Alumni Perspective: Nandakumar
The value of multidisciplinary skills
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An interview with JK Nandakumar
What attracted you to the TPCB program?
I was a pure chemist in India before I joined TPCB, and I did my masters in synthetic organic chemistry. But my interest was really in biomolecules. TPCB was perfect — no other program in chemistry would have allowed me to transition so smoothly from synthesizing natural products to working with proteins and DNA. The program really makes that transition very doable, from chemistry to biochemistry or structural biology or chemical biology. There are many labs that work on basic science, answering fundamental questions, but there are many other labs that do more clinical research if you want to contribute directly to cancer biology, for example. So, you have choices across the scientific landscape, from basic all the way to applied science. For me to be a chemist and have those options made TPCB unique compared to any other chemical biology program on any other university campus.
You did your thesis work in in two TPCB labs. Was that complicated?
I think TPCB made it very smooth. In my case, I really had two mentors, both of whom contributed equally. In my PhD, I wanted to work on RNA repair using both biochemistry and crystallography. There was no way I could stay in just one of those two labs and accomplish that. So, I literally spent half my time in Stewart Shuman’s lab where I did a lot of biochemistry and half my time in Christopher Lima’s lab working with crystal structures. There were no administrative hoops to jump through and there was no problem with my stipend or grants; I never had to worry about anything.
You did your postdoc with a Nobel Prize winner and are now starting your own lab?
Yes, I did my postdoc work with Thomas Cech at UC Boulder and I am now at the University of Michigan. I’m setting up my own lab and started teaching last fall. I chose it, in part, because the university has a medical school on one campus. In two minutes you can walk from a basic science department to a medical school department. I really enjoy that because it reminds me of the Tri-Institutional program in New York.
How did your training in TPCB help you in the job market?
Science is becoming more multidisciplinary, you can’t just be good in one thing and be successful. Because of my PhD collaboration, I had solid training, not just in biochemistry, but in crystallography as well, so that was very attractive for my postdoc where I then trained in cell biology. Having multiple strengths went very well at the interviews. Also, I think the work ethic in New York area is top notch, it helps you do very well in your PhD, by which I mean you publish a lot of good papers in high-end journals. But it also sets the tone for the work you do later — I think it not only helped me get into Tom’s lab but is also now helping me in the next stage, becoming a professor.