Scientific research maketh the man! 

Taking a new highway

A new, exciting and intimidating chapter in my life started in August 2003. It was new and exciting because I was moving to Houston, Texas, USA to pursue a Master’s and Ph.D. but was intimidating because this would be the first time I would move away from my home, family, and comfort zone. It was going to be a new beginning filled with new opportunities and pitfalls. I was certainly up for the challenge.

My first stop was the Biology and Biochemistry Dept. at the University of Houston to pursue a Ph.D. Since my education in India was predominantly didactic, the admission committee recommended a 1-year bridging post-baccalaureate program to acclimatize myself in a laboratory setting. Dr. Christos Stathopoulos, a fairly new assistant professor in the Dept. was kind enough to give the opportunity to do research voluntarily in his lab. The time here cemented my desire to continue doing research. At this time, I was ‘noticed’ by another professor in the Dept. who was looking for a graduate student and offered me to join his lab as a graduate student. In 2004, I officially started as a graduate student in the lab of Dr. William Widger.

The experience I gained was amazing. Dr. Widger was an old-school biochemist and opened a new door to understanding the fascinating world of Biochemistry. I was learning how to analyze scientific papers and performing hypothesis-driven research, meanwhile gaining some good friends and colleagues. Life away from home didn’t seem that bad at all and I was having the time of my life! My first tryst with making a difficult decision arose two years later when the dynamics in the lab changed. It was much later that I realized this change in lab dynamics lead to a series of events that helped me become a much better scientist. I had to make a tough decision: Stay or leave the lab. Stay and I would be unhappy…leave and I would have to revoke my student visa and leave the country. I kept thinking of the proverb “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” however the bird I had was not the right one.

A tough decision awaits

Ironically, in the pursuit of scientific discovery, I was also learning to be a man. I had reached my first crossroad and did not know which direction I was going to take. My hunger to stay in the US and look for another opportunity had overwhelming odds over giving up and leaving. I tend to think that playing a sport gives one the impetus never to give up. I had been playing badminton semi-professionally for years. So, I applied to graduate schools in different parts of the US and accepted the offer to go to the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at the Texas Medical Center in Houston. This was a unique graduate program as it was jointly administered between The University of Texas Medical School in Houston and the world-famous MD Anderson Cancer Center.

A new road to travel

In 2006, I joined the lab of Dr. Kevin Morano in the Microbiology and Molecular Genetics Dept. It was during my tenure in his lab that I really grew as a scientist. He was an exceptional mentor and supported me in every way in my scientific training. In the meantime, I was also developing my leadership skills by volunteering in various graduate school committees to improve the lives of students in graduate school, which numbered approximately 550. I was also elected student president of the graduate school from 2009-2010, an experience I will treasure! I was the first international student that took up this post. I had learned to manage time between doing experiments, lab duties, and graduate committee responsibilities. It was the most fun I was having as there was no free time for the mind to wander.

The road takes an unexpected turn 

Who’s not been upset with their boss when they have not got something they really wished for? I really wanted to attend an international scientific conference in Italy in 2011 and had worked very hard to get enough data to present at the conference. On Monday morning: “Hey boss, could I go for this conference?” Boss: “I have to look at the labs’ finances but probably not this conference as it is very expensive.” I was really upset and sulked the whole day and most of the rest of the week. I remember the boss asking me “Are you ok, Jacob?” and I just shrugged my shoulders. I’m sure he knew that I was upset. Friday morning of the same week: “Jacob can you please come to my office?… I checked the finances and I’m happy to tell you that there is money for you to attend the conference.” From probably not to yes…oh boy, was I the happiest person in the lab that day!!

The conference was awesome. I met a lot of scientists from all over the world and talking and discussing research ideas for 5 days was a lot of fun. It was here that a Professor came up to my poster during a poster session, asked if I could present it, and then later offered me the chance to pursue my postdoctoral training in his lab in Germany.  Life is full of mysteries, and opportunities knock at any moment. I have learned to grab them and make the best of what I have been given. So, you can imagine, I came back to the US, thought about the possibilities of a postdoc in Germany, and then said “Yes!” At the time, I still had a year and a half to go with my Ph.D. training.

Another new highway – the Autobahn

In December 2012, I joined Dr. Ulrich Hartl’s Cellular Biochemistry Dept. at the Max Planck Institute for Biochemistry in Munich, Germany. Take a tropical climate person and drop him into a harsh German winter and then check out his expression. I had never seen snow before and I was seeing a tonne of it now. The lab was the biggest I had ever been in. The size of the lab in terms of personnel was almost that of the entire department back in the US. The lab had many resources that I had access to and was a good scientific environment. The research was going at its own pace with good data days and no data days. All that I had learned during my Ph.D. training were being utilized here. I was thinking about experiments and then testing them out independently. This was a lot of fun! While not working on the bench, I was meeting other postdocs and forging collaborations. I was even elected as the spokesperson of the Institutes’ postdocs. In 2015, I organized the first-ever postdoc research retreat for the institute since it was established in 1973. I had developed the skills to manage, organize, and establish scientific interactions between scientists.

Another fork in the road

At the end of an incredible scientific experience, I decided to take a sabbatical and learn German. This would allow me to integrate better into German society and possibly give me the opportunity to teach in a University, but I need to know German. Here was another fork in the road and I had to make a decision. With already having experienced a fork in the road, the second time was a little less daunting. A little less!!

In 2016 I started to take intensive classes in German. It has been an uphill task but a challenge nonetheless. You never know why one decision you choose to make is better than the other. You just take it and do the best you can with it and something always comes out of it. Although I miss doing research, this new challenge is growing on me. Who knows what I will be doing 6 months from now, only time will tell! Until then, I’m gonna chug along through this incredible journey and see what awaits at the end of the tunnel!

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