had to teach a course in Cell and Molecular Biology with an academic background in Chemistry. While that can be tricky, he emphasized that a positive attitude towards both work and life is important and hence he took it as a challenge to learning something new. This paid off in the end when he received great feedback from his students.
Dr. Haldar also has an interesting take on advising students. His mantra is to have a positive attitude towards work and be inquisitive about new things. He believes that often small steps can make a big difference in promoting a healthy Ph.D. career. When a new student joins his lab, he gives him/her the freedom to explore the campus and get settled into the new life before starting. Since his research is highly interdisciplinary, he lets his students dabble in different fields before committing to a specific project. He trains his graduate students to procure critical analysis and thinking skills. He likes to maintain a personal relationship with them in and outside the lab, like he has with his mentors. Managing the lab is another aspect where Dr. Haldar has some advice from his experience. He believes that trust and good cordial relationships go a long way when it comes to communicating clearly and receiving help from university staff.
Although Dr. Haldar learned most of his interpersonal skills while he was starting out as a faculty, you can start preparing right now. Gaining confidence through public speaking, joining Toastmaster’s club, volunteering for science museums or cafes could be some baby steps in the right direction. Most of the graduate students in the US have some experience as a teaching assistant. If you would like to add to that experience, doing a certificate course in teaching and course design from your institute during your Ph.D. or postdoc is a good start. Regarding management, there are great online courses available on Coursera, LinkedIn Learning and iBiology that might be helpful. Aiding in writing a grant for your PI or applying for fellowship proposals will get you going in the field of grant writing.
Another aspect we were curious to learn more about was the scientific environment in India, particularly in his field of expertise — molecular biophysics. Even though the field is highly competitive, there are a lot of new institutes creating faculty positions in this field. Great conferences like the Indian Biophysical Society and FCS exemplifies the strength of the community. Dr. Haldar also invoked the names of great biophysical scientists like Dr. Sudipta Maiti and Dr. Roop Mallik in TIFR who have been pioneers in this field and have made India a forerunner in biophysical research. It seems that opportunities are abundant, and the temperament for research progression is ambient in India. The Indian scientific environment will also offer some challenges that you might not have encountered during your time abroad. These include longer administrative processing times for reagents, equipment ordering, or delayed delivery. It might also take longer to establish collaborations and hence, having patience is critical. Dr. Haldar’s mantra about collaboration is simple. You need to know what you want from the collaboration and you should be able to make your collaborator understand that. Another key aspect of continuing a research lab in India is to apply for funding. While most of the students are able to secure funding on their own, funding your research projects is the responsibility of individual investigators. Based on the experience of his own and his faculty friends, funding from DBT and DST has been highly optimistic so far.
At this stage, everyone is probably thinking, ‘well Dr. Haldar got in, how do I start my transition period?’ He urges everyone to apply as soon as they are mentally ready. If you get the chance to visit India, visit the institutes of your interest and either give a research seminar or talk to other faculties about potential collaboration. Even if you end up not joining that institute, you will end up with friends and collaborators for your future work. If you do end up collaborating with someone in India while you are finishing your postdoc abroad, that will be an added bonus for your application to the Indian institutes. Lastly, remember to customize the application material for the institution you are applying to. Recruiters are always curious to know how you are a good fit for the university and vice-versa. Keep working on your interpersonal skills along with your research while you are applying.
We hope Dr. Haldar’s experience during his career transition will inspire you to make your own dream transition soon. India is a land full of possibilities and opportunities. If it is the right time to explore for you, then remember the working formula in a nutshell— start working on your research proposal right away, seek advice from your friends and mentors about the feasibility of the research proposal, visit the institutes of interest physically if possible, grow your network in India in terms of collaborators or friends, and examine your potential institute critically in terms of what they do and do not have. After all, chance always favors the prepared mind, and it has never been truer than in this scenario.
Post-Doctoral Felllow| National Institute of Health, USA
Doctoral Fellow| Purdue University
Manali Ghosh, Ph.D.
Director, Global STEM Operations | WINStep Forward
Manali Ghosh, Ph.D.
Director, Global STEM Operations
Senior Volunteer, Coordinator at Sci-ROI