Sunday, September 12, 2021

Where there is structure, there is victory

We all have been coping with several work-life balance issues during the pandemic. While people have to balance their professional and home responsibilities even in ordinary times, the pandemic created a situation where the latter skyrocketed with children having to be home schooled and domestic work having to be managed without any external support.  A colleague of mine once said with exasperation that in the midst of sweeping and mopping, the latest literature in his field had started evading him. The hours that many people typically spent doing their academic work had to be recalibrated as their children were no longer going to school. My former postdoc mentor, Matilde Lalin wrote this lovely article describing (in "real time") how mathematicians like her conducted their research during COVID times.

Some of us found ourselves away from our families for a long period of time due to the unexpected lockdown announcement. In my case, all other parameters were fine. I was in good health, safely placed inside the IISER campus and assured that my family members, though far away from me, were safe and healthy too. When the first lockdown was announced, the solitude promised to be a golden opportunity to concentrate on learning and writing. With no possibility of traveling in the upcoming days, I was all set to put the song "Mono Chalo Nija Niketane" (translation: "Let us go back once more, O Mind, to our own abode") into action [1]. I was only going to step out to get groceries from a store in my building and spend the rest of my time in "Nija Niketana" doing Mathematics. 

A few days down the line, I realized that my grand plan was failing: Nija Niketana was turning into Netflix Niketana and the monster was starting to occupy more space than bargained for. What exactly went wrong? I had lots of goals to work on and lots of time. Had I lost the ability to focus on research and writing? Was this the end of everything? 

Soon, I realized that I was not alone in this predicament. Several people in my situation were facing this challenge. In this context, I heard about an acquaintance, who was all set to go on a sabbatical when the pandemic struck and messed with his plans. Unable to travel, he had two options. One was to continue his sabbatical at home, work with collaborators online and not have to worry about teaching. The second was to cancel his sabbatical and get back to active university duties. He chose the second option and requested the university to let him get back to teaching that semester. He recognized at the outset that all alone in his apartment, in the event of not being able to make a research visit elsewhere, he needed the structure provided by a regular university schedule to function optimally. I was encouraged to hear this story and also got an idea of how to proceed: I had to build a structure around daily activities.

A large chunk of time in solitude is undoubtedly a golden opportunity to concentrate on learning and writing. But, it can also be a double edged sword: our teaching duties, seminars/colloquia, interaction with students and colleagues provide a structure around which we can organize our daily activities in a time bound manner. In reserving time blocks for these activities, we also end up reserving time blocks for research work. There is little leeway to move around the time blocks for activities like teaching, talking to collaborators/students and attending seminars (more generally, any activity which requires a commitment to another human being). We therefore stick with the research time blocks because we must. In other words, for many of us, to be able to make the most of research time, there needs to be a structure to the day that involves a healthy dose of other meaningful activities like teaching, seminars, regular workout sessions and pursuing hobbies.

Structure is also the best antidote to anxiety. I started working to incorporate a daily plan in a way as to not procrastinate during the day time and then, feel empty and anxious in the evening (which leads to another cycle of procrastination). Making a ``formal" commitment (even if to oneself) by writing to-do lists and following through on it by writing "got-done" lists goes a long way in making sure that we don't postpone something just because we can.  My efforts to avoid empty "got-done" lists were centred around three tiny principles. I had heard of these before, but was forced to implement them diligently upon realizing that the pandemic was, indeed, playing havoc with my mental world. 

The first principle is that of showing up. When pulling the mind out of inertia, it is important to avoid an all-or-none approach. For example, if unable to start some planned work at a certain time, it helps to "show up", as long as the time planned for that activity is still left. Consistently noting afterwards how much of the work could get done instead of writing, "I got nothing done" uplifts the mood like nothing else, and with each passing day, one starts showing up for more and more tasks at the allotted time. Here, I am referring to tasks that are most in danger of getting postponed: ones that do not require coordinating with another person and have no immediate deadline.

The second principle is to give precise instructions to ourselves. Showing up on time for a task, but without a clear idea of what is to be done is a recipe for not getting it done. So, goals like "typing" or "typing Section 2" got converted into goals like "Write Lemma 3", "outline the proof of Lemma 3", "arrange the index of notations" etc. Much to my surprise, in a project where I had been suffering from a serious writer's block for weeks on end, I saw progress to the tune of 15 pages in 6 days. It is, of course, not always possible to count the output of work done in terms of pages. It is also not easy to come up with precise goals when starting to explore a research project, which is why people end up procrastinating the most at this stage. But, it does help to isolate exactly what part of a problem or project one wants to explore and stay focused on that. 

The third principle is to get work done on the go.  At some point, we all make peace with the fact that we want to do (or need to do) much more than we have time for. It is not a moral defect, therefore, to allocate short bursts of time to activities that we enjoy or care for, but which get relegated to the background as we seek to fulfil more urgent responsibilities. These bursts of time can be snatched from other things that are happening around us. I have managed to read, for example, two volumes of Shri Harivansh Rai Bachchan's autobiography over the past few weeks while waiting for the geyser to heat the water. Occasionally, I have also planned some work within the time that the washing machine takes to complete a wash cycle [this puts a nice timer on the activity concerned as well]. Sometimes, the time period can be as short as the 2 minutes during which a meal is being heated up in the microwave. This blog post has been written in the last few days in similar situations. In fact, this particular paragraph is being written up as a friend, who joined me for coffee, has stepped out to take a phone call.

This would be a good place to conclude the blog post. After a wholesome Sunday spent reading, preparing for classes, reflecting on the importance of structure and finishing this post, it is time to lock all doors of my abode and truly go within.

I would love to learn more productivity/structure tips from readers.

[1] This song is famously recognized as the song which Swami Vivekananda sang when he visited Shri Ramakrishna for the first time.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

Keeping the head down

Several years ago, I started my first faculty position. Like many others in this position, I faced a wide variety of situations for the first time: developing an independent research programme on my own, balancing research and teaching with service duties, being responsible for students as their advisor, juggling administrative committee work and learning to interact with colleagues (the nice ones as well as the not-so-nice ones). While navigating this new territory, I learnt a lot of things, made progress, but also slipped, faltered, took wrong turns, not infrequently. In sore need of an outlet to express and make sense of it all, I started writing this blog pseudonymously.  The blog found a handful of readers [mostly young postdocs in North America], who engaged regularly.  For a year or so, I don't think that anyone outside of this small group knew about it. My colleagues certainly had no idea.

Then, thanks to a rather kind post by Professor Abinandanan from IISc (the author of Nanopolitan, one of the most popular academic blogs in India), this blog suddenly saw an exponential increase in engagement by an Indian audience who could more easily relate to what I was writing about.  Blogging became an enjoyable activity amidst the isolation imposed by being at a temporary campus of a new institute in rural West Bengal.  I continued to document several experiences, including the move to IISER Pune and starting all over again.  By then, it no longer made sense to keep the blog "anonymous".   

The blog was updated for a few more years, but I started falling short of generating genuinely new posts. As I grappled with professional challenges that I was no longer comfortable talking about, this blog started turning into a repository for posts written for other portals as well as guest posts or links to posts by other academics on topics such as science communication, outreach etc. Occasionally, I resorted to writing Scoopwhoop type of posts as well. This was also a time when many people were gravitating towards Twitter for social media interaction and this seemed sufficient for my "self-expression" needs as well.  So, sometime in 2017, this blog was taken offline without much ado. This time seemed appropriate to simply "keep my head down" and focus completely (and silently) on professional goals and challenges.  

Keeping one's head down has many advantages: there is an entire category of Yoga asanas called "Inversions" that emphasize on keeping your head down (more technically, keeping your head below the heart).  The "harder" inversions include shoulder stand, head stand, elbow stand and the hand stand.  Our Yoga instructor ensures that we perform some inversions in every class and also encourages us to incorporate them in our daily practice.  Apart from physical benefits such as improving balance and core strength, learning and practising these asanas also helps to strengthen concentration and mental stability (for obvious reasons: doing a head stand with a distracted mind is not recommended and an inversion can only be held as along as the mind is stable). When she started introducing these asanas in our classes, my first reaction was that of fear. But, we were taught to build our strength step by step. We started off by taking support from props (eg, for the head stand, one learns to position oneself in a door space or between two walls in a narrow corridor).  Then, as core stability improved and the fear reduced, we started requiring fewer and fewer props. Some of us can now do a complete head stand without any wall support, while some require a wall to position their heels. Each member of the class has had a unique learning curve and learning pace in this regard.  Some of us, who would feel dizzy at the very thought of placing the head down, can now hold a head stand for several minutes.  We got here by not giving up and by staying regular with our practice.  In moments of weakness, our instructor ensured that we did not give up. What's more, in this class of responsible adults, we learnt to focus on our individual asana practice without the need to diminish that of the others or comparing ourselves to others.

This has so many analogies with an academic journey.  An academic career (any career, really) is impossible without learning to "keep one's head down".  We build up our "core" research programmes by focusing on our own work and by pushing ourselves forward, one step at a time.  Proper administrative structures and peer support at the workplace provide us with the "props" to do so.  In moments of weakness, some of our colleagues inspire us to continue the journey by providing mentorship or in some cases, by simply lending an ear . With these in place, we just need to stick to our programmes quietly and for long enough without comparing ourselves to anyone else.  Then, we realize one day how far we have come and how much strength we have to move further ahead.  We learn to appreciate our own expertise without diminishing that of our colleagues. Anxieties and fears get replaced by a sense of balance. 

These are some lessons I have learnt in the last four years.  So, the blog is ready to go up again. What occasion better than our 75th Independence Day to do so?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Open days and open minds

[In a recent article, Prof. Janaki Nair (JNU) objects to open days for school students at research institutions like JNU. A guest post by Abhishek Banerjee in response:]

"But what if I don’t find anything?" 

It was the summer of 2001. For the last quarter of an hour, there were a bunch of us high school students listening intently to a senior scientist explain to us the thrills of innovation and discovery. We will call him the Professor.

But one of us had managed to pop the question that was at the back of our minds. We will call him the Kid.

"Well you try and try and try,'' the Professor replied, with a smile. Perhaps he didn't want to disappoint us right away.

"But, what if we try and try and try and still don't find anything?" The Kid persisted, with the frankness of someone who has nothing to lose. Others around had begun to laugh.

"That's the thrill of science.  Ultimately, it is about the unknown" the Professor finally let us have it straight.

The Indian Institute of Science. The Raman Research Institute. The Central Drug Research Institute in Lucknow. The Bose Center in Kolkata. They threw their doors open to us. We bugged them, we peppered them with silly questions. We heard about NMR spectroscopy and orbiting telescopes and non-Newtonian fluids. We didn't understand a lot, but we caught the glint in their eye, we saw them thrive on the excitement of working with the unknown.

I was hooked. I still am. 

It is therefore with great pain and surprise that I read Prof. Janaki Nair's article in where she speaks thus about school students being invited to campus for one day to see how JNU academics work. 

A vice? 

Does an open day for school students really turn researchers into "observable lab animals"? Are possible interactions with school kids so degrading that a researcher should feel deprived of her/his humanity and turned into an animal? 

I really hope not. I hope that interacting with fresh young minds is an exercise that lifts us all up, instead of cutting us down, let alone to the level of a "lab animal". What's wrong with lab animals anyway? I'd love to be a fly on the wall where ideas are being thrown around. 

In a nation where we let untold quantities of human capital go waste, perhaps it would be better if the privileged few who have access to world class research platforms would be willing to share. Just a little. If we could break just a few barriers to higher learning, it will not cause bankruptcy. It will cause this land to run rich with ideas. 

With all humility, I think I will make an attempt to answer the question that the Professor was discussing all those years ago. 

If we don't know, we can try. If we still don't know, we can try harder. And if we still don't know, we could pass it on. Sometimes in research, it is even hard to know where to start. It could even be hard to know what the good questions are. But we could still pass on the sense of wonder and curiosity. 

A privileged research campus is like a flourishing garden of flowers. And we have to let the children in. They do not take away from the life of the campus, they are the life of campus. If there are giants on campus who want to build stone walls so high that the children cannot play here, spring shall not come to us. 

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

It takes a village ...

 Young, very enthusiastic, naïve, slightly tense students arrived when it was pouring [rain] in 2006 ….  It was a tough task as a warden for me to think about their well being, to think about their welfare.  At the same time, the students had lots of expectations, lots of aspirations.  We had to meet their demands, their expectations, their standards.”

This is how my colleague Dr. Ramakrishna G. Bhat describes the incoming students of the very first batch at IISER Pune.

Students are the heart of our campus.  The image of the proverbial ``ivory tower” professor, fashionably buried in their own work with little time or concern for students is largely down-voted by faculty at IISER Pune.  It is a different matter that students can be a handful, meeting their expectations (especially non-academic!) can be a rough ride and we don’t always succeed, but then, who wants easy?

Ramakrishna Bhat was the first faculty member to join IISER Pune after the director, Professor K.N. Ganesh.  On joining, he was allotted the enormous task of setting up a hostel for the incoming 2006 batch.  This (temporary) hostel was to be created in a 30-year old abandoned building near NCL.  It was renovated at a feverish pace in about 15 days [1] and the first batch of our MS students walked into their residence in August 2006.  Ramakrishna and Professor G. Ambika (currently, dean of graduate studies) wholeheartedly threw themselves into the job of making these students feel at home.  They both stayed in the hostel for the first three and a half years. Be it holding tutorials in the dining hall (drawing chemical chain reactions on the menu board), handling frantic midnight requests to investigate stolen buckets or even waking up sleepy students for morning exams, they have done it all. 

Everything was all set to get even more chaotic with the admission of the 2007 and 2008 batches.  Sutirth Dey and Shouvik Datta joined the team of wardens and were responsible for the 2007 and 2008 batches respectively.  In order to accommodate the growing community of students, the institute was left with no option but to hire bungalows or apartments in the Baner and Pashan areas.  2008 was particularly tricky.   When Shouvik joined the Physics group in July 2008, he also took charge of the 2008 batch.  One of his earliest experiences was a crisis created by a last minute cancelation of living arrangements that had been planned for students.  A frenzied search yielded a bungalow (owned by Nana Patekar no less!) on Sus Road and some apartments in a building on the Baner Pashan Link Road.  Just a day or so before the students arrived, Shouvik went to check out these dwellings and found himself arranging beds in one of them along with the director! 

More colourful experiences were to follow. On Day 1, Shouvik had to go to all the buildings where students were staying and hire autorickshaws to get them to the dining hall located at NCL.  Gradually, he got used to regular phone calls at 1 am from security guards at these apartment complexes regarding noisy students.  Sometimes, he would personally have to visit to get stubborn students to climb off water tanks on the terrace (didn’t I say that our students are a handful?)  Another regular problem he would have to handle was when the other residents of these buildings would get annoyed and turn off water connections to the student apartments [2]. 

Soon, the chaos subsided.  A serious problem was about commuting between their apartments, academic buildings and dining hall.  This was resolved by hiring/purchasing an adequate number of buses.  The IISER bus network has served the community very well.  In an institute where the hostel(s), dining hall, classrooms and labs were far apart, these buses served as a lifeline.  They also provided a safe and convenient commute to our students if they wished to spend an evening in Pune main city. Until we became a fully residential campus, almost at any time of the day, two kinds of buses would be seen regularly on Dr. Homi Bhabha Road: buses from the National Defence Academy and from IISER.

Even after the most important logistical issues were taken care of, the “lighter” complaints were treated with utmost seriousness.  Once, when students complained that the chapatis in the dining hall were not as soft and round as what they had at home, the wardens held an emergency meeting with the purchase section to order roti makers!

In those years, a lot of energy also had to be expended towards “parenting the parents,” that is, allaying the apprehensions and fears of parents.  Their children were walking into uncharted territory: until 2011, it was not clear what they would be able to do with an IISER education.  Moreover, they had to drop their children off at buildings scattered all over Baner instead of a proper hostel.  In those days, the director and other leaders would regularly have long meetings with parents to assure them that their children were in safe hands.  Occasionally, there would be comical situations with the “don’t-you-know-who-I- am-my-kid-will-not-stay-here-one-more-minute” parents, but even they were tackled with tact and grace. 

Taking care of students is no joke.  On one hand, one has to implement hostel rules and oversee discipline issues.  On the other hand, one needs to be friends with them and guide them.  In the early years, the job got compounded because very few people had to take care of a large number of issues.  Two or three wardens would oversee a lot of things including hostel life, meals, transport, sports, recreation, discipline, health and mental wellbeing of students.  Loss of personal space, occasional frustration and overwhelm come with this territory.  Our leadership and the wardens took it in their stride, bade goodbye to personal egos and did their best.  It also helped that the administration was friendly, supportive and ready to work well beyond office hours [3].

This reminds me of an incident a few years ago: I was at a different institute then and had never visited IISER Pune.  One day, I wrote a somewhat helpless, somewhat miffed post about my wardenship duties there, whether I was any good at it and whether this job was of any use whatsoever.  A student from the 2007 batch at IISER Pune (who had graduated by the time my blog post appeared) wrote back a gentle rebuke and mentioned how hard his warden, Sutirth Dey, had worked for these students and how much of a lasting impact he had made on them!

As of today, our student hostels tower over the IISER campus.  When guardians arrive to drop off their freshmen wards, they encounter an elaborately built residential area with two tall buildings right next to a dining hall, a medical clinic with an ambulance on standby, a helpful hostel administration and decent security arrangements, not to mention a unified campus.  After students check in, they head towards our auditorium in the academic area for a welcome meeting with the dean of graduate studies, COSA (Committee of Student Activities: a team of seven faculty members who take care of student issues outside of the classroom), the dining committee members and our team of counselors.  We take great pride in conveying to these freshmen (and their parents) that there is a proper system to take care of every aspect of their life on campus.  The task of running this system is shared by a large number of people.  It is a reasonably decentralized, efficient system that gets better each year [4].  There are separate teams of people to look after different requirements so that no one person gets overwhelmed.  But, it took a lot of sweat and tears to raise this village that now raises the child!

On their part, the students have done every bit to deserve this and more [5].  There will be a future post on how proud they have made us.  Meanwhile, you may enjoy this blog with some awesome IISER alumni stories.

[1] The story of how the IISERs were visualized and started in a couple of months is a fascinating story (with enough thriller effect) narrated in this video by the planners themselves.  Important decisions were taken just days before the first session started and this meant that a lot of things were done at the last moment. 

[2] The tolerance of “housing societies” of Pune is world-famous

[3] After having visited or stayed at multiple institutes in India and after interacting with colleagues at many others, I realize that this is something to be truly grateful for!

[4] and many people in the admin office still work beyond office hours!

[5] though they are still a handful :)

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Movers and Shapers - II

[The first past of the following post can be found here.]

Starting a new faculty position is no joke.  Books have been written on it, it is a hot topic on multiple blogs/websites (for example, see here and here) and many institutions conduct orientation programmes for new faculty.  You have become a PI with complete responsibility for your research group, you are on the other side of the class for the first time and you are performing a lot of laborious administrative tasks.  Joining a new institute where you will move labs/offices at least three or four times (either move from one building to another or readjust within the same building as new members join at high frequency) adds further layers of complications.  Even with the best of planning, things can go wrong.

For example, at IISER, through the “moving and shaping,” all sorts of difficulties came up.  There were delays in ordering material and in clearing customs.  Sometimes, enzymes thawed and were refrozen during transport: this caused unexpected results in experiments!  There were sudden pressures, for example, preparing a lab (practically overnight) for a new batch of students.  Sometimes, after a move, people would realize that the power requirements were much higher than anticipated.  Sometimes, there would be water shortage.  In a new building, there could be unforeseen damages due to heavy rainfall.  With many members sharing limited space, there would occasionally be differences and vocal exchange of views. 

All colleagues I spoke to acknowledged setbacks.  But, every single one of them also insisted that they do not retain any bitterness about it.  Many felt that their efforts towards meeting personal research goals created positive energy and this helped them to see difficult experiences as enriching.

M. Jayakannan from Chemistry (joined. 2007) mentions that by the summer of 2009, labs were sufficiently equipped for active research work at IISER.  The first few publications from work done at these labs started coming out by 2010 and since then, all the research groups in chemistry have been productive.  The early faculty hires were very active in publishing, averaging about 4 papers per group every year.  This gave confidence and healthy peer pressure to those who joined later.

My colleague Thomas Pucadyil joined the Biology group in 2010.  As of today, Thomas has a thriving research lab that includes 8 student members. Recently, a publication from his lab, A high-throughput platform for real-time analysis of membrane fission reactions reveals dynamin function,” authored by Srishti Dar, Sukrut Kamerkar and Thomas Pucadyil has appeared in Nature Cell Biology. 

During a fun conversation over a cup of coffee, Srishti (the first author of this paper and one of Thomas’s earliest PhD students) and Thomas described how they set up the lab and the “assay system” leading to this publication.  For Thomas, the experience of starting his lab with students was full of surprises.  It  required multiple managerial skill sets, which he acquired on-the-go.  Early preparations for this work were started in Sai Trinity Building in 2011: this included visiting a goat market and slaughter house one early morning to acquire the brain of a goat.  They started off with an attempt to extract and isolate a specific protein from the goat brain.  While at Sai, they succeeded in it and knew that their project had passed the litmus test.  This motivated them to develop assays that would help to better streamline the role of this protein in facilitating cellular processes.  A detailed explanation of their work can be found here.

Thomas feels that the composition of his graduate-student-heavy lab played a crucial role in choosing and persisting with this project.  With postdocs, one tends to get results sooner, but postdocs are only present for a short stint.  On the other hand, graduate students are present for a much longer time and this gives you more room to experiment and set something up. In this case, their project took more than three years to develop and the results finally started coming together in 2014.  By this time, they had gone through two relocations, first to G1, a prefabricated lab building in the permanent campus in 2012 and the second, to the main building in 2014.  Their lab is now well settled with its core facilities in place and work done by his group has exceeded the expectations of the institute.

Thomas feels the strong camaraderie among the biologists helped him to move beyond the challenges and establish himself at IISER Pune.  Similar sentiments were expressed by others.  Girish Ratnaparkhi, one of the master planners behind the multiple relocations of the Biology group, mentions that when he joined, he felt energetic and very happy to help.  He remained very involved with the functionality of the department.  Be it preparing indents, supervising the packing and moving, receiving/hosting institute guests or organizing a conference, no work was shunned.  Everything was done in the spirit of service to the institute.

Talking to these colleagues made me wonder: can such an attitude of positivity and service to the institute be developed superficially? Or is it something that stems naturally from a deeper feeling of personal empowerment, which in turn comes from research productivity?

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Movers and shapers - I

Last week, I got an opportunity to talk to some of my colleagues from Biology and Chemistry who joined between 2006 and 2008, that is, within the first two years of IISER.  The people I spoke to are H.N. Gopi, M. Jayakannan, Mayurika Lahiri and Girish Ratnaparkhi.  They shared some fascinating stories from these early days: stories of adjustment, setting things up, moving, expansion and readjustment.  This post and the next are based on their inputs. 

IISER started functioning from one floor of NCL Innovation Park in 2006.  Due to limited space, several faculty members shared what they call “hot desks” in the same office.  From 9 am to 6 pm, they designed curricula, taught classes (many for the first time), cleaned and prepared teaching labs themselves as there were no lab attendants, made purchase indents for lab equipment and held regular meetings to design their future labs/offices.  After dinner, many returned for a “second shift”, during which they corresponded with their collaborators or students from former work places, wrote papers and made grant applications [1].  The second shift could continue into the wee hours of the morning.

People could walk into our director Professor Ganesh’s office anytime they needed to [2].  Many a times, they would enter feeling worried, but would come out of the office with a big smile sharing his dreams about the future of IISER.

Professor Shashidhara (Shashi) walked from his place of residence in Panchwati to the permanent campus, Innovation Park and Sai Trinity Building every single day to oversee the progress at each point (and give things a good push whenever needed).  He patiently taught new faculty members from scratch how to work through administrative rules and regulations for acquiring equipment and setting up labs as many were fresh out of postdocs and were doing it all for the first time. 

When a potential faculty candidate visited for a job interview in those days, it was easy to get discouraged at the state of affairs: no research labs, no offices and no PhD students.  Apart from generous start-up grants, some of the things that attracted the early people to join were clear communication from the leadership about future plans, love of teaching and personal ambition.  The sense that they were building the institute and were equal contributors to every stage of development gave them a feeling of personal empowerment.  My colleague Mayurika mentions, “When I first visited for my job interview in 2007, I only saw the floor at Innovation Park and empty spaces in Sai Trinity building [3].   Shashi told me that things would be ready before I joined and I instinctively believed him.  Sure enough, things were ready by the time I joined in March 2008.  I did not feel any negativity around me. ” 

The central wing of the Sai Trinity building was inaugurated in January 2008 and was adequately ready for the biologists within a couple of months.

That was the time when experimental faculty had to spend maximum time in acquiring equipment for the labs. While doing this and allocating lab spaces, they decided upon a few healthy practices, which continue till date: first was the practice of shared labs.  Except a handful of cases where the nature of research is highly specialized, spacious common labs were to be shared by multiple members.  This not only reduced wastage of resources, but also taught faculty to treat resources as shared facilities rather than individual possessions.  As a colleague puts it jokingly, the tendency to act as “estate builder” was cut off right at the beginning.  Second was the practice of looking ahead: in any lab, some extra space was kept aside for future faculty.  When people ordered equipment and material for themselves, they ordered in extra quantities so that a new faculty would have enough workspace and resources to get started immediately upon joining.  This was very crucial because the Sai Trinity years witnessed a burst in hiring. 

In the meanwhile, the right side of the Sai Trinity building was acquired for chemistry and the chemists started moving there.  At one point of time, 11 faculty members and 40 students shared a lab space of 1800 square feet.

Around that time, Biology and Chemistry started looking for suitable PhD students.  The first advertisement for PhD went out from Chemistry in January 2008.  There would be at least three more rounds of advertisement and selection procedures before 4 students were selected in July 2008.  Biology also got their first few PhD students in August 2008.  These students took course work for a year and also actively helped with setting up the labs in Sai Trinity building.  By summer of 2009, the labs were well equipped and ready for active research.  Publications based on work done at IISER started coming out by 2010.

One of the reasons my early colleagues did not cave in to disappointment or exhaustion from frequent moves is that from the very beginning, no one lost sight of the final product, the permanent campus.  Gopi describes the happiness they felt while they witnessed the official land transfer of the permanent campus land to IISER in a ceremony at Pride Hotel in 2008: “We knew this informally, but were really thrilled when we saw it happening officially.”  Jayakannan mentions that even before all the moves across temporary locations happened, they started planning for the permanent campus.  Sometimes, they would wear construction hats and spend time at the construction sites.  “We adjusted to what was available with belief and sense of involvement in what was to come.  The institute always came first.”

But, Girish has a simpler explanation for the (more or less) high spirits: “Nothing big broke during the moves.  This kept everyone happy.”

[Stories of further moves and other groups coming up in future posts.  The second part of this post is here.]

[1] It would be a while before publications started coming out from work done at IISER. 

[2] We still can: it’s just that we don’t need to do so all that much anymore.  I only discovered the location of the director’s office last month, when a group met there to plan our 10 year celebrations.

[3] An office complex in the heart of Pashan, which was to remain our temporary campus for a long time.