“My journey in research; Chasing a chemical high” – Saurja Dasgupta

When I told my eighth-grade teacher, I wanted to get a Ph.D. in Chemistry, he didn’t dismiss my wide-eyed fantasies. Instead, he kept encouraging me throughout the year with books and impromptu discussions, which gradually expanded the meaning of the word ‘Chemistry’ to me. My decision to pursue Chemistry was, in effect, the decision of a naïve thirteen-year-old, who was still learning about pH indicators and the ‘octet’ rule!

Chasing Chemistry

I got my first taste of scientific research six years later, as an undergraduate at St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata. I was part of a team of chemistry and microbiology students involved in characterizing cyanobacteria samples we collected from the Borra Caves in Vishakhapatnam, while on a departmental excursion. Our experiments were primitive, and I cannot vouch for the level of accuracy of some of the results we obtained, but I learnt the value of talking to students from other disciplines early on – a habit I encourage young researchers to take seriously.

Insti Life

Amidst the flurry of entrance tests and interviews that crowded the end of my final year in college, I got an opportunity to compose an original research proposal for my application to the integrated PhD program at NCBS, Bangalore, when I fell into the ‘nucleic acid rabbit hole’ that I am still exploring a decade later. This early interest in the chemistry of nucleic acids led me to Dr. Pradeepkumar’s lab in the summer of 2011 for my second year Master’s thesis work at IIT Bombay. Unlike, most of my friends, I had my own project, which came with a faint sense of pride and world of painful troubleshooting. Needless to say, my days in the campus were much more than smelly chemicals and last-minute assignments. From hanging out at the various night canteens in the guise of studying late before an exam and celebrating birthdays with the least amount of sophistication, to scaling the boundary walls on occasion, life at IIT Bombay was as eventful as it was intellectually stimulating.

Departmental Picnic. Mumbai, 2012

A Ph.D. student lost in the ‘RNA World’

As my interests in nucleic acids started taking a more biological turn, I decided to apply to schools in the US with strong nucleic acid biochemistry/chemical biology programs. In hindsight, I think I was suffering from tunnel-vision. Selecting schools that provide plenty of options to choose from, and not restricting yourself to a particular topic or lab is perhaps a smarter approach. After some deliberation, I decided to move to the University of Chicago and was fortunate to be able to work in the group (led by Dr. Joe Piccirilli) I was interested in joining. Most of my Ph.D. work was focused on studying ‘ribozymes’, which are RNA molecules that behave as enzymes, much like proteins. Using x-ray crystallography and biochemistry, I was able to identify the structural and chemical features of RNA enzymes that are important for their catalytic properties.

Chicago 2013

Anyone with a PhD has a trove of not-so-pleasant memories. The first conceptual shock is the realization that unlike your prior education, there is no solution manual to the questions you are trying to answer. You are likely among a handful of people on the planet that are working on that specific problem and this can be a lonely thought. But there is a silver lining – once you solve the problem, you will be one of the very few experts on that topic! The prospect that a narrow slice of nature will reveal itself to me before anyone else in the world is a very seductive one and was sufficient to push me forward whenever I felt stranded in a junkyard of failed projects. If there is one thing that I learnt from my Ph.D., it is ‘failure management’, and it’s perhaps the most important life skill there is!

Students who carry out their Ph.D. research in India may not fully appreciate the importance of keeping good friends, as they are always surrounded by them. When living far away from your near and dear ones, it really helps to find a few people in whose presence, you can forget the daily grind of research.

In my five and a half years in Chicago, we went on many trips visiting over twenty states, staged plays, wrote music and jammed all night, debated science, philosophy and religion, and shared little parts of our personal struggles with each other. Friends, like buffers, help maintain your sanity even under drastic attacks on your mental pH.

A postdoc searching for the cradle of life

It’s been over a year since I moved to Boston to carry out my post-doctoral research at the Massachusetts General Hospital in Dr. Jack Szostak’s group. My interest in RNA enzymes has led me to investigate their role at the origin of life on earth. As one can imagine, reconstructing the emergence of life ~4 billion years ago, is difficult, yet it is one of the most exciting problems facing humanity. Indian science has not yet embraced Origin of Life research despite having numerous scientists capable of contributing greatly to the field. I hope to change this in the future and often dream of a nation-wide consortium that will explore the diverse set of questions that cloud our understanding of how biology was born in the cradle of chemistry.

Nature’s 5 million year-long project. Grand Canyon, 2014

The luxury to fail

Life in research is not the smoothest. When your friends start getting lucrative promotions, get married, buy cars and houses, and put up pictures of their new-born on social media, you are at your bench, poring over a problem that less than a hundred people in the world care about. Instead of being demotivating, let this be the reason for pride. Taking pride in my science, even if it’s not ground-breaking, has been my antidote to despondency. Having a creative hobby, like poetry, music or art goes a long way too(no, watching ‘acclaimed movies’ on Netflix does not count) when it comes to evening out the stress of research.

Balancing life outside work can get tricky, especially when you have a family or people to care for. Academia has a decades-long problem with enforced over-work, but comparing Ph.D. research to any other 9-5 job (which is a thing, especially in the West) can also be detrimental to young students, who very often find themselves stuck in a long learning curve like I did and still do. Give yourself the time and luxury to fail, so that those winning results can come to you faster, triggering further enthusiasm and eventual success. After all, you wouldn’t tell a young Sachin Tendulkar or Mary Kom to stop training after 5 pm, would you? It is your adventure, don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

P.S. (as if I didn’t say enough already)

1. The University of Chicago, among others, is a host institution for the WINSTEP program, which is an Indo-US initiative that supports Khorana Scholars (Biological Sciences) and Bose Scholars (Physical Sciences, Mathematics, Engineering) from India. I have had the privilege of mentoring two undergrads from India for 2-3 months in the summer. One of them is now a PhD student at Scripps, Florida. Please take advantage of this opportunity.

2. I am an editor at a popular science blog, Club SciWri, where we publish articles explaining exciting scientific concepts, recent scientific advances, science policy, and the history of science. If you love talking science and are interested in honing your writing skills, I encourage you to write to sciwri2016[at]gmail.com or get in touch with me.  

All the Best!

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