Alberta Researcher Profile
Who: Dr. Srijak Bhatnagar
Assistant Professor, Computational Biology, Faculty of Science and Technology, at Athabasca University
Dr. Srijak Bhatnagar has always remembered having an inquisitive nature and wondering what, why, and how something works or how something happens. Because of this, a career in science seemed natural, allowing his curiosity to carry over.
When Bhatnagar was finishing high school, the first draft of the human genome project had just been released and he remembers it being a big deal within the scientific community, and his first exposure to genomics.
From there, he chose an undergrad in bioinformatics to focus on data analysis of genomics information.
“My conscious decision was to study microbial genomics, and what intrigued me the most was that while other living things are visible to us and can be studied in many ways, microbes are challenging to study, especially because there's a lot that cannot be visually observed. But genomics is actually a very powerful tool, to study the microbes without needing a microscope”
After years exploring interesting genomics questions as a bioinformatician and later as a postdoctoral fellow, Bhatnagar has taken the next step in his academic career and is now an Assistant Professor and Researcher at Athabasca University.
“Moving to Athabasca University was liberating, and now I can pursue all the questions that I’m interested in. I can pursue funding opportunities that entice me or those that fulfill what I am interested in. So as an independent researcher, that freedom of thought and expression is very critical, and sort of intertwined with the scientific approach and research.”
Although Bhatnagar is facing challenges navigating teaching online, he also finds it rewarding.
“I'm in a very non-traditional situation of teaching because it's online teaching, it's self-directed teaching, it's not traditionally engaging with students. Sometimes it's frustrating, sometimes it's rewarding, just like any other challenge. It is a very cool opportunity with an institution that believes in work-life balance and the well-being of its students and employees.”
One recent thing Bhatnagar is excited for is the increased accessibility of sequencing and the advancement and continuous improvement of genomic technology.
Currently in development is a new technology that allows for sequencing at low costs that enables scientists and even community members to carry out sequencing locally.
“If we can train anybody who wants to learn, like a community member, they could carry out their own [research and data generation]. They could do their own sequencing, and that is amazing. So that is the near frontier that we are headed towards.”
But alongside this he says that there is a fast-evolving need for ethics in this field.
In his work with the Arctic Institute of North America
, he says it can be hard to involve communities in research that directly affects them when they do not necessarily have ownership over that data and results.
“There is a question of who owns the results. If something like democratising sequencing was available in more rural communities, people could have better access [and ownership of] the data.”
Words of Advice
As a recent student himself, Bhatnagar says the best thing you can do before graduating is to be sure you want [and] what you are after.
“Not everyone wants to do a postdoc, to be an academic, principal investigator, or independent researcher. Some people just love science, but they don't want to deal with the other things. But it doesn't have to be just academia, it could be an industry job, consulting, a grant writer or editor. So, my advice is, identify your skill set and see if that's a good skill set that would set you up for success.”
He also says to consider every aspect when taking a job.
“You have the freedom to choose. And that is important to know what your skill sets are and where they are applied best, or where they reap the most benefits. Think about whether you want to live in that city. Do you like the workplace environment? Ask the employer what the policies are.”
Working with Genome Alberta
In his work as a research associate at the Arctic Institute of North America, Bhatnagar says that funding from institutions like Genome Alberta and Genome Canada allows him to work directly with rights holders, stakeholders, and genomic experts to identify gaps in genomics knowledge and application pertaining to biodiversity and conservation in the Arctic.
“Genomics is a way for us to get answers, and there are people [researchers and communities] in Canada that could try to answer their questions with funding provided by Genome Canada.”