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Mithun Mitra

Dr. Mithun Mitra

This month, we’re catching up with Dr. Mithun Mitra, assistant project scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. Dr. Mitra served as an NIH visiting fellow in the lab of Dr. Judith Levin from May 2008 until January 2014. His NICHD research focused on the nucleic acid binding and enzymatic properties of the human AP0BEC3 family of host defense proteins. Read below to learn more about being an assistant project scientist at a large research university:

Can you tell us a little about your new position as an assistant project scientist?

I am an assistant project scientist in the lab of Dr. Hilary Coller at UCLA. I joined UCLA in February 2014. The research in the lab is focused on studying cell quiescence, which is a state of reversible cell cycle exit. We want to know how a quiescent cell is different from a normal proliferating cell. This would provide clues to better understand cancer, where cells divide in an uncontrolled manner. My project is to study the role of alternative polyadenylation in cell quiescence and cancer.

The responsibilities include:

  1. Performing experiments and doing analysis
  2. Presenting the research work in group meetings, intramural meetings, and conferences
  3. Writing manuscripts
  4. Assisting in the preparation of grants
  5. Maintaining the inventory of cell lines
  6. Coordinating with core laboratories in the campus for instrument or analysis software use
  7. Writing lab protocols.

How is an assistant project scientist different or similar to the roles of a postdoc, a staff scientist, and a PI?

The role is similar to that of a staff scientist.

What’s your typical day like?

A typical day includes setting up and performing experiments, briefing my adviser about the experimental plans, doing data analysis, discussing a protocol or results with my colleagues, working on a manuscript, and attending a lunch seminar. I am new to the cancer field, and so attending lunch seminars conducted by the Jonsson Comprehensive Cancer Center at UCLA is a great way to learn about recent developments in cancer research. I am involved in collaborative projects and so have to communicate with other project members regarding results and experimental outlines.

Is this position a long-term, permanent position or temporary? If temporary, what is the typical next step after being a project scientist?

The position has to be renewed every one or two years. Depending upon the performance and level of funding, one can move up the ranks to become Associate Project Scientist and then Project Scientist. 

More details here: https://www.apo.ucla.edu/policies/the-call/appendices-1/appendix-36-project-e.g.-scientist-series

What do you find exciting about being an assistant project scientist? Do you find anything challenging?

I get to work with a great research team and also learn and apply new experimental techniques. This position has a big research component and there is no requirement for teaching. This allows me to devote a lot of my time to research. There is a wonderful collaboration here in UCLA between basic science, computational, and clinical researchers. This allows me to consider a multi-pronged approach to solve problems in hand.

Being new to the cancer field, I have to spend some time getting acquainted with new techniques and protocols and to do troubleshooting. But, I am learning a lot along the way. 

When did you start thinking about joining another lab after postdoc?

I started thinking about applying to a new position about a year before my appointment at NIH was about to end.

How did you find your current position in Dr. Coller’s lab at UCLA?

When I started working on APOBEC3 proteins, it was considered to be a family of antiviral proteins. Later, it was shown that two family members, APOBEC3A and APOBEC3B, are the sources of mutations in many cancers. This is because these DNA mutator proteins could target genomic DNA due to their nuclear localization. This got me really interested in cancer and genomics research. I came across the website of Dr. Coller’s lab and found her work very interesting. I wrote an email to her to inquire about any open research positions. She told me that she just moved from Princeton University to UCLA and that she was hiring new lab personnel. 

Please describe the application/hiring process. Did it take a long time?

The interview was done on Skype. Then, I had to send all the documents including recommendation letters. After that, it took about two months to get the official job offer letter. The processing timing could be affected due to the holidays in November. The entire process was quite smooth. After I got the letter, I had to apply for the J-1 waiver and H-1B visa. I am very thankful to DIS [Division of International Services] and NICHD administrative offices for all their help during the waiver process.

Which skill sets from the lab best apply to becoming an assistant project scientist?

A doctoral degree is a must for applying to this position. The specific skill set depends on the lab one is applying to. I was fortunate to move to a new field. I learned lots of new things related to cancer research after joining UCLA. There are basic research skills that are applicable to any field of research and one can learn specific techniques while working on the project. It’s wonderful to have people with different backgrounds in a research team as we can learn from each other and at the same time can look at the problem from a unique perspective, which is very helpful. I had a wonderful research experience at NIH and it is helping me a lot in my current research.

What activities or resources at the NIH helped prepare you for your career transition?

I attended several career workshops at NIH and they were really helpful. I am very thankful to Brenda Hanning and Yvette Pittman for organizing these activities for the fellows. I was also able to take several courses at FAES graduate school including courses related to public health (like statistics and epidemiology) and bioinformatics. I am currently using a lot of what I learned from these courses in my current research. I strongly advise fellows to consider taking a few courses in statistics and bioinformatics, as they are highly applicable in most of the research fields. Also, “data science” is gaining prominence. The NIH library also conducts several bioinformatics courses and they are very useful. I also participated in the Translational Science Training Program conducted by OITE and NCATS, and that was great because it allowed me to write a cancer-related research proposal and to learn about the translational science field.

Do you have any advice for postdoctoral fellows who are thinking about a similar next step?

I would advise fellows to think ahead about their future goals and what they would like to achieve during their stay at NIH. It is very important to do good research and publish, and NIH provides a wonderful research environment to do that. At the same time, NIH has great resources to learn and improve career-related skills and also to learn new research topics and computational techniques through FAES graduate school and the NIH library. I would also advise fellows to write grant proposals and present their research work. There is a lot to do, but time is limited and so planning is key.

Is it OK if current NICHD fellows contact you with questions? 

I would be very happy to answer any questions. You can contact me at mmitra@ucla.edu.