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Sandipan the PhD candidate

Question: 

Stories of scientific discoveries that changed the nature of our society have always struck a special chord in me. The impact of a scientific principle might not be immediately perceptible, but think hard about it and it can be translated into an idea that can significantly improve the quality of human life. While my decision to pursue a PhD was not motivated by altruistic intentions, the possibility of making a contribution to our society that can change the way we look at ordinary, mundane objects was very attractive to me. As I clawed through high school and my undergraduate university, I got a chance to dabble in different jobs (mostly short term) some of which were in research laboratories. Every kind of job involves some degree of problem solving. However, only in a research setting did I find that people invested a lot of effort in developing multiple orthogonal approaches to solve the same problem and check for convergence of a solution to ultimately decide whether the solution is at all correct and which approach is the best. I was sure that I would be happiest in pursuing a PhD because the nature of the job matched my personality.

I completed my bachelors and masters in Biochemical Engineering and Biotechnology from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, India, in 2008. This was my first tryst with biology at a cellular and molecular level and I loved it. This also gave me the time to whet my skills at other basic sciences (most importantly mathematics) and realize how training in one discipline can be translated to another (apparently unrelated) discipline.

For my PhD, I chose to work with Dr. Baron Chanda, at the University of Wisconsin Madison. I not only found his specific research very interesting but also the broader area he was working on (ion channel biophysics) seemed to perfectly align with my interests. This gave me the opportunity to apply what I had learned as an undergraduate to understand “the molecular machines” which were far more complicated than I had ever realized. I have thoroughly enjoyed my PhD. I love ion channel biophysics and today I cannot see myself being happier doing something else. It has strongly confirmed that I really enjoy research and thus, it has played an important part in shaping my future plans.

I started my PhD in 2008 and I will be graduating in early 2014. During this time, I was lucky to have good friends inside and outside of the lab who, to some degree, were my rocks. However, as much as I have enjoyed this process, there have been times when I was beating my head against the wall. My friends helped me cross these temporary barriers.

My future plan is to become an independent scientific investigator. Before I can get there, I want to gain more research experience with other experimental techniques and/or biological systems; so that I am equipped to do the kind of research that I want to do independently. The natural next step for me is to secure a post-doctoral position. There are many scientists whose research excited me. I had read their papers and heard them give lectures at different conferences. I was well prepared with a list of prospective places I wanted to go for my post-doctoral research. I got in touch with them either via email or got the chance to interact with them at conferences. This initiated discussions about my post-doctoral research interests. In deciding where to ultimately go, I had also factored in issues such as work-place environment, opportunities to write post-doctoral research grants, compatibility of personalities, as well as the city. Luckily, it has worked out for me. Post-graduation, I will be working with someone whose work I have admired for several years. However, having an active forum that caters to questions of senior graduate students regarding the search for post-doctoral research positions or other career options will be very helpful.

My decision to pursue post-doctoral research after my PhD was well received by my peers and colleagues. I hardly doubt that it was anything unexpected, since I have been quite sure that this is what I wanted to do for a long time and have previously voiced my interests on several occasions.

Whether you want to build the fastest car on the planet, determine the cost of customer acquisition for your next million dollar business, or describe your own equation which beats E = mc2 as the world’s most famous equation, the importance of learning the art of problem-solving can never be stressed enough. The PhD experience gives everyone the unique opportunity to test their own problem solving skills and hone it, as one sees appropriate. It brings, under one roof, astute problem solvers, tempered with experience, as well as young fresh minds overflowing with unbridled excitement, with the hope of harnessing the power of the human mind which has stood the test of evolution. At the same time it impresses upon young minds the importance of, what I believe to be, the most important disciplines of life – patience and perseverance. In my humble opinion, such learning is more valuable than the specific techniques one learns or the research problems that one tries to solve in their PhDs. While a PhD is not the only way by which one can acquire these fundamental skills, without a doubt, it's a fantastic one!

Now if one asks, “What can a PhD specifically do for me?” I would direct him to a graduate school brochure, since I don’t think I have a good and well-rounded answer. Our lives are all about risk-return optimization wherein you take some risks with the hope that it is going to pay you rich dividends down the line. The life of a graduate student, on paper and in comics, looks like a miserable one – you don’t make much and the promise of making money in the future does not always hold out. For me, however, the fact that I can get up every morning and go to work excited about something new that I am going to learn, that frustrating moments often set the stage for us to realize the beauty and complexity in nature’s design, that every day I get to do what I love, has been a good enough reason to submit myself to this grinding experience and I would do it again!

BIOGRAPHY:

Sandipan completed his bachelors and masters degrees from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kharagpur, majoring in Biotechnology and Biochemical Engineering. He is a graduate student of the Graduate Program in Molecular Biophysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is interested in basic theoretical (of reaction rates, dielectrics, classical statistical thermodynamics, etc.), spectroscopic and structural studies of proteins. Since his joining the lab (in Fall 2008) he has worked at modeling - structural and theoretical - to elucidate the physical basis of electromechanical coupling in sodium channels. Currently, he is working on voltage-gated potassium channels where he is trying to understand the possible effects of hydration on the molecular choreography of these membrane proteins. He is also interested in TRP channels, principally the mechanisms of polymodal sensitivities in these channels. Apart from research, Harry Potter and cooking keep him busy.

 

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