Dr. Megha Kumar is a senior scientist at CCMB, Hyderabad. She studies the molecular mechanisms regulating cell division to better understand developmental disorders. Megha is a 2024-2025 board member of InSDB.

Hello, Megha. Tell us about your journey and how you became a developmental biologist. What made you choose this field?

It goes back to 2003 when I started my undergraduate studies. I was certain that I wanted to study biology, but I did not want to do medicine. So I took a traditional BSc route to get into academia. Developmental biology was one of the first subjects introduced to me during my BSc. We had limited access to computers back then. So, my teacher, then 62, who was on the verge of retiring, drew the entire gastrulation process of a frog embryo on the chalkboard. We could imagine the cells moving and it was completely mind-blowing. I remember thinking that this is a fantastic phenomenon and that I want to pursue my research on this. I went back home and realized that there was a lot more in the field to learn, and that got me going. Since then, I have not looked back. Back then, there were no e-books, and I had to photocopy the entire Balinsky textbook that was there in our library. The second learning curve was when I decided to do a PhD. I applied for the UGC-NET fellowship and got it. But I couldn’t find a single lab in India, in 2007, that was working on a vertebrate system. There were many drosophila labs, but for some reason, I never liked flies! So, I went abroad and joined a vertebrate lab. I got my hands on the Scott Gilbert textbook there. It is still with me on my table. When I first read the book, I was amazed to know how much the field has changed. I poured myself over the book for the next six months. The third kick to keep going was when I looked at an embryo under a confocal. I realized that these are some of the most beautiful entities. The way cells move, divide and form structures is breathtaking. I have not found such beauty anywhere else. I still do imaging myself, and every time I sit down to do it, I thoroughly enjoy it. That’s why I am here as a developmental biologist. Finally, the last kick was when I was carrying my son and saw my ultrasound. The doctors did not know that I was a developmental biologist and they nonchalantly pointed out the baby to me. But to see that and experience the progression of that tiny bean inside me was amazing. Learning devbio and doing all this at the bench is one thing, but getting to experience it is non-comparable.

You started your studies in the early 2000s. How do you think the community has changed since then?

It has changed dramatically. In 2003, when I was a student at Delhi University, there was no accessible website for students. Perhaps there was a website, but as a student, I was unaware of it. People were fragmented, and I did not know a lot of developmental biologists then. I attended my first InSDB meeting in 2013 as a postdoc. I got to know about it from Chetana (I was doing some work in her lab at the time). It was a fantastic meeting. I was a very young postdoc and had no idea about the devbio scene in India. But everyone was willing to help with protocols, reagents, and so on. I met Shubha Tole, Sreelaja Nair, and many others there. I still remember Shubha’s talk about women in science, and I recall her saying, ‘To those people who tell me women cannot have both a career in academia and a family, I had my baby and a science paper in the same year.’ Then the 2015 meeting was in CCMB, and by then I was a senior postdoc. I missed the 2018 meeting because my son was born a month before. So, I’ve tried to not miss any of the meetings. Overall, I would say that the community has grown exponentially, in terms of PIs and students. While I was an undergrad, I had no idea that such meetings happened. But this time, for the 2024 meeting, my undergrad student was there with me. So there’s certainly more reach now. The beauty of the society is that it brings people from many areas together. 

There’s certainly more reach among the scientific society. How do you think we can increase the visibility of this field among the students and the general public?

I feel like we should produce more digital resources. It reaches far more people than an in-person visit to a school or a college. Schools have strict curricula, and the kids’ calendars are almost always blocked. On top of that, they have got frequent exams. Having digital content that the kids can watch at their own pace would be great. One way of promoting this is to have a mini-video series that is accessible to students. Zines and comics can be put across as well. More than high schoolers, we should focus on undergrads. They are more poised to understand the subject. We could have an undergraduate symposium or dedicate a poster session, exclusively for them, during the InSDB meetings. 

Another way to do this is by slightly changing the NCERT curriculum. The policy-making sector is crucial. I do not know if this will happen anytime soon. Even if you add, say, two confocal images, then that is a kickstart for the kids. They are tech-savvy and will take it forward. If not for this, a physical handbook for TAs for undergrads would be a good aid. 

In the next InSDB, we should get more people from the industry who do aspects of devbio. One misconceived notion that people have is that if you study devbio or any basic sciences, you cannot go outside academia. So, people who are in these avenues, like clinical embryologists, people who work on assisted reproduction strategies, etc. should be brought in for a meeting or a workshop. Because these are some areas that the students are not fully aware of. Everyone cannot be in academia. So students need to know these other opportunities. Bioethics is another area that we heavily rely on. If you ask a student what the regulations for using embryos in India are, half of them would go blank. These are the things that they need to understand too, and we could organize such workshops.

Is there a project that you would like to initiate at InSDB?

One thing that is lacking in this field is that there is no forum for postdocs to connect. It is important because they are the next crop of PIs. So, having a postdoc subgroup is essential. This could be something that we can initiate. Another one that might be a long shot, is to get clinicians on board with the society and discuss works that are relevant for both.

Great. Finally, why should one be a member of InSDB?

That is a straightforward answer- This is THE society in India if you want to be in the developmental biology circle! It is the discipline that binds us, so if you’re passionate about it, then this is your place. 

Know more about her work here. You can also connect with her through the website.

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