“The Road goes ever on and on Down from the door where it began. Now far ahead the Road has gone, And I must follow, if I can, Pursuing it with eager feet, Until it joins some larger way, Where many paths and errands meet.”
Nitin Singh Chouhan is an alumnus from the first batch of IISER Pune. After graduating in 2011, he joined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) as a graduate student, where he was 6 months before he decided to change graduate school. He is currently a third year graduate student in Rudolf Virchow Center, University of Würzburg. He discusses his journey in this conversation with alumni writer Ayesha.
Ayesha: You joined IISER Pune in 2006, the year it started. What made you join a place that new?
Nitin: At that time, I wasn’t really thinking that I wanted to do science. We had to go to Kolkata for the counselling session, where they described IISER as an exciting place. It was exciting because we were meeting all these scientists for the first time. My main reason to join was very naive, honestly. It was very close to my home. The counseling session was not very convincing about the vision of the institute but then I was not really hoping to continue in science. I joined because I just wanted to get an experience. At that stage you do not actually know what research is, what even a PhD is. The only thing we knew was engineering and medicine. This was something new, this was interesting. I just wanted to try it out, I guess.
Ayesha: You got admitted to IISER via IIT-JEE channel, I believe. So, you must have wanted to be an engineer. Choosing science must have been a tough decision then.
Nitin: I did not really know what exactly I wanted. I appeared for IIT JEE and also CBSE PMT. I also got selected for engineering at Banaras Hindu University. I was never sure what I wanted at that stage. So it was just a coincidence that this institution started taking students that same year. It was something that was different from what everyone was doing at that time. It sounded exciting. Though, many students were concerned because there were no job prospects at that time. There were many questions from parents during counselling about what were the options for the students after graduating. I was not interested in those questions because I was not thinking about a job at that stage. I am glad it all turned out fine.
It was exciting because we were meeting all these scientists for the first time.
A: How was the experience of the first two years in IISER?
N: I think at stage it was all very experimental. The faculty strength wasn’t very strong so people from near-by institutes were called to teach us. The institute was just testing what would work out and what won’t. Many things did not work. For example, we did not like the way the Quantum Chemistry course was being taught. So, we went and talked about it to the director, Prof. Ganesh. He then requested Dr. Sourav Pal from NCL to teach us.
We had a course in C programming in the first year. It was a great idea to teach students to code in the first year but then the course did not end up being very good. Not many students learnt how to code at the end of it.
A: But there must have been a few good courses too.
N: Honestly, I think in the first, there wasn’t much good going on except maybe the lab courses. The experiments were designed in a very good way, especially in physics, despite the very few resources. The courses improved a lot in the 2nd year when we started getting good teachers in Biology, Physics and Chemistry.
A: Eventually you took courses in Biology. When did your interest in Biology start?
N: I was very interested in biology right from my school days. Everyone suggested that I take either mathematics or biology in my 11th and 12th standard but I did both the courses. The biology department in IISER Pune hired some very good people when we were in our 2nd and 3rd year. This made the department very strong. The other departments were still very small while students in biology had already started doing some real research. A lot of students were taking biology at that time because the professors were so good. My choice of biology was a logical step but it was also driven by the interest I had from before. And maybe I started making up my mind for science around that time.
A lot of students were taking biology at that time because the professors were so good.
A: Was there any particular course which catalyzed you to go for biology?
N: There was a two part systems biology course by Dr.Aurnab Ghose and Dr. N. K. Subedar I took in the 5th and 6th semester. That course was a catalyst, I believe. I also joined Aurnab’s lab at that time and started working on a project which kind of became my project for the next 3 years. These two things were very influential in making me go for biology.
A: Did the experience of working in the lab help you later on in your research?
N: I will say that’s the only thing that is helping at the moment. The way you design questions, the way you design experiments to answer those questions and try to discuss with your other lab members and the advisor to make the experiments much more believable and doable are the things I learnt while working in Aurnab’s lab. The courses had started to become very irrelevant in the 4th year. At that time I was taking courses just to fulfill my credit requirement and it was not adding much to my project.
A: So you say the courses did not help at all?
N: No, not in the expected way. But they did help in many indirect ways. We did not have conventional exams in biology, in which we had to memorize things. That was very helpful. We were free to have more ideas now because we did not have to worry about exams. I think that was a very good step.
Even though the institute required a mid-sem and an end-sem, the instructors changed them in such a way that it was very beneficial to the students. We were given published papers to read and asked to answer questions based on it. I remember that Dr. Girish Ratnaparkhi made us write a report on the book “Selfish Gene” by Richard Dawkins.
Once in her course, Dr. Mayurika Lahiri gave us a paper after deleting its abstract. She then asked us to write an abstract for the paper. So, these were the exercises that I think are much more relevant for my research. For example, today when I write an abstract for my paper, the technique that I learnt in that exercise and the exposure I got is very beneficial.
The courses helped in an unexpected way. The techniques I learnt and the exposure I got is very beneficial
A: You started a project with Aurnab and that continued to be your project for the next 3 years. But did you do any projects elsewhere during the summers?
N: I came to Freie University Berlin via the DAAD ( Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst, i.e., German Academic Exchange Service) fellowship program during summer 2010. I had started working on flies in Aurnab’s lab before the project. Even though Aurnab’s lab is more interested in developmental biology, he gave me a project on the aggression behavior in flies because I was interested in behavioral biology. From then on, I have continued to work in fly behavior. I think it was a very good decision to work on a long term project rather than something which is only 3 months long and hence is more about getting exposure.
A: So you think that the longer project helped you gain a deeper understanding than what you got from the 3 month long summer project?
N: For me the project via DAAD fellowship was a continuation of what I was doing in IISER. The project was on walking behavior of flies, which is a very well developed area. Since I already knew the techniques, I did not spend time learning any new ones but directly started developing the experiment. This was quite surprising for my mentor because he had expected me to spend most of my time learning new techniques.
If a person is exploring new fields, then a three month project is wonderful idea to get exposure. But if someone already has the clarity about what they want to do, then it is better to take up a longer project or to do something that is an extension of one. That way you may even get a publication at the end of it, which is an important step in a person’s career.
If a person is exploring new fields, then a three month project is wonderful idea to get exposure.
A: Your MS thesis was also on the work you did with Aurnab, I believe. Were there any publications that came out of that work?
N: We have a paper which is almost ready to be submitted but there are a few technical issues that are pending. I had to leave a few experiments in between when I left the lab to join a PhD. Hopefully, we will submit it soon.
A: You joined Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) after your BS-MS, but then you left it to join University of Würzburg. So, what happened?
N: It is very difficult to put into words what exactly was going through my mind at that time. I wanted to work in a particular lab when I joined. But then they started working on a different project which was very far removed from fly behavior. I also had some trouble adjusting to the place. So I decided it is fair to leave the CSHL if I got an opportunity to go to a place which was more compatible with my interests. I left after 6 months of joining. I had not done much except the course work while there.
I decided it is fair to leave the CSHL if I got an opportunity to go to a place which was more compatible with my interests.
A: How would you compare the graduate school experience in the US and in Europe?
N: The selection procedure for graduate schools in the US is such that they pick students who are good in a particular area. For example, a student gets selected because he is good in genetics or he is good in neurobiology. They take such students and then make them take courses. This doesn’t make much sense to me because a student is being selected for his specialized knowledge in a particular area. The scenario is very different in Europe. I did not have to do any courses and started working in a lab right away. That saved me a lot of time. Hopefully, I will be submitting my thesis sometime in December this year.
A: But then if someone is undecided about what to do when they begin their PhD, course work makes sense.
N: The problem, I feel, is that the selection procedure for graduate schools in US is such that it is very unlikely that a student who is unsure will get selected. The Statement of Purpose and the interview try to assess what a student wants to do. They ask questions about why a student wants to join the place, what is it that they will do if they join. Now, these are the questions which only a person who is sure can answer. Then, you also have to do a Teaching Assistantship (TA). The stipend a student gets is for his TA work, at least in the first couple of years, because he has not started doing any research yet. TA might be a good experience for some but it varies from person to person.
A: So the US system of grad school, with course work and TA duties, did not work out for you.
N: I was not doing very well in the course work. Even though I did it only for 6 months, it was very dense and rigorous for me. It was very difficult for me to adjust to it, after the relatively relaxed coursework we had in IISER, with no exams and not much pressure. It was bad for me on many levels. I couldn’t believe that I was doing that bad. You come to a big lab believing that your life is now taking direction and then you face things which were unimaginable at that stage. It was very difficult for me to adjust on many levels.
You come to a big lab believing that your life is now taking direction and then you face things which were unimaginable at that stage.
A:I should congratulate you for being rational at that time. It is easy to sit and wallow in one’s misery in such a situation but you analyzed where the problem was and realized that Europe would be a more suitable place for you.
A:How is the funding in the Europe? Since you are not doing a TA, how does it work?
N: I am being paid a salary for the research that I am doing. I am an employee of the university and I am treated like one. Graduate students have fixed working hours, contracts, like employees.
A: Would you say that the way PhD is pursued in the Europe makes one a more independent researcher?
N: How independent a researcher you became usually depends on your post-doc. During PhD, most people are learning techniques, learning to ask questions, learning to make hypotheses and to design experiments. And some people cannot do it on their own. They need a push, maybe during the initial stages. For them a PhD in the US is better because of the way the whole structure of a PhD programme is designed. In Europe, you are very independent. No one will come and tell you to do things in a certain way. People are expected to be independent even during the bachelor and master theses, that is part of the curriculum in German colleges. It may not suit everyone.
Some people need a push, maybe during the initial stages. For them a PhD in the US is better…
A: When you look back at your time in IISER, is there anything that you wish was different?
N: The major thing that I took out of my time in IISER was the research experience, I guess. One thing which I did not agree with was the requirement to take courses from at least two different subjects in the 5th and the 6th semester. I always felt that the courses from other branches were difficult for me. You are sitting there only for one course while the others are very good in that subject. You tend to feel that you are not part of the class. I think this rule was designed so that students get exposure. But I wonder if it was helpful. I think the faculty advisors should instead try to talk to the students and advise them on taking the courses. This program of having faculty advisors should be taken more seriously than it is.
A: Your recent publication was about whether flies can remember time. Can give a brief summary of your research?
N: Sure. I have been talking about it a lot since a lot of newspapers have contacted my advisor, Professor Martin Heisenberg, wanting to cover this publication.
A: Oh, that’s surprising! I wouldn’t imagine newspapers being so interested in scientific discoveries unless they are of a certain kind.
N: Yes, I was pleasantly surprised that it was mainstream media, not just specialized science journals, which was interested in the paper. Maybe the attention was because the paper was published in a very reputed journal and also maybe because my mentor is a well known personality in science in Germany.
I was pleasantly surprised that it was mainstream media, not just specialized science journals, which was interested in my paper.
A: So, coming back to your research, what was the idea of the paper?
N: Flies can form memories related to food related odors. They can remember that a particular odor was associated with food but another is not and hence should not be pursued. This was shown 40 years back by Seymour Benzer’s lab and there has been numerous publications on it. But there is one more aspect of this research which is based on daily light and dark cycles. There is an oscillator in the brain of every organism which helps them understand the daily cycle of light conditions. We wanted to know if flies can use this oscillator to learn different things at different times of the day. After training we saw that flies were actually successful in doing that. They specifically use these oscillators present in the brain for this purpose.
So crudely put, we keep these flies hungry and just give them food at a particular time of the day. So they associate the memory of food only to that time of the day. But if we test them for the memory at any other time, they don’t remember but they recall it only at that particular time of the day.
We wanted to know if flies can use this oscillator to learn different things at different times of the day.
A: That’s very interesting. What was your 5th year project with Aurnab Ghose about?
N: We were trying to understand aggression behavior in flies. We put two flies in a chamber so that they fight with each other. We created a territory with food on it so that flies will defend that territory. We put the loser fly against a fly which has not fought another fly before and studied its behavior. We observed that the fly which had lost previously was not willing to fight even against a new fly. We could call it depression, lack of motivation but this fly was very reluctant to get into fights. And even if it did fight, it would lose most of the time. On the other hand, the winner fly, when pitted against another fly, was more ferocious. This suggested that the reluctant behavior of the loser fly wasn’t because of exhaustion from the previous fight but because of something similar to lack of motivation.
A: It’s very interesting that winning and losing can have such a deep effect on the psychology of flies.
A:How is your typical day like?
N: In experimental science, there are no typical schedules. At the moment, my experiments are getting ready so I have no work in the lab. But once they are ready I will be working in the lab continuously. There are no Sundays or holidays. Your schedule is dictated by flies who do not have the concept of Sunday or holidays. And to not have fixed working hours is a cool thing. Also, my mentor doesn’t have expectations that I will be at my bench at a particular time every morning. He just lets us work in our way. We report to him once a week. And I think that’s a good system. Even with Aurnab the system was the same, which was not necessarily the case in other labs. But then different mentors have different working styles and I was lucky to have mentors whose working style was compatible with mine.
Your schedule is dictated by flies who do not have the concept of Sunday or holidays.
A: What are your plans after PhD?
N: I already have a good publication and I am hoping to have another one before I finish my PhD. With that, I can diversify after I graduate. I might venture into mice behavior or even if I continue to work in flies, I might want to study something different from behavior, maybe in developmental or neurobiology. But at the moment, I am not sure where I will be with respect to science. I am enjoying what I am doing. I have many questions in my mind about fly behavior and I wonder if and how will I answer them before I graduate.
I will start thinking about post doc applications sometime in December this year.
I am enjoying what I am doing.
A: Any advice that you’d want to give to the current and prospective students of IISER?
N: I feel I am still not at a stage where I can advise anyone. I am myself trying so many things in my life, which may or may not work. But it is a fact that if you keep constantly thinking about whether a thing will work out or not, then you’ll not take risks. But you do have to take risks in your career. Leaving a very established and reputed lab in the USA was a risk that I took. Sometimes things will work out, sometimes they don’t, like how my going to CSHL didn’t work out for me. We can never be sure but we has to just go ahead and do the thing.
Also, don’t go for a thing just because it has better prospects later on. IISER should be looked at as an experience, where you try to develop your thinking and personality rather than something which is a means to a job.
We can never be sure but we has to just go ahead and do the thing.
Posted on by alumniwriter
Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune (IISER Pune), established 2006, is one of the five five Indian Institutes of Science Education and Research of India. It is located in Pune, Maharashtra.
IISER Pune offers integrated masters programmes (BS/MS) and doctoral program (Ph.D.).
Admission to the masters degree is though the IISER joint admission process which provides three channels for admission: Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana, Joint Entrance Examination – Advanced and state and central boards candidates, which require an additional IISER Aptitude Test. Admission to the various Ph.D. programmes is either with a masters degree in science or with a bachelors degree, for the integrated Ph.D. programme. Candidates are screened by interviews.
Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune was ranked 29 overall in India by National Institutional Ranking Framework (NIRF) in 2017.
IISER-Pune houses the following advanced research centres/ centres of excellence:
- Centre for Integrative Studies (CIS)
- DBT Centre of Excellence in Epigenetics
- DST Unit on Nanoscience
- Max-Planck Partner Group in Quantum Field Theory
- Max-Planck Partner Group in Glyco-nanotechnology
The construction of the final campus has been completed.
The majority of the student activities at IISER-P are conducted by various clubs.
Mimamsa is an inter-college science challenge conducted solely by the students of IISER-P. The aim of the organizers is to make it the most conceptually challenging competition at this level in the country. It is a two-stage affair. The first stage is a written exam with 60 subjective questions from all disciplines of science. The top four colleges selected through this round move into the finals.
There is also a very active SPIC MACAY sub-chapter, which organizes events jointly with National Chemical Laboratory, and the SPIC MACAY Pune Chapter.