Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India
National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India
There were at least two reasons for me not to take up biology: my favourite subjects were history and languages, and I was exposed to research in biology at home, so that my natural inclination was to do anything but that. What I really enjoyed doing was curling up with a cup of hot chocolate and reading books of all kinds, including a wide range of detective fiction. At some point asking logical questions and using clues to get to the bottom of a mystery became what I really enjoyed doing, and scientific research seemed a great parallel.
By the time I reached the undergraduate level, I wanted to study history, biology and literature but found that this combination wasn't allowed in Bangalore university. So I opted for biology and was thrilled to find that there was still a way out: one could pose questions of history within biology, that is questions of evolution: why does molecule x do job y rather than how the job is done. Between my 12th standard and first year of college, I spent a month on the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) campus as an IISc Young Fellow along with about 20 others, attending talks and visiting labs every day. This was a major thrill, not least because for most of us it was the first time away from home. We all agreed that the mess food was the absolute last word (we only stayed a month), developed some close friendships and learnt many new things, including the fact that sometimes the driest of topics could apparently turn exciting in a lab, and also vice versa..
I got my first proper lab exposure a year later when I spent a summer under the Indian Academy of Sciences fellowship at Dr Durgadas Kasbekar's lab at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad. It was a completely new world, and I enjoyed learning tiny bits of the complex fungal genetics work as much as chewing on the fascinating names surrounding this particular work. The fact that the fungus Neurospora had been the heroine of early landmark experiments gave the model system an added glamour in my eyes. Along with a flavour for how science is done in labs, I carried away from him an invaluable lesson in writing the shortest possible reports while conveying all essential information. Another fellowship, the KVPY program, helped greatly in increasing exposure to different kinds of research and creating the opportunity to spend time in various labs. I think this was critical to my scientific growth.
After my bachelor's degree in Microbiology, Chemistry and Zoology, I joined the Integrated PhD program in Biological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The courses on evolution and microbiology fascinated me the most and I joined Dr Umesh Varshney's lab for a PhD degree. This was the best choice I could have made, as it resulted both in rigorous scientific training and exposure to a stimulating atmosphere of constant discussion and reinvention of experiments. I was also lucky early on in getting a mentor with a gift for and real love of teaching in Dr Gautam Das, then a senior PhD student in the lab. During my PhD, attending conferences and meeting people who were addressing diverse research problems was invariably a rejuvenating experience.
I enjoyed doing a PhD but somewhere along the line my original enthusiasm had dulled and I wanted to revive my old love for literature (in a loose sense) and explore science writing as an alternate career even if briefly. I enjoyed a near one year stint as a freelance science writer, but found that it gave me less creative freedom and also took away the satisfaction of actually doing something with your own hands. However, writing in general and science writing in particular remain very close to my heart and I hope to carry on with them even if less actively. The one year away as also all the travel I managed to cram into it has definitely helped me get back to the lab with revived motivation and enthusiasm.
My PhD work used molecular biology but attempted to pose evolutionary questions. It revolved around the role of a special kind of transfer RNA (tRNA), the initiator tRNA, in the bacterium E.coli. I tried to understand the effects of changing the amounts of this molecule within the cell, at various levels of biology: at the molecular level using mutants, at the cellular level by looking at the impact of such change on cellular physiology and finally at the population level by measuring interactions between different mutants. The choice of initiator tRNA was fortuitous, it was simply because I enjoyed how Dr Varshney's lab looked at problems, and they happened to be using initiator tRNA. However, I was fascinated by the field of epigenetics and felt that as the prime decoders of the genetic code, tRNAs must have a say in its interpretation.
My larger interest lies in looking at the influence of non-genetic changes upon the phenotype of bacterial cells, both in the short and in the long term. I found during my PhD that when the levels of initiator tRNA are depleted, the other kind of tRNAs, that is the elongators, are now able to initiate formation of a new protein chain. This threw up the possibility that a new protein might now start at several sites along a given mRNA, potentially generating proteome diversity. Under the Wellcome-DBT early career fellowship and working with Dr Deepa Agashe at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), I will look at the influence of tRNAs, particularly the initiator, upon influencing behaviour under stress in bacteria through changes in how the genetic code is decoded.