An Interview with Dr. Ramani Ramchandran

Prof Ramani Ramani Ramchandran, PhD
Professor, Department of Pediatrics,
Patrick J. and Margaret G. McMahon Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology,
Vice Chair for Research Obstetrics and Gynecology,
Investigator, Children's Research Institute;
Professor, Developmental Vascular Biology program and Zebrafish Drug Screening Core,
The Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, WI.

Dr. Ramani Ramchandran is a scientist working in the area of developmental vascular biology. His research involves blood vessels, how they are developed during embryonic development and their role in disease. In the following interview, he gives career advice and guidance to undergraduate Indian students studying in areas such as biotechnology, biology and biomedical sciences.

You have collaborations with a couple of research institutions in India. How do you think research in biological and biomedical sciences is faring in India currently?
Yes, I have a few collaborations with certain institutes in India. Currently, there is a lot of momentum towards investigator initiated research problems and scientists trained from abroad are increasingly being hired. There are many institutions in India right now, small as well as large, that are actively looking to expand their biological research programs and I know several people who are well funded in India. So, yes, there is a lot of momentum in India right now in the area of biological research.

Can you name some institutes in India, apart from the big ones such as IISc and TIFR, that are doing great work in biological and biomedical sciences?
National Center for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bangalore, National Center for Cell Science (NCCS) in Pune, National Institute of Immunology (NII) in Delhi, Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR) in Bangalore, and Center for Cell and Molecular Biology (CCMB) in Hyderabad are doing great work. There is also a relatively new center for stem cell research in the Christian Medical College in Vellore, and the AU-KBC (Anna University – K B Chandrasekhar) Research Centre in the MIT (Madras Institute of Technology) Campus of Anna University, Chennai are gems that are lesser known. The typical big powerhouses such as IISc in Bangalore are still there but new ones are coming up and are showing a lot of promise.

What advice would you give to undergraduate Indian students who are aspiring to do their M.S or PhD in biotechnology/biomedical/biological sciences abroad?
One of the things that I would highly recommend for an undergraduate student from India is to get as much hands on experience as possible in the lab. It would be best if they can get some internship in a research-intensive lab, whether it is one of the mentioned institutes or in their own university. In my view, they should get as much hands on experience. If possible, they should try to publish a paper with their professor, as a middle author or co-author. Publishing papers helps differentiate students and their application from others. Most students have decent GRE scores and GPA but evaluating them is hard as there is no way to equate their Indian GPA to the grading system in the United States. Also, recommendation letters are important but sometimes there is too much emphasis on the letters for the admission process. They add to your profile but is not necessarily a game changer. Having significant bench lab experience makes a big difference as most Indian undergraduate students have minimal experience at the bench.

Plenty of students tend to do their internships in places where if you pay a certain amount of money you get to do experiments and then they give you a certificate. How valuable is this type of internship?
Yes, this approach to internships is a little bit misplaced. Internships need to be a bit more intensive in terms of education rather than some form of certificate. There is much emphasis on grades, certificates and accolades rather than learning. It would be better if one had lesser emphasis on certificates and more on the learning experience. Internships that last for 6 months and involve publishing a paper will be of much more value to your application to graduate schools in the United States. Also, students with minimal experience have lesser understanding of what it takes to do research. For them applying for an M.S or a PhD is just the next step in their career. Not much thought is given to whether they want to do this for the long term. I think it is really important that they understand what they are getting into rather than following the herd.

The kind of internships that you are talking about are very competitive to get into and not all students can land such an internship given the population and competition. What other options would you suggest as an alternative to students who are unable to land a research internship in prestigious labs in India?
Yes, there are fewer oppurtunities in academia due to certain factors such as limited number of seats, competition etc. However, what is interesting is that there is a lot more oppurtunities available in the Industry. Industry related internship will also be equally compelling. An internship in, for example, a drug discovery company such as CIPLA, will result in a positive knowledge base experience as the students will be involved in the creation of a product. So, any kind of research experience helps, be it industry or academia, as long as the emphasis is on learning.

A Statement of Purpose plays a big role in the admissions process for graduate school. What do you look for the most in an SOP?
An SOP is used to evaluate a student's maturity in thinking. More importantly, it highlights their motivation to go to graduate school. What is their purpose in life to apply to graduate school? Many students write flowery language and idealistic things but I am looking for more practical things. I want to be able to understand that you know what it takes to succeed in graduate school.

A lot of students don't have clear research or scientific ideas while writing their SOP. Would this be a drawback?
SOP is one of the many determining factors, not THE determining factor. I would use the SOP as supplemental information to make my case for or against a student. If an SOP is poorly written but the student has a publication I would give that some weightage. Some students are not great writers during early stages of their career, and you cannot put that against somebody as one can be trained to write better. So, SOP is just one of the many factors in the admissions process. A well written SOP will stand out but will not guarantee an admission. However, I would not put enormous emphasis on the SOP. I would make it as succint, clear and practical as possible. I would try to weave a story of why an education in USA or any other country would benefit especially at the graduate school level. How would it enhance your career and how you would use that to contribute to your long-term goals. I am less interested in your scientific objective as that is going to change over time. You also are not expected to come up with a research proposal in the SOP as your research interests are yet to develop.

Apart from SOP, what are the other important determining factors for admissions?
We give emphasis to the GRE score as it helps compare students on a common platform. We don’t know the system of Indian GPA or percentage so we can't judge the student's credentials based on that. One of the other criteria that is important is whether the institution in the US has taken students from your university beforehand and they have done well. This is a big plus. In my case, when I came to Georgia in 1992, after my first year they accepted four or more students from University of Bombay. Prior to me there were none. If I come across a student who has done well, then I can assume that their undergraduate training was good. Then the odds of finding another successful student from the same university are higher as opposed to admitting a student who comes from a non-familiar university in India. You tend to have a higher comfort level to hire students from a previous known university in India or anywhere else for that matter.

How vulnerable is the biological and biomedical sciences field to recession in the US?
Biomedical sciences are highly vulnerable to the US government performance. If the government is undergoing debt crisis or shutdown, like we had recently, we can expect funding cuts, which is bad news for research and the PhD enterprise, because 70% or more of US based research is funded by the government. We have witnessed a massive problem in the last 2-3 years with people being laid off and the competition for funds has exponentially risen. There has also been a surplus of researchers. There are many postdocs available for jobs but not many labs around the country have the money to hire them. In general, when the amount of money from biomedical research or government goes down then it decreases the number of funded labs for hire, and in turn fewer students and postdocs can procure positions. If the admission to graduate schools is constant then you have surplus people with no jobs. So, yes this is a tough time, I routinely get 2-3 postdoc applications every week, even when am not even looking for postdocs.

If things are pretty bad right now, would it help if PhD or M.S students learn extra skills that will help diversify their resumes?
I completely agree. It is a very good point you bring up. Sticking to a conventional degree and expecting to get a job is something that one has to go away from. You need to diversify your portfolio so an interdisciplinary approach is the way to go and students should be thinking of such directions. This will highlight your resume when compared with others who are doing just one thing.

When applying for graduate schools, Indian students tend to give a lot of importance to university rankings instead of other important factors such as research, publications etc. Some schools may not be highly ranked but offer good funding. However, many Indian students prefer to go to highly ranked universities that do not offer any funding. They believe that a big name will help them with job search and other things. What do you think about this approach?
There are advantages and disadvantages when it comes to ranking. The major advantage with highly ranked schools is that the density of investigators with highly accomplished CV's is greater. But that doesn't mean that someone going to a low ranked school will not be successful. To explain it in a better way, a good analogy would be that of a 100 meter sprint race. Everybody starts at the start line, when the gun goes off, some start faster while some start slower. As the race goes on, the position keeps changing but no one remembers all that. The only position they remember is the one at the finish line. Nobody pays attention to who started but everyone remembers who finished first. That is pretty much how I apply to everything. At that early stage in your career, it is hard to realize what is important for you. Yes, on face value it might be better to choose a university where you will be better off economically without a large student loan debt. On the other hand if you really love the research of the school you are going to but have no funding, then by all means go ahead and join that school. If you want to join a university only because it is highly ranked then you are making your decisions for all the wrong reasons. If you are so mature at age 21 and know what you want to do with your career, all kudos to you. I can assure you that most people, including myself, do not know what they want at that early age. You have a vague idea of the molecular technique that you want to be immersed in. It was genetic engineering for me. I had no clue which field of biology will help me study that technique. If a student wants to work with a particular technique and finds an institution where they can do that technique then I think that is a great way of choosing a university. If the emphasis is on ranking then it might not work. But if the emphasis is on passion towards research then your decision will be right. But that kind of maturity develops over time for most students.

What area of research is going to be the next big thing in biological and biomedical sciences?
We now know how many genes we have, and the sequences of these genes. Now the big question is how do these genes contribute to function and which of these genes are responsible for the big diseases. That is where the money is. The few areas of biology or in general in sciences that are going to blossom in the next 10 or 20 years are fields related to studying combinatorial gene and protein functions, drug discovery, how to target these genes, areas of organic chemistry and chemical synthesis is going to be big news in the next 5 - 10 years. So, areas such as chemistry, computers, bioinformatics, biology, physics have to come together to solve critical problems in biology such as behavior, concepts that are vague right now but those are the ones that are going to be tackled in the near future.

So, what you suggest is doing a PhD in Biology with emphasis on interdisciplinary studies.
I would actually suggest doing a PhD in interdisciplinary biology or a PhD in biological sciences or biomedical sciences with a project in interdisciplinary biology. There are plenty of schools, including ours, that offer these types of programs.