Arundhati Maitra

Industry: Biomed Research
Location: India, United Kingdom
Age: 30 years
Get Social: Facebook

As a child what did you want to grow up to be? Did you stick to it?

I wanted to be a teacher. Kids have imaginary friends, I had imaginary students! I am in academia now and may well be down that line but I think I stole my friend’s idea cause it sounded way cooler. “Genetic engineer”, she would always reply when asked this question.

What and where have you studied?

I am the one who never wanted to study, and life decided to have a big laugh and now I am the eternal student. I completed BSc and MSc from Mount Carmel College in Bangalore, India). Had a taster for serious research through MRes at Birkbeck, University of London and now am a Wellcome Trust PhD student at the same lab.

What made you choose research?

I wish I could say it was research or nothing. That it is an all-consuming passion I have harbored since forever. I fell into it. Some days it feels rewarding and some days it’s just exhausting. For a person who dreads trying new things, it sure is a way to face fear in the face everyday. Bit by bit, every failed experiment makes me better, stronger and resilient.

“Successful research never happens in a cocoon so building a team with strengths in different disciplines is essential.”

What is your research about?

I study Mycobacterium tuberculosis, the bacterium which causes tuberculosis in 9 million people annually worldwide. I am trying to understand the cell wall metabolism, reveal if these cells recycle their walls and how major processes like its synthesis is regulated with cell division.
The main aim is to understand the pathogen better, to know its weaknesses that can be successfully attacked. This is achieved through laboriously purifying individual proteins of this bacteria and then studying their structures through techniques such as x-ray crystallography, NMR or cryo-electron microscopy among others.
I am very lucky to be working in the lab Rosalind Franklin worked in, it has some of the best infrastructure for doing what I need to do and some of the leading experts in the field of structural biology.

How to crack it in your industry?

Networking and bloody hard work!
I haven’t cracked it yet, but finding the all-consuming research question,designing elegant experiments to answer them unambiguously and publishing in a high impact journals (Nature, Science and the like) has a big role to play.
Successful research never happens in a cocoon so building a team with strengths in different disciplines is essential.

How have your family influenced your personal and professional life?

If it wasn’t for my husband (we’ve been married for five years now), I wouldn’t be doing a PhD. He supported me through the MRes which had a big role to play in landing me the studentship for my PhD studies.
Without his emotional, financial and downright literal support (pushes me off the bed every morning!) I would not be where I am.
Parents, of course have a huge role in everything, There is no way I can put it in words. I am just grateful they didn’t abandon the horror of a child I was in my adolescent years!

If you were not in research what would you have been?

Academic publishing. In fact, that is where I want to be after research as well.

What is the most profound advice you have heard and remembered?

I should probably listen to them more closely, I can’t even remember one!

Do you live your life by principals? What principals are important to you?

Absolutely. I value honesty very highly, whether it’s in how one depicts their experimental results or in a relationship. I am also very particular about being on time.

What advice do you have for women in your industry or for girls in general?

I do not need to say this, but it is not going to be easy. However, the UK government is trying to correct the wrongs and providing the support that women with families need to flourish in their careers.
Be ambitious. Be feminist. Question everything.

What was the worst day you’ve ever had at work?

For all my rants about how much I hate work, I cannot recall any day as being the worst.

How has marriage changed your life?

In a good way. I have undergone a (long due) personality and attitude overhaul. I would never question anything (even those suspicious forwards on Facebook that claimed to cure everything), my opinions were never backed up by more than a few superficial facts. Marriage has made me a more interesting person, one who is free from the shackles of “believe this ’cause I said so”.
Married life has had an impact on my life, for the better. If I wasn’t married I’d be immersed into work with no work-life balance at all which, in the long run is not sustainable.

Indra Nooyi, Pepsico’s CEO, once famously proclaimed that “women can’t have it all”? Can women have it all?

Not yet. Even if societal attitudes change there needs to be a massive restructuring of how a person’s output is judged and enough support systems need to be put in place to make it easier on families with young children.

In the UK, and the rest of the world, the gender pay gap becomes drastic when women return to work after their maternity breaks. I do feel things can change but a lot needs to be done to overcome the evolutionary tug a mother feels towards her child (men really need to step up!).

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