Musings of an accidental scientist

Note: This post is taken verbatim from an earlier post I wrote for The Node. 

As we sat together at a farewell dinner after I graduated from Princeton University, my advisers asked me, “What got you into science?”. Although a simple, straightforward question on the surface, it sent me down memory lane and I found it incredibly difficult to provide a concise, one-line response.

I grew up in a rural settlement just outside the town of Udhampur which is situated in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir. A typical day involved school-time, helping my father and uncle at their grocery and stationary stores, playing street cricket, and planning activities around the daily power-cuts. Pursuing a bachelor’s degree was considered a distant dream and further education was unheard of in the area. Accordingly, I listened to the modest academic expectations from family and society, and ended up doing just well enough that no one ever complained. However, one fateful day in 6th grade forever changed this complacent attitude. During one of the lectures, the science teacher in the school called out one of the top students in the class who was siting besides me and also happened to be my close friend. She advised her, “Avoid the company of Yogesh. He is going to spoil you, and make you like him”. The teacher was correct in identifying me as neither academically sincere nor hard-working, and as I comprehended the truth in her words my face reddened with embarrassment. At the same time, I realized it as an opportunity for me to study hard and prove her wrong. Consequently, this had a substantial, even revolutionary, impact on me. For the first time I became serious about studying and generally succeeding academically. Fortunately, I found that I enjoyed studying and learning new scientific concepts. This was further reinforced by some exceptional teachers at school and family support at home. What began as a source of shame and embarrassment, slowly became point of pride! My interest in science continued to grow and I spent much of my teenage years solving interesting problems in physics and math.

Based on my performance in a certain exam during high school, I was assigned to major in chemical engineering for my undergraduate studies at IIT Gandhinagar in India. Here again, I experienced a crucial juncture in my sophomore year that made me realize how much I enjoyed research. Thanks to Prof. Narayanamurthy who taught us the first course in chemical engineering, I went from carefully planning a career pursuing an MBA after undergraduate studies to genuinely appreciating the nuances of chemical engineering. Importantly, I actively explored opportunities to be involved in research projects at my undergraduate institution. This, in turn, naturally led me to apply for PhD programs in chemical engineering.

I came to Princeton set on continuing my studies in chemical engineering; however, after taking a chemical reaction engineering course taught by my eventual adviser, Stanislav Shvartsman, I became intrigued by the chemistry inside living cells. He drew elegant parallels between reactions that happen in a chemical plant and in a living cell. This and subsequent interactions with another future adviser, Trudi Schüpbach, fostered a curiosity in biological questions. A lack of formal training in biology made the transition challenging, but it was also exciting to delve into a new field. Specifically, I was fascinated by how complex structures and functional forms emerge from elemental embryonic states. How are desirable properties such as precision, reproducibility, and robustness imparted to biological systems? Subsequently, my PhD focused on answering such fundamental developmental biology questions in the context of the early embryonic patterning in fruit flies (see here for details).

Together, fortuitous interventions bolstered by persistent hard work have led me to a place where I wake up every morning excited about going to lab and doing science. As I now embark on a foray into new biological research directions for my postdoctoral work, a diverse set of life and research experiences have taught me that nothing is impossible. Above all, one must follow their passion, work with inspiring and supportive mentors, and take risks.

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Fruit fly factories

Each ovary of the female fruit fly houses multiple ovarioles or ‘assembly lines’ in which individual egg chambers develop into fully formed fly eggs. Each egg chamber consists of 16 large germline cells (one of which is the future egg cell), surrounded by a thin sheet of smaller cells. In this picture, cross-sections of ten ovarioles from different female fruit flies are arranged with stem cells and early stage egg chambers at the center, and the more mature chambers at the periphery. The nucleus of each cell is stained yellow/orange. The cell membranes are stained blue.