Journey of a Physician-Scientist: The professional full circle

In the second of her series of posts, guest blogger Karishma Kaushik tells us her thoughts on returning to India to fulfill her career as a physician-scientist.

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As a physician-scientist educated in India, and working in the United States, I have often found myself at the epicenter of thought-provoking discussions related to science, medicine, and research in India.

Why does the country still face a huge chasm between healthcare necessities and resources? Can India justify expenditure on space exploration, when there are basic needs to be met at home? Why don’t Indian scientists and physicians foster collaborative programs to combat neglected tropical diseases?

Members_Karishma12 (2)But nothing quite prepared me for these recent discussions, when I shared my future professional plans to return to India as a physician-scientist. Speaking with colleagues, mentors, friends, and family (both in India and the US), I detailed my vision of building a research group focusing on infections relevant to the country, by bridging the divide between bedside and bench.

The responses I received ranged from simple questions (But, why?) to long drawn discussions about the academic infrastructure in India.

Their questions were justified, and while I did put together a response, I was admittedly not impressed with the strength of my argument. Instead, it prompted me to think hard and reflect profoundly on my motivation to make the return journey home.

After much consideration, I summarized the major incentives to return to India as a physician-scientist in five points:

1. Leveraging my skills as a medical doctor

After almost 9 years of medical education (medical college and a residency in clinical microbiology), I moved to the U.S. to pursue a Ph.D. in molecular genetics and microbiology.

Interestingly, India does not have dual M.D.-Ph.D. programs, and the only trained physician-scientists have pursued medical degrees and Ph.D. programs in succession.

In my experience, pursuing a Ph.D., involved moving away from clinical work almost entirely, while delving into basic science questions, experimental protocols, and statistical analysis of data.

Needless to say, the Ph.D. training offered me a wide range of scientific experience including interdisciplinary research, STEM education, and outreach initiatives.

However, I realized I missed being part of a clinical set up and working with patients. Returning to India re-opens this possibility. I can foresee being faculty at the clinical microbiology department of a medical college, while also leading a research group.

Directing research questions in concert with current clinical problems would facilitate the translation of science from the petri dish to the patient and in reverse.

2. Working inside a familiar system

A few months ago I traveled to India to re-connect on the professional front.

A few months ago I traveled to India to re-connect on the professional front. Setting up talks and meetings at institutes and universities across the country, I met with physicians’ and researchers at the forefront of Indian science.

I learnt firsthand of re-entry schemes targeted at early-career researchers returning to India, start-up funding opportunities exclusively for physician-researchers’, and other recent science-promoting initiatives.

In addition, I realized that my dual medical and scientific education, composite training and skills, and international experience would serve as a unique selling point in the system, rather than set me in comparison with basic scientists.

Interestingly, the power of twitter, email, and perseverance (on both sides) was instrumental in enabling one such talk at the apex medical research organization in India.

The talk led to a tete-a-tete with the Director-General of the institute, and we not only shared an alma mater but also a similar vision for physician-scientists’ in the country.

Though not impossible, I believe it is highly improbable that similar opportunities could unfold in an unfamiliar system. Let’s face it, how easy would it be for an early-career scientist, like me, to get an audience with the NIH Director?

3. Building on an extensive network on former colleagues and mentors

 At one of these recent talks, the audience included a colleague, a professor, and two former heads of department from my residency training; professional connections built on more than a decade of association.

These and other similar associations would not only stand testament to my education, training and skills, but could enable a reciprocal cycle of collaborative research, grantsmanship, and professional opportunities.

In the quest to forge a research group that addresses infectious diseases relevant to India, this capital of professionals and specialists would be invaluable.

4. Ploughing my education and expertise back into the Indian system

On a personal note, as a scientist and a citizen, I certainly think of it as a privilege, possibly a national duty, to ‘re-inoculate’ my expertise into the system I started from.

On a personal note, as a scientist and a citizen, I certainly think of it as a privilege, possibly a national duty, to ‘re-inoculate’ my expertise into the system I started from.

Introducing a new pedagogical technique or pioneering an academic program would need a strong understanding of the existing system and potential changes possible.

As an insider in the system, I believe my understanding of the prerequisites, needs, challenges, and workings of the Indian system would stand in good stead.

5. Effecting a change in the system

In an established and competitive academic system, many researchers, particularly early career ones, run the risk of being just another peg in the system.

In the landscape of several successful research groups and well-established scientists, making a mark can be a daunting task. On the other hand, if there is one scientific capability that India does not currently possess, or one academic requisite that needs to be filled (such as an M.D.-Ph.D. program), and if I am able to create that in India, then I not only have a chance to effect a change in the system, but also to witness the effects of that change in my lifetime.

Finally, as I hope to have conveyed, the decision to move back to one’s home country for professional pursuits does not have to be a purely altruistic one.

Rather, I believe it to be a mutually beneficial choice; that while it maybe my calling to contribute to science and research in India, there is also a lot that the system can offer towards my career goals. On that note, I think I’ve found my convincing answer.

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5 Comments

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BalooPune

What a clarity of thoughts and sequencing the thought-process itself..No doubt success is yours waiting!!

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Grace

Eeee! Karishma this is soo awesome! I wish you nothing but the absolute best in your quest to train top-notch physician-scientists and foster educational reform. #rolemodel #goals.
xo
Grace.

Reply
Karishma Kaushik

Thank you Grace! We have talked about this very often 🙂 Would love to stay in touch and build collaborations!

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Bhanu,Pune

Indeed relocating to India is a major decision in ur career.However,u have courage of conviction & mental prepared ness to face the challenges.So,it’ s half battle won.

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