Pursuing Ph.D. at University of Utah – Praneeth Bommisetti

Chief Editor’s Comment : I am happy to post this blog article on my mentor’s Life journey. Praneeth was the D-AMP Coordinator when i was in my freshmen year and motivated me enough when i was at my low during very first semester. I hope you will enjoy reading his journey as much as i did

Briefly tell us about yourself, when did you graduate, what are you doing currently?

I graduated with a 5-year integrated master’s degree in Chemistry (along with minors in biology) from IIT Bombay in 2018. Strong research experience at IITB was the major driving force that prompted me to take up a Ph.D. Being a Chemistry graduate with immense interest in Biology, I thought of an amalgam of both to be my thing. So, I took to my interests, and consequently, I ended up working in the area of Biological Chemistry under Dr. Bandarian at the Department of Chemistry, University of Utah.

How fruitful was insti in shaping you as a person? 

Insti was possibly the most moving thing that could have happened to me in my life. First-year was rather disappointing in terms of academics, the roots of which extend to the fact that I did not put any effort into tutorials, skipped classes, and wasted time on my laptop for the rest of the day. However, I found a new interest in videography and got involved with Silverscreen (IITB film club) related activities and spent a lot of time on video editing. The academic performances were as expected, although fortunately, I did not receive a fail grade in any course. 

Finally, I decided to take a pause and introspect at my decisions. I asked myself why did I join the Chemistry program and what is it that  I wanted to do in my life? The answer was clear-I was here to excel in Chemistry, however, I had to find ways to keep going. I met Dr. Pradeepkumar and requested him for an opportunity to work under him. He was kind enough to agree to my request, which subsequently led to a strong four-year research experience. After getting involved in research work, I started to put sincere efforts into courses as well. Additionally, I was also pursuing a biology minor for my research experiments. I recall spending most of my sophomore year at the research lab to keep myself engaged and far away from daunting thoughts as a result of  my performance in academics so far. I started to reap the fruits of my efforts when my second year drew to a close. Since then, everything started falling into place and I gained a lot of learning experiences for the next three years. 

Apart from academics, I was fortunate enough to meet some great people who influenced me in every facet of life ranging from academics and personality to career goals and life. The FalconsTM wing was really a great bunch of people with each of them possessing their own unique perspective of life. Although I was highly reluctant to hang out with my wing people till the third year, I found myself quite blessed  enough to add to my bag some really celebrated memories with my wingmates from the 4th and 5th years. Each of these persons taught me something in one way or another. I was also fortunate enough to meet some great people in our department. My labmates and PhD friends from the department have been supportive throughout my stay at IITB. I was also fortunate enough to serve as a DAMP mentor and DAMP coordinator at our department. As one of my noteworthy takeaways, the training and the interactions with the mentees and faculty contributed immensely to the overall growth and shaping of my personality at the institute. 

What are you currently working on? Tell us about research culture in states vs insti/India

Traditionally, our main work is focused on deciphering novel enzymatic transformations in the biosynthesis of natural compounds such as RNA modifications. However, currently, I am working on developing sequencing methodologies for bacterial transfer RNA modifications.Speaking laymen, any cell contains three major kinds of RNAs: messenger RNA, transfer RNA, and ribosomal RNA. While these three types of RNA are made of A, U, G, C nucleosides, they also contain modified nucleosides which are derivatives of standard nucleosides. The modified nucleosides are most prevalent in transfer RNA molecules and have important roles in translation and cell physiology. Therefore my research efforts are in the direction to develop site-specific detection methods for modifications on transfer RNA.

Quick access to resources was the key difference I found between the research culture in our country and states. PIs can be demanding irrespective of the country, and it isn’t much different here. Another big difference is that Universities here actively enforce safety rules to ensure the health and safety of its employees.

Tell us about your life in Utah, do you have working hours? How are your weekends? Friends and social Life (also if any culture shocks)?

The first year is filled with course work, TA, lab rotations, and figuring out the research goals. Once you join a lab, each PI may set their restrictions on the working hours of their labs. Some PIs allow flexible movements such as Biochemistry labs where there is not much of a workplace hazard. For students working in organic synthesis labs, it is not safe to work alone, and therefore; they practice strict hours. However, most students take off on weekends to spend time with their family or go on an outdoor adventure.  

For me, life has been simple so far. I may have experienced some culture shock in the first couple of months. Still, the transition has been quite smooth without any significant problems. I spend the most time at work on weekdays and spend time at home during the weekends. I have great friends who indulge in various things. We usually hang out, play soccer, or go a hike during the weekends. As for the nature around Salt Lake City, it indeed is breathtaking. The mountains look highly serene in any season, sometimes covered in snow or sometimes in vibrant colors. Therefore, hiking has been my most favorite outdoor activity at SLC.

Angel’s landing, Zion National Park, Utah. One of the best day hiking experiences in North America. You can see people climbing over, with the help of rails. I did this along with a friend of mine, during a road trip in June 2019.

Apart from research work what hobbies are you still pursuing? 

Satellite view of salt lake valley. Image from Wikipidea

So far at Utah, I have tried a few things beyond research. Our university is located in the salt lake valley (above image from Wikipedia) which offers opportunities for some great outdoor activities throughout the year. The mountains are a great place of fun where people from all over the city explore hiking, biking, camping, rock climbing, and skiing. For me, I have been lucky to have friends that share the same interest as hiking and camping. So we explored some parts of the mountains and camped a few times over the last year. The mountains are never boring as they offer a distinct look in every season. They undoubtedly are some beautiful subjects for people interested in photography. I do not own a professional camera, but I have developed an interest in mobile photography. Whenever I find a beautiful frame during these trips, I try to capture them on my phone and archive them on Instagram.

Clouds masking the snow kissed mountains. This view is from the stadium trax station (very close to my work building). 

Another thing that is great about Utah is its snow and skiing. People believe that the snow in Utah is unquestionably one of the greatest on the entire Earth. Because of high altitude and dry weather, the snow covers the mountain in white powder that supports skiing and snowboarding. These activities are inseparable from this place but personally, I have not had a chance to try it. We also usually play soccer on weekends whenever the weather permits. There is a group of Indian students and employees who share the same interest in football. Moreover, apart from these I also look forward to exploring biking during the remaining stay at SLC.

Uinta-Wasatch-Cache National forest area around salt lake city. A snow hike that I did with my friends in March 2020. 

What are your future plans?

As of now, I wish to become a research faculty at a higher education institution in India. The exact eligibility criteria might differ for each institution, but each institution expects a minimum of one doctoral degree and post-doctoral research experience. 

For a student in the first year of undergrad, it may seem a really long journey but that journey is happy only when your passion shares the same trip with you. So far, the journey for me has been pleasant and I still have a long way to go. I don’t have any far-sighted goals for now. At the moment, thinking about one year, I want to finish my Ph.D. strong. 

What are some key takeaways you have from your experience in the USA until now?

Life has been quite a plain-sailing ride for me so far. In general, most students here try to balance work and other activities. Being in their company, I also try to get on with their happy habits. I haven’t had much chance to explore nature before but the city has now offered me a chance to do so. I find joy and peace when I spend time in nature and that in turn renders me with an optimistic charm towards life. Therefore, I am trying to carry forward these momentous and memorable experiences while simultaneously trying to achieve greater endeavors in these doctoral years. 

Any message for students with no clue as to what to pursue as a career?

I might not be able to offer much advice to students with no clue as to what to pursue as a career because I am not yet completely successful in life. But here are some lessons that I learned which might help students on how to approach academia as a career. First and foremost, have an appetite for learning. The thing about academia is its never-ending learning. Therefore, having this quality would help you ease the journey.

When you start as a first-year undergraduate, one may not have an idea of whether to pursue academia as a career or simply sail with the flow of their cultural prowess or proficiency in sports. The first thing to do is to ask yourself whether you like the subject or at least some aspects of the subject. Take, for example, organic, inorganic, physical, and biological are some broad divisions under Chemistry major. Then you may want to dig deep and learn more about the aspects that can engage you. Personally, I was more interested in the biological side of chemistry and I have finished around 10 bio-chem interface courses including a minor, which laid strong foundations for my research. 

Having good research experience helps you decide whether you want to pursue it or not. Therefore, you might want to try and get some hands-on experience by working with one of the faculty at your department. Sometimes, one may lose interest in particular research and want to explore other research areas. This is perfectly fine and the objective of the research experiences should be to assess a research problem and obtain a solution by critical thinking. Universities try to assess this quality from your application materials when you apply to them for a Ph.D. admission. Having said that, I would recommend that one should stick with a lab for at least a year and try to produce significant outcomes, which would act as evidence for your research aptitude. It is not necessary that you would do the same type of work in your graduate school, and most schools will have options to help you switch through the fields. Therefore, developing critical thinking skills would help you solve any research problem and should be the primary objective of your learning experience during undergraduate years. Later, these strong foundations in undergrad years will help you ease through the graduate school and subsequent phases of research life. 

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