Oby Ukadike-oyer: From the campus of Harvard Medical School, this is ThinkResearch, a podcast devoted to the stories behind clinical research. I'm Oby, your host. ThinkResearch is brought to you by Harvard Catalyst, Harvard University's Clinical and Translational Science Center, and by NCATS, the National Center for Advancing Translational Sciences.

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Join us as we talk to Mayank Chugh about his journey to his postdoctoral fellowship and how he pivoted his research direction and mission to investigate how social inequity dimensions of race, gender, citizenship, and socioeconomic status shape STEM higher education workforce and innovation.

Mayank is a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Systems Biology with Sean Megason at Harvard Medical School. He is the former chair of the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association. He's an early career advisor at eLife sciences publications and an incoming board of directors at the Journal of Emerging Investigators.

Hi, Mayank. Welcome to the show.

Mayank Chugh: Hi, thank you for having me here.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: Of course. Could you please introduce yourself and talk to us about where you're from, where did you grow up, and we can start there and then get into what you are doing now.

Mayank Chugh: I am Mayank Chugh. My pronouns are he/him/his. I am originally from New Delhi, India, which is where I grew up. I come from a very smallish to bigger family depending on how you look at it in a more bigger social or cultural aspect.

I went to college at IISER, which is Indian Institute for Science Education and Research, and I went to a city called Chandigarh, which is in north of India about roughly 350, 400 kilometers from New Delhi. The entire college is dedicated for scientific research.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: Wow, so you've been into science and research from a very early age.

Mayank Chugh: [laugh] That is true.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: What experiences have led you to the work you do now-- your lived experiences or any other experiences you want to share along the path of what you've done and what you're doing now.

Mayank Chugh: Firstly, I think it is a fantastically framed question because it sort of embodies everything in it, and I love that. Even as a child, I think I have been an advocate and action oriented about challenging socioeconomic dimensions of Indian society and culture. I was just sensitive, and I would speak out, even as a child, and I think which was uncommon.

So there was a dichotomy of what the culture was around for me and what my safe space was, and I think school was always my escape. I loved being in school. I was always fascinated by science, in particular biology. I mean, that thrilled me, how we work.

So after winning a prestigious national fellowship from the government of India, I ended up pursuing that BS-MS dual degree at the college I mentioned before, where I got enchanted into this entire field that is called cellular and developmental biology. And I got really, really excited about how do we become these complex organisms with trillions of cells and beautifully shaped and functioning organs, all from a single cell?

I mean, that was mind boggling, right? How do cells know what to become, where to go in an embryo? This is a question I've asked throughout my BS-MS, my PhD, and most part during my postdoc as well in different organisms like fruit fly or Drosophila, briefly C. elegans and plants, and now zebrafish during my postdoc, basically.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: I really love how you describe that about when we really think about who we are and what we're made up of, we started as this one thing, this one cell, and then blossomed into this full person. I really, really like that. Can you talk to us a little bit about your research? How did you start your research? Give us some history about your research, and what are you actively working on right now in your research?

Mayank Chugh: So I came to Harvard to pursue my postdoc around the same questions of development, biology that I just mentioned before. How do we become this multicellular organism? And I chose to work with fish because fish have external fertilization. So they lay their eggs outside, so you can actually study their embryos under the microscope and perturb cells and genes and study how the organs are being affected.

So this is what brought me at Harvard. I joined in in 2020. And during the pandemic, this was a rough time for every single living being on this planet. And I think it was also a time for asking yourself bigger questions like, how do we reshape? How do we do better as individuals? How do we do better collectively as a society?

And I think that sort of reinforced my own understanding of who I am and what my calling is. You will recall that as a child, I have been more excited towards the social justice. I figured that social justice work is my calling. So during my PhD, I started to use my education and skills in advocating, for example, for equitable and inclusive practices and policies in the context of academia and STEM higher education.

So I started working with nonprofits like ASAPbio and actively advocating for open-access publishing and transparent review process, which is the cornerstone and the heart of what we do as scientists. But at the same time, we want to ensure that taxpayer or people who pay for that-- as scientists, we obtain funds from the government-- they have access to that.

I am privileged to be in a space, in a lab where my postdoc mentor actually encouraged me to do so. Otherwise, you would think of any other lab they would be like, hey, you were hired to do this work. Why are you delving into something else, right? And I think this asks the question of, what do we consider as postdocs, or what are our expectations of mentees? Is it always for PIs, when they take in graduate student and postdoc, understanding that they would go out in the world and be PIs, or they could be successful human beings and skilled expertise and enrich our forward understanding in innovation, technology, or any way they would want to contribute?

Now my research-- over the last 3 and 1/2 years, I have been leading an informal research group here at Harvard Med School. And I was the chair of the Harvard Medical Postdoc Association, which is a postdoc body that caters to postdocs at HMS and HMS-affiliated institutions. So with that, leading all these teams, I think it gave me a vision that when I take on this role, I can actually delve into that social justice component that I've always wanted to work on.

So I created these informal team with a vision of understanding how social dimensions of inequity, of race, gender, socioeconomic status, and citizenship impact the STEM workforce and innovation. So this is not one-directional understanding. It is bicyclical. It's a loop. This is what I have been focusing on. I would be happy to elaborate if needed.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: Yes, please, I would like you to dig a little deeper into maybe even what are some of the questions you have as you're digging into this space? What is some of maybe the historical information about who is represented in this space or what led you to explore more questions in this space. I think there's probably more there that I think we would all love to hear more about because this sounds really, really interesting.

Mayank Chugh: Of course-- so when I started the first project, which was more focused towards the socioeconomic status broadly, but it will come down technically asking, what are the barriers to the retention of postdocs in higher education or academia? For example, if you look at the US faculty and workforce and you compare that to the demographics, you see the demographics are not representative of what the actual population really is.

From PhD beyond, we have this huge tight bottleneck in that dropout. Why we do not have more people of color and women of color and other marginalized identities representing these top echelons of our academic institutions, right? And I think we know that academia itself has been an exclusionary space from the beginning. But now is the time to go about and fix those small policies and fix those points where we might be able to elaborate these things.

And now, why postdocs? Because postdoc itself is a black box. One of my colleagues and friends, Gary McDowell, who has been an advocate for postdocs as well, he was a postdoc 10 years ago. And he led this Future of Research Symposium 10 years back here in Boston.

And he describes postdoc not just as black box. He describes postdocs as Schrodinger cats. So they are dead or alive at the same time, which is very, very accurate. And you do not know what's going to happen to you afterwards, but you're still hanging in that space.

We do not know where these postdocs are coming from. So before the postdoctoral stage, during undergrad, grads, and above the postdoc stage like faculty, we have committees deciding, looking at a pool of applicants. But how postdocs are recruited is after PhD, you end up writing emails to PIs that you would want to work with. And you would get a response, interview in their labs, and you get taken in.

So we have no clear way to see where all these people are applying from because the only place we can get these answers are PIs' email box or inbox, right? And the other thing is what are the implicit and explicit biases might be in around this entire process of recruitment? We know that implicit bias [? plagues. ?] And it is no shame. We live in societies, and our societal structures reinforce to have those biases. But can we educate ourselves? That's another discussion.

However, saying once again that that recruitment is different for postdoc as opposed to other stages of academic career. Thirdly, even if we've tried to diversify our applicant pool, which institutions in the US and abroad are actively working at the moment with more inclusive policies, even if they want to broaden that pool of applicants, they have to ensure that they stay in academia after that. They provide that space.

My understanding is that diversity is not inclusion. Having different colored people in a space might actually represent a diverse space, but it is actually an inclusive space, or is it a space where each of these individual components could thrive their best and feel that they belong in those spaces is an act of belonging? So it takes multiple efforts.

So these are the motivating questions around the research that I went in around the socioeconomic status. And we looked at, for example, are the salaries in the Boston area are enough for postdocs? The hypothesis here was if you're coming from, say, a marginalized background where you have to take care of dependents in the home-- you've got children, you got sick parents, or you are coming from countries where you do not have any social structure or backbone and you have to support your families.

So you basically did a survey of all these postdocs as HMS and HMS-affiliated institutions. We got about roughly 1,200 postdocs' responses. And we ended up analyzing the cost of living in the Boston area and saying that, hey, look, this is not OK. How postdocs are paid in the United States, those salaries are not adjusted for geographical cost of living. And we all know that if your salary, say, is 55k as a starting postdoc, that might suffice. You in Iowa City or elsewhere, but it is not sufficing you in, say, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, right?

So there is that parity. Why in governmental or industrial sector all the salaries are adjusted as per cost of living, but why not postdocs? So I think using that as an assessment along with Boston cost of living, we basically argue to the institutions in the Boston area and broadly the National Institute of Health saying that postdoc salaries should be adjusted for cost of living, and their benefits should be paid in a way that they feel comfortable to pursue an academic career path, especially if the institutions wants to retain those diverse talent.

Otherwise, it is counterproductive to what institutions are really doing. The selective pressure is higher for people who have things to take care of at home or monetarily if they have to make decisions. So if I'm one of those people, I'll be like, I do not have money. My family cannot support me. So I'm sorry, I've got to quit and join industry. So despite my excitement, I might end up stepping out of academia.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: Wow, you gave me so much information in there, which is great. One of the things I heard you say and I wrote down is diversity is not inclusion. And I just wanted to park on that for a minute and even ask your opinion about what that means.

I get what you mean. I think I understand what you mean. When people say "diversity," I feel like there's a tension that I don't understand most of the time because I'm like, I think we're associating diversity with one thing. And sometimes think that one thing is race versus diversity across the board. And this reality that having different people-- I think you said it very well. You may have different colored people in the room, but what does inclusion look like?

And I think it speaks a little bit to what you were talking about this pathway, right? I heard you talking about at some point, it just becomes very narrow, and then people who are in these upper positions, there's a lot of homogeneity, if you will, for lack of a better way to say it. So what does an inclusive space look like? What does that mean? How does that go further than a diverse space?

Mayank Chugh: Diversity for me would-- you beautifully said in terms of how that is so linked to race or gender, but it is so much more. It is so much more that we do not educate ourselves, and I think our societal structures don't reinforce that. But diversity to me is our society.

And if I see differences in age, differences in complexion, differences in race, differences in lived experiences, differences in opinions, that's all diversity. All diversity is not tied to one particular aspect or another, but it has become more politicized in the recent years. And we can see that happening in this country right now.

Now, the inclusive spaces to me would mean creating opportunities which are accessible to all the society, so all the diverse factions. So that would be inclusion to me like. If you are creating a scholarship program, we have to make sure that everybody can access that. It's not catering one side or another. Access to opportunity is an important thing, and that's the beginning of inclusion.

Now, somebody would ask, oh, then where does equity come in? Equity come in because we have to consider the point zero. We have to see where we at now, and not everybody is on the same platform. So if we were to say, let's start our society once again. Let's form the United States of America again and give everyone equal resources, and then we launch a new scholarship thing, that would be inclusion, sure, and maybe equality.

But we have to start because we all did not start from the same spot. So we have to bring in equity to ensure that people who are way behind, they are also included in that practice or in that scholarship application.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: When you were talking about the pathway for postdocs and even when you were talking about how you get a postdoc position and you were saying, you reach out to faculty that you may want to work with, labs that you want to be in-- I guess this is more curiosity for me,, but how did you find out how to do that? I'm not a postdoc. I've never been a postdoc.

But is there kind of a place you go, a website for postdocs that says, here's kind of a template of how you send information to a faculty? Or is this even a place where something could be created to help people better navigate how to get into postdocs and the places they may want to be? I was just curious about that. And then if more broadly you could speak to what do you see as ways to open up that pathway to different people who may not have the same access.

Mayank Chugh: This is an excellent question. I think traditionally, everybody-- you get passed on this information through word of mouth. Once you are a graduate student, they are a postdoc. So how would they do it? And if you write an email, could they proofread it? Sometimes PIs end up helping them.

And if there are institutions like at Harvard or if institutions have these specific offices or staff that can help graduate students or the postdoc office that can enable and provide those resources, how to effectively reach out for a postdoc position, I think they can be of interest. And I think in the US, we do have a lot of postdoctoral offices, which is also true to some extent in the UK, but it's not a big thing in the Euro [inaudible] primarily or in the Asia. We are just basically passed on the information through word of mouth.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: In your opinion, since it's by word of mouth and/or by postdoc offices and institutions that people may already know about or be connected through because of their PhD or MD programs, what about people who don't have access to those things? They're not getting the word of mouth. They are not connected to an office. Are there things to be put in place to help those individuals?

I think even to the point you were making earlier about increasing the individuals that are in the pipeline to begin with so they have the opportunity to maybe make it a little further-- what are the things that would get them in the position and the places, accessing the things they need to access to be able to move forward?

Mayank Chugh: This is a big question, and I'll try to parse out slowly. So I think when I mentioned about the email, although that is a primary source of reaching out, but it could also be reinforced internally through, for example, when you go on conferences, conferences could be an event where people are networking. Or PIs can introduce themselves to their advanced graduate students, who could be put in network or in touch.

And then you can-- when you're writing the email to PI later on, you can say, hey, we met at the conference, or you have been collaborators and you decide to move to a different country or a different city, and you go into your collaborator lab as a postdoc. So those are other channels, and you could be all intermingled around that.

Now, in terms of people who don't have a collaboration or who cannot go to the conference, which is mostly true for Global South scholars because most of the conferences are held in the Global North countries, and it can be unaffordable in addition to visa bureaucracy-- so now do we have enough resources for them? No, currently not.

I think this also asks a bigger question of, since we are at a point in our current academic system where there's a lot of action and a lot of advocacy around reforming the entire structure because it is so exclusionary at so many levels, I think what we all can do is to understand, how do we make the system better?

To address that, I actually led a group here in the Department of Systems Biology, where I'm a postdoc. And I looked into, can we create a system to understand where these applicants are coming from? Who is actually writing? Are there biases? Are the PIs looking at a number of publications or what journal it is published in? Or are there any implicit or explicit biases in the process?

So I try to create a centralized recruitment portal so that can track the data-- who all are applying, and who gets interviewed, who gets selected-- and trying to then parse out if we need to do outreach to a specific group of people or specific continent or something. We can do, then, dedicated outreach efforts in that particular arena.

But knowing right now where to do outreach, it doesn't make sense because it's a big effort. Doing outreach is a big effort. But doing it more focused could be effective. But right now, it could really be that it's not effective. So having such a platform would really, really help not only just getting that data and helping institutions focus outreach and getting the pool of applicants that they would want in their spaces.

But at the same time, it also helps PIs to be informed of their own implicit biases, that the academic systems we have been grown into, how they have shaped us. How do we actually dismantle that? How do we know our biases and work actively against them in a way or constantly improve ourselves?

Oby Ukadike-oyer: That's so great. How do you hope your research will be used to improve the research field, everyday life, and what do you hope people understand from what you're doing? I think we've kind of started to talk about this, but--

Mayank Chugh: I would want to use my analytical and technical skills and expertise in the biomedical field to lead these data-driven case study-like investigations with inferences that can be applied in different fields. It doesn't have to be STEM specific. It could be applied beyond academia in an industrial setting or any community effort, right? These can be broadly translatable.

What I hope people understand from my research is, how do we make our societies more diverse, inclusive, and equitable? And what does these word actually mean in different contexts? And hopefully engaging all scientists and the young generation of scientists how to be better citizens and citizens to rely on science.

This is something now is growing up in the field of we call civic science, scientific engagement, where scientists are trying to take a position at the table where policies are made, not somebody else who is not a scientist or have no experience making calls on policy. Representation matters. Opinions matters. Opportunities matter, right? So actually having a seat at the table allows us to reform our spaces for betterment.

And I think doing this, connecting scientists with society, is what ultimately we aim for. We as biologists aim for a cure. So in the end of the day, our main destination is society. And I think at all the points, we should always be grounded in that societal regime. And I think this is what I hope I can actually bridge these two disciplines as we speak in academic contexts, which usually are siloed as different campuses. It would be amazing if we would have more cross-pollination of these disciplines.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: What's next for you? What's next for your research?

Mayank Chugh: Moment of truth-- I'm on the job market. My dream job would be to lead an academic research program, but preferably as a tenured faculty and a mentor, once again as to bridging these disciplines, and continue to understand how social dimensions impact workforce and technology and vice versa. And over the last year, I have tapped into another element of those dimensions. I have been looking into citizenship, and I'm going more beyond the US postdoctoral context and I think more looking into the knowledge production itself.

So I'm collaborating currently with a sociologist at Northeastern University and trying to put down-- bring these conversations of that citizenship is a privilege. It's like any other form of privilege which is invisible, which is hidden. And people who have that privilege, they do not know what are the experiences of immigrants. It's just not the paperwork. It's not that you need a visa. It's a lot more. It's about while you're at the border control, you feel anxious. You feel you might be deported because of how you look, how you dress, how you speak.

This is living-- this is a feeling of distress, anxiety, uncomfortableness, and inadequacy, right, and safety. At the same time, I think-- as I said, we do not have much of data in terms of postdocs, and that's a black box. So beyond that collaboration more sociological aspect, I'm currently leading a study here at HMS and asking, how does visas impact postdocs' mental well-being, research productivity, career progression, while at the same time gauging the general awareness of visa processes and experiences among US postdocs.

So how much they know what their colleagues in the same lab or international postdocs, they go through. Figuring out the demographics of all these postdocs-- where are they coming from? Are they primarily coming from Global North, meaning more European countries or Canada or Japan? Or is it primarily the Global South countries?

I hope we are going to be soon wrapping up that data set, and we hope that we will get some amazing findings, which would inform us how we should institutionally change our policies and better support all international postdocs. And when I say international, I want to emphasize that once again in the context of citizenship privilege, Global North still holds the power and controls the production as well as sharing of knowledge.

While at the same time we say that we want to get rid of poverty in the continent of Africa in these countries, we want to make sure that hunger is gone in India or in these southeast Asian countries, while speaking and sitting in Western nations and not having representatives from those countries because they cannot travel because of visa restriction because they cannot afford. So this is a bigger problem. So this is why I say knowledge is produced and regulated in the Global North.

So identifying those policies one at a time and fixing one at a time is the current research, and I hope that I get to collaborate with more sociologists, more psychologists, more data scientists to keep continuing the work around social sciences and STEM fields and bridging those boundaries that I do.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: That is fantastic. It has been such a pleasure to have this conversation with you. We are wishing you the best in your next endeavors, and we look forward to talking with you soon again about where you are and what you're doing. So thank you for joining us.

Mayank Chugh: Thank you. Thank you very much. This was great. I enjoyed having this conversation. I hope it was fun for you too, and thanks for having me.

Oby Ukadike-oyer: Thank you for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please rate us on iTunes and help us spread the word about the amazing research taking place across the Harvard community and beyond. We are always looking to connect and collaborate with the research community and would like to hear from you. Please feel free to email us at onlineeducation.catalyst.harvard.edu to inquire about being a guest on the podcast.

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