Alumni Portrait: Interview with Soumyananda Chakraborti
Institut Curie has many Alumni who have done their master, PhD or post-doc at the institute, and who have afterwards proceeded to follow a range of career paths. We would like to introduce you to some of them.
Could you please share with us a description of your academic training and current position?
I did my masters from Calcutta University and PhD from Bose Institute, Calcutta. Calcutta is one of the most populous metropolises in India. After my PhD I moved to Institut Curie as a postdoctoral researcher under the mentorship of Carsten Janke. I stayed there for about one and a half years and then I moved to Indiana University, again as a postdoctoral researcher. After a brief stay in USA, I again moved to Europe and this time in Poland and worked as an assistant professor for almost four years. In August, 2020 I moved to India as an independent scientist with a very prestigious fellowship. So, my journey is quite interesting and multidisciplinary. For example, I did my PhD in biophysics; during PhD, I worked mainly on protein-ligand interactions, protein conformational changes, structure and dynamic aspects of proteins. After PhD I moved to Carsten's lab, where I mostly worked on tubulin post-translational modifications (PTM), especially looked into the PTMs in the C terminal tail of tubulin and their impact on protein-protein interactions. We were interested in studying as to how these modifications were contributing towards interaction with other proteins, and I used fission yeast as a model system. Then I moved to a structural biology lab in USA, and I started working on virus-like particles. Viruses are pretty interesting from structural point of view, and because of their symmetry it could be used for number of synthetic biology applications. Later on, when I moved to Poland, I continued my research on protein cage/VLP and managed to publish a couple of very interesting papers, even one in Nature, where we’ve showed for the first time that a synthetic protein cage can be created by combining gold nanoparticles and normal proteins together. At the same time, I started to explore combining protein nanotechnology and DNA nanotechnology to make some fancy robots. We started designing DNA Origami and tried to put protein cage together. When I returned to India, I thought that the tools that I had developed, all these protein cages and DNA origami, should be applied against a tropical disease model highly prevalent in India, and so I chose Malaria. I also thought about using protein cage as a tool for targeted drug delivery against cerebral malaria, and so far, our data seems to be quite promising. We are also trying to understand a few basic pathways of mosquitoes, as there is an urgent need of development of new insecticides. We are mainly working on a few major metabolic and protein folding pathways of mosquitoes, for e.g. i) how mosquitoes recognize host, ii) how they tolerate stress and adapt to a new environment, and iii) how they metabolize iron. This is my journey so far. So, you can say that working in so many different fields has helped me maturing myself as science is very much multidisciplinary.
What did you learn at Institut Curie that helped you not only define your career path, but also achieve your professional goals?
I had a great time in Institut Curie. I should say Carsten is a great guy and I really enjoyed my stays in Paris as well as working in Curie. It is one of the leading institutions in cancer research, there is no doubt about that. And they have a very nice scientific infrastructure, very open scientific culture, as well as being a great place for networking. The only drawback, I think, is that if you don’t speak French, your life will would be little less exciting. But otherwise as a scientific place, Institut Curie is great. It helped me a lot because it was the first time, I was abroad and now it helps me with the decision-making ability, it helps me on networking, how to approach people, which is very important nowadays in science, and introduces me to new areas of science. The Institute has state-of-the-art infrastructures in cell biology. It gave me an opportunity because it was very multicultural, with a lot of international students and researchers, so all this has helped me. And, I really enjoyed the freedom I had with Carsten. That was very important for me to grow as an independent scientist. I also had two publications, which helped me in my future career. Institut Curie is a great learning platform I should say, especially for PhD students or Postdocs.
How would you describe your experience at Institut Curie? Is there any memorable experience you would like to share?
As I told you, I really enjoyed it a lot. I went to a retreat, that was my first encounter with a very big community of cell biologists, and it was a great experience. I learnt how to give a very exciting speech in front of a big community because before that I was mostly speaking in front of a national audience with limited exposure to international audience. And it was a very memorable experience for me. Also, I attended many conferences during my time at Institut Curie, which actually boosted my confidence on how to speak, because nowadays you need to be a good orator. If you are doing good science that's not enough. You need to present it. So, that I really learned from Institut Curie. Carsten is also an excellent presenter, outstanding speaker, I should say. I learned all these things only in Institut Curie: how to present & how to communicate with other scientists.
What do you think when you compare yourself now, a researcher, with when you were a PhD, and then a postdoc?
After your postdoc, you have more burden on yourself. When you are a postdoc, you don't need to think about your students. The first 5 to 7 years as a junior scientist or as an assistant professor, you need to build your reputation in the field, so you have several challenges. When you are a PhD/ Postdoc, you are very focused on your research and publications. The biggest advantage is that people will work on your ideas. When you are a postdoc, you are mostly working with your supervisor’s ideas, but now I am mostly working with my own ideas. That’s an advantage but as with all the advantages you need to pay the price, so you also need to constantly think about your PhDs or postdocs, how to run the lab, etc.
From your point of view, what differentiates Institut Curie from other research institutes?
It's very international compared to other French institutes. They have an international PhD student program. Also, they are recruiting the best in the field, so that is another advantage of joining Institut Curie. You will get a chance to work with the best people in the world. They have an awesome infrastructure. And lastly, they arrange conferences and meetings very frequently, which give you international exposure to the scientific community. Apart from Pasteur, I don't think any other institute in Paris will provide such exposures.
Do you have anything else you would like to add? Perhaps some advice to give to Institut Curie’s PhD students and postdocs?
This is not advice, but I think you need to be passionate first. If you want to do science, don't do it if you think it's a job. And that's the most important thing. You need to be enthusiastic about science as not always you will get your favorable data. We have mostly failure in our experiments. Science is also very competitive, so you need to be patient and passionate for your success. Nowadays, I believe it's also important to do networking because that is also a very important factor in science. And the third most important factor I believe is you need to be a good orator, you need to present nicely in front of the audience. You might be a very good researcher, but you need to be an equally good presenter for your research.
Interview conducted by Ana Luisa Dian, PhD student