On becoming a group leader: Leo Kurian

This new series of posts focuses on the experiences of young PIs during their path to becoming a group leader.
On becoming a group leader: Leo Kurian

What is the focus of your research? 

Our lab is interested in understanding the basic molecular rules by which a cell defines and maintains its identity and function.

Our main focus is on understanding the molecular basis of programming and reprogramming of cell-fate decisions during embryogenesis, homeostasis, and aging. Additionally, we focus on devising molecular strategies to ‘hack’ these genetic networks that program cell fates to induce regenerative responses upon injury. 

You can find more info on our lab here:
Webpage: www.kurianlab.com
Twitter: kurianlab

The field of research can sometimes make or break a scientist’s career. How did you go about choosing your research area?

I was not that calculating in my academic path. I always went with the directions/questions that excited me the most. Thankfully, I had the right mentors who allowed me the freedom that I needed. I have to admit, I did keep the degree of employability in mind while choosing my field of research. If I am eligible to advise on this, then my advice would be:  

1. Always follow the research direction that excites you the most: In my opinion, this is absolutely essential since what we do takes a lot of patience, hard work, and occasional bouts of ‘clever ideas’. If the research you commit to does not excite you, it will get increasingly hard to keep up for a longer period of time.

2. Always stay current in your research directions: By that, what I mean is not to go after the fanciest techniques, but do not shy away from learning, switching models/fields, or using new technologies if your questions demand so. 

I was working on the basics of molecular biology during my PhD. Even though I was reasonably successful, I switched my field to stem cell biology and development. I was a bit weary after nearly five years of cloning and looking at ribosomes jumping around.

This move, while challenging, helped me broaden my knowledge and way of thinking, and was the decision, I believe, that set the path for my academic career.

3. Always try to keep an open mind and stay grounded: It is important to remind yourself constantly that regardless of your success/failure, there is always so much to learn and understand – so try to stay in touch with current developments in science. 

What steps did you take to realize your dream of becoming a PI? 

That is a tough question to answer. In my case, the only thing I was sure of early on was that I absolutely loved the academic environment and work culture. It might sound a bit idealistic, but I consider myself lucky to have the opportunity to do what I do. In my opinion, there are not too many professions out there that allow the freedom, creativity, and challenges that an academic career brings to the table. Until the end of my PhD, I was not sure if I was good enough to continue in academia. What I did was to educate myself as much as possible and read as widely as I could. That, and periodic academic success, gave me a bit of confidence. One thing that I did do from early on was to find my own fellowships/funding whenever I could. That gave me the freedom in research that many of my contemporaries did not have, and I think that helped me build my own directions early on, which were often very different from the labs I worked in at the time. That was not easy, but it helped me learn to design and execute a project on my own from early on. I was very lucky to have very smart people around me who were ready to advise me and support me. Of course, I failed miserably many times, but I did learn from my early failures. Also, however small/big those projects were, since they were my ‘babies’, I was indeed passionate enough to try hard to get to the bottom of them. Apart from that, while I took science very seriously, I did not take the long-term career path that seriously. When you start with your PhD, in my opinion, no matter how much you plan, no one can guarantee you success. So my advice would be to do your best, learn well, work hard and success will come to you sooner than later. A little patience and perseverance go a long way.

What, in your opinion, are the most important skills required to become a PI? What do you see as the most important role of a group leader? 

In my opinion, good planning and risk management skills, ability to inspire and motivate your team to make the best out of available talent, being compassionate to your people, and the ability to lead by example, are all important skills for a PI. The ability to choose the right people to work with you for the right project is absolutely critical. You are only as good as the people who work with you. Personnel is still the most expensive and most variable aspect of academic research.

What was the hardest part of setting up your laboratory, especially in the early stages?

The hardest part was to persevere and be patient until the lab reached a productive state. During the last years of your postdoc, you have been reasonably successful, your technical skills are at par, and the lab you work for has the right resources.  When you set up your own lab, most things that used to work with your eyes closed require optimization: your students need training, and you, yourself, are learning the new job – this can be challenging. There is no recipe for easy success here, but you can avoid generic mistakes by planning the move and timing of setting up your lab well in advance, evaluating what equipment, experimental setup and staff you absolutely need for your intermediate goals and gauging the feasibility of that happening in your new place. Even after that, many things you think should work could fail, and you will learn from those. There are a lot of nice books you can read to prepare yourself, such as At the Helm: Leading Your Laboratory by Kathy Barker. 

Another aspect that requires attention is ‘finding/establishing your niche’, so to speak. One of my mentors told me: ‘a small fire with a few people would keep you warmer than a crowded bonfire’. 

Failing is usually inevitable in science. How do you deal with your potential failures and use them to your advantage?

In academic science, most things that you try initially fail (at least in my case). So you need to be ok with facing failures while improving and learning from those hiccups. My team and I have learned more from these failures by analyzing carefully where and what went wrong. The important thing is not to give up easily: be supportive of your team to get through those phases, try to avoid playing the blame game, and make sure mistakes are not repeated. The percentage of failure is also something you can partially predict. In general, if you are doing incremental and descriptive research, the % of failure can be really low, while if you are aiming to tackle a paradigm-shifting, conceptual question, you might hit a brick wall more often than not. So you can hedge your bets as it suits you, your lab, and your resources. In our case, we try to stay away from incremental research as much as possible, and as much as our available resources allow us. 

What would you say is the most fulfilling part of your job as a group leader?

The opportunity to work with incredibly smart and passionate colleagues, to watch your students and trainees blossom into experienced scientists, and that moment when your long thought hypothesis is experimentally proven. I consider myself very fortunate to have a career that allows these aspects. Of course, publishing in well-respected journals is a bonus, but not the main purpose.

How do you get the best from your team?

By inspiring each one of them to achieve the best with the available resources, and (I hope) through leading by example. We work in an uncertain profession, so it’s part of my job to make them as safe as possible. Then and only then can they give me their 100%. I try to find what makes a lab member tick in the context of science and try to design a project around their interest that adheres to our lab’s theme. I don’t always succeed in that, but this strategy has worked more often than not. 

What would you advise young scientists who would like to start their own lab?

Do what you are absolutely passionate about without fear. If you are at a stage where you are thinking of starting a lab, you have proven yourself. In the end, you should do what you think would be the best direction because no one else has a deeper understanding of your research and capability other than yourself.

When you mention that you would like to start your own lab, everyone will approach you with advice (similar to when you are having a baby);  it is important to listen, but in the end, you should do what you think is best. The most common advice I got was ‘focus on a few things, but diversify as much as possible,’ which in itself is counter-intuitive, but helpful in a way.

Top image in post: tookapic/Pixabay.com 



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