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Ashoka Ph.D. student wins prestigious SSE Lewontin Award Grant

The award is a globally recognised grant in the field of Biology by the Society for the Study of Evolution.

Two weeks ago, Srijan received an email that created a wave of smiles all around. He had just been awarded the globally recognised Graduate Research Excellent Grant – RC Lewontin Early Award by one of the apex evolutionary biology societies in the world, Society for the Study of Evolution (SSE). Sharing his exhilaration, Srijan said, “It feels great to win such an award at an early stage of my research career. Being the first India-based Ph.D. student to win this award since its inception in 2018, makes it even more special.”  

Why Evolutionary Biology?

 While completing his master’s degree in Biotechnology from the St. Xavier’s College, Kolkata, Srijan was working on his master’s thesis at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, and that was when he was introduced to the fascinating world of Evolutionary Biology. And he has been hooked ever since!  After joining the Ph.D. programme at Ashoka, Srijan has been working on multiple projects aimed at understanding of rapid evolution of immune strategies against novel pathogens. He explains his research area, “Under natural conditions, hosts can be challenged with multiple co-infecting pathogens simultaneously. I am intrigued by how quickly animals respond to these infections and what are most effective strategies that they might evolve over generations to reduce the severity of co-infection. In fact, I am tracking these evolutionary processes as they happen using experimental evolution with popular insect models such as red flour beetles. This is one of the most efficient ways to mimic evolution as closely as possible in the laboratory”.   

For the award grant, he had to submit an experimental proposal on the evolution of immunity against co-infecting pathogens that would form an integral part of his doctoral thesis. 

Srijan, at the Evolutionary Immunology Lab, Ashoka University. 

Coinfection, as Srijan said, can result in diverse outcomes compared to single infection events leading to major changes in the evolution of host immune responses.

Srijan said, “Though many theoretical models exist pertaining to such responses, but, there are no experimental studies to test the hypothesis predicted by the models.” Given the importance and natural relevance of coinfection, Srijan feels that his research would reveal insights into the complex dynamics of evolving immune strategies against single versus coinfection.  

Pursuing Sciences at a Liberal Arts institute is enriching, said Srijan. Elated as he was at the beginning of the interview, he was all praise for Ashoka for the support he has received.

 He believes that Ashoka opened new horizons for him. Ashoka has been a pioneer in the Indian education system, bringing in an interdisciplinary approach to education with its extraordinary faculty and research pedagogy. Srijan said, “The research environment here at Ashoka University is encouraging and cooperative with a lot of opportunities for interdisciplinary research. All the faculty in the department of Biology along with the research office provide extensive support.” 

Professor Imroze Khan’s contribution has been immense. 

A Ph.D. student under Dr. Imroze Khan, Srijan first got to know about Imroze’s lab, the Evolutionary Immunology Lab (Ashoka University) during his time at IISc. Srijan was fascinated with Imroze’s work on adaptive evolution of immune responses under different pathogenic environment. A humble Srijan continued, “My advisor Imroze Khan’s contribution to winning this grant is immense. I had the structural framework of my proposal but he helped me in shaping that into a proper proposal that won the grant. Starting from going through the numerous drafts of the write-up and providing key inputs, he encouraged me in every step of the way and I am so thankful to him.”  

On the other hand, the advisor himself, Dr. Imroze Khan, Assistant Professor of Biology, was impressed by his student’s achievement. He said, “Receiving the RC Lewontin Early Award is indeed a wonderful achievement by Srijan, which puts his work immediately at the forefront of academic scholarship demonstrated by early-stage graduate students across the globe. This is also a big recognition of his thesis proposal where he plans to track how animals can rapidly evolve complex immune responses against infections caused by multiple pathogens together. With a rapid surge of infectious diseases in recent decades, his discovery will also significantly advance our fundamental understanding of how immune strategies cope up with new emerging infections.”   

The road ahead. Using the generous fund received from SSE, Srijan first plans to systematically track how diverse immune responses can evolve in hosts repeatedly exposed to multiple pathogens simultaneously across many generations. Subsequently, he will also be looking at the underlying molecular mechanisms. 

Srijan has a message for the prospective students of the SSE research grant. 

He said, “SSE provides a lot of different grants (including travel grants) to junior and senior research fellows who are working in the fields of ecology and evolution. I would strongly urge prospective students to keep a close eye on their website and social media platforms for the details of the same. A clear idea about the background of your questions, novelty, and robust experimental framework is important to write a proper grant proposal. It is also equally important to state clearly the limitations of the study or experimental design as it gives the reviewers an idea that you have thought about the alternative possibilities and the project in detail.” 

Applying to grants is always a fulfilling experience. 

He urges undergraduates, postgraduates, and Ph.D. students to apply for different grants and awards given by various societies across the world for young researchers. Srijan joked, “I understand, that writing grants can be an extensive and tedious process!” But in the end, as Srijan said, “It is an enriching learning experience. Sharing your ideas and work with different people and getting the reviewer’s comments helps in getting different perspectives on your work. It might help in better planning and smooth execution of your research work.” 

We have come to the end of the interview. 

I asked if he would like to say anything before we wrap up. Srijan as always very thorough wanted to thank his family, friends, and close ones for the support they have shown on him over the years. “I would like to mention that apart from my family who supports me in all my endeavours, I have another equally supportive group of lab mates and Ph.D. cohort here at Ashoka who would chip in with suggestions whenever needed and this motivates me to work harder. Needless to say, I am blessed to have them in my life,” signed off Srijan.  Srijan Seal is a first-year Ph.D. student at the Department of Biology, Ashoka University, and a stellar researcher in the making in his own right.  

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