We had a pleasure speaking to Dr. Deepak Modi for our interview with scientist series.
Tell us about yourself.
I am a scientist at an Institute of the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) called as National Institute for Research in Reproductive Health (ICMR-NIRRH). While I am a full time researcher, I enjoy teaching biology to undergraduates and also undertake public outreach programs mainly for under privileged children to excite them in various aspects of life science. I am a strong proponent of gender equality and LGBTQ visibility in STEM.
What’s your area of research?
Mine is a core reproductive biology lab that is interested in figuring out plot of the two major battles that occur in reproductive processes. 1) To scheme the battle that occurs between the mother and the embryo to allow its implantation and initiate pregnancy. 2) To deciphering the blot of the battle of sexes where the gonads decide to become a testis or an ovary during development. More specifically, we are investigating how the homeobox gene HOXA10 in the endometrium interprets signals from an embryo and modulates the local uterine repertoire that allows the embryo to breach the epithelium and allow trophoblast invasion. We are also studying how perturbations in the levels of HOXA10 alter endometrial physiology leading to conditions like infertility, pregnancy losses and preterm births.
What do you think about the current publication trend?
I will limit my answer to this only in context of biological science. I feel we are at a stage of boom in publications and the numbers are unprecedented. With increased availability of equipment’s and regents, we are answering several questions in biology with great precision and at an extraordinary speed. Fortunately we are also publishing large amounts of data and information which will be of immense benefit to science and society.
Having said this, I am very much wary of the trend and emphasis of Impact Factors and the various citation measures linked to the papers. This is killing the fun and excitement of publication and it has become only a number game.
With the advent of open access policies and the greater acceptability of the open access model by the scientific fraternity has bought about a paradigm shift in publication trends. More and more researchers want their data to be freely available in the public domain which has given rise to a large numbers of open access journals. This has dual benefits. Firstly the data is freely available for use in the public domain and secondly as there is no space constrains (unlike in case of print journals were the space is a bottleneck), a large numbers of papers with good quantity of data can be published without compromising on the information.
Is publish or perish a valid statement for young scientists?
Yes, it is a valid statement as publications are the only quantitatively measurable index of work output of a science lab. Funding agencies/recruiting universities need some measure to assess the performance of an individual and I feel there is nothing better than a paper.
Having said this, I am very much against the way funding agencies (read fellow scientist) pressurize the scientists (read their own colleagues) to have certain numbers and impact factors and citation indexes to deserve the next grant/positions. By adding more and more quantitative measures (like impact factors, citation indexes) we are missing on the quality of subjectivity which is an integral part of science.
What do you think of preprint servers? Do you think they are useful?
Aha. This is the most amazing thing happened to biological science. They are really useful in not only allowing to get away of the fear of being scooped but they are of immense value in speeding up dissemination of scientific information and knowledge which otherwise remain in lab notebooks for years and perhaps never come to public. Further, I feel it’s a great way to get comments and opinions from a large number of experts in the field and even from other disciplines which otherwise would not be possible. This is of immense help in shaping up the paper and also the research questions being asked in the lab.
Do you think science is communicated well to non-scientists? What are some ways to improve science communication?
The answer to the first question is clearly a NO. Today we don’t even communicate science that is understandable to fellow scientists from same fields let alone allied fields. Reading papers is becoming increasingly difficult and even harder to understand. If we can change the way we communicate science to our own scientists it will be the biggest help we will do to the society. We need to reduce jargon and make it mandatory for scientist to write simple. The non-supporting behaviour of politicians and public towards science has primarily stemmed from our passive behaviour for science communication to the society at large. Its time we develop more innovative ways to spread scientific knowledge.
I personally love talking about it on social media. I feel, this should be a part of every paper published and the journals also must take care of it along with the authors. In addition, there should be submission of the lay summary by the authors once the paper is accepted and this summary must undergo rigorous review by non-experts (preferably non-scientists). This should accompany the published article and also which can be circulated in social media by both authors and journals.
While the authors are primarily responsible for science, the journals must play a very proactive role in science communication to non-scientists. It’s not enough that the journals just publish the work and forget about it (just like the scientist). The journals must have science communicator teams that in consultation with the authors must disseminate the information to public. Journal editors must also hold regular meetings/open seminars where the lay public/policy makers/funding agencies are engaged and the science that is published be presented in a simple manner.
As we know, there are more PhD’s graduating every year as compared to available tenure track positions. Do you think there is way to improve this?
I am firstly against this idea of generating so many PhDs. The entire system is like a factory that generates PhDs after PhDs. I think it’s time to take a pause and ask ourselves, do we need to generate so many PhDs. A more important question we, must ask is do all these even deserve a PhD. We have diluted our standards and the system has moved from “earning” a PhD to “giving” a PhD and many underserving candidates have been graduated. I feel this is the heart of the problem.
There is no harm with these many individuals perusing research, but not all of these should culminate in a PhD. We must devise exit programs or create technical degrees for those who want to peruse research but not aspire a tenure track position. This would perhaps control the total pool of unemployed PhDs.
An advice to students is to plan well ahead in time and train oneself for the requirements of a tenure track position. We have been putting too much emphasis on publications, but that is not the only base of getting tenured. Committees usually look at its potential faculties for a package having multiple skills like teaching acumen, administrative capabilities and above all leadership qualities. A student must start training herself/himself for all of these while perusing PhD and apply these at a post-doctoral level to improve her/his chance of getting tenured. Further, I must emphasise that candidates must bear in mind that a post-doctoral training is NOT a second PhD. Doing science and publishing more papers like what is done in PhD is not sufficient and this time must be taken to test and further develop the skills required for a faculty positions.
While I won’t know the situation in the West, but in India I know of many institutes/universities are struggling to get good candidates in India. This is largely due to the fact that good candidates do not apply (as they are new or do not have infrastructure, or are not in metro cities). PhDs aspiring to peruse academics must be open minded, explore and be prepared to move rather than being overtly choosey.
What are alternative career options for young scientists apart from applying for tenure track positions?
While perusing academic research and getting tenured is assumed as a default for someone who has done a PhD, and is presently the holy grail. However, I don’t think this assumption is correct. It is not mandatory for every PhD to peruse academics. A PhD is a program that trains an individual to think beyond the obvious, to ask questions and ways to seek answers to them. It also trains towards critical thinking and perseverance. These are life skills that have immense utility in almost every field. I usually ask my protégées of what they see themselves doing in long term and ask them to develop the skills accordingly while perusing PhD.
Presently, I see immense opportunities for young PhDs in diverse fields beyond academics. Amongst these, is science communication itself. We need good researchers who understand the language of scientists and communicate it to lay persons and politicians to aid in policy making. With the increasing numbers of journals, there is a demand for good researchers who have critical thinking and an acumen to judge good science as journal editors. This will allow young scientists to be in touch with science but away from the pressures of lab.
A bottleneck we are facing today is transition of research from bench to bedside. This is because, we lack the critical mass of researchers who think beyond academia and wish to see the work getting to public benefits. I strongly encourage my students to consider entrepreneurship as an alternate career choice beyond academia. If one has a good business sense or has friends who can help to do so, it’s time we identify key discoveries and start translating them for public benefits. Academia is clearly not geared for this and it is a wonderful opportunity I see fore young scientist.
Another upcoming opportunity for young researchers is to start providing services for science writing, more so papers. With increasing numbers of individuals perusing research form non-English speaking countries, and since English is the major medium of communicating science, a need has arisen for people who can help in presenting the results and writing the data in form of research papers. There are several individuals who desire editing services and making complex graphs and drawings at professional scale for publications. These researchers are willing to pay for such services. If one has acumen for science writing/presentation, this is also a wonderful alternate career choice.
With increasing amounts of high throughput data, there is a constant need for people with informatics/computational skills to organize and analyse complex data sets at a professional scale. In the coming years, this also will be a independent field as a career
Apart from science, what do you enjoy doing the most?
I am a foodie and I enjoy cooking as well. Apart from cooking I enjoy travelling. I spend my free time either cooking at home or I am travelling. On a typical Saturday evening or a lazy Sunday morning you will find me at some unexplored restaurant in the city truing out different cuisines.
What do you think is a recent scientific invention which has changed the way we do science now?
In terms of technology, the leaps in genomics have tremendously influenced the way we do science. From our ability to easily edit genomes and analysing genome sequences, its 3D structures and the expression from single cells, we have come a long way and I see a very exciting time in biology in near future. Coupled with this, the significant improvements in microscopy, whole organismal 3D imaging and live imaging has allowed us to make discoveries which will lay foundations for biology at a completely new level.