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An Indian Scientist’s Journey in the USA

One fine morning during my postdoctoral stint at the University of Florida, while sipping a cup of tea during lunch, I unexpectedly received an email. This was the first message I would receive from Hedwin (better known as Kit) not asking for help, but rather seeking friendship. He had just arrived to the USA from India for the first time—my home country as well.

I was thrilled to meet this young, energetic, positive, smiley Indian graduate, fresh from the ‘factory’ who left a very lasting impression on me. I briefed Kit on some of the challenges, fun, and nuances I experienced during my own postdoctoral research. During my stay in the USA in various positions across the country, I managed to stay in touch with Kit to discuss science (proteomics) and life in general.

Kit’s story very well reflects a fresh Indian graduate’s journey through academia in the USA. Given the ease with which he has adjusted to an American way of life and has started appreciating the socio-cultural uniqueness of Indian and American culture, I feel his experiences can be useful to others on a similar journey. Given the current climate around immigration, I wish to highlight a case where science has helped two of the largest nations in the world build bridges and share resources. Such opportunities have helped numerous researchers from India, such as Kit, to develop both personally and professionally in terms of acquired scientific skill sets, but also has allowed them to contribute to the scientific growth and development of the host country, i.e., the USA.

 

Images of Kit at work and at play along with his pet Amber.

 

Q: Tell us about your scientific origins.

A: My name is Hedwin Kitdorlang Dkhar, PhD and I was born and brought up in the capital city of Shillong, in the state of Meghalaya, [which is] a tiny but picturesque state in Northeastern India. My interest in biology developed during high school where I was very keen to understand cell biology. After my Bachelor’s in Biotechnology from St. Anthony’s College, I qualified for a highly competitive National entrance test in 2004 and embarked on my Master’s in the Biotechnology program at Maharaja Sayaji Rao University (MSU), Baroda, Gujarat – a period of two years that was the toughest in my life where I had to absorb lots of stress but still had to keep faith in my strengths and beliefs.

It was during this period where my interest for molecular biology excited me to know more about DNA/RNA and all the biochemical pathways. I had already made up my mind to continue my quest for science and I was successful in obtaining a competitive fellowship awarded by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, which gave me an opportunity to work with Prof. K. Vijay Raghavan (now the principal scientific advisor, Government of India) at the National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bengaluru, followed by another CSIR-JRF fellowship to complete my Doctoral thesis at the famed Institute of Microbial Technology (IMTECH), Chandigarh in 2014, where I had worked in Tuberculosis research in Dr. Pawan Gupta’s laboratory.

 

Q: When did you arrive in the USA and what are you currently working on?

A: I started working as a Postdoctoral Associate at the University of Florida, Gainesville, FL from August 2015. The Curtiss Clark-Curtiss group is trying to develop a Recombinant Attenuated Salmonella Vaccine against human and animal pathogens. I am the lead member of the Tuberculosis Vaccine group where we are validating our vaccine in mice and investigating the immunological aspects of the vaccines.

 

Q: What has been the most inspiring part of your journey since coming from India to work here?

A: I enjoy the work environment and people that surround me in my laboratory. I love the enthusiasm and energy of my supervisors and colleagues. Since I have always wanted to do a bench to bedside research, or in other words, more translational science, I just love doing my current research. I am inspired by the freedom and management culture in the USA.

 

Q: What are the differences in approaching research problems here in the USA and back in India?

A: I think resources are one of the main components that have kept me focused and ambitious at my work. Whereas in India, I would end up waiting for months or manage with limited resources. I found that people here in USA are more open minded in discussing work, and life, and extending support whereas in India we sometimes have a fear of sabotage. Third is the Work-Life balance that is in good shape even if you are working in a funded project. I felt less stressed at work here in the USA and financially more than sufficient.

 

Q: What are you missing from India currently?

A: I miss my family, homemade food, childhood friends and going on outings with them. Also, I really miss my motorbike and the group roadside “Chai (tea party with groups of friends in open air!)”.

Despite living on the other side of the globe, I feel that technology has brought family and friends closer through various gadgets and software applications. When I used to live away from home in India, I used to miss my hometown Shillong’s beautiful climate and natural treasure. Now, that I am living here in Florida, I feel very close to that, since I am surrounded by various state parks and beaches.

 

Q: What you think you would miss in the USA if you ever go back to India?

A: Everything! I will miss the beaches and lakes. Life is beautiful here. I have a small family here in Miami, Florida. I love the life style and traveling in USA. Now that I have been living with my pet (Amber) for years, I miss her even when I am traveling for a couple of days. I will miss the long drives. I love driving and I don’t think I can do inter-state driving in India compared to the I-75 here.

 

Q: What are the socio-cultural differences or uniqueness that has mostly surprised you here?

A: Unconditional greetings and cheerful faces. You can even talk to a stranger and become friends here in the US. I have now adapted to the habit of holding doors for others and formal apologies for minutest of the errors, both unseen in India. Even though people are independent here, I believe their way of social gathering and parties are much different than us in India. But I respect that since they are used to the private way of living.

 

Q: What is your message for the future postdocs from India coming to the USA?

A: Don’t be scared to take up a new challenge. Make up your mind first and just put your focus on research, if you love doing quality science. Don’t be in a conflict with the academia-industry and financial stability. If you are going to be rich, then you will one day, no matter which path you choose. Get involved in social circles (not just social media!) and stay connected with your alumni. Always take a lot of advice and make your own decision. This is the land of opportunity that fits you if you are motivated to rise. You can change your life. Get help and please help others – my motto.

 

Q: Anything else you would like to add?

A: As a researcher in the middle of the sea of funding scarcity and job unavailability I think every one of us in the field is at the same risk of either surviving short term or excelling in long term. So, I would say that just enjoy doing science if it does not haunt you in your sleep. A quote I heard once is, “Science is not a job, just enjoy doing it.” This has always kept me motivated to do my bench work and readings without counting my hours. I never got tired of doing it. I hope I can keep moving ahead of my goals and keep helping those aspiring young scholars who seek help and get all possible sort of training from me.

 

If you’re on a similar journey, feel free to contact Kit for advice:  kitsvision@gmail.com

 

Discussion
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