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General meetings of the Schmidt Science Fellowship: a rare opportunity

This blog post is taken verbatim from the post I wrote for the Schmidt Science Fellowship website.

The inaugural class of Schmidt Science Fellows assembled at Rhodes House in Oxford for the first of four meetings in our fellowship year. In anticipation of the meeting, the excitement but also nervousness was clearly evident at all levels of the organization – from the Fellows curious about what to expect to the Schmidt Science Fellows program team and supporting staff from Schmidt Futures and the Rhodes Trust who had been burning the midnight oil to put it all together. Needless to say, the meeting was a smashing success and it has left me with endless thoughts to ponder over.

I have spent much of my life engaging in science. As a result, I have been surrounded by like-minded individuals and have often witnessed scientists (including myself) complaining about the lack of ‘rationale’ behind policy actions. Furthermore, I think there is a generally accepted sentiment amongst the scientific community about the need for the public, and more so policymakers and politicians, to be ‘scientifically literate’. However, as a consequence of the scientific community’s relative insularity, we scientists also tend not to consider the inherent complexities of  society.

In the modern age, which values hyperspecialization, this meeting offered a rare opportunity for early career scientists to confront questions of society and leadership through the lenses of policy, ethics, and companionship. To demonstrate this, let us walk through the day we spent at the Blavatnik School of Government. A role-play workshop organized by Calum Miller, Prof Ngaire Woods, and others, exposed me to the intricacies of the uncertain situations policymakers are confronted with, combined with the limited time at their disposal. This workshop allowed me to appreciate the subtleties of decision-making, and that there is almost never a ‘right’ answer in real-world policy decisions.

We scientists must go beyond our comfort zone to get ourselves some fundamental training in policy systems that are ill-defined with countless, often interconnected, variables and sources of noise. Perhaps we should strive to develop an appreciation and (as Dr Karl Barber, another inaugural Fellow, rightly put it) ‘sympathy’ for the inherent ambiguity of life and the art of taking decisions in the face of it.

The session at the Blavatnik School of Government is one of the many examples that illustrate the impact of our two-week meeting in introducing us to aspects of leadership and decision-making that we do not normally experience early on in our scientific career.

An equally critical aspect of this meeting was that it allowed Fellows from diverse scientific and cultural backgrounds to spend time with each other and discuss ideas in an intimate setting. More importantly, this allowed us organically to develop deeper bonds, which manifested as surprise birthday parties and late-night chats after long days.

Finally, I had a few star-stuck moments as well — having the opportunity to talk to and dine with inspiring scientists including Prof Sir Martin Rees and Prof Sir Roger Penrose has left me with memories that I will cherish forever. Together, I am fortunate to be a part of this fellowship, and I look forward to seeing how my career and life unfolds over the course of the fellowship year and for years to come.

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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.

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.