Dr. Varsha Jain
UVic Women in Science presents an postdoc interview series highlighting women in the scientific community on Vancouver Island. Dr. Varsha Jain is currently postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Awatramani's lab in the Biology department at UVic. Her research interests lie in understanding how retinal neurons process visual information.
Tell us about yourself and your scientific journey. I did my BSc in biotechnology from Jaipur (northern part of India), my home town. I completed my doctoral degree in neuroscience at the National Brain Research Centre in India. During my PhD, I worked on the retinal neurons which are involved in maintaining circadian rhythm and pupillary light reflex. In 2014, I joined Dr. Awatramani’s lab at the University of Victoria as a postdoctoral fellow. My current research revolves around understanding a neural circuit in the retina, which detects object motion. It fascinates me that despite so much work being done, not much is known in neuroscience. The part I really enjoy about my work is that I get to perform cool experiments on a daily basis where I can observe neuronal activity on a micron scale.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science? Science was my favourite subject in school, especially biology. I was always curious to learn how biological systems function. While growing up in India I always wanted to be a doctor, but didn't make the cut for medical school. At that time, I was not sure about my career choices, but knew that I wanted to do something in science. So I took the Biology courses associated with a biotechnology major offered at my state university.
What is the most interesting project you have worked on and why? The most interesting project I worked on was my first project at UVic where I did functional imaging of the neuronal dendrites. One can imagine a neuron as a tree with numerous branches and sub-branches. A neuron receives distinct information in different dendritic branches that are integrated at the soma. The conventional way of measuring neuronal activity is to record electrical responses at the level of soma, which does not give information processing in space. But, using this functional imaging approach, I could measure the activity at each small dendritic branch and see how a single neuron receives distinct information in different branches. This project was not only thrilling but also very challenging for me as I was the was the first to establish this technique in the lab.
What has been your biggest accomplishment to date? I would rate completing my PhD as my biggest accomplishment. It was a very long journey (7 years) and there were so many times when I doubted myself. But overall I enjoyed the whole process of transforming into a researcher.
How was the transition from grad student to postdoc? What are the biggest obstacles you encountered during this transition and how did you overcome them? Neuroscience is a very cutting-edge field, accomplishments are often measured by high impact publications. So I had very high expectations for myself when I started as a postdoc. However, things didn't go as well as I would have liked. There is no learning period, things have to happen faster. I established a new technique to measure neuronal activity, which took a long time. Once experiments started to work, we didn't have enough analytical tools which again slowed down the project and added a lot of pressure and stress. Those were difficult times but I had to be just patient and keep myself motivated.
Another obstacle I faced was when I came back from my maternity leave. I found it challenging to keep up with the fast working pace of my lab. Since I was working part time, I was sidelined in my project. I was quite unhappy about this, but I lowered my expectations for myself as I was juggling work and taking care of my daughter.
What are the major differences you see being a postdoc compared to a grad student in a research lab? I had no prior experience with research when I started as a grad student, so it was a steep learning curve for me. Initially, I needed more guidance from my mentor; I learned everything at my own pace, conducting experiments, interpreting the data and writing research articles. By the end of my PhD I had a very good handle on my work, and I was more independent and confident.
As a postdoc, I feel more independent, but at the same time expectations (mostly self-imposed) and responsibilities are much higher. Since I am more experienced there is always pressure to get things done much faster, unlike in grad school. You also reach that part of your life when you are not as carefree as you were in grad school. One has to start thinking about other aspects of life such as starting a family, financial stability etc.
How did your grad school experience prepare you for a postdoc career? I went through very rigorous coursework in neuroscience and underwent multiple lab rotations during the first year of my PhD. While working on multiple projects in my lab, I learned how to design experiments, ask the right questions, interpret the results and be critical about my findings. I also had opportunities to present my research at several conferences, which gave me a lot of confidence. I realized that writing is an integral part of research: writing research proposals, articles, and finally my thesis, all of which definitely improved my writing skills.
What is the most amazing or surprising thing you’ve learned so far during your postdoc? I am still waiting for that moment.
How do you maintain your work-life balance? As a grad student and during the first few years of my postdoc, I was working most of the time- late nights, and even weekends. I feel that life became more balanced after having my daughter, since my priorities shifted. I took more than a year break after she was born and then started working part time as I wasn't confident how well I could handle both. This arrangement really helped, as I could spend a lot of time with her and also restart my research, but with simpler questions and fewer expectations for myself. Recently, I have started working full time. Now, I do not work after lab hours or on weekends, except if I have to meet a deadline. I must say I couldn't have achieved this without my supervisor's support. It was his suggestion to take time off after she was born and then to start at a slower pace, which reduced my stress.
Where do you see yourself in 10 years? After my post-doc, I would like to teach neuroscience at the university level. I find neuroscience very fascinating and would love to share it with others. I would also like to work in some capacity towards increasing student awareness about research at both the high school and undergraduate levels.
As per the statistics, 6 out of 7 graduate students leave academia after grad school to pursue careers in non-academic sectors. In your opinion, what needs to be changed to attract more grad students to pursue a postdoc position? I think with the increasing number of grad students every year it is bound to happen, in conjunction with fewer opportunities in academia. The only academic career options I can think of are teaching and research; other sectors provide a variety of career options. At the same time, non-academic careers can be higher paying and the funding crunch in research pushes many PhDs in this direction. I have had friends who have spent a few years working on grants to get postdoc positions funded and had to leave in the middle because of funding issues. To get tenure track positions in academia is even harder and more stressful. We need to make jobs in academia (especially postdoc positions) more lucrative. We also need to create opportunities for candidates to have more options when it comes to balancing research and teaching, depending on their interests.
What advice do you have for grad students who are interested in pursuing a post doctorate? What do you think are the major factors to keep in mind when deciding on a postdoc research focus and supervisor? I think grad students should consider post doc positions as an opportunity to explore different avenues of research from what they are doing in grad school, which really helps in deciding what direction you want to take in the future. Getting to know the funding situation beforehand in your field is critical. Networking during conferences can help in finding areas that interest you and getting to know the prospective supervisors, as well as meeting other postdocs or grad students from their lab. Often, your PhD supervisor can be very helpful and play a pivotal role in finding you a position.
Research in today's world is highly dependent on technology. We have been asking the same fundamental questions but we have more sophisticated tools to test them. Postdoc is a perfect time to become familiar with emerging technologies in your field. Some people do multiple postdocs for that reason. However, it is necessary to discuss with a prospective supervisor about the funding situation, their expectations, and how much independence one would like. It is also worth talking to other lab members about the supervisor’s temperament.