Dr Kavita Babu, winner of this year’s Janaki Ammal – National Woman Bioscientist Award for the young category, is an Associate Professor at Centre for Neuroscience, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru. Before joining IISc, she worked at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Mohali. In this interview, she briefly discusses the research by Babu Lab, her journey so far and the principles that drive her. 

The National Women Bioscientist Award is conferred by the Department of Biotechnology, Government of India, in recognition of the contribution of women scientists in the country who are working in biology and biotechnology. The young category award is given to women scientists below 45 years of age who have contributed significantly towards unravelling challenges in various areas of biosciences and biotechnology.

                  Kavita Babu     Babu lab IISER

                                    Dr Kavita Babu and her lab at IISER Mohali

1. How do you feel winning the Janaki Ammal  National Woman Bioscientist award?

It feels good to get an appreciation for our science. The Janaki Ammal – National Woman Bioscientist award was possible because of the work performed by our lab members: postdoctoral fellows, graduate students and undergraduates at IISER Mohali where I set up my lab and spent more than seven and a half years. I have now started setting up my lab at the Centre for Neuroscience, IISc where I have spent the last six months and am currently on lien from IISER Mohali.

2. Could you please explain the research that led you to win this award?

Normal movement occurs when neurons from our brain can “talk” to muscles in our body. The interaction between neurons and muscles occurs at sites called neuromuscular junctions. These regions are sites where the neuron sends a chemical (neurotransmitter) that binds to a class of proteins present on the muscle (called receptors). The activation of these receptors by the neurotransmitters causes contraction or relaxation of muscles and hence movement. We study how surface proteins at the neuromuscular junction affect their functioning. Our work uses a simple non-hazardous worm (C. elegans) to study these proteins. Although we study a small worm, the proteins in these animals are similar to those found in you or me.

Research in our lab has identified proteins that are required for normal neurotransmitter release as well as receptor maintenance. These proteins although found in worms, have counterparts in humans that may be functioning in a similar manner.

3. When did you first decide to become a scientist?

I think I had decided during my undergraduate years that I would become a scientist. During my undergraduate education, I did summer internships at laboratories in TIFR, Bombay and IISc, Bangalore. Those summers convinced me that working in a lab was something I wanted to pursue.

4. What was the best moment of your career so far?

Being able to grow worms for multiple weeks and starting to perform experiments with them was a great moment. It had taken a long time for me to set up a worm lab and it was a great feeling to know that we would soon be able to start performing our experiments in full swing. I am also hoping that this moment will happen fairly soon here at the centre for Neuroscience, IISc where I am currently setting up my lab.

5. What was the greatest struggle in your career so far?

I think struggles and good moments are part of everyday life for many careers. I try to avoid dwelling into past struggles as there are so many present ones that need my attention.

6. What were the struggles you faced as a woman in science?

I think many of the struggles one faces initially while setting up a lab are the same whether you are a man or a woman in science. I try and deal with them by being very organized and fairly prompt with getting things done and avoiding worrying too much about what I can’t change. Although I realise that there are inequalities between how men and women scientists may be treated, I feel that if there is nothing I can do about it, I should just get my work done and carry on instead of worrying too much about these inequalities. Having said that it is clear that there are very few women in professorial positions in most STEM subjects and one hopes that this will change soon. The way forward would be to advocate for more women scientists as this is something that may be more difficult for some women scientists to do for themselves. All things considered, I feel that I have been fortunate in my circumstances and education to be in my current position.

7. Was there any time you were in a privileged position as a woman in science?

I don’t think so.

8. What is your favourite thing to do when not in the lab?

Watching crime and food shows, reading and walking.

9. Any advice for those who wish to pursue a career in science?

Believe in yourself. Do a lot of research on whatever career you want to pursue, there are lots of small things that you won’t know unless you talk to people. Talk to lots and lots of people pursuing careers that you are interested in. However, in the end, make your own decisions on what to pursue based on your strengths, interests and understanding of what the career you want to pursue entails. It helps to go with something that you are passionate about, but there are pros and cons to most decisions, and it helps to think through those carefully while making your final decision. But again, I know a lot of people who have made decisions in an instant and are very happy with the outcome.

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