How to succeed at interviews for research positions


Given that we work in a research institute, it is often our job to take on trainees, pre-PhD candidates, post-doctoral researchers and even fellow faculty applicants.
I will focus currently only on the amusing incidents (that also highlight a potential lacuna in the preparedness of interview candidates), in order to make the process more productive for both the candidate and the interviewer.
Despite the long-term nature of PhDs and the effort and cost involved in preparing (entrance tests, travel, hard studying, etc.), it always amazes me how poorly prepared the large majority of PhD candidates are when they come to interviews.
My top-3 list of amusing answers that are symptomatic of this:

  1. Q: Why are you applying for a PhD programme?
    A: Ummmm……. I haven’t really thought about it.
  2. Q: What was the most exciting research you have read about in the newspapers, magazines, journals or anywhere in the last 10 years?
    A: I don’t have time to read, since I am busy preparing to crack competitive exams.
    A: I have read about protein X (put the last thing they mugged before boarding the train/bus/flight), and how it affects Y (disease) by Z (mechanism).
  3. Q: How will you make a 1 Molar solution of any reagent?
    A:I will hand the bottle to the technician.
    We were not taught this.
    It’s the fault of our College/Professor/University, that I can’t answer that question.

Interestingly, most interviews focus on how well the candidates basics are. Having said that the perfect candidate is the one who has mastered the basics- the degree certificate is validated- AND has original ideas about what s/he wants to do in future.


  • 19-12-2016: Anushree, Kunalika and Manasi’s combined efforts are published in PLOS ONE. A good combination of experiments and computation.
  • 13-12-2016: The lab travels to the MMSYMP: Computational and Experimental Studies of Microtubules and Motors at IIT Bombay, Powai, Mumbai.
  • 21-22 May 2016: Advances in mathematical and computational biology (AMCB) at IIT-Ropar: Instructional school organi

    Logo of IIT Ropar

    IIT Ropar

    zed by the Mohali node of NNMCB (National Network on Mathematical and Computational Biology)- a DST initiative to enhancetraining in math-comp biology. I will be speaking. Visting ਪੰਜਾਬ ਦੇ for science- a first- IIT-Ropar, Punjab

  • The iGEM (international genetically engineered machines) contest for 2016 is accepting PI registrations! Let the games begin!
  • #Biophysics Week called by the Biophysical Society of USA 7-11 March! And some amazing biophysics in the dispersal of fern spores, providing an understanding and inspiration for bio-mimetics.

    A report from the Royal Society Interface 2016 by Llorens et al.

    A report from the Royal Society Interface 2016 by Llorens et al.

  • Reproducibility of measurements in synthetic biology- the 2014-15 iGEM InterLab study involved measurements of fluorescence from promoters distributed to multiple labs have been collated and published in PlosOne. The results suggest measurement methodology is a bigger cause of variation between results from lab-to-lab as compared to the construct themselves. And the IISER Pune team is part of the consortium acknowledged in the paper!
  • Summer-Internship with the most exciting thing in neurobiology DIY since Luigi Galvani’s frog.

    Cockroach circadian circuit.

    Cockroach circuit

  • The global availability of scientists and engineers from the World Economic Forum and plotted using Google’s DataViewer
  • 27-30 Dec 2015: the National Meeting on Mathematical and Computational Biology organized by the Pune node.
  • 2015 nobel prize for medicine and physiology- to some

On choosing a research problem


One of the big questions facing (especially) young researchers, at the anvil of choosing a research career, is finding a problem. There are many ways to go about doing this.

  • Follow the leader: One can find a big and successful lab with a famous scientist and hope good ideas from the lab come to you and inspire you
  • Follow the money: Find a topic that is being funded heavily by Public or Private agencies, since that might be something that is also socially relevant. There are many pitfalls here. But it’s a sense of doing socially useful science. It might therefore be very applied too.
  • Follow the market: Industry has always attracted science. And science has sometimes attracted industry, less so in this country. If you enjoy tight deadline working, and are looking for new goals, new challenges every year,  with a driver of novelty coming from the market.
  • Follow your heart: Find and identify the problem that really does make you curious, for rational reasons or irrational ones. This requires a very curious mind, and might not be a good startpoint for all minds. Yoshinori Oshsumi (Nobel Prize winner 2016 for Physiology and Medicine) however is a shining example of this as highlighted in this 2012 article “Yoshinori Ohsumi: Autophagy from the beginning to the end” in J. Cell. Biol. This is also the hardest.

And adding to all of this is, once you choose a problem to continue pursuing it. C.V. Raman is reported to have said “Science can only flower out when there is an internal urge. It cannot thrive under external pressure.” (21/11/1970) [Barry Masters on C.V. Raman].

Further reading

  • Peter B. Medawar (1979) Advice to a Young Scientist. Classic book, still relevant
  • Alon U. (2009) How to choose a good scientific problem. Molec. Cell. 2009 Sep 24;35(6):726-8. doi: 10.1016/j.molcel.2009.09.013.
  • C.V. Raman and the Raman Effect by Barry R. Masters on the OSA website weblink

Ethics in Science


A superficial reading of popular media on science plagiarism, doctored results, falsification, backstabbing, sabotage appear to suggest that these have spilt over only recently from other hyper-competitive professions. But appearances are deceptive. This (as with many other human traits) has been around since we began to think.

Here I will attempt to bring together scientific ethics, ideas about ethical scientific practise and the positive side of all the noise about bad-science. In the interim, a few links.

  • Clearly a strategy of naming and shaming- Beall’s list makes for an interesting read. Many of those with some years in scientific research will vouch for the increase in emails claiming yet another OpenAccess journal to “submit your new research findings” to. This certainly seems to address (in a Rambo-esque manner- one man army) the question about the (sometimes more than apparent) questionable quality of the journals. Many you will find have indian-sounding names- because they are based in India. This together with Mr. Aly’s interview is a fascinating read about the rise of dubious journals and the economics of it. Naturally when ~1000 articles are published in our field every month, we often don’t have the time to check on this, so Dr. Beall does a useful job. But more such Bealls are needed to get a global perspective on this.
  • The article that appeared in Nature “Investigating journals: The dark side of publishing” (Mar 2013) can be read here [pdf] (for those of who can’t get beyond the paywall). The irony being ofcourse that it appears the critique of OpenAccess is strongest amongst journals which don’t practise it. However all is not lost, there is a “Critical Analysis of Scholarly OpenAccess Publishing” blog which has a number of criteria which could be used to define predatory-publishing:  checklist if you like.
  • Science in the time of predatory publishing (Gracias Senor Gabriel Garcia-Marquez): Interview with a journal editor Mr. Aly from Egypt or Belgium, a former emloyee of Hindawi Publishing, India (!) which leaves lots to one’s imagination. Predatory publishing or simply bad scientific-publishing? You make up your mind.


While ringing in the new year (anno domini, i.e. current era (CE) 2014) there has been a huge storm kicked up in the science publishing and science ‘generating’ communities. For long seen as one and the same (with editors and all reviewers doing work pro-bono, i.e. for no or token fees), the professionalization and possible expansion of scientific publication has some feel led to a chasm between the two communities.

I am ofcourse referring to the ‘sting’ by a member of the editorial staff of the journal Science (John Bohannon) and the counters by Mike Eisen and a bigger followup by Randy Schenkman. A nice review of similar stings in the past (submitting fake papers to journals and seeing them accepted, to demonstrate the flaws in the review system) highlights the efforts by Bohannon aren’t new. However the internet with its reach and speed, allow data to be gathered globally and surveyed somewhat quantitatively- as seen in this info-graphic from

posted under Blog, Commentaries, Ethics in science, scientific_writing | Comments Off

Pet physicist


#petphysicist2 is up! Enjoy

#petphysicist1: The first in a series.

Inspired by discussions with experimental biologists, physicists and close friends. None of the characters are meant to harm any person, animal or idea.

Altschuler et al. (2008) On the spontaneous emergence of cell polarity


Altschuler SJ, Angenent SB, Wang Y, Wu LF (2008) On the spontaneous emergence of cell polarity. Nature. 454(7206): 886-889.
The authors describe a model of spontaneous cell polarization with a positive feedback. Drawing on an evolutionary model of “stepping stone” by Kimura, the authors simulate space implicitly and attempt to show how their model can generate patterns. The supplementary material demonstrates an analytical solution to the model.

Going through the model we find certain unexplained jumps in the derivation. The simulation appears to be fine, and so consequently the main results. More on this in a while.