How I met the world of research: A personal blog of my research journey

by Srishti Batra – My thesis defense last year marked a milestone in my decade-long research studies. Wait, I didn’t spend 10 years doing a PhD! I spent only 5 and the other half was spent on a Bachelors and Masters of Science (BS- MS) from Indian Institute of Science Education and Research – IISER, Mohali. Today I am sharing my journey into the research world.

I was preparing for conventional engineering programs after school finished and everyone was shocked when I choose IISER-Mohali for pure sciences. To be honest, even I was doubting myself at the beginning. I had joined IISER-Mohali as that was the first admission offer I had, added to that was a scholarship from Department of Science and Technology (DST), which meant I would be financially independent for next five years.

First time exposure to research in chemistry labs during my first semester of undergraduate studies, 2009

I started my studies at IISER-M in August, 2009. After spending three weeks at the hostel, I returned home to visit my parents where I got to know that I has been selected at the Delhi College of Engineering (DCE) for their B.Tech program. I was on cloud nine knowing that and well convinced that I would be joining DCE. The next day I went to join the college and attended classes. After attending half a day on campus, I realized that this class and campus was not for me. I called up my parents to come pick me up. My parents were worried that something had gone wrong. I told them that I was in a dilemma whether to join DCE or go back to IISER-Mohali. Even they were confused as it was my career choice and I should be happy with it. I spent some hours on campus, met the admission committee head of DCE and talked to him about this. After talking with him, I was ready to get my admission terminated at DCE. I filled up the admission termination form and left the campus to not return to date. Since I had already missed my classes at IISER, I was in a rush to leave for Chandigarh. The next thing I remember is reaching home and packing my bags for the hostel. I took the first bus in the morning to be on campus just in time for my classes. I feel that was the best decision I could have made. I enjoyed the research-based curriculum, made some great friends for life and found my husband there. IISER exposed me to world class research laboratories where all the faculties were themselves engaged in research. I have been doing research from the age of 18 during my first semester as an undergraduate. Each summer vacation would be turned into research projects where I got exposure to diverse research labs across different parts of India- Bangalore, Hyderabad, Delhi and also international research opportunities in form of a Khorana Scholarship, where I travelled to the University of Minnesota to work in a chemical biology group. The last year of my program, I spent working on a scientific problem on protein structures which concluded in a dissertation. During these five years, I worked across distinct fields and amazing model systems like zebrafish development, fruit fly research, protein research, bioinformatics and statistics.

Wet lab experiments with proteins at the University of Minnesota, USA, 2013

Explaining scientific principles to kids with some fun games at the University of Minnesota

After finishing my BS-MS, I immediately enrolled with NCBS-TIFR for a PhD program. It was hard to move 2000 kms away from family and friends to a different city with a different language all on my own. My family was very supportive in this and did their best to make me comfortable in this new city. Joining the NICE lab was the best decision. When I had joined lab, it was an empty room and we were just starting to set up the lab. I had first hand experience of organizing a research space, learning how to install new equipment and training on them. This experience was extremely beneficial as I now not scared to start from scratch and understand the process of starting a new venture. I worked on an amazing system on insects, understanding one of the primary senses- the sense of smell.

Recording neurons in  the NICE lab, 2016

I believe that working in research is a never-ending job. I think about scientific questions and experiments almost all the time. Its not like its a 9 to 5 job that you stop thinking about the moment you leave. I care about it so much that this scientific quest doesn’t end with lab hours and even after leaving the lab, I will be mentally solving some challenges and designing new ways to test hypotheses. This mental exercise of solving challenges is what gives me motivation and happiness. I can definitely say that scientists never take rest. Even while physically relaxing, we are solving problems in our head and this provides me the most excitement and contentment. I am so happy that 10 years ago, I made the right choice.

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