IISER student Malavika Venu taking a break in Ann Arbor.

“I grew up in a small town in southern India. Studying at a premier institute like IISER was a dream come true, and being able to study at the University of Michigan was something I had never even imagined,” says Malavika Venu, who received a fellowship from the Center for South Asian Studies at U-M to come to Ann Arbor as part of an ongoing partnership between Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) and the University of Michigan. IISER Pune is one of India’s premier institutions for teaching and research in the basic sciences;  it was declared a Institute of National Importance by the Indian government in 2012.

 “I had an amazing experience in Ann Arbor. I think the most exciting element was meeting people from different cultures and backgrounds. People from my lab were very generous and kind. They took me to several places in Michigan and gave me a flavor of everything there. The lab atmosphere was very nurturing and relaxed. My supervisor, Dr. Gary B Huffnagle – a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Immunology at U-M – helped me with the work and taught me a different way of viewing science and research,” Malavika adds.

University of Michigan began its partnership with IISER in 2017, creating a program that hosts up to 10 students from each institution for study and research: Michigan students study as exchange students by conducting research and/or taking classes at IISER; and IISER students spend several weeks during the summer interning in science labs at U-M. The collaboration encourages global learning and creates educational experiences that allow students from both institutions to collaborate and share new ideas, practices, and experiences.

CSAS went to the IISER campus on a recent visit to Pune, where we met some of the students who had spent time doing research at the University of Michigan. Right at the entrance to campus was a big field, which someone from the group said was “big enough to hold a professional cricket match.” When asked if they missed playing cricket in Michigan, several students replied in unison: “we actually played cricket at U-M!” as everyone laughed.

Walking around the campus, students showed us the laboratories, their classrooms and the dorms. They are confident and proud of their institution. We sat around a rectangular dining table in the IISER’s canteen – the mess, as they call it – and talked about what it was like to study at U-M.  

IISER student Harsha Gouda at work in professor Ruma Banerjee’s lab at UM.

Aarcha Thadi, who traveled from IISER to the University of Michigan in 2017, said, “As a student who had only been exposed to research life in my home country, the exchange program was a great learning experience for me. We stayed at the International House in Ann Arbor, which was very convenient, and we made some fantastic friends. The team at the Center for South Asian Studies made us feel at home. They organized fun get-togethers so we could get to understand the local culture and way of life.”

When Thadi came to Michigan, she had just finished the third year of a 5-year integrated undergraduate and master’s degree in science. At U-M, she spent her summer working with Dr. Alison Davis Rabosky – an Assistant Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. She spoke highly of Dr. Davis Rabosky’s role as a mentor, remembering how she stimulated her interest in taxonomy.

“I would like to say that the research experience at the University of Michigan was very unique to me,” said Arkajit Guha, who worked with Dr. Ruma Banerjee – who is the Vincent Massey Collegiate Professor of Biological Chemistry at the University of Michigan.

“I’d like to thank Dr. Ruma Banerjee for allowing me to be a part of her research group. I got to learn a lot of new techniques which will be of immense help in the days to come. She gave me the freedom of expressing my own ideas and trying out something new.”

There are many Indian students benefitting from the UM-IISER partnership, but there are also students travelling in the other direction: from Michigan to Maharashtra. Rachel Hirsch is one of them. Rachel, who graduated with a master’s degree in South Asian Studies in 2018, spent five weeks at IISER two summers ago doing research for her MA thesis.

“The staff and the faculty at the institute in Pune were immensely helpful to me. They took me along on field trips and put me in touch with all the right people. Being immersed in a totally different culture, it was a great learning experience for me,” she said.

Indian alumni of the UM-IISER Summer Program at the IISER campus in Pune.

We asked Dr. Ruma Banerjee about her experiences with the students from IISER.

“These are very talented groups of people. We are getting the very best of IISER students,” she said. “They are so well prepared and very eager to learn and appreciative of the opportunity. The first year we had one student in the med school and the second year we had two and I hope that the engagement with the med school will continue to grow. It’s been a real pleasure to have students from IISER in my lab.”

Another mentee of Prof. Ruma Banerjee, Harsha Gouda, uniquely benefited from the IISER-UM partnership. The son of a farmer and a school teacher, Harsha grew up in rural Karnataka, where he went to a government school. Family and friends suggested that he should study medicine and become a doctor. He listened to them and took the entrance exam for medical school and scored well. But then he found out about IISER.

 Harsha explained, “I didn’t want to become a doctor just because I had scored well in the entrance exam. I wanted to become a scientist, that was my real passion. I chose IISER, which is a world class institution for science and research.”

At IISER he learned about the exchange program at the University of Michigan. He applied for the scholarship provided by the Center for South Asian Studies and got accepted. It opened new horizons for him.

 “Dr. [Ruma] Banerjee’s lab studies various proteins in human cells involved in transport and utilization of vitamin B12,” Harsha explained;  “My project was focused on studying the altered proteins identified in patients to determine and understand dysfunctions in the patients.”

Harsha Gouda has now been accepted in a PhD program at U-M. Growing up in a remote town in rural India, he never imagined that he would travel thousands of miles to study science at a world-renowned university in the United States. By providing international exposure and opportunities in science to students like Harsha and Malavika, the University of Michigan not only nurtures talent, but helps build institutions in India as well.