Dr. Keerthi Harikrishnan: Building a career around her life

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Natasha Buwa and Arunita Banerjee

  Dr. Keerthi Harikrishnan is a WoSA independent scientist at the Department. of Biology, IISER Pune. In this electronic interview she talks about her career development journey in both India and abroad.

  What has been your inspiration for pursuing scientific research?

  Growing up, I was really interested in human physiology and was fascinated by the human heart. During my school days, my grandfather would often hand me the inserts from his medications and ask me to explain how the drugs worked. In particular, I was drawn to the mechanisms by which the blood pressure medication (ACE inhibitors) not only controlled the blood pressure but also provided additional benefits by inhibiting fibrosis in the heart and preserving cardiac function. This was the turning point in my life and I decided I was going to pursue cardiovascular research. I applied and got into one of the best programs for heart research in the US. I specialized in the field of developmental and matrix biology with a strong focus on heart development.

  Having done your PhD abroad, what motivated you to come back to India and how would you describe your journey so far?

  I was raised in a large family which maintained close ties with each other. I missed my family a lot despite having great friends and a very supportive Indian community. I realized that by being close to the family, I could have a more fulfilling career in India especially with all the new opportunities that the Indian government was launching to attract the best talent.

  When I started applying, I didn’t know anyone in Indian academia and wasn’t sure about how things will work out. I took a leap of faith and wrote to Dr. Nagaraj Balasubramanian at IISER Pune and was pleasantly surprised by a swift response. I gave an informal talk followed by a formal interview for the IISER Pune postdoctoral fellowship which funded me for two years. I kick-started my career in the field of matrix biology with an emphasis on lung cancer. My graduate lab had a lab manager who took care of all the admin work, so it was really hard in the first year having to deal with all the logistical problems. I adapted quickly with a very good support system and was able to sail smoothly. As far as research was concerned, things were really good. After almost two and a half years into the program, with the support of Dr. Nagaraj and IISER Pune, I applied for my first independent grant and got funded by the DST-WOSA division. I just published my first research article in June and despite the challenges, I’m very happy with the way how things worked out.   How do you balance work-life? How have your priorities shifted?

  One of the things I learnt during graduate school in the US was how well people had compartmentalized their personal and professional lives. My dad worked really hard to provide us the best life and we never had any family vacation until I was in 11th standard. Hence I was very particular in what I wanted, so before officially starting as a graduate student in the lab, I negotiated a deal with my PhD mentor. My deal was I would take 3 weeks off to visit family in India, small road trips with friends (2-3 days) once a year and work on weekends if needed. This was a much needed break to cope with the high intensity workload that comes with research.

  Even after moving to India, I followed a 9-5 schedule and worked on weekends only if it was absolutely necessary. I lived 20km away from IISER and would drive every day for work which meant things needed to be planned extremely well in advance. I take time off once a year to visit family and enjoy short trips especially during monsoon. When my daughter was born, the lab was very supportive which went a long way in helping me accomplish things. I follow my PhD mentor’s advice “Build your work around life and not life around work”.

  What would you advise students who are picking a lab for their grad school? What are the most important criteria?

  I was just 21 when I started graduate school and also a first-generation PhD which meant I had no one to turn for advice. I picked lab rotations mainly on my research interests. One of the labs I rotated was my dream lab and was everything that I wanted to do but I ended up not choosing it mainly because I couldn’t see myself working there for the next 6 years since the lab culture was not something I was comfortable with. I ended up picking a lab which was out of my comfort zone but chose it because of the fact that I knew if I was having the worst day of my life, my lab mates would be there for me. When my PhD mentor was diagnosed with stage IV Glioblastoma, it was my fellow lab members who helped me finish my PhD. So my advice to students would be to talk to the people in the lab as much as you would talk to the supervisor because they are the ones who are going to be with you every day. Reach out to the past and current graduate students to know more about the lab. Don’t be afraid to have open conversations about what the supervisor’s expectations are from a graduate student before committing yourself for the next 5-6 years. Lastly, pick a supervisor who will put your interests ahead of theirs and only do things that make you happy.

  What do you think are the challenges that early career researchers face and what do you think should be done to address them?

  One of the major problems I faced when I started back in India was the lack of a platform or resource to get in touch with the scientific community and I continue to struggle with this even now. A database would be extremely valuable and helpful to connect the scientific community. Another major issue is the limited /unpredictable funding by the government. While we are all trained to do impactful research and publish in high end journals, there isn’t enough funding for everyone to launch into such career paths. Although there is a Wellcome-DBT India Alliance that generously funds researchers, we need much bigger contributions from non-governmental organizations which could potentially bridge the gap in funding. Women in STEM especially face a large rate of attrition as you move up the pyramid, so we need to make a conscious effort to make the hiring process fair and transparent.

This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Natasha Buwa and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito137.

Natasha Buwa is a final year PhD student at the Adhesion lab, IISER Pune. She did her Masters (Integrated MS and MTech) in Biotech from the University of Pune and worked at TIFR as a research fellow before joining grad school. She believes diversity in STEM is integral to achieving success.

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