Dr Poonam Thakur: Moving forward, with wisdom from the past

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Sowmya S Geetha and Arunita Banerjee

  Dr. Poonam in her lab

  Dr Poonam Thakur, Assistant Professor at IISER Thiruvananthapuram, was fascinated by the intricacies of the Parkinson's Disease during her doctoral research and has decided to delve further into it with her research group now. She spoke to Cogito137 in an email interview, where she talks about the prevailing gender bias in academia and her plans of maintaining an ethical work culture in her lab.

  1. Please explain your research in the simplest way possible and tell us why it is exciting?

  My research focus is on Parkinson's Disease (PD), which is an age-related brain disorder that affects 1%-2% of the world population over 65 years of age. Patients of PD suffer from a progressive loss of muscle control that results in tremors in limbs and head, stooped posture and imbalance. Besides, they also suffer from loss of memory and judgement, depression and lack of sleep. These worsen with time, and it becomes tough for the patients even to complete simple chores such as walking or eating. So this disease not only affects the patient's quality of life but also imposes a heavy burden on the caregivers. The cause of PD is mostly unknown, but it involves the death of specific brain cells which release a chemical called dopamine. Despite being known to medicine for centuries, to date, we do not have any cure for this disease. Incomplete understanding of the disease and lack of suitable animal models of the disease further compound this problem.

  During my research stint in Sweden, I developed an animal model of PD that can reliably mimic this disease in a relatively shorter time frame, as this trait is fundamental to study age-related disorders. Now I am using this animal model to investigate why only dopamine-producing brain cells are lost during PD progression. Hopefully, this will lead to a better understanding of the disease and result in practical therapeutics.

  To me, every field of research is exciting, as long as it challenges you, expands your horizon of creativity and inculcates logical thinking. I find my research extremely exciting since it gives me a chance to work on something that can potentially contribute directly to the benefit of society. This is especially important in the Indian context, where both the awareness and reach of neurological health care is significantly less. Nothing is more satisfying than knowing that I can possibly make a difference in people's lives.

  2. What do you think are the unique challenges that Indian women scientists face when compared to their Western counterparts?

  Women scientists across the globe face similar challenges. An apparent glass ceiling does exist that prevents them from breaking into top administrative ranks and senior leadership roles.

  Multiple studies show how the number of women tapers as one climbs the hierarchical ladder. For instance, arguably the most prestigious scientific journal Nature, which is over a century old, had its first women editor at the helm only in 2018! The situation is not very different in academic institutions, both in India and abroad.

  Underrepresentation of women in science stems from many factors. Academia is rather unforgiving of career breaks and switches, both of which females are more likely to have, as compared to men. Maternity leave is still a luxury even in the developed West. The ‘two-body problem’ is a massive challenge for several scientist couples, which often results in the female partner's career taking a backseat. Further, lack of childcare support, necessary sanitation facilities at most workplaces and after-hours availability also impose a challenge to many women pursuing science.

  Apart from these universal challenges, the Indian women scientists, unlike their western counterparts, face some unique hurdles—for example, the imposition of strict age limits on most faculty positions/funding opportunities in India. In a patriarchal society such as ours, where childbearing and most of the familial responsibilities fall on women, it's pertinent that women should be given relaxation in age limit as compensation to the unavoidable career breaks.

  Besides, implicit biases are rife in several workplaces. I bet almost all women scientists would have received emails starting with ‘Dear Sir’. I have even had people talking to me and continuing to address me as “Sir’! Incidents like these indicate how deeply gender-bias is rooted in academia. Women scientists are expected to be “superwomen” who must successfully juggle roles of being a perfect homemaker, a mother and a top-notch scientist, simultaneously. The harsh judgement of not only their scientific work but also how they manage their personal life creates intense pressure on them.

  Luckily, things are changing. Initiatives like #WIISER bring the issues of women scientists in focus and help to challenge the bias. The government is also tweaking many regulations to make science more ‘women-friendly’ such as introducing age relaxation for women in a few positions or conceptualising women-oriented schemes such as DST's Women Scientist Schemes. The advent of innovative funding agencies such as India Alliance that gives due consideration to one's career break has provided women with a level playing field. However, we must ensure that such measures are effectively implemented and are not mere tokenism.

  3. What are the innovative solutions you have in mind to make your lab devoid of the flaws that you might have experienced during your career?

  Throughout my career, I have been very fortunate to work with some excellent supervisors and mentors, and I have learnt a lot from them. After returning to India, I received immense support from many colleagues here at IISER Thiruvananthapuram and also others in my field of research. They have been very kind to share their experiences about running an independent lab. Therefore, the work environment that I would like to implement in my lab does not arise from the flaws I encountered, instead from the good habits/ideas that I have picked along the way.

  My lab is relatively new, and due to the ongoing pandemic situation, I haven't had the chance to physically host my students in the lab yet. However, I have made a lab manual (an idea that I got from Twitter), where I have listed the core values of the lab as ‘honesty’, ‘transparency’ and ‘mutual respect’. I plan to implement the following work culture —

  1. Generating data of high rigour, keeping proper data records and open sharing of data among each other.
  2. Encouraging collaborations among students within and outside the lab and have them work towards common lab goals.
  3. Individual Development Plan (IDP) for all long-term students in the lab to help them achieve their professional goals.
  4. Celebrating all successes, big or small, in the lab as well as taking failures in one's stride.

  I have a few more ideas to run my group, but I believe they will evolve with input from my team. Science is excellent, but academia can be a tricky road sometimes. I would like my students to enjoy their time in the lab and look back at it as a fruitful period of their life, no matter in which direction their life goes later.

  4. What influenced you in your decision to pursue science? What made you inclined towards pursuing Neuroscience in particular?

  I do not hail from a “sciency family”. I come from a humble farming community, where most women, including my mom, were homemakers. Growing up, with no exposure to the internet or guidance, I had no idea about a career in science. I am the first person in my entire extended family to study science or even do a post-graduation for that matter.

  My foray into science is accidental. I was exposed to scientific research for the first time during my master's dissertation, which was a turning point in my life. I liked the life of a researcher - intellectual freedom to explore your ideas and solving a problem based on logical thinking. I eventually grew passionate about it and decided to get enrolled in a PhD programme.

  Since my PhD in the lab of Prof. Bimla Nehru, I started working on Parkinson's disease. I fell in love with this field and have stuck to it ever since. Intricacies, mysteries and complexities of the brain fascinate me and keep me motivated. I want to continue with neuroscience and unravel the exceptional beauty of the human brain.

  5. Other than academia, is there any other sphere that interests you enough that you would have taken up a profession?

  I love talking! During the early days, I had a strong inclination for mass communication and wanted to become a news anchor or a radio jockey. While that didn't happen, I think I have found an excellent avenue to use those skills in science. Besides this, I have many hobbies ranging from travelling, acting, fashion to fitness. Although many of them have taken a back seat now, I still indulge in singing, dancing and occasionally painting, for keeping in touch with my artistic side. I also enjoy teaching and mentoring younger colleagues. During my university days, I used to teach school children in my neighbourhood and some undergraduates as well. I am delighted to have found this opportunity at IISER Thiruvananthapuram, where I can combine my passion for research with my love for teaching. If I ever decide to leave science, which doesn't look like a possibility at this point, then I would like to be an artist.

This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Sowmya S Geetha and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito137, IISER Kolkata.

Sowmya joined the BSMS program at IISER Thiruvananthapuram in 2015 and majored in biology.

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