A bit about myself
Hello everyone! I am Anish Shivamani, and I will begin my third year of B. S. Chemistry in Autumn 2021. I am a chemistry enthusiast with parallel interests in literature, debating and sitcoms, and I’m currently doing a project at the Weizmann Institute of Science, Israel in the field of protein biophysics.
I came into IIT pretty much certain that I want to do something (not quite sure what) in chemistry, as I liked the subject for as long as I can remember. With my interests only cemented further in first and second year, a research internship in the second year summer seemed like the most natural thing to look for. I spent the first and second years exploring which subdomain of chemistry to pick from, and a few online courses and electives later, I decided that protein biophysics is the most exciting thing to think about as I go about my day.
I got an internship with Prof. Koby Levy, who works at the Weizmann Institute and I got the opportunity via an IAF that opened through the PT Cell. I will take a minute here to profusely thank our ex-IC for the opportunity as it completely saved me the hard work of apping around. From the selection process that I had to sit for, I would say that having good grades and explaining my research interests briefly in my resume was probably very helpful in getting shortlisted and finally selected, as there was significant overlap between my interests and the professor’s. That being said, it is not necessary for anyone to have their specific interests figured out after 2-3 semesters, but having an inclination towards some subdomain with some (even surface-level) knowledge can help a professor better gauge whether it is good to take you in.
It’s possible that the area of research sounds complicated to those reading this, but I’ll try my best to explain it in simple terms. During the internship, I explored the study of interactions between the intrinsically disordered tau protein and the microtubule lattice. If that was a mouthful: microtubule (MT) is a polymeric protein chain that forms the skeleton of cells on which things within the cell are transported; tau is a protein that is known to play a major role in maintaining the stability of MTs, analogous to highways and highway maintenance. During the internship, we investigated how electrostatic interactions influence the interaction between tau and MT. Part of the motivation for this arises from the fact that this is suggested to play a role in neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
The project experience
I have not much to say about the professor’s lab (having interacted with them only virtually) except that they seem to be having greater resources at their disposal than I have seen in IIT labs. This project was purely based on computer simulations, and I was given the flexibility to ideate calculations/systems of my own, and run as many simulations as I felt were necessary. I was able to remotely access a machine from their lab that was solely for me to use, had access to all their lab software, and most importantly, their computing facilities were more extensive, giving more flexibility to scientists to perform calculations on different kinds of systems without having to worry about resource constraints.
Even as the entire project was computational, the process was not without its own hiccups – such as figuring out a way to access their lab computer remotely, and getting used to controlling everything via the remote access method, but eventually the logistics worked out fine in the end. As for interacting with the lab members, I had regular meetings with a senior PhD student for about a month to learn how to do the calculations; after that month I was able to reproduce previously published work (also from this lab). From that point onwards, I would do calculations on my own and communicate the results with the PhD senior once a week over a mail, or occasionally over a meeting. The downside to all of this was that there was not too much scope to interact with the professor or the PhD senior informally, even though professionally the project was really productive. (To be fair, the professor would make some small talk about his memories of his visits to Mumbai in the past, while my introverted self would never find itself capable of initiating a conversation that falls outside the work at hand).
I must say that my understanding of how research is done was improved significantly as I did this project. When I went in, I did not have a very clear expectation of what I want to do, except that I like the broader subject (and hence anything within it must also be interesting). Overall, looking back, the experience far exceeds expectations in terms of how interesting I found the topic (to the extent that I am now increasingly invested in tau protein pathology – yes, something you’ll probably never hear anyone else say), the skills and knowledge that I gained, and most importantly, I got exposed to the thought process which scientists ask to push the frontiers of knowledge. When I was in the process of reading relevant literature, I came up with quite a few ideas on my own but I wasn’t quite sure of whether they are worth following. To my surprise, the professor agreed to let me implement them. I realised later that when you know very little about something (which is the case in frontier research), there are many avenues you can follow, and you have no idea which one will lead to substantial outcomes. Based on your knowledge and understanding of the subject, you are left to take a decision that must be backed up by strong reasoning. At quite a few points over the project, the people I was working with respected my judgement in these situations, provided I had strong reasons to support them. I am not going to lie, that definitely boosts your confidence as a growing researcher.
But on to the less philosophical facets of science: I also learnt a great deal about how to analyse data, how to find motivation for a research idea, how to make an idea seem relevant, and how to communicate ideas/results crisply and clearly. I frankly cannot think of anything more exciting to do than ask questions that no one has the answers to and develop logical ways to answer those questions: this project taught me that that is exactly what research is.
While I have no doubt that I will continue on this path (career-wise), to those who may not be sure but feel some kind of interest in some core engineering/science field, my only suggestion is to give it a try and see where it takes you. When I joined IIT, I knew I liked chemistry but I had little clue what that really meant in terms of career. The first hand experience of being a researcher is really what gave me a clear idea of what the future holds in this field, and I don’t think anything can substitute that experience.