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Mentoring aspiring scientists

Post by on Wednesday, August 24, 2022

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It was in 2011 when Mubarak Hussain Syed felt a need to find a way to foster science and education in Jammu and Kashmir and formed a non-profit organization JKScientists (JKS).

JKS is run by Kashmiri researchers driven by a mission to foster scientific temperament among Kashmiri youth, particularly those coming from underprivileged and underrepresented backgrounds.

So far, JKS has mentored more than 4,000 school and college students, helping them to pursue higher studies and excel in their chosen fields.

Hailing from Budgam district, Syed, who is the director and architect of JKS, said the students of J&K are talented and hardworking but lack mentorship and exposure.

“I would say JKScientists was born of the idea to find a unique way to help, mentor, and foster science and education in the region of Jammu and Kashmir. Change doesn’t come overnight, as there is a saying “Rome was not built in a day”, but one has to start and then gather like-minded people and be consistent,” he said.

Syed who currently works as an Assistant Professor in Neurobiology at the University of New Mexico, United States said he considers himself lucky to have found those like-minded and sincere people who are the main force behind JKS.

“We have also started Facebook page by the name JKScientists wher we are the family of more than 13,000 members including students, scientists, scholars, technologists and teachers of Jammu and Kashmir,” he said adding, “Now we are a registered public organization in the US. We are registered as a non-profit organization with a mission to foster science and education in J&K.”

JKS also runs a mentorship program named Support Program for Research Outreach and Up skill Technology (SPROUT) which is aimed at helping, guiding, advising, and leading the youth of Jammu & Kashmir to realize their aspirations. SPROUT also aims at empowering the youth and deliver means to acquire academic excellence.

The JKS mentorship (SPROUT) and journal club (Spectrum) programs run round the year. It helps students join research labs for their dissertations as well as to guide undergraduates into summer schools. The main mentors are from J&K but scientists around the country help with research opportunities.

The JKS also provides mentorship/counseling to social science students. Currently, it has a psychology and a history club as part of its spectrum program. It also runs microfinance, youth development and women support programs. 

The realization of a group of young scientists and scholars is that it is their social responsibility to give back to society, laid the foundation of JKS.

“The team is a blend of experienced scientists, academicians, and enthusiastic freshers. All put in sync with the organization’s core values which also drive individual thoughts and actions,” Syed said.

The group’s impact has been even more palpable since the pandemic pushed schools and colleges to take online platform, for JKS too started online one-on-one mentorship programme.

JKScientists is managed professionally by core members, comprising individuals from diverse backgrounds and expertise, followed by lead coordinators and coordinators.

It acts as a bridge between youth and successful professionals around the globe and provides them with information regarding opportunities for career progression and professional development.

“In our Outreach programs, another flagship program of JK Scientists, we also organize sessions on issues of our society like physical and mental health conditions and women empowerment,” he said. 

It has also helped students in their endeavors to pursue higher education by helping them get internships, prepare them for interviews and help them prepare their CVs, letters of interest, and research proposals. 

“We have helped students to land in reputed research institutes for their project/thesis work. In 2020, around 20 students from Baba Ghulam Shah Badshah (BGSB) University were able to do their project work in various reputed research labs in India,” Syed said.

On the other side, JKS is also trying to encourage women students.“We have created a women’s support group and recently started an inspiring women series where successful women entrepreneurs and researchers share their experiences with younger people, especially with women students,” he said.

It has also started providing financial help to students who have secured scholarships abroad. These students are assisted with travel & short-term accommodation funding since they come from economically weak backgrounds and cannot afford such expenses.

“We are also helping students with financial help for application and visa fees. This kind of help has encouraged hardworking/intelligent students to look out for scholarships and pursue their dreams without a financial burden,” he added. 

In its mentorship program, JKScientists are currently mentoring 40 students who have completed their master’s program. Also, in the spectrum program, they have over 70 students (UG and PG) who are part of different groups.

“We also often receive requests from students for urgent help that are taken by mentors on a priority basis. These requests are taken up by mentors for last-minute mock preparation for interviews, CV, and cover letter edits/reviews,” he said.

While talking about the importance of career counseling in today's competitive world, Syed said in the present high-tech age, students have access to information about very diverse career options but at the same time, it is very frustrating and confusing.

“So to get out of this noise and narrow down options, career counseling comes in handy. It helps a student to choose a career that fits their interest. By choosing the right career at the beginning, students invest their time and effort in the right direction. And students who make the right choice earlier lead to less frustration and achieve their goals on time,” he said. 

The JKS advisory board helps students by counseling them in choosing a better lab for an internship or a better university for MS or Ph.D. program. However, the majority of its mentors are basically natives of J&K.  

“Our goal includes understanding the basics of research, enhancing soft skills, and overall personality development of our mentees. We envision empowering the youth of Jammu and Kashmir to take responsibility for Human Resource Development by acquiring academic excellence in scientific knowledge and harnessing it as a means of Sustainable Economic Growth,” said Syed.

“Through this, we strengthening the community by diffusion of knowledge; imparting skills; creating new opportunities for the upcoming generations and bringing in the culture of innovations. Our goal is to inculcate the value of life skills to students and help them reach their academic goals by hand holding them at various stages through vigorous training,” he added.

While talking about mentorship, the 40-year-old Syed said, it is very essential to have someone in our lives whom we can look up to, be it our parents, teachers, or peers.

“They help us to achieve our goals by sharing their experiences and practical knowledge. Having a mentor helps us to feel acceptable and above all, a mentee can share his/her views and ideas in a judgment/bias-free environment. A mentor always wants a mentee to be successful in life and provides support and encouragement whenever needed,” he said. 

While talking about his experiences during his education, he said teachers and faculty don’t put in extra effort to mentor a student rather they focus mostly on teaching.

“Students are not encouraged to ask questions, brainstorm, and come up with novel ideas. As a result, when we come out of university, we have a degree but lack the skills to communicate properly and professionally. Our goal is not to criticize anyone, rather bring a change through the experience and knowledge we have gained over the years in various educational settings globally,” he said.

After passing his masters at the University of Kashmir things didn’t change much for Syed.“After my master’s I worked as an Adhoc teacher at the Women’s Polytechnic College in the leather technology department - a complete misfit and sooner I realized a need to learn and explore more. I left my job in Kashmir and moved to Bangalore to live with my friends. Consider yourself lucky if you have good friends,” he said.

“Getting into a good lab is a challenge, after struggle in Bangalore, I was lucky to get into an excellent lab at the National Centre For Biological Sciences (NCBS, Bangalore). That was a life-changing experience. Then the quest for knowledge and science continued in Germany where I was a Ph.D. student and then as a postdoc at the University of Oregon in the USA,” he said.

Recently, Syed got a tenure track faculty position at the University of New Mexico where his group uses fruit flies to investigate the fundamental molecular and genetic mechanisms that regulate neural diversity, neural identity, and function.


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