Wind(s) Beneath My Wings: Poonam Thakur








I could fly higher than an eagle, For you are the wind beneath my wings

Perhaps nothing defines the role of a mentor in a researcher’s life than these celebrated lines from the 1982 song by Larry Henley and Jeff Silbar. Unlike many, I am very fortunate to have amazing mentors who supported me and guided me along the way. But it was not always like that. Growing up, with no exposure to ‘now- ubiquitous’ internet or suitable guidance, I was largely ignorant about a career in science. During my school days, I remember being a curious child and often bugging my teachers with questions beyond textbooks. I was always a bright student in my school or at least so did my classmates and teachers tell. After completing senior secondary exams, when the time came to choose a career path, I did not have anyone guide me. All I felt was that I did not want to take the well- trodden path of medicine or engineering. I wanted to pursue science and ended up joining BSc Biophysics. Since I had a predominantly mathematics background, I was totally clueless about the biology courses that I was pursuing, during my initial years of bachelor's. Often, I would consider my choice of joining Biophysics and the fact that I was the first person in my entire extended family to study science, did not help either. It is only towards the third year of my bachelor's that I started understanding and eventually enjoying biology. I was awarded a gold medal for the first rank in BSc Biophysics. Buoyed by my success in the last year of BSc, I decided to continue with Masters in Biophysics. During the second year of my Masters, I had the taste of working on a research problem. This proved to be a turning point for my career. I still remember the butterflies in my stomach before a critical experiment. This was also the first time when I encountered genuine guidance from my first mentor Prof SN Sanyal. He was always encouraging and persuaded me to take up research. While working in his lab, I began enjoying the life of a researcher, the freedom to explore my ideas, having the flexibility of setting my own pace, and gradually building a story from systematic experimentation. Very recently, sadly I lost Prof Sanyal, who in many senses taught me the fundamentals of research. I decided to pursue Ph.D. and joined the lab of Prof Bimla Nehru. It was ironic that I joined a neuroscience lab and I was so bad even at memorizing the names of different regions of the brain! Having ventured into a new field (neuroscience), I had a lot of struggles initially. Experiments kept failing, reagents and animals were difficult to get by in university, and I did not have any mark worthy results until nearly 1.5 years into my Ph.D. Needless to say, that I had self-doubts and questions like am I good enough to do a Ph.D., kept propping up in my head now and then. However, my supervisor was always supportive and maintained an amicable atmosphere in the lab where we were not penalized for failing rather encouraged to improve with each failure. Eventually, experiments worked and I was able to receive my Ph.D. in four years. When I look back today, I realize that Prof Nehru not only ignited the love for neuroscience in me but also nurtured independence, meticulous planning, critical thinking and great work ethics in me, the qualities that help me to date. Once I was done with my Ph.D., I was completely enamored by the mysteries of the brain, more specifically the enigmatic Parkinson’s disease.


I continued my research in Parkinson’s disease when I joined the lab of Prof Anders Björklund in Sweden as a postdoctoral fellow. My stint there not only exposed me to cutting-edge science but also exposed me to an international work environment. My PI was a top-notch scientist in the field of regenerative neurobiology but was extremely comfortable in saying “I do not know this”. His down-to-earth attitude, approachability and passion-driven science helped me a lot in reshaping myself as a researcher. He never chased any ‘fancy’ publications but always insisted on rigorous science. He would sit with us on the microscope, looking at slides for hours. The fascination and joy for the subject that he had even after working in the field for more than 30 years, certainly rubbed on me. Furthering my quest in Parkinson’s disease, I joined the lab of Prof Jochen Roeper, a world-renowned expert in the dopamine system, in Germany. Before joining his lab, I had no exposure to electrophysiology experimentation. Defying the common (misplaced) conception that PI’s look to hire only well-trained postdocs in their field, Prof Jochen not only taught me patch-clamp recordings, arguably among the most difficult of the techniques but also supported me immensely as I was working towards finding faculty positions and independent grants. He would even conduct mock interviews for me! He celebrated the successes of all his trainees, even when it meant they were leaving his lab. The mentorship and support he provided were unparalleled. Even after leaving his lab for more than two years now, I always bother him for any suggestion or guidance I need.


After returning to India, as soon as I started my independent lab at IISER- Thiruvananthapuram, the COVID-19 pandemic engulfed the whole world and severely hampered kickstarting my lab. At this critical juncture, I received immense support and guidance from several colleagues at the workplace and also at different institutes. I probably had nothing to offer in return and yet they all helped me selflessly. This peer mentorship at this juncture that I have received has been invaluable. Today when I ponder at my journey, I realize that I have been extremely fortunate to find excellent mentors on the way. Their generosity not only helped a first-generation person to navigate the tricky world of academia but also shaped and reshaped my career and life. As I continue to grow in academia, my efforts will be focused on paying forward the mentorship that I have received throughout my journey. I want to provide the same kind of enriching and encouraging experience to my trainees and students that I received from my mentors.

 

About

Dr Poonam Thakur is the Assistant Professor in the School of Biology, IISER Thiruvananthapuram. She is interested in studying Parkinson's disease. Dr Thakur is also the member of Project Encephalon's Scientific Advisory Committee.