Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur
Institut du Cancer de Montréal, Centre Hospitalier de l’Université de Montréal (CHUM), Montréal, Canada
Tata Institute of Fundamental Research Hyderabad
I originally wanted to be a physicist. However, more than that, from very early days of my life, I wanted to be a scientist. I guess I was around 10 when I had a very primitive lab in some corner of our home. There, with an adolescent alchemic diligence, I mixed and heated different stuffs to see if something interesting could happen. Hence, when it came to select a discipline after I was shortlisted to pursue my undergraduate studies in one of the IITs, I embraced biotechnology, as somebody had told me that it was the subject with arguably the greatest research potential. On retrospect, it was not a bad suggestion. However, even though I was into biology, during my undergraduate years at IIT Kharagpur I kind of self-taught myself basic solid and fluid physics and got attracted by the beautiful fluid mechanics-related research done by my would-be PhD supervisor, Prof. Suman Chakraborty, of mechanical engineering department. Consequently, after finishing my 5-year integrated B.Tech-M.Tech (dual degree) in 2006, I extended my stay at Kharagpur for another four years to pursue my doctoral research with Prof. Chakraborty and Prof. Tapas K. Maiti of the biotechnology department. It was a very fascinating time, and I was trying to address several questions related to the behavior of a biological cell surviving within a confined environment of a microfluidic channel. I was essentially treading on an interdisciplinary line where fluid physics mingled with cell biology. This was my first exposure to mechanobiology i.e. to study the role of mechanical forces in biological phenomena. I defended my thesis in October 2010 and went on pursuing my first postdoctoral research in the similar direction with Prof. Anne Marie Mes-Masson at the cancer institute in Montreal, Canada. Around this time, I realized that though I had an interdisciplinary niche, my skills related to cell and molecular biology were not sufficient for addressing deeper molecular mechanistic questions. In Montreal, I was extremely fortunate to meet Prof. Robert Weinberg of MIT and nobel laureate Prof. Lee Hartwell is two separate occasions. Talking to them transformed my views about the research in biology. I was then intending to change my research topic and looking for an interesting problem in biology. Subsequently, I stumbled upon the collective migration of cells that takes places during wound healing, embryogenesis, and cancer invasion. At that time, it was not well understood how the cells while migrating together could coordinate their motions over a length-scale that was an order-of-magnitude larger than the individual cell diameter. In 2011, I wrote a proposal with Prof. Joachim Spatz of the Max Planck Institute for Intelligent Systems, Stuttgart, Germany aiming to address the aforementioned issue from the mechanobiological perspective and dedicated next 5 years working on it. In Stuttgart, I learned many molecular cloning and biochemical techniques. Subsequently combining them with several cellular- and tissue-scale force and motion measuring techniques, I revealed how a protein called Merlin shuttled between cell-cell junctions and cytoplasm to support the cells to sense the pulling force from neighboring cells and navigate accordingly. In addition, with a graduate student, Medhavi, we looked into how a group of cells ‘forcibly’ elect their leaders during migration, which challenged the conventional view of cellular hierarchy in collective migration. At TIFR Hyderabad, where I started my independent group in November 2016, I am still addressing some of the remaining questions of collective cell migration. Our group is especially interested in the establishment of front-to-rear polarity of the migrating cellular clusters, with major implications to cancer metastasis and wound healing.
In 2015, when I was looking forward to obtain an independent position, I realized that beyond collective migration, there were many interesting collective cellular dynamics, where conventional biochemical approaches might not be adequate. One needed to use tools from the mechanobiological arsenal to obtain an integrative understanding. Cell competition, the mechanism by which tissues eliminate the transformed and unfit cells, appeared to be the most exciting of the lot, as it constituted the most basic defense against cancer and maintained tissue integrity. However, stepping onto a new arena required some significant financial and academic patronage, and undoubtedly the intermediate fellowship program by the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance would provide one. The road to the fellowship process was exciting. Two things stood out in particular: clear instructions at every stage of the application process and a very objective interview-round. About the latter, I was awe-struck by the professionalism, punctuality, and knowledge of the organizational staffs and the evaluation committee members. I believe that support from this fellowship will be immensely instrumental in pursuing challenging problems related to the dynamics of cell collectives and setting up a state-of-art mechanobiology facility in India.