Ruchi Masand: From accidental opportunities to deliberate decisions…

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current position: Postdoctoral Fellow studying obesity and fat metabolism at the Cardiovascular Research Institute; Chief Technology Officer for My Resolve Health, a bay area start-up.

Program start date: September 2015

Institution: University of California, San Francisco

Hi folks!

If you are reading this, you have decided to take that plunge and see what else is out there! Right off the bat, I would like to commend you on that decision; I bet it wasn’t an easy one! Moving on from something you love is never an easy choice. However, don’t despair, for there are a lot of fish in the water, so to speak. All you have to do is take the time to look around. But I know the next retort all too well – I am a graduate student or a postdoc, where’s the time!?!? And until a few months ago, I would have been right there with you, making that same excuse.

As a postdoc, my entire life revolved around the lab. When I was simultaneously juggling experiments, working on figures for a paper and writing grants to get funding, career exploration didn’t even make the top ten of my daily to-do list! It always ended up way down there with having an active social life and grocery shopping. It’s true; somehow grocery shopping always keeps getting pushed to the very bottom of the list! But I digress. Point is, had it not been for the MIND Program at UCSF, my intent of career exploration to transition out of academia would have remained just that. And it has led to so many new paths, both expected and unexpected, details of which I will share with you in the coming months.

So who am I and how did I get here?

I am currently a postdoctoral fellow at UCSF working in the area of fat metabolism trying to tackle the obesity problem from an energy metabolism perspective. And while that sounds like a mouthful, it was quite the natural progression from my PhD in Molecular and Human Genetics at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. I started my science career in Mumbai, India with Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Biotechnology. During that time I worked with a pediatric geneticist specializing in biochemical genetics. It’s where the idea for a PhD in genetics was born. While at Baylor, I worked in a mitochondria lab focusing on mitochondrial disease and energy metabolism pathways. Now I apply that expertise in mitochondrial genetics and energy metabolism to the area of obesity, completing the full circle.

With ever shrinking research funding even while I was a graduate student, I had no illusions about the difficulties of having a full-time research career. I remember an interesting conversation about how we were the generation of transition, a shift from a linear trajectory that started with graduate school and ended in a professorship, to one that branched into an array of previously unheard of possibilities after a PhD. The bigger problem however, was that we had no idea how to get there, since all we were being trained for was a career in academia.

So what then???

I guess sometimes the pieces just happen to fall in place. I landed my postdoc at UCSF and the move has turned out to be a blessing in disguise. What started out with an email inviting applications for the career exploration program called MIND has turned into an in depth exploration of my interests and values. I was obviously excited about the program when I was accepted and it has been an invaluable experience in many ways. But for starters, it has provided me something very basic and extremely essential – accountability for my career exploration goals and a support group! You know how we are able to generate twice as much data when we have a looming grant deadline, along with actually reading papers and writing the grant? It’s because we are accountable to someone and have a deadline to meet. The MIND program helps provide that for our career exploration goals through bi-weekly contracts and peer teams. And it’s nothing gargantuan like a grant or a paper, but small goals that can be accomplished along with all the other things going on in life. And then there’s the peer team, to talk, to support and to provide a fresh perspective when you are out of ideas. It’s a great system that works only as well as the people involved in it. And I’ve been truly lucky to have a great peer team.

It’s with them that I have explored careers as diverse as science communication for non-scientists, the business of science as well to my utter surprise, a career in helping other people in our situation explore careers outside of academia. That last one I think is particularly interesting especially from the perspective of an international postdoc from India. When you need a visa sponsorship from the employer, there’s an added hurdle in your path that has nothing to do with skill, qualification or interest. And it’s something that weighs heavily on most international graduate students and postdocs that I’ve known. So, in the coming months I will talk about my foray into each one of these paths, particularly from the perspective of an international postdoc who has had a quite a few stumbles because of sponsorship issues. And hopefully navigating these waters together will make the journey an enjoyable one.

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