How did your education influence SEE (Systems Education Experiences)?
Most of my education happened in India until graduate school. I came to the US for a PhD. The journey through grad, undergrad, and post-doc was not well planned or guided by someone who consciously crafted the best learning experience. When I had to reflect on how I got to where I did, I recognized there were a few experiences that were quite instrumental. The few internships I had done, where I interacted with professionals, were short, but influential. I felt that all students should have first-hand experience in some professional environment. When completing coursework, you first have to learn the pieces, and then you get to the application. That’s not how the world works, although that’s how we are taught. Determining the problem you’re trying to solve and looking at it from different perspectives is a better learning process for someone like me. That’s my empirical observation. There’s also research on this that if people learn in a project-based manner they retain information for much longer. The need is very specific, and to address it you need to bring in a lot of different ideas, concepts, technologies and types of expertise. You can then build a solution from that web of information. Linking concepts – that’s knowledge. Data and information has now become knowledge.
How did your education influence SEE?
I did most of my education in India until graduate school. I came to the US for conducting graduate research towards a PhD. To be honest, my education trajectory, especially through undergrad, was not carefully planned or guided by some big vision. When I had to reflect on how I got to where I did, I recognized that there were a few experiences in my early career that were quite instrumental. The few internships I had done, where I interacted with professionals, were short, but influential. I felt that all students should have first-hand experience in some professional environment. When completing coursework in a conventional education system, you are made to first learn individual concepts, and then you get to link those concepts together into a solution for a problem. That’s not how the world works, although that’s how we are taught. For someone like me, it is more effective to start with an exciting problem and then as I attempt to understand and solve the problem, it is much more fun and easier to learn about new concepts from different disciplines and understand how they can be combined to generate a solution. That was my empirical observation. But then I learned about research that showed that a project-based approach is more effective for many people for learning and retaining new information. To solve a problem you often need to bring together in new and unique ways a lot of different ideas, concepts, technologies and types of expertise. You can then build a solution from that web of information. Data and concepts alone do not constitute knowledge, linking information within data into a meaningful conceptual framework is necessary to understand and interpret data – that’s knowledge.
For me, that reflection was quite instrumental in wanting to do something similar for young students. So when I got my first NSF grant, I decided to get two high school students into my lab. It was a lot of fun to have them around, but I realized from that experience that the program needed more structure. So I decided to bring in some teachers to help guide student interns and that worked really well. But I also recognized that the impact of the internship program would only scale linearly by the number of students we could accept for internships each year. So I added a layer of curriculum development so we could leverage the perspectives and experiences of students and teachers to develop exciting curriculum modules, which can then be perfected through piloting, teacher training, and distribution. This program did not happen overnight – building it was a process and required dedication. That dedication came from trying to solve a problem I thought was really important. I didn’t really know how to do it and had to figure it out as I went along. Importantly, I relied on a fantastic team of people like Claudia who are trained educators to develop the whole program.
One other important problem I was motivated to take on was the development of a framework to predict complex behaviors of biological systems. ISB was just getting started at the time, and the overarching vision was personalized medicine. I helped execute that vision by demonstrating that it is possible to build gene network models to predict and manipulate complex behaviors of simple organisms. That was the proof of concept that was needed before we could build a similar model for something as complex as a human being. My initial inspiration was to do this for an extremophile and then extend the application to infectious diseases, and eventually cancers. Some of this progression was opportunistic and some of it was planned.
What is your favorite research project so far and what directions do you want it to go?
In no particular order, there was a project many years ago where we were looking at this interesting phenomenon of unicellular algae in the Great Salt Lake. We saw that every night the algae were dying in large numbers, but then the whole population would come back, and then it happened again. It took a long time to figure out what was going on, but it seemed like it was a mechanism to recycle carbon. The algae would kill off the old dying cells and recycle the carbon to generate young and healthy populations. This is a mechanism that forms the base of a food web, a beautiful symbiotic relationship that feeds the entire ecosystem. I really enjoyed doing the work. When I built the first predictive models, we were competing with a large consortium of labs, working on E. coli and yeast. We were just a team of a few people that I was overseeing. What helped us was that we weren’t in a competition with anyone – we were in a competition with ourselves to get it done. We were working with a system that no one had heard of. So, it gave us the time to do things the right way without cutting corners. Since we were a few people, we could divide and conquer really well. When we published this work, it made a big splash. A good lesson is that having large amounts of resources is not always enough to solve big problems. A critical number of people who are really invested in the problem and have the right motivation to solve the problem is key. I think that’s a good lesson for everyone – be problem driven. If the problem is inspiring, the solution will be much more satisfying, a fun journey. A problem solver is someone who’s motivated to solve the problem.
I believe my original lack of motivation primarily had to do with how I saw myself in scientific roles. In India, we were consumers of knowledge and I never really saw that we could be producers of knowledge. It was typically some white male scientist in the West who had the unique upbringing and some amazing stories, none of which I could relate to – it wasn’t me. That feeling of being able to do something big – I knew I had it – but I just didn’t believe in it. There weren’t enough role models, even in textbooks. In addition, the problems being solved were not problems in my backyard. They were problems of the West. There wasn’t anyone solving my problems. Now it’s different; more and more people around the world are solving problems that matter to them in new and exciting ways. That’s what I wanted to do for this program – work on solving real-world problems that students could relate to. It’s important to relate to the problem in a way that you understand, be it the suffering of a patient, or damage to your local environment due to unsustainable practices. This program is important to getting that connection – it’s like a hook. If your mentor hasn’t yet connected you to the problem you are working on, then you need to reflect on what you learned – why is it important, who cares? It could further your career, but does it impact anyone else? We need to start there, have everyone in the room get excited, and then the learning can happen.
What do you see for the future of ISB?
Personally, I have reached a stage where I want to see a direct impact. Science can make a huge impact on the foundation of basic research, which is good. But more and more I’m inspired by seeing science make its way to the target audience for whom it was developed. For tuberculosis, I’d like to see diagnostic tests, but also more of the process of drug development. Not all of it we can do on our own, it’s a very complex and expensive process, but we can partner with other organizations who do have the resources and complementary expertise that we lack. Not just me–our president, our faculty–we’re all thinking more towards translation.
I think the goal is to keep being a sponge and gather information. Career is a complex thing; it develops over time through experiences, just serendipitous encounters with projects and people, but you need to be in a receptive mode for that. I think that everyone loves to give advice, and people love to share their experiences. You should take advantage of that, but always dig deeper: Does it trigger something in you? The key is to care about what else is possible and then find that fire inside of you. Career should be something where you go to work and are excited because it’s fun, but you’re also proud of what you’re doing. If that happens, then you’ve picked the right career.
“The key is to care about what else is possible in the world and then find that fire inside of you.“ – Nitin Baliga