Dhiraj Bhatia is an Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar (IITGN). In this invited article, he speaks about his experience with the open lab system and how this can be a great advantage to a new Principal Investigator.
Imagine that you are returning from your postdoctoral lab in the US or Europe to start your own lab in a decent Indian institute. The joy and excitement of starting an academic career is accompanied by nervousness when we think about setting up our labs and arranging grants and materials. Especially in the Indian scenario, this nervousness is enhanced further due to an expectation of delays in getting consumables or grants on time, hiring proper personnel, limited infrastructure etc., and we fear that things can go wrong at any point.
Every one of us coming back to India assumes that it will easily take 6-12 months to get our lab set and to get the first results from the lab. I was no exception to this. After 5 years of postdoctoral research at Institute Curie in Paris, I moved back to India to start my own lab in the Biological Engineering Discipline at Indian Institute of Technology Gandhinagar (IITGN), nervous that there will be a temporal vacuum of 1-2 years in my publications and scientific research.
However, to my complete surprise, IITGN had anticipated these challenges and was already well prepared to welcome me into their open laboratory system at BioE laboratory. IITGN follows the open laboratory model where all faculties share their spaces, reagents and equipment. This was my first experience of an open lab system since I had always worked in individual labs during my PhD and Postdoc. To my complete surprise, this turned out to be the best model system to work in a scientific community.
I joined IITGN on Monday, 2nd July. Friday of the same week, I was given my own space and enough storage space to host up to 6 students with full access to all equipment and facilities. The same week, I received my first grant from IITGN to kick start my research and most of the common reagents and biochemicals arrived within a week. My first PhD student joined me on the very same day that I joined the institute, and within three weeks, we were fully on the bench busying our hands with DNA Nanotechnology.
The biggest help that came to me in this open lab system was the kind mentoring by existing BioE faculty members. Each of my senior colleagues opened up their lab drawers and cupboards for me to take their chemicals, reagents, lab equipment to kick start my research right from day one. In fact, two of my colleagues immediately gave me access to their ongoing grants to order the things I needed for my research. These memories of the first six months in IITGN will constitute one of the golden periods in my career.
Setting up your own individual lab in any institute in India these days is one of the biggest challenges any scientist can face. Given the crunch in funding from institutes, delays in arrival of grants from the government can be extremely frustrating. A bigger challenge is arranging huge sums of money to get the essential equipment for your lab to run on. The biggest piece of advantage that the open lab system offers that you don’t have to write separate grants to acquire all such equipment needed for research. This allows you to utilize more funds for your reagents and consumables.
The open lab system provides a strong advantage for consumables as well. Most experiments involve using some specific reagents in very small amounts only once or twice. Purchasing such chemicals for each individual lab could be costly and lead to wastage in the long term. Having an open lab system gives you access to such reagents if the neighbouring labs already have them and are willing to share small amounts.
The open lab system also gives a lot of freedom to students from different groups to discuss science among themselves and get their problems solved. Many times, the faculty members are busy with teaching, administrative work, conferences, etc and are not easily accessible to their students for trouble-shooting. The open lab system not only provides an opportunity for students to discuss experimental problems with other students for troubleshooting but also helps them come up with new ideas which could give rise to collaborative projects between different groups. In my six months at IITGN, I already have collaborative projects up and running with each of the other faculty members in my discipline and some from other disciplines as well.
For me, the open lab system has turned into a daily journal club where not only my students, but students from other groups as well, come and discuss their ideas, new papers, and discoveries and suggest how we can further improve our existing system for better accommodation, arrangements for future in-coming students, visitors, scientists and science. In my nine months experiencing the open lab system at IITGN, I still feel that I am in a wonderland where my science is driving on auto-pilot mode with the best efficiency possible, and I hope that this dream does not break ever.
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