Dr. Rumi De: At the interface of physics and biology

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Debdatta Banerjee and Arunita Banerjee

  Dr. Rumi De is an associate professor at the Department of Physical Sciences, IISER Kolkata. In this electronic interview she narrates her journey of child-like curiosity leading to a career in interdisciplinary scientific research and how extra-curricular activities help in the holistic development of young minds.

  1. Why did you choose to pursue a career in basic sciences? Who/what inspired you?

  I was drawn to science from my school days. I often wondered about nature - how the shades of the blue sky change from time to time, the colourful spectrum of rainbows, or the twinkling stars. Sometimes, I used to study on the rooftop and would be fascinated by the clouds of different shapes, the flocking of birds, and think about the origin of such occurrences. Moreover, participating in science exhibitions was also quite illuminating and played a part in fostering interest in science. I enjoyed studying. My inclination slowly grew towards physics more than the other subjects. In the ninth grade, I took physics as a compulsory elective to delve deeper into the subject. I studied in Serampore Girls' High School and then completed my graduation with honours in Physics from Serampore College. We had excellent teachers who motivated us to take up higher studies. However, I did not know what research was until my MSc. While pursuing my master's in Science College at Calcutta University, I drew inspiration to pursue research. I enjoyed the experience of carrying out my own research during my Ph.D. at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc). I got a wonderful exposure at IISc that truly broadened my horizon. I was excited to continue research and explore much more. IISc played a significant role in shaping up my career as a researcher. Besides, my peers have inspired me all along.

  2. Please tell us about your research interests and the work in your lab for the understanding of a general non-technical audience.

  I work at the interface of physics and biology. Our goal is to understand the dynamics of living systems at various length scales, starting from cellular processes to collective organization of species. We develop theoretical and computational models to address emergent problems in these interdisciplinary areas. One of the problems that we are currently exploring is - how do cells sense forces? Cells in tissues are often exposed to various forces such as muscle tension, blood flow, heartbeat rhythms and the like. How cells respond to these mechanical forces (known as cell mechanosensing), strongly alters the behaviour and function of cells, how they grow, and how tissues or organs develop. We investigate the spontaneous organization of cells and the formation of tissue patterns through different pathways of cell-cell interactions. We also explore the mechanisms of coordinated cell movements. How cells alternately stick and slip while moving from one place to another, like for example, in the wound healing process? Understanding these mechanisms is crucial to design therapeutic approaches for several diseases, like cancer, and diverse areas in developmental biology. Our group's other interest lies in the collective dynamics of various species, such as flocking of birds, cooperative hunting, or the formation of bacterial colonies. It is fascinating how the individual members coordinate to generate complex patterns or participate in collective decision-making to perform a particular task. We explore the underlying dynamics of such active interacting systems from a physicist's approach.

  3. How important is it to pursue interdisciplinary research? According to you, what overall impact does it have on the research and academia ecosystem?

  In today's time, interdisciplinary research has become immensely important. It is quite apparent that the conventional boundaries between different disciplines are getting blurred. New state-of-the-art computational tools have opened up research opportunities in diverse fields. It is now a great time to pursue interdisciplinary research. Many institutes and centers are coming up with a focus on promoting interdisciplinary science. For example, IISERs have been established with a vision to integrate interdisciplinary research programs. Our undergrad students can take up any research topic they like to pursue irrespective of their major subject. So, a physics student can work in an earth science lab and contribute to predicting earthquakes. Generally, it helps bring many new insights into the complex research problem by looking at it from various perspectives. There are several examples of collaborative works from multiple disciplines that pave the way to novel findings. In fact, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has shown how scientists from different disciplines can come together, brainstorm, and carry out research to find the solution. We still have miles to go.

  4. Please tell us about some of your interests other than research.

  I love gardening. I usually spend some time nurturing my kitchen garden in the morning. It is very satisfying to watch the growing saplings, blooming flowers, or fruits. I also love to travel and see new places, walk around, meet people, know their culture, and taste the local food! It helps me to rejuvenate and start afresh.

  5. What are your views on the inclusion of diverse interests within the atmosphere of academic institutions?

  It is good to have opportunities to pursue diverse interests within academic institutions. Extra-curricular activities like sports, yoga, literature, music, and cultural activities help in getting fresh energy and uplift the mind. It is important to keep one's spirit up during the five or more years of an academic program (such as the integrated MS or PhD). Otherwise, sometimes it could be overwhelming. So, I encourage my students to take up some activities or hobbies they like. It is imperative to keep the focus on the work but also enjoy the moment and grow in the process.

Moreover, as you said, inculcating the interests of science students in other career options like science journalism, industry, entrepreneurship is also valuable for the overall growth. In that aspect, Cogito extends a good platform for the students in pursuing science communication. The inclusion of industry-academia collaboration is another important step. It provides an opportunity to take up a pilot project and investigate the possibility of translating research into large-scale production. Also, students get real-world industry experience working closely on such projects. It motivates one to come up with solutions to real-life problems too. IISER Kolkata has recently started such initiatives. Our students have also begun an entrepreneurship cell. It organizes various workshops, seminars and intends to provide a platform to the young entrepreneurial minds. It is a crucial stage for the students to get exposure and explore different directions. Experience that someone gains while pursuing academics helps to weigh up and make an informed choice. In the end, it is important to pursue what we like to do and that makes us happy.

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

Debdatta Banerjee is a student of Second Year Integrated PhD programme at IISER Kolkata. She aspires to pursue a career in Computational Mineral Physics. She also likes to engage herself in many extra curricular activities.

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