How I Became Microbiologist – Career Talks

We had been extremely lucky to have a sit down with Mrs. Shubhangi who is a Marie Curie fellow, a research scientist, and a microbiologist. Read on as we find out what kindred in her an interest in science, specifically microbiology and how she came to be a Marie Curie fellow. Along with the ups and downs of her journey to becoming a research biologist.

What leaned her towards science?

While many of the green-eyed Gen X’s wouldn’t be able to comprehend a world before the internet Shubhangi considers herself to be lucky to be born in an era where there was no Facebook, no iPad, and no computers. Hence 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 by the secret workings of the world around her she had a natural inclination towards science. One particular instance she recalls as a child is being mesmerized by the process of metamorphosis. Hence she conducted her own experiment with a caterpillar in a jar. That after weeks turned into a butterfly. She was in awe of what she had witnessed. Thus it was at this point that she had decided that this is what she wanted to learn about, to study how things change from one to another and how everything is connected one way or another.

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 a naïve wish to help others was what led her to her two final two career paths; a doctor or a researcher. Similar to many science students, she gave the Central examination for being a doctor as soon as schooling ended. She, however, picked being a researcher instead as it allowed for a larger extent and broader reach than the other path.

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Later she opted for botany at a time when everyone considered the subject dead if not ancient. While everyone felt she was making a mistake picking botany her parents support saw her through the end of her masters.

After taking botany while she was conducting an experiment on the soil, she learned of microbes and their extensive role in the various biological cycles. This made her question how something so tiny could have such drastic and far-reaching effects and hold such importance in the circle of things. After a brief discussion with a professor, she was intrigued with the microbial side of things. She came to understand that life could be improved considerably through research in the field of microbiology.

And the prestigious Marie Curie fellowship did that come as naturally to you as science did?

“No not at all” she simpered. The story behind that goes as follows. When completing her master and hunting for internships the Director of her institute suggested that if she were truly keen on research and development (R&D), it would be best for her to look at internships abroad. She hadn’t thought of that and so she gave it a try. Hence while preparing SOP’s, research proposals, etc. Her first head-on contact with scientific world began. She started reading and reviewing the literature and finally wrote her first research proposal to hundreds of professors around the globe. Later she was selected for an internship in Germany. And loved everything about it. Hence soon afterward she decided that Germany was where she’d like to grow her career. After backtracking this decision she applied to several scholarships such as DAAD, wrote proposals, etc. 5 years hence after being rejected twice and bouncing about jobs that taught her much. She finally got the opportunity to be a Marie Curie fellow.

One of the most prestigious scholarships all over the world. Which does not give you a fellowship just to complete your Ph.D. but rather is more of a training network that trains people to become the next generation of researchers in their respective fields. They train you to practice what you learn in a lab and apply that in the real world where you might help create a product through your research.

On being a research scientist.

Being a research scientist means shouldering a tremendous amount of responsibility she says. One has to view their work critically and analyze as well as criticise it in the right light. While additionally appreciating it in the right light. As every project is unique. No one has done it before you and nobody will do it after you. Also from one’s research would stem many other projects. All funded by public money. Hence your research is accountable. You are accountable. A research scientists life it about responsibility, hard work, and collaborations, in short, it is about balance. This balancing act gets too much for most hence many quit their Ph.D.’s after a while.

Her views on automation.

Computational parts of work are increasing and it is for the better as you no longer need to be the brawn but solely the brain behind the experiment and research. Most research fields have become extremely interdisciplinary and hence at some level or another of your research, you’d require the ease computation. Similarly in biology, computational biology. 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?

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“To students, I’d say make a lot of mistakes. As until you don’t know what’s wrong, it’s impossible to learn what’s right. 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.” To teachers she asks to take the practical aspects of subjects more seriously as 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.” Everybody is comfortable with the fact that no one knows everything but we’re all in a constant state of learning and evolving and hence accept “I don’t know” as a valid 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.

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