Until recently, India’s best and brightest young minds were irresistibly drawn to North America and Western Europe to pursue better opportunities after completing their education in India. The West offered them almost everything they aspired for: world-class training and professional institutions, high-quality infrastructure, improved quality of life, and most importantly, a level playing field. The proverbial American dream probably found some of its most ardent believers inside the classrooms of India’s premier educational institutions, as students toiled their way through piles of books and papers to make sure they had the right credentials to make their move. This trend, popularly referred to as the “brain drain,” took off in the 1970s and reached its peak in the 1990s with the rise in the global IT industry.
Since the start of the new millennium, when the dot-com bubble burst and then the global financial crisis wreaked havoc in developed economies, a new trend emerged. Many NRIs and PIOs began moving back to India to take up leadership roles across various business and non-profit sectors. The rapid growth in the Indian economy and the increasingly pro-development attitude of succeeding governments significantly assisted this move.
Drs. Bimal Chakrabarti and Shreyasi Chatterjee – scientists with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI) working at the HIV Vaccine Translational Research (HVTR) Laboratory in Faridabad – are great examples of the rising “reverse brain drain” phenomenon.
Like many Indian emigrants, they find themselves between two opposing poles. While the desire for greater professional success and quality of life motivates them to pursue their dreams in their adopted countries, family ties and a sense of responsibility towards the motherland continue to pull them back.
Bimal, Director and Head of the HVTR Laboratory, grew up in a family with a longstanding tradition of producing highly educated and academically accomplished people. He read biochemistry at the University of Calcutta, and was awarded a doctorate in molecular virology from the same institution. Soon after, he left for the U.S. to pursue post-doctoral research at the Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland where he worked on developing an HIV vaccine. By 2004, Bimal found himself at the Vaccine Research Center (VRC) at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where one of his products was selected for clinical trials. Over his years there he gained international recognition as a pioneer contributor to the science behind an HIV vaccine.
On the other hand, Shreyasi, Manager of the HVTR Lab, completed her PhD in Microbiology in 2001 at the Bose Institute in Kolkata, and went to Purdue University as a visiting scholar to conduct research on tuberculosis. Impressed with the quality and rigor of the U.S. academic environment, she enrolled in a post-doctoral research program at UCLA where her focus shifted to Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In 2008, she moved back to India due to a personal emergency—the death of her father— and found work with a biotechnology partnership between India and Finland. Two years later, Shreyasi returned to the U.S. when she secured a grant to work as a research scientist at the University of Texas Medical Branch.
When IAVI approached Shreyasi to join the HVTR Lab, the opportunity attracted her because it was a global project for building biomedical tools to prevent HIV that could also be expanded to include other diseases. Though based in India, her work would not be restricted just to in-country activities. For Bimal, the appeal was more about the opportunity to establish a global center of excellence and contribute to putting India on the map in biomedical research and innovation. The HIV focus of the lab also appealed to both of them. They recognized that India had the third-largest HIV-positive population in the world and that their efforts in developing a vaccine were critical in the fight against AIDS – a disease that has killed millions of people in India and globally.
Hopping between two cultures has not always been easy. According to Bimal, though he was born and brought up in India, “I find myself continuously adjusting to the cultures and the styles of communication in the two countries, which perhaps has made me a more flexible, tolerant, patient and receptive person.” For Shreyasi, the back and forth has required flexibility and a positive attitude, especially as a career-focused single woman in India today. She reflects on the experience by acknowledging that, “My international career development has enriched my intercultural skills and made me more malleable to changing environments. That said, after life abroad, I strongly believe that humans are ultimately the same everywhere, in spite of their unique cultures and different ways of doing things.” For her, this diversity is something to be celebrated.
Shreyasi also feels that India has a long way to go in reforming social systems and getting rid of hierarchical structures and entitlement. She sees a strong need to better integrate economic and social development. Bimal, though optimistic about India’s future, also recognizes that the vast majority of the country’s population is yet to become a part of its extraordinary growth story. While the possibilities look bright when viewed from those at the top, he too is concerned that India’s success could be short-lived if it does not take active measures to include rural and marginalized communities in its development.
Shreyasi and Bimal have experienced both the ups and downs of life in India and the U.S. Their experience in either country has only deepened their appreciation for what the other has to offer. While Bimal views himself as a global citizen living in India, his kids are decidedly American and he therefore has an important stake in both countries. Shreyasi too feels both American and Indian. Her stint in India only enhances her prospects of returning to the U.S. with more valuable international experience.
Despite having moved back to India for now, both countries are key to Shreyasi and Bimal’s plans and have qualities to cherish. It is hard for both of them to imagine a future that does not involve both India and the U.S. But one thing is clear: their passion to help develop a vaccine to end AIDS knows no boundaries.