The Deferential-Assiduous Scholar: Tejaswini Karra
Tejaswini Karra, a student from the Department of Biotechnology and Bio-Medical Engineering bagged a golden opportunity to do her internship at Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois through the prestigious Khorana Program for Scholars. Team MM got an opportunity to catch up with this warm and welcoming person, who shared her inspiring story, where she overcame all hurdles with her tenacity and hard work and ultimately achieved success.
MM: Tell us about your childhood days, the days that you spent at school before joining NIT Rourkela?
TK: I was brought up in a small town called Bhandara (60 km away from Nagpur city) in Maharashtra. I completed my Secondary and Higher Secondary education at Omega International School in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.
My father had a transferable job, so as a family, we were constantly moving from one city to another. I lived in Bhandara for eleven years, then I moved to Hyderabad for a year and then headed to Chennai for seven years and right now my family is in Rajasthan. Since my childhood, I had the ability to easily adapt to different cultures and environments. I could get along with people from various backgrounds, belonging to different ethnicities. It was a challenge to learn new languages, but the whole experience was always fun because everyone I met was very warm and welcoming.
Of all the places I’ve lived in, I cherish my stay in Chennai the most because I went to an international school and this helped me to expand my mind and it transformed my thought process.
MM: How did Biotechnology Engineering at NITR happen to you? Was it your choice or fate had in store for you?
TK: Though my CBSE grade 12 aggregate was really good (94.6%), but my JEE Main score was not up to my expectations. Back then, there was a normalization process so I was unable to secure a seat of my choice at my preferred Institute. I had already joined Electronics and Instrumentation branch in a private university but soon realized that the subject was not my cup of tea. With the support of my parents, I applied for the spot round of counselling. That’s how I got admission into the Biotechnology Department, NIT Rourkela. Biotechnology was something that I was always inclined to, and I am thankful that NITR happened to me.
MM: Most of the students find their first year hectic. How did you strike a balance between academics and extra curricular activities? How did your involvement in Synergy and Genesys help you evolve as a person?
TK: I was no exception and I had also missed a lot of classes because I was admitted after the spot round of counselling. By the time I was able to cope up, midsems were already on their way. The monotonous schedule of classes and labs were strenuous and chaotic. In spite of joining about two weeks late, I was able to sustain due to the constant support and help of my classmates. In addition, I joined Synergy due to my passion towards dance. Being the Chief Coordinator of Genesys in the second year, I used to call professors for lectures during workshops. I learned sportsmanship and managerial skills, which were immensely helpful in the long run. The idea is to prioritize your time for each activity (academic or extracurricular).
MM: You did an internship at ITC at the end of your second year. Can you tell us more about it?
TK: My second-year internship was in Paperboards and Specialty Papers Division (PSPD), Plantation Unit, ITC Ltd in Bhadrachalam- a village in Telangana state. My work was predominantly based on Agricultural Biotechnology. I wanted to have an on-field experience, hence my ITC internship was an industrial cum research internship.
I worked under the guidance of Dr. Jagdish Tamak– a national award winner in agricultural biotechnology. Being a sophomore and with no prior experience, he guided me patiently throughout the course of my internship. After this internship, I was convinced that I wanted to pursue a career in scientific research. Hence, my second-year internship paved the way to my foreign internship and removed the air of doubts I had regarding my choice.
MM: How did your foreign internship come about? What was the procedure you followed to apply for the internship?
TK: It was always a dream for me to do my internship abroad and to get an experience of how hard-core research is conducted. I started my procedure by sending almost 390 personal emails to various professors across the world! Besides that, I made an excel sheet containing details of all the scholarship programs, their eligibility criteria, application materials needed and respective deadlines. It was a tedious task as I had to stay up late at nights to email them. My work was quite systematic because I was keen on bagging one of these internships that were completely paid for.
I profusely thank Prof. Saleem Mohammed (Dept of Life Sciences) and Prof. Priyabrat Dash (Department of Chemistry) for constantly supporting and convincing me to apply for such prestigious programs.
The procedure for application of Khorana Program was standard. An applicant who met the CGPA and other eligibility requirements is needed to fill his/her personal details, submit a Statement of Purpose, previous research experience, Letters of Recommendation (which play a major role), Institute-issued official grade card and a No-Objection Certificate from NIT-R.
At that time, my CGPA was at the lower end and was hovering at a mere 8.10 (on a scale of 10). So, I was very unsure about getting the scholarship. But with my family’s unwavering faith and support, I applied for the Khorana Program for Scholars, which I came to know from my seniors. While waiting for the acceptance letter from the Khorana Program, I also applied personally to various other places. I got acceptance from Purdue University, two universities in Germany, at IIT-Delhi through the IAS Fellowship and at Indian Institute of Toxicology Research (IIT-R) Lucknow through the Abdul Kalam’s Summer Training Program, as an AcSIR Scholar. I finally decided to withdraw my name, once I got through Khorana.
Soon after the provisional selection (at mid of January 2017), all the selected candidates were given a week’s window to contact professors of their choice across the United States, depending on their field of interest. It was during this time that I contacted Prof. Dr. William Klein, Department of Neurobiology, Northwestern University. He graciously agreed to host me for Summer 2017 as a Khorana Scholar.
Khorana Program sponsored my trip, which included a round-trip airfare, travel insurance, health insurance and a decent amount of stipend for my stay in Chicago. My US Host was kind enough to partially fund my accommodation by providing me with 1000 USD.
MM: How was your internship experience in America? What, according to you, is the difference between an internship done abroad and in India?
TK: This research internship was for a period of 11 weeks. Everyone in the lab was very warm and welcoming. My team consisted of students from Grade XI to post-docs, and they came from places all over the world like China, Brazil, etc. In a way, my lab was multicultural, which made the experience all the more exciting! Working with people from various ethnic backgrounds enhanced my mind and views. My project topic was investigating specific conditions under which the toxic Amyloid beta oligomeric species can be enriched, in relevance to Alzheimer's Disease. Klein Lab also holds a patent for its important discovery of Amyloid beta oligomers (1998), now widely believed to be the bad guys behind the pathogenicity in Alzheimer’s Disease. The unified aim of the AlzCure team is to make Alzheimer’s a memory!
Prof. Klein, my host, was very friendly and understanding. He taught me the way to minutely observe details from scientific data while analyzing it. A simple miss can cost lives, in this domain. I am also thankful to the post-docs in the lab for their constant encouragement.
While working for the internship, I had nine failed attempts, with each attempt being a week long process. In other words, I found all possible ways to fail in that experiment (chuckles!). The process was a very intricate process, so it was natural for an undergraduate to fail during his/her initial attempts. Even after that, my professor was very supportive and patient. He kept telling me not to lose hope and to complete the experiment, even though I went wrong at the initial stage. So, one good thing about researching abroad was that even though I used their resources extensively, due to failed attempts or mistakes, I was never criticised for it. The reason being that the professor understood that failure was a natural part of the learning process and there were enough resources to aid in continuing and completing my research. Also, their lab instruments are all state-of-the-art equipments.
One major difference between researching in India and abroad is that, in India, students are normally not given access to such high-tech advanced instruments. They are heavily monitored by a guide or a supervisor. On the contrary, in the place I did my internship, I was taught the basics about the tools and was left by myself to figure out and understand its details. That way, by making mistakes and discovering new things, I was learning independently, if not quickly. Troubleshooting an experiment is equally important as conducting one! Secondly, the work culture is heavily organized and systematic. Working time is flexible, but there are also deadlines for large research projects.
During my stay there, I made really good friends. Networking (with my lab members, members from the other labs in my department, with former and fellow SN Bose and Khorana Scholars) is very valuable in the long run.
MM: Throw some light on the prospects of your department. What changes would you like to see in the near future?
TK: We used to study a lot of subjects related to electronics but I am pleased with the revision of academic curriculum of our department. Such a change in course structure will be beneficial for my juniors who will study courses that are more relevant to their branch. Frankly speaking, the scope of my department is less in India, which is why we see a fewer number of core companies visiting our Institute for placements. The pay scale offered by a pharmaceutical firm is comparatively lesser than an IT sector company. For research, countries like USA, Germany, etc. provide ample opportunities. Needless to say, even in India, certain labs and institutes have ground breaking research going on!
MM: Does the Institute provide suitable training to catch up with the foreign demands? What are the different projects that you were a part of during the last three years?
TK: I would say it depends on the student if he/she wishes to learn and equip himself/herself with the opportunities around. One needs to make efforts and should have the zeal to make a difference. One needs to have a passion and should focus on his/her aim. I have been and still am a part of projects like:
- Understanding the etiology of Alzheimer's Disease; under Prof. Mohammed Saleem, Department of Life Sciences, NIT Rourkela.
- Proving the existence of Amyloid beta fibrils in Pepsin and using it for drug delivery and tissue engineering applications; under Prof. Dr. Sirsendu Sekhar Ray, Department of Biotechnology and Medical Engineering, NIT Rourkela
- A TEQIP-funded project by the Centre of Excellence(CoE) in Orthopedic Tissue Engineering and Rehabilitation (OTER) under Prof. Amit Biswas, Department of Biotechnology and Medical Engineering, NIT Rourkela.
MM: What are your plans after graduation? Where do you see yourself in the near future?
TK: The experience that I gained over the summer months was thoroughly enriching and now I plan to pursue a career in scientific research. I haven’t made up my mind yet, but Neurosciences is an amazing domain with a vast scope. I will be starting my application process soon, and from then it’s just a long and painful wait until the results are out.
MM: Before signing off, what message would you like to give to our readers?
TK: Thank you Monday Morning for this amazing opportunity. I want to convey to my juniors that there are plenty of opportunities available for students, it’s onto them to play properly with the cards. It’s not the end for those who have a lower CGPA. The selection committee reviews applications based on a lot of things: how true and rich the statement of purpose is, previous research experiences and their relevance, and the most crucial part is, how enthusiastic the applicant is to pursue the internship. So never lose hope because nothing can subtract hard work from success!