Author Stories: What it takes to endure a PhD

Researchers are beings on a mission to unravel the mysteries of the world and discover new knowledge. The research community is often considered eccentric and isolated. We’ll admit that our view of scientists/researchers is a distorted one, far from reality, thanks to sci-fi movies.

So, to all the current and aspiring PhD researchers, here is a little sneak peek into the lives of two scientific researchers—Dr Mrigya Babuta and Dr Rinki Kumar. Read on about their journey, the challenges they face, how they circumvent the roadblocks, the lessons they learnt, and how fun a researcher’s life can be.

Introducing Mrigya and Rinki (and their research)

Dr Mrigya Babuta is a postdoctoral fellow at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center—an affiliated teaching hospital for Harvard Medical School.

Dr Rinki Kumar is a postdoctoral fellow at Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, Pennsylvania.

Mrigya works on alcoholic and non-alcoholic fatty liver diseases and explores potential therapeutic targets to treat them. While the purpose of this post is not to feature the scientific nitty-gritty of her research, we can all agree on the practical relevance of it, as she explained—there could be long-term effects of consuming alcohol or junk food (rich in cholesterol and fat) which one may not realize immediately, so moderation is the key!
Rinki works on human cytomegalovirus and coronaviruses and tries to understand how the viruses interact with their hosts. Her view of research is that of a big puzzle that one solves piece by piece. She even personifies the system that she’s working with—UL88 protein in the human cytomegalovirus: “For me, the UL88 protein is like an introverted person who doesn’t reveal everything about themselves immediately! And, things get more interesting as you start putting the puzzle pieces together—that is how exciting research is! I get to discover a new aspect every day, even if it takes a little extra effort on some days.”
Enduring the journey

It is quite natural to not know which path to take after a Master’s degree—a corporate job or an academic PhD. For Mrigya, it was the guidance and mentorship from experienced folks that helped her make a sound decision. Rinki has a similar view of mentorship, both from the mentee’s and mentor’s perspectives.

Rinki with her mentors

The most valuable part of mentorship comprises motivation. The role of guidance and mentorship does not end there, though—you need it throughout, be it in your student years or even when you are working. “Mentorship need not come only from your supervisor. Your family, peers, and seniors could be your mentors too,” says Mrigya.

Mrigya's mentors: her mom (left panel), her PhD supervisors (middle panel), and her postdoc supervisor (right panel)

PhD is a long journey with lots of roadblocks and bumps, and with just the right kind of support system, you can endure them, if not bypass them.

“In a PhD, there are more moments of lows than highs, and you have to be prepared to deal with that. The highs only come in speckles, and so we learn to rejoice in the smallest of wins. For example, sometimes, a beautiful Western blot can brighten up my day like nothing else could,” says Rinki.

Science and research—competitive but collaborative

Since the research path is never a straight line from point A to point B, failure is part of the journey. Therefore, it becomes the need of the hour to establish collaborations with other researchers with varying expertise. In fact, research and science cannot progress when done alone.

“Transparency in collaborative work regarding what has been completed, whether there has been a delay, and what roadblocks were encountered, helps establish trust among the collaborators,” says Mrigya.

It is equally important to be aware of the latest developments happening in your field of interest via reading the literature, attending seminars and presentations, networking with peers, discussing ongoing and potential projects, etc.

“Science and research evolve through conversations by breaking silos within the field and collaborating with others, and that’s the beauty of it! When you are really into it and enjoying it, that is when it becomes fun, that is when you get new ideas, and you can be creative with how you want to lead your (research) story,” says Rinki.

Is it all work and no play?

Monotony is bound to haunt one when they’re deeply engrossed in doing just one type of thing. Both Mrigya and Rinki stress the importance of having and developing hobbies. After all, work-life balance is what keeps one productive and happy.

Mrigya loves exploring places and restaurants in her free time. She has got an artistic flair as well—painting, reading, and baking when she finds the time. As an introvert trying to break out of the bubble, she goes hiking and works towards meeting new people and networking.

Mrigya after scaling Stowe Pinnacle, Vermont (left panel), and Mount Major, New Hampshire (right panels)

Rinki plays volleyball, loves travelling, and enjoys painting, dancing, and reading novels. She is an amateur photographer, who loves capturing nature and landscape through her photography, and has now become the official photographer of her lab!

Left panel: "Penn State College of Medicine, Hershey, as seen in the four seasons through my lens," says Rinki. Right panel: Rinki all set to kayak down the Tennesse River, Knoxville, Tennesse, USA
Lessons and advice

The long journey of research comprising years of PhD and postdoctorate teaches a lot of lessons.

For someone taking the plunge into research with no prior experience, the role of a mentor is of paramount importance. A good mentor, apart from guiding you on the specifics, the what-s and how-s of the work, can help you adopt a focused approach.

Rinki in the middle of her experimental lab work (left and middle panels) and presenting her poster at a conference (right panel)

“It is okay if an experiment fails; there’s no need to be flustered or frustrated over failed experiments, but instead, revisit the data and reconsider your hypothesis. Sometimes, you just have to look at it from a different perspective. Research is not a one-man show. It is extremely important to have a strong support network around you to get you through the tricky days,” says Rinki.

In the words of Mrigya, “Even a negative result is something. …you know, even a well-chalked-out strategy may not always work. So, what’s your plan B?”

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