After ten years in the US, I returned to my home country, as an ‘outsider’ to Indian science. I had completed my medical training in India and moved to the US for a PhD. Medicine and science are highly siloed from each other in India, as a result of which my first interaction with the scientific community in India was on my return in the role of an independent investigator.
It’s been my long-cherished dream to return home as one of the country’s few physician-scientists. But while I expected it to be a significant personal transition, I didn’t fully anticipate the professional challenges it entailed. I started my research group at a small, private institute, funded by a government programme that supports foreign-trained Indian scientists. Here, I was the only scientist with independent funding and my research focus was vastly different from that of the organisation.
I grappled alone with procuring lab materials, finding equipment I needed and hiring lab members. I also encountered a host of administrative and financial issues that I was completely unfamiliar with. With no professional network or colleagues to seek help from, I found myself isolated, demoralised and questioning what I had got myself into.
Trying to gain a foothold, I reached out to senior scientists at neighbouring institutes and gave research talks at local colleges. I discovered some resources this way, and found help to navigate bureaucratic issues and recruit students. A year on, things seemed to be getting on track – but then I faced a serious roadblock in my scientific career.
My host institute underwent a major change and I was instructed to move my research group with immediate effect. This was a difficult situation, and the complete lack of a professional support system only made it more harrowing. It was only by chance that I met a fellow scientist at a meeting and who told me about an available position. Thankfully I was able to move my grant to this new institute but the entire experience taught me an invaluable lesson.
If I wanted a successful career in Indian science, I learnt that I need to build a strong network of colleagues – to survive crises as well as facilitate research. Mentorships, talks and conferences helped but I needed to adopt a more sustainable, wide-reaching approach.
Our first lab member suggested using Twitter, where she said she had noticed a vibrant community of scientists. I was reluctant at first, when I created a Twitter account for our lab, and started sharing snippets from our research, everyday work life and thoughts on Indian science. I was concerned about putting myself out there, so to speak, but soon realised the key was to keep interactions authentic, constructive and positive.
I soon found myself part of a hugely supportive scientific community spread across India. Several colleagues from around the country, almost all of whom I’d never met in person, reached out with their unconditional support for my young research group. They pointed me to potential funding resources and career opportunities, which led to a second grant, other research collaborations and several invited talks.
When I posted the need for a specific lab resource, whether a scarce reagent or some uncommon plasticware, my peers willingly offered to ship it across the country. Openly sharing my views on our work-life balance and being a mother in academia led to panel and summit invitations, and a prestigious appointment to a national policy committee.
After a rough day on the job, shared online humour on our complex administrative policies (hard copies and three quotations!) often reminded me that I’m not alone. At other times, I proactively used Twitter to seek and share inspiration with fellow scientists in India and across the world. Insights into their stories of persistence in the face of unique academic and personal challenges gave me perspectives to handle my own.
I also used the platform to help infuse energy and optimism into academia, and highlight the opportunities for and rewards of working in Indian science. I’ve observed that this strikes a chord with young students and researchers in our scientific community. Receiving messages like “I’m very inspired by your journey and enjoy your posts” or “Reading your tweets and your attitude towards your work fills me with positivity” invigorates my work and life in India.
Through the platform, I have been invited to interact in person and online with young medical students keen on pursuing research careers – particularly fulfilling given India has a very small pool of physician-scientists.
While these gains were substantial, we fully realised once more the value of engaging with the wider scientific community on social media when the ongoing pandemic began and we had to abruptly stop our laboratory work. As a wet-lab group, this was a big change for us, given that almost all our research work is at the bench.
We quickly set about ‘pivoting’ certain aspects of our work in new directions, and our social media presence made a big difference towards supporting our lockdown ventures. My research group initiated a series of successful webinars for young researchers and students in India on matters critical to their career development, and also included colleagues from our Twitter community to co-host them with us.
Also read: How Social Media Is Shaping Indian Science
We also founded a science outreach platform for young minds that gained huge traction on Twitter. Our visibility elicited several invitations to webinars and online meetings, both related to our research and other aspects of academic life.
It’s been nearly two years since I returned home, and today, it feels like I never left! While I’m certainly aware that I haven’t seen the last of my career challenges in India, I also know that thanks to my expanded virtual network of peers from around India, being an ‘outsider’ to Indian science is no longer one of them.
Karishma S. Kaushik, MBBS, MD, PhD is an assistant professor and Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University.