“Being born and brought up in a village and having been trained in Marathi medium through most of my schooling to eventually going to Australia was more than a dream come true for me. I knew very early on in my life that I wanted to do a PhD, and I prepared myself accordingly. When I went for a Master’s at IIT Bombay, it changed the game for me for the better.
The PhD interviews for the IITB-Monash University were more rigorous as compared to the general IITB PhD interviews; there were multiple rounds of screening- written examination, submitting a research proposal and personal interviews. But fortunately, I managed to sail through all the rounds.
I was on an all-time high, having had the chance to go to Melbourne as part of my PhD programme. I realized that the scientific acumen of people abroad wasn’t greatly different from ours; we all were quite innovative in our thinking and approaching scientific problems. The difference was in the number of facilities that were at their disposal, getting the reagents very fast and mostly the logistics of doing research. I remember I had to do this huge screening of compounds at Monash and I was failing consistently. I went to my supervisor there one day, almost crying and telling him how miserable I felt. He wrote Murphy’s Law on a paper and said what needed to go wrong would go wrong, but I should still carry on.
His words pacified me, and I think carrying on, no matter what, eventually leads us to our Eureka moment. And that’s exactly what happened to me. I had to go to another institute to perform the compound screening experiment, and it was one day before Melbourne was about to impose the lockdown, that my experiment worked, the one that had been failing all these months. I couldn’t be happier.
I was fortunate to come back to India when the pandemic started, but tragedy befell when I lost my beloved mother to COVID-19 all of a sudden. I was at the peak stage of my PhD, and I simply lost all motivation to carry on. I went into severe depression and had suicidal thoughts for a long period of time. What brought me back was my love for doing Science and the unconditional support of my supervisors and peers.
I managed to finish my PhD within 4.5 years, despite the huge personal setback. I wrote my thesis in nearly two months, which sounds unusual. The trick is to write short drafts of your PhD thesis, perhaps the hypothesis, the experimental approach and the likes, throughout the course of your PhD journey, which can eventually be clubbed together in your pre-synopsis. And before you know it, your final draft is ready in no time.
In the end, I would say “strive to have a good work-life balance and put your mental health above anything else.” Now I am eagerly looking forward to the new journey of my life at the University of California, San Francisco as a postdoctoral fellow.
-Sujata Walunj, PhD in Anti-Malarial Drug Discovery, Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay and Monash University, Melbourne
Interviewed and written by Payel Das