Dr. Abhijit Majumder is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bombay. By training, he is a chemical engineer who completed his bachelors from the National Institute of Technology, Durgapur, and Masters from IIT, Kharagpur. He continued with a Ph.D. program under the supervision of Prof. Animangsu Ghatak and Prof. Ashutosh Sharma at IIT Kanpur. It is at this point that he decided to work on biological problems by using his training in engineering to explore on how aesthetically and accurately nature uses engineering principles. He, therefore, continued his post-doctoral training at Prof. Jyotsna Dhawan’s lab in InStem Bangalore and later at Prof. Jeff Karp’s lab MIT-Harvard, Boston. He has earned awards like TR-35 India Young Investigators Award, DBT-Wellcome Trust India Alliance Early Career Fellowship and Peeble Travel Grant Award and Runners Up, Alan Gent Award.
As of 2014, he works as a faculty in IIT-Bombay investigating questions of cellular mechanosensing and its role in determining stem cell fate. In collaboration with the scientists from ACTREC Mumbai, he is also studying effect of mechanical environment in cancer cell migration and acquired resistance towards therapies. Outcomes of these may help in designing delivery systems for stem cell based treatments and finding newer treatment target to control diseases related to cellular migration including cancer. He is a young and dynamic personality full of life and commitment & sincerity towards his work. On 11th of July, he was gracious enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to speak to team Biomall.
Here is the full interview.
Q. In your past interviews you have mentioned that one must do in his life what he pleases to do or what he enjoys doing. We, therefore, want to ask you that at what point in your life you decided that you will pursue science henceforth? And what brought you to this point?
To be honest there was no such eureka moment. It was a gradual process and a cumulation of many decisive points. For example, after completion of B. Tech, most of my batchmates went for the jobs in the corporate sector while I on the other decided to pursue M Tech at IIT-Kharagpur, getting a salary almost 1/5th of theirs. As for choosing science, I always wanted to do something creative, I did think of becoming a painter, a writer etc., but I found that one can be creative in science as well. One wanted to be known by the virtue of his work and not by the virtue of the company’s name.
Q. When is it that you decided that you want to study cellular mechanosensing?
Since my school days, I was fascinated by Biology. But I studied engineering and pursued a Ph.D. in the areas of microfluidics and soft mechanics. After my Ph.D. I had multiple offers for post-doctorate research in similar fields. But I thought to myself that if I were to do Biology it is either now or never. I, therefore, joined Prof. Jyotsna Dhawan’s Lab at inStem Bangalore. But I had no background in biology. The only thing I knew was that I have to combine my previous training with biology. This is what brought me to the field of cell mechanics.
Q. What are the engineering techniques you use to achieve goals of your research?
If you notice my lab is called M-Lab which stands for Material, Mechanics and Microfluidics. Mechanics is understanding cell and its surrounding which controls the cell fate. This requires both engineering and physics. Understanding the material and the material property in a cellular context comes next. When I design a microfluidic chip, what should be a dimension of a channel, what should be the flow rate if one wants to know the effect of flow rate on cells? All this is where my engineering background comes in. But my final read out is in biology.
Q. Since you combine many fields what challenges you faced on an individual level and when it comes to setting up or running a lab?
The biggest challenge is the thought process. Engineering training teaches us to think in one way while a biologist thinks in a different way. Biology is a complex nonlinear subject. For example, when I worked in Jyotsna Dhawan’s Lab I was in the company of experienced cell biologist and they would often say, Abhijit your cells are not looking happy! I thought to myself ‘what does that even mean?’ Shouldn’t I be given some numbers or parameters instead?But only after some experience, I now understand that ‘happy’ is actually a combination of many different biological parameters.
Prof. Majumder’s whiteboard schematic figure of a cell applying force on a matrix and deforming it
The second was the fact that although one expects a Post Doc to be independent, given that I was new to biology I had to forget the hierarchy and learn even from a newly joined intern. This was a very humbling experience.
As for running a Lab, given that my biology training came from a single lab I could use only that one lab as a reference. If I were to order an equipment I only know the ones that lab ordered. It is only recently that I visit and learn from other labs.
Q. Any message you have for aspirants of science, who wish to pursue research in science?
Come to science only if you are interested. The work may be repetitive and challenging. You can overcome the challenges only if you have that inner ‘kick’.
Research is a very demanding field. I often say to my student, isn’t it difficult to extract out a secret from a friend? And here we are talking about extracting out a secret from nature. Research is finding something new, which was in nature for millions of years but you are the first one to uncover it. If you regard this as a ‘reward’ you can overcome all the challenges but if this does not excite you then you should not come to science.
You must have a friendship with nature, love your experiments, your microscope, your pipettes and everything you do. These may sound metaphysical but otherwise the nature will not reveal the well-kept secret to you. Your results should give you a bubble of joy! If you love to read a non-fiction book which is unrelated to your course and you enjoy solving puzzles step by step and you are ever curious, you are for science.
As for career options, it’s all out there, the only thing I would say is that don’t confine yourself to academia or research labs, do consider starting your own business or industry or opening a school or science writing and research management.