Dr. Gurjot Kaur
Interviewed by Tarana Arman
Originally published in September 2020 newsletter
Dr. Gurjot Kaur completed her PhD in 2013 from the University of Innsbruck, Austria. There she worked with calcium channels in the heart. Soon she joined University of Konstanz, Germany as a Post-doctoral researcher in the Department of Neurobiology. However, the following year in 2014, she switched to the Department of Human and Environmental Toxicology in the same university. There she proceeded to work for three years until she received an Associate Professor position in Shoolini University, Solan, Himachal Pradesh, India.
Tarana: Gurjot, you did your PhD from University of Innsbruck in Austria, and your Postdoctoral training from University of Konstanz, Germany….
Gurjot corrected me that it was two postdocs. She then further continued
Gurjot: I started my postdoc in Developmental Neurobiology, which I tried for one and the half years and then I realized this is not working for me. To be honest, I was looking for something that I could follow as a faculty. And in my then postdoctoral training, despite having a lot of experience I could not find a research problem that I wanted to pursue further.
Meanwhile I bumped into my second postdoc supervisor Dr. Dietrich, he is a toxicologist. And the meeting with him just clicked right with me. I loved the research topic and I also realized that I had all the tools: Experimental, Physical and Mental.
She further added, after three years of experience as a postdoc in Toxicology, I am so much confident of all the things I know.
Tarana: How was your transition to toxicology? Was it hard?
Gurjot: I have not had a straight career path. But I also never let any opportunities slip by. So I started my PhD, researching on calcium channels in the heart. Then I moved on to neurobiology because I was always interested in learning about the brain. Then I realized that I am not as excited as I thought I will be. In the meantime, I was in India and the pollution there made me think how much it affects me. That is when I came across the second postdoc opportunity and I grabbed the opportunity. I realized this is that perfect research opportunity I was looking for. If you are motivated by a research topic, I feel, you do not have to work extra hard. The work just gets done by itself because you are enjoying it so much. So, I already had the motivation. And after three years I realized I could not wait to put my ideas into practice.
Tarana: Why did you decide to go to Europe, was it a conscious decision?
Gurjot: I feel that I could have spent a little less time and reach my current position had I been more focused. When I did my Bachelor’s, many of my batchmates were preparing for the National Institute of Pharmaceutical Education and Research (NIPER) entrance exam and I took the exam as well, and I was one of the three that got into NIPER. It was the only NIPER back then. And that is what I consider was the turning point in my career. I got a good research experience there, under my supervisor Dr. C.S. Dey. It was then I decided to go for a PhD. Although, I might not have had the focus from the beginning, I never left anything to chance. Once, I decide on a goal I always give my 100-200%. So, when I decided to pursue a PhD, I sent around 200 applications and only two people replied, one of whom was then my PhD supervisor. And when I had my interview with my PhD supervisor, I had to google about Austria. So, somehow, I feel it was not a conscious decision.
But I try to help my students to be more focused now, because times have changed and there is more competition.
Tarana: What were you going through when you received all the rejections?
Gurjot: I do not want to sound too ambitious, but I never thought about these things too much. I am more work oriented. All I thought was, “These people do not know me, so there is a high chance they will not say yes. So, I will have to keep on doing this, till I get a yes”. And I think at the early stage of your career you have to be like that, because you can’t let yourself affected by every rejection.
Tarana: Did you have a similar experience when looking for postdoctoral positions?
Gurjot: By the time I had my PhD in Austria, I had several publications. And I had a recommendation from an international scientist. So, these factors helped me.
Tarana: And how was transition from Germany to India?
Gurjot: Some parts of this transition were easy because I was coming back to my homeland. I understood the people and the language. This was a bit hard for me in Germany. I tried to learn German, but it was not easy for me. And not knowing the language put a hindrance in my effective negotiation capabilities. And we sometimes do not realize that people are more connected to the language they speak.
But when it comes to equipment, yes, that is difficult. Because, suddenly you realize, you do not have everything. But to overcome that, you can collaborate heavily. Moreover, if you are not working in a National Laboratory here, you really must collaborate because you want to ensure that your students do not miss out any opportunities.
The last but not the least is the mental transition. In Germany, as a postdoc I was training one or two students every now and then. Now suddenly, I am a faculty who is always speaking to the students. That was and still is a challenge, as I must reshuffle my Tarana: Did you have a similar experience when looking for postdoctoral positions? Gurjot: By the time I had my PhD in Austria, I had several publications. And I had a recommendation from an international scientist. So, these factors helped me.
Tarana: And how was transition from Germany to India?
Gurjot: Some parts of this transition were easy because I was coming back to my homeland. I understood the people and the language. This was a bit hard for me in Germany. I tried to learn German, but it was not easy for me. And not knowing the language put a hindrance in my effective negotiation capabilities. And we sometimes do not realize that people are more connected to the language they speak. But when it comes to equipment, yes, that is difficult. Because, suddenly you realize, you do not have everything. But to overcome that, you can collaborate heavily. Moreover, if you are not working in a National Laboratory here, you really must collaborate because you want to ensure that your students do not miss out any opportunities. The last but not the least is the mental transition. In Germany, as a postdoc I was training one or two students every now and then. Now suddenly, I am a faculty who is always speaking to the students. That was and still is a challenge, as I must reshuffle my time between teaching, research, and my students. But my students are always my priority.
Tarana: At what point did you decide to be an Academician?
Gurjot: I never wanted to be in industry. The question for me was whether I wanted to be a teacher. In my personal life, I felt like a teacher. When I had my international ToxScholar Grant, I came to visit four institutes in India to teach students about Toxicology and I realized I want to guide students. This visit showed me four extremely good research institutes, including Shoolini. While at Shoolini, I somehow knew that this is where I will be coming back to.
Tarana: Who are some of your mentors both personally and professionally?
Gurjot: That is a great question, she beamed. I have always tried to be in touch with all my professors. I am still in contact with my master’s supervisor Dr. C.S. Dey. I was flying to Austria for the first time for my interview and he gave me a pep talk before that. He is a great guy and a great scientist, and I would love to collaborate with him someday. And then from my PhD, I have two mentors. One of them is a female scientist. At the start of my career, I did not realize that having female scientists as a mentor is important, because we see that most of the scientists who are successful are males. And we feel that they can teach us everything.
But, as time passed, I realized that there are certain questions a male scientist cannot answer, and it is important to have female mentors as well. I realized this during my postdoc when I started heavily going to conferences like SOT and sell myself as an early career researcher. And now as a faculty, I realize the importance even more. I am a part of this group called Graduate Women in Science (GWIS), and we have a WhatsApp group, where we talk to each other and discuss collaborations.
Another important thing that I realized is that you cannot have one single person as your mentor and as your sponsor. Sometimes the time availability might be a problem for them if they are traveling. So, I would suggest having at least 10 mentors that you can go and talk to. The other thing one should also see to is that, you will have to find people who are willing to talk to you about the things you want.
One more realization that I had was that, once I started taking steps for myself, people wanted to be my mentors. They saw me making my own decisions, my mentors saw that and wanted to support me.
Tarana: So how did you approach someone to be your mentor at the start of your career?
Gurjot: I would say that just go ahead and talk to scientists. These conferences that we go to are very important. When you go and speak to a scientist, you will know right away
if they are interested to be your mentor. They will often be very interested in what you had to share, and they will also ask you to write back to them. Often you will also notice that they might reach to certain part of your question in a positive manner. And you can deduce that this person can be a mentor for this sort of problem.
Tarana: Are there any struggles that you have faced as a new faculty?
Gurjot: I do not like to think about most of the things as struggle, because if you are motivated to make it as faculty and a researcher, you will have to be up for every challenge. But, if I may have to speak about struggle, it will have to be time management. Sometimes, I really want to balance my life out and if I decide to stop my work at sharp 6 p.m., but then, I have so much workload the next morning. I do not think this struggle is going to go away any time soon. That is why I applied for the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) grant. This grant taught me a lot of things: how to manage my time. How to look at time as an expendable unit and the ways to reduce the stress levels. Last year was very hard for me because I did not have a grant and
a publication of my own. But time has turned, now I have two grants, I completely appreciate the struggles and now I feel more prepared to help other early career scientists. There is value to both big and small grants and I will recommend to not stick to only big grants.
My other struggles is that my students are working so hard; how do I give them some time free. I try to give them the Saturday and Sunday off every week. This is important, otherwise, Indian students are not taught about work-life balance.
But what I am missing the most right now is having conversations with my mentors. Teaching and research have consumed most of my time and I do not have time to do online video calls, especially with my mentors who are abroad.
One good thing that has come from all of this, is that I have published two articles as the corresponding author. I realized that I can now take the responsibility of an article and structure it in a way that a journal will publish it.
Tarana: How many students do you have currently working with you?
Gurjot: I have two PhD students: one of them is working on microplastics and the other student will start working on Covid-19. I had two master’s students who graduated and two that joined this year. And I have six undergraduates. Not a lot of people realize the potential of undergrads, but I have some undergraduates who are brilliant.
Tarana: How do you keep yourself motivated every day, and any other final parting comments?
Gurjot: I always try to remind myself of the bigger picture. And to do that I meditate (in a way) every day. Every morning I close my eyes and plan out my day. I try to calm myself down if I had a fight with anyone. Somedays, I might feel lazy, I might not be doing enough writing. And meditation helps me to bring back the balance.
As a final comment to anyone who is trying to decide on an industry versus an academic career, I will like to tell them, what I tell my students. Why don’t you try both the sides? Get internships and gauge what you like better. So, try to diversify your experience as much as possible.’
Here is the link to Dr. Kaur’s lab website. Do look it up and get to know more about all the exciting research her lab is doing: https://motivatedscientist.wordpress.com/author/gurjotkaurbains/
Dr. Bhaskar Gollapudi
Originally published in August 2014 Newsletter
What makes one an ideal candidate for industry?
The ideal candidate is a good scientist in the first place – an attribute essential whether you work in industry, academia, or government. In addition, one should have a solid foundation in theoretical as well as applied aspects of toxicology. The candidate should be a generalist in addition to being a specialist in his/her area of expertise. This is similar to, for example, being a family practitioner in addition to being a board certified cardiologist.
Apart from technical knowledge, what else is crucial to succeed in the industry?
One should be able to concurrently manage/work on multiple projects to meet the timelines of other investigators and/or groups in the organization. Good oral and written communication skills are a must. The candidate should have excellent interpersonal skills to be an effective team member.
What are the secrets of continued success in industry?
Having a plan for personal and professional development is essential for continued success. Once such a plan is in place, the candidate should have near-term and long-term goals that are aligned with the plan. Also, one should be striving to find practical solutions to challenging issues and be prepared to make tough decisions. Continue to be active in professional societies to develop good networks.
For a given particular technical area, what is your opinion about the view of industries towards “non-experienced technically sound person versus experienced person (in a different area) with limited technical knowledge in this area”?
A good athlete can be trained to perform reasonably well in multiple sports. Thus, big industrial toxicology departments are willing to invest time and effort to train a good, inexperienced scientist. However, in small companies with a limited number of toxicologists (more often the case these days), experienced people are likely to be given preference over inexperienced.
What type of employee engagement and an industry culture can create a “Win-Win” situation?
The employee should keep in mind that his/her success is intimately tied to the success of their team as well as their company. Be a mentor to junior and fellow employees. When an opportunity presents, be willing to offer reverse mentorship to your senior leader. Companies that encourage open dialogue and flexible, family friendly work environment will likely have a better retention of their talent.
What is your advice to the budding toxicologists for a successful career?
Scientific credibility is the single most important thing, and you have to work hard to earn it. Keep up with the literature. Concentrate your energies in delivering the best quality work product and always look for opportunities to publish your work. Job satisfaction is more than getting that next promotion. Find a good balance between professional and personal life.
Past ASIO President & Ex. Director, Dr. Saryu Goel, Supernus Pharmaceuticals
Interviewed by Priya Venkatakrishnan
Originally published in February 2014 Newsletter
How to get the first job in the industry?
Contrary to the popular belief of most graduates that one needs experience and training to get hired by Industry, a person willing to take up a challenge in the face of uncertainty and learn on the job often excels. The biggest challenge is to get that first job. The best means to get the first job is to proactively seek out and get noticed by the hiring manager, and articulate your interest, and show readiness to quickly learn. In a real life example, a pizza delivery person was talking to a secretary within our company. He had a choice, that is, to deliver the pizza, collect the money and leave or as he did, to, utilize this opportunity to actively seek out, by talking to the secretary and following up by sending her his resume to be forwarded on to hiring manager. The lesson here is that sometimes opportunities are created just by asking and following through.
After landing in to the first job in industry, what preparations will help an individual towards career advancement in the current market scenario?
Success of a company depends on the staffs who work towards a common goal. This requires that people work in harmony (easier said than done) and resolve challenges in a timely manner. Hence, communication, team skills, and maintaining a positive attitude are of utmost importance. Additionally, seizing the opportunity in new areas will help accelerate your career, as often times there is no one else willing to take up such a challenge when a company decides to expand a specific group.
What adaptation to change is expected from a scientist after getting into a company and what is needed for a scientist towards individual growth?
Although we hear that change is inevitable, one often expends energy in fighting the change. Instead, one should champion the effort to bring about the change. Often, such people get ahead of their peers and are then recognized to lead programs.
In what aspect of career growth, young scientists in industry spend their energy and time that, in your opinion, become a futile effort?
Scientists focus too much time to continue improving their skill-set in areas in which they are already experts, and neglect to take up responsibilities outside their comfort zones. For example, a toxicologist may not want to take up a QA or clinical job function, feeling that they do not know enough and thus missing a crucial opportunity to learn and grow.
Are there any platforms available in our pharma/biotech industry to prepare an individual to think outside the box?
There are plenty of training programs offered throughout the US for a fee, but many of these only provide a high level overview, which is often not adequate when handling real life job needs. Hence, the best training options are job shadowing or volunteering to assist an expert in your new field of interest. These often entail an investment of time, not money. The best resources for such training are your peers or referrals.
And one last question...
As somebody who has a lot of experience working in industry, what do you think are the norms of office discussions?
If it is positive, speak up loud! If you can, absolutely avoid saying anything negative, even to a “dead tree”!
Thank You so much for sharing your thoughts, Dr Goel!!
Dr. Dharm Singh
Originally published in November 2013 Newsletter
As one of the founding fathers of ASIO, please shed some light on the inception of ASIO?
I was attending several conferences like American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) and I saw many Indians at these conferences. However, we didn't have any place or association to meet with fellow Indians. There were people like Dr. Mehendale, Dr. Desai who felt the same and we came together and decided that we will gather Indian attendees at SOT and meet with them as a group. Dr. Chellu Chetty was a tremendous help with these efforts.
Could you please share with us the early days of ASIO?
In the earlier days, SOT was a very small meeting with about 1000 people attending it. We used to hold the ASIO meeting in some hotel room. We bought some chips and drinks. We requested any Indian attendee we came across in SOT to come for meeting. In those days we didn't have Indian restaurants near the convention place. So we used to hire a bus and take the people who came for ASIO's meeting to an Indian restaurant and bring them back. I recollect the help offered by one Dr.Vasant Malset in arranging the transportation of the ASIO participants to and from the Indian restaurant.
What are your thoughts and experiences of ASIO under new leadership?
I still continue to support ASIO under the new leadership. Earlier, I have helped many Indian students to attend the SOT meeting. Recently, I have sponsored the membership fee of any new member of ASIO. This year I have sponsored about 60 new members.
How do you feel about the ASIO of today?
I am very happy about the growth of ASIO.
What message would you like to convey to new members of ASIO and the future leaders of ASIO?
Do your best. Always help each other, never pull down others.
Dr. Chellu Chetty
Originally published in November 2013 Newsletter
As one of the earliest members of ASIO, please shed some light on the inception of ASIO?
ASIO-SOT is an offshoot of the parent organization, Association of Scientists of Indian Origin in America, Inc. (ASIOA) which was incorporated in 1981 in which I am also a life member. In January 1982, I had joined the University Medical Center, Jackson MS as a visiting scientist and had the privilege of working with senior toxicologists, Drs. Desaiah and Mehendale who were also very active in ASIOA. I used to help them in mailing newsletters etc. to the ASIOA members and participated in the informal conversations to establish ASIO-SOT. In 1983, I travelled with them to attend the 22nd Annual Meeting of Society of Toxicology in Las Vegas. One evening both Drs. Desaiah and Mehendale invited some of their long time Indian colleagues including Dr. Dharm Singh for an informal get-together in their hotel room. I still remember carrying some coke bottles and chips for this informal snack meeting at which an idea was floated and a seed was planted for ASIO-SOT.
Could you please share with us the early days of ASIO?
Since the ASIO-SOT was started as a non-structured organization with no funds we struggled to get around 20 Indian Toxicologists (less than 15% of Indian Toxicologist attending the Annual SOT meeting) to join us for a dinner meeting at an Indian Restaurant. Since I have friends and former students in many major cities, I volunteered to help Drs. Desaiah and Mehendale in the arrangement of these dinner meetings mostly at Indian Restaurants. I used to take donations to pay for some of the meeting expenses and left the rest with them for mailing and other miscellaneous expenses. The growth of ASIO-SOT from 1983-2003 was slow and steady.
Could you please tell us about your association with ASIO under new leadership?
The first turning point was around 2003 when Dr. Desaiah moved to Industry and Dr. Mehendale had set back with his health, they requested Madhu Soni (who worked as postdoctoral fellow with Dr. Mehendale) to take the charge. Madhu had requested Gopala Krishna, Sanjay Chanda and Pallavi Limye and me for help. We readily accepted the invitation and decided to go for a structured organization with an executive board and a membership fee. In December 2003, we sent the first Newsletter to all members. In March 2004 this has enabled us to plan some activities after a traditional dinner at Café Bombay (Baltimore, MD). Our approach to have a keynote speaker and recognition of some senior members (Drs. Krishan Reddy and Vodela Lalwani) and four doctoral students received encouragement and financial support especially from Dr. Dharm Singh to expand the activities in the following years.
The second turning point was in 2006 when of Dr. Prakash Naggarkatti who was on the SOT Special Interest Group (SIG) Task Force helped us in drafting the bylaws and in the integration of ASIO into SOT which has provided $2,000 annual support.
The third turning point was in 2007 when one fine morning I received a call from Dr. Dharm Singh who has doubled his donation pledge to $10,000 and guided me to negotiate with the SOT for matching to establish an endowment fund. In less than a week, I was able to receive additional $2,500 from other members to meet the SOT matching requirement of $12,500. This was first ASIO-SOT SIG $25,000 Endowment Fund which was named after Dr. Dharm Singh. This has really paved the way for second one, Dr. Mehendale Endowment Fund in 2008 and third one, Dr. Laxman Desai in 2009. Several of ASIO-SOT members have also contributed to these Endowment funds, which enable the organization, as a model SIG. Three Endowment Funds in three years was a major accomplishment.
How do you feel about the ASIO of today?
Due to conflict of SOT meeting dates with the NSF-ERN conference, which I was mandated to attend because of a major grant, I could not attend the SOT in the last three years. However, I have participated in some of the teleconferences and closely monitored the activities. Kudos to ASIO officers who have been diligently working to maintain the momentum that was created in the last decade and initiate some programs such as Mentoring Program. Mentoring is my specialty and I strongly believe this initiative would enhance the network and enable the young toxicologist to be successful in their endeavors.
What message would you like to convey to new members of ASIO and the future leaders of ASIO?
I strongly feel that it was a collective effort to achieve what we see today. We (ASIO Officers) never had even one misunderstanding during our long association with this organization. One thing I always liked and wanted was not to give scope for the politics, which would destroy all our efforts. I hope the legacy would continue and it will move to the next level. We the seniors are just a phone call away to help this tree (organization), which was planted 30 years ago to grow further. I am very glad to see that the tree has fruits for the next generation of Indian Toxicologists. Please continue to encourage and groom the younger generation to play a role in the ASIO-SOT. I plan to see you all at the 2014 meeting in Phoenix.
Dr. Vinayak Srinivasan
Assistant Vice President Safety Evaluation
L'Oreal USA, Clark, New Jersey
Originally published in August 2013 Newsletter
What do you believe are the three most important personal attributes, which may help Indian student/postdocs to be successful in industry careers?
- Good interpersonal skills: The ability to interact with peers and experienced scientists that you would like to look up to as role models in your career. Seek mentors early in your career and work with them on gaining the necessary skill sets for your career ahead as well as learning from challenges and issues they faced.
- Building your own network: Utilize forums like Linkedin and SOT ToxChange by joining applicable groups, seek knowledge/information and ask questions as well as try to make contributions of your own. Customize your connections to include people with similar experience and background to have a successful career.
- Volunteer for opportunities: Explore forums where you can learn as well as contribute. To become more visible, both within and outside your organization, show a willingness to learn and try to apply the leanings. Actively participate and connect with people in SOT task forces, Specialty Sections and Special Interest groups.
What courses/exams are most valuable in order to gain skills necessary for success in the toxicology field?
I would recommend obtaining DABT certification as it helps to enhance your credentials as a toxicologist. When interviewing for jobs, many employers consider having DABT "a plus". Also, focus on "emerging issues" and "hot topics" in your areas and try to stay ahead in your field by taking relevant courses/training, especially at National meetings like SOT, ACT, DIA, etc.
Based on your successful experience in the personal care/cosmetics-industry, what advice would you give new toxicologists entering the field?
L'oreal offered me a unique and exciting challenge of focusing on animal alternative approaches (in silico, in vitro and clinical studies) to ensure the safety of marketed cosmetic products. I am constantly dealing with a variety of innovative make-up, skin, fragrance and hair products promoted by models and celebrities. So, if the combination above is attractive to you, I don't have to say anything more!
Can you give some perspective on what qualities do the employers seek from a potential job candidate?
In addition to solid technical skills, "soft skills" are equally important in interviews and dealing with potential employers. Make an effort to be inquisitive, show energy and enthusiasm, actively listen and answer to the point without rambling, do your homework and become familiar with the company, its line of products as well any recent challenges it has faced or is currently facing, etc.
What can you say about future needs and role of toxicologists in personal care/cosmetics industry?
The European Union has banned all animal testing on cosmetic products starting in March this year. Other regulatory agencies worldwide are also looking at similar legislation and have started to phase in animal testing bans. We see this as a great opportunity to promote animal alternative models and safety assessments. So the future looks bright in this industry because everyone still
needs personal care products and cosmetics, right?
Dr. Binu Philip
Interviewed by Sheetal Thakur
Originally published in February 2012 Newsletter
As an Indian having your degree from India and moving to the US, what is one of the major challenges you faced in your early career and how did you overcome them.
It was as if I was back to square one. The learning curve was steep. Luckily, I had a good mentor who walked me through those initial struggling days.
What do you believe are the three most important attributes, which may help Indian students, especially as immigrants get an edge over their peers?
Motivation, focus and patience. All three are interconnected. You will be wasting your time and energy without motivation. Focus is important in helping you maintain your motivation. Always be focused and work with a target every year. If you are properly motivated, then patience is not hard to come by. I would say that the one thing most Indian students lack is patience. They often get frustrated with the lack of support and success. But if you have good perseverance then things would happen. Rome was not built in a day.
List some activities, which helped you transition from a post-doc to your current position.
I was actively involved in various committees right from my graduation days. This helped me to develop management and people skills. I looked at national meetings as an opportunity to network. Before each meeting, I made a list of people I wanted to meet and made sure that I found time to connect with them thereby improving my network. Also, I worked on my communication and writing skills which are very critical for an industrial job.
What was the most challenging part of your interview for the industry position and how did you overcome it?
Industrial interviews are different from academics in that the questions are more behavioral. My first job interview did not go well as expected. So I came back and did an introspective analysis to find out what went wrong. I needed to come up with real answers and not the readymade ones that I got from books and the internet. Regardless of what the question was, the answer was simple. “Select me” because I am your best choice. Before the next interview I read the job description at least 20 times. I came up with real life incidents that demonstrated the qualities needed for the job I was interviewing. I talked to all my friends working in industry and got different perspectives. I researched a lot about the company. I browsed through LinkedIn and got information about all the people in my interview panel. The most challenging part was to stay focused and active during a daylong interview. So, I prepared myself mentally for that challenge.
If you were to go back in time, is there anything you would do differently as a graduate student or a postdoctoral fellow that would help better adjust to the corporate culture.
I would be more organized and make quick decisions. I would talk less, listen more, and ask more questions. I would meet challenges with more enthusiasm and will try to think outside the box.