A recently organized workshop at Pune university virtually invited me to speak about iGEM and synthetic biology. It was an opportunity for me to do something I’ve been meaning to do for a while- have a dialogue with some of my former students who were part of the team. The video of the dialogue is posted here [pune-univ-synthbio].

Advice on asking me for recommendation letters


Since I have had to clarify this on numerous occasions to multiple people who’ve passed through my lab, this is a convenient place to put all these thoughts in one place. Also acknowledgement to the legendary John Eisen (of metagenomics fame) and his blog-post on exactly this topic.

1) Please email me your request atleast 1 week before your deadline to have sent it.

2) I need to see an updated CV (or resume) so that my facts about you are accurate.

3) Mention from when to when you have worked with me, if you are no longer in my lab. If you are still in my lab, please still mention your start date. You should add a brief summary what you did in that period (or are doing).

4) Please clarify what is the name/title and nature of the position that you are applying for. Specify the potential role you will play in it, if you were hired/recruited/placed. If a statement of purpose (SOP) is associated with it, please share the gist (summary) of it.

5) Provide all information I will need. For a brief moment, put yourself in my shoes. To be able to send the letter, you need to assist me- i.e.

  • If it’s by email then provide me the address.
  • If it’s as a hard copy then provide me the address of the recepient and whatever title-details are required.
  • Often these letters need to be in certain formats. Please send me this. In short, make my work simpler, so I can help you more effectively.
  • If the agency/organization/university has an online portal, please provide my name and email address ONLY AFTER you have taken my approval.

6) Providing a letter of recommendation is part of my job. It will be a recommendation and an honest assessment.

7) Your work with me or interactions in my class, depending on whether you worked with me or took my courses, will determine the nature of what I write. Think of it as कर्म

8 ) Should you choose to ask for letters from phd-student/technicians/project assistants/postdocs in the lab, please find out from the agency that has requested them what criteria they use for determining the appropriateness of the letter. Typically for academic/research positions a supervisory role is required, but not essential for obtaining recommendations.

9) Please do not add me as a referee without asking me first.

How to succeed at interviews for research positions


Given that we work in a research institute, it is often our job to take on trainees, pre-PhD candidates, post-doctoral researchers and even fellow faculty applicants.
I will focus currently only on the amusing incidents (that also highlight a potential lacuna in the preparedness of interview candidates), in order to make the process more productive for both the candidate and the interviewer.
Despite the long-term nature of PhDs and the effort and cost involved in preparing (entrance tests, travel, hard studying, etc.), it always amazes me how poorly prepared the large majority of PhD candidates are when they come to interviews.
My top-3 list of amusing answers that are symptomatic of this:

  1. Q: Why are you applying for a PhD programme?
    A: Ummmm……. I haven’t really thought about it.
  2. Q: What was the most exciting research you have read about in the newspapers, magazines, journals or anywhere in the last 10 years?
    A: I don’t have time to read, since I am busy preparing to crack competitive exams.
    A: I have read about protein X (put the last thing they mugged before boarding the train/bus/flight), and how it affects Y (disease) by Z (mechanism).
  3. Q: How will you make a 1 Molar solution of any reagent?
    A:I will hand the bottle to the technician.
    We were not taught this.
    It’s the fault of our College/Professor/University, that I can’t answer that question.

Interestingly, most interviews focus on how well the candidates basics are. Having said that the perfect candidate is the one who has mastered the basics- the degree certificate is validated- AND has original ideas about what s/he wants to do in future.

Black(board) to basics


After going though iterations of PowerPoint, Keynote, LaTex Beamer and other modes of discussing my class, I have tired of them all. And the horrifying realization that research out there exists demonstrating low learning outcomes from SlideShow warrior classsrooms added to my misery (1,2). So to reinvent myself, I first went to Italy and then to Bangalore. Okay, this is a bit of joke. But the time spent at the Abdus Salam Institute of Theoretical Physics (ICTP), Trieste, Italy at the Hands on School was meant to refresh my memory of how to use low-cost interactive teaching methods in the classroom, with a focus on complex systems and biophysics. At any rate, that combined with a surprise invitation to a fabulous series of lectures by William Bialek from Princeton university at ICTS, Bangalore did provide that last spurt. So now I only need some equipment. Turns out the Teaching Apparatus Listserv (TApL) has some hints there (3). So next semester, its teaching with fewer ‘crutches’, i.e. (mostly) sans ordinateur.


1) Parker, Ian (2001) Absolute PowerPoint http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2001/05/28/absolute-powerpoint

2) Young, Jeffrey (2009) When computers leave the classroom, so does boredom. The Chronicle of Higher Education http://www.chronicle.com/article/Teach-Naked-Effort-Strips/47398/

3) Michael Thomason on the Teaching Apparatus Listserv http://demoroom.physics.ncsu.edu/tapl/archive/199912/207.html