Dr. Shijulal Nelson-Sathi, Postdoc at the Institute of Molecular Evolution at Heinrich Heine University Düsseldorf

Dr. Shijulal Nelson-Sathi is working as a postdoc at the Institute of Molecular Evolution of HHU. His research is about the development of the genome of Archaea and the gene transfer between different microorganisms. He already published various articles in renowned magazines such as Nature or the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science of the United States of America. Now he received the SIB International Young Bioinformatician Award 2015.

Shijulal giving a presentation at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics, Photo: SIB

You came as a doctoral candidate from India to the Institute for Molecular Evolution (Prof. William Martin) at HHU. How did you get interested in Bioinformatics and become aware of the research carried out here at our university?
Even during my school days, I was fascinated by technological advances in the field of computer science and the benefits it brought to every aspect of human life. This made me curious about understanding the technology and I learned that the brilliant programs written by leading individuals — people — in the field made things work the way it does. This ignited my enthusiasm to learn computer programming and its applications. And it led me to take Computer Science for my Bachelor studies.  During my bachelor, I was fortunate to participate in many interdisciplinary group discussions with students and researchers from various disciplines of science, both at my university and on the internet. It helped me understand the potential of computer science for solving fundamental questions, especially in the life sciences. This was a turning point in my career and I decided to pursue a Master’s in Bioinformatics from Mahatma Gandhi University, India to focus on computer science in Biology. My studies were enhanced by three years of applied bioinformatics research in a leading laboratory in India (CCMB, Hyderabad, India) and in Taiwan (IBMS, Academia Sinica).

Prof. Martin is a well known evolutionary biologist, it is hard to miss his name if you study Bioinformatics or Evolutionary biology.  I came to know him through his work on endosymbiosis and famous theories (the “hydrogen hypothesis”). He had published many articles where large scale data were analyzed very efficiently to uncover new facets of genome evolution. I applied to his group on an advertised position. After a formal interview I was invited to work on an interdisciplinary project where biologists (Prof. Martin and Prof. Tal Dagan), linguists (Prof. Hans Geisler) and historians (Prof. Heiner Frangerau) were involved. This was an ideal project where I could successfully implement biological and computational methodologies to study language evolution. More about the project named “Classification and Evolution in Biology, Linguistics and the History of Science“ can be found here.

You got your PhD from Heinrich Heine University and now you are staying for a Postdoc. What has and still makes the research group of Prof. Martin an ideal place to do research for you?
Prof. Martin’s group is one of the best groups in the field of evolutionary biology where any Bioinformatician will aspire to do his research. Handling data from 1000’s of genomes with computational tools is a huge challenge. Prof. Martin's group has vast experience addressing important fundamental questions in biology such as endosymbiosis and the origin of eukaryotes. We have been very successful lately, so I really enjoy working here. The team is international and interdisciplinary and the working atmosphere at the Institute of Molecular Evolution is a thing I never wanted to miss. I have had the opportunity to collaborate with many pioneers in evolutionary biology and mathematics from all over the world (Prof. James Mclnerney, Prof. David Bryant, Prof. Mike Steel). Those are important contacts for my further career. Prof. Martin’s continuous support was also an encouragement for me in deciding to continue here. Even though changing labs is common after completing one's PhD, my training here was definitely unique and was something that I would possibly not get with a change in labs. My decision to continue with Prof. Martin proved to be right when we were able to find solutions to some interesting questions regarding major transitions during genome evolution. We have had some major papers this year, including two in Nature and one in PNAS. Prof. Martin has now received his second ERC grant, giving me a possibility to stay on for a while at the Institute of Molecular Evolution.

Has it been difficult for you to adopt to the cultural differences between your home country India and Germany ?
Initially, yes. For a few months, I really felt the differences, especially in language and food. There is plenty of Japanese food in Düsseldorf, but not so much Indian food, which I missed at first. But I adjusted, though I have to say that for Ausländer the procedures at the public authorities can be stressful. When you come here as a foreigner, there is a lot of bureaucracy.  The team from the Institute for Molecular Evolution was a lot of help though. We have an English speaking group of multicultural members. After my travels to many different countries, Germany is now my favorite second home. 

Did you take advantage of the qualification program of iGRAD and if so has it been supporting you for your future career?
Yes, I took the courses. The training from iGRAD was good and useful especially the courses about presentation skills and the management course.

The Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) has recently been awarding the SIB International Young Bioinformatician Award 2015 to you. Congratulations also from HeRA. What does the prize mean to you and how important is it for your future career?

Winner of the SIB Award 2015 Shijulal Nelson Sathi, Photo: SIB

Thank you. Yes, this award will serve as a constant source of motivation for me to continue to do the best work that I can. Getting this kind of recognition from the SIB, especially the best young bioinformatician award, was a huge surprise for me. It is internationally one of the most valuable early career distinctions in this field. This a source of inspiration for me for my future career.

Are you already planning on your next career move? Where will you be going?
During the past five years, we have put together a good list of publications. We are a very good interdisciplinary team working on genome evolution of prokaryotes and eukaryotes. That’s just amazing. But we are not done yet, every advance uncovers more new questions. I would like to stay in academia and I am planning to start my own research group in the near future. I have started looking at the appropriate funding opportunities around the globe and of course I would be happy to go back to India if I can find the right research facility and funding.  

You have been travelling a lot this year. Can you tell a bit more about it especially the Gordon conference you visited in June?
Yes, I attended several meetings in 2015. The meeting of the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (SIB) was my favorite. The SIB organizes a meeting every two years called BC2 (Basel Computational Biology Conference). Its one of the best conferences in computational biology where experts working in bioinformatics, computational biology, biology, medicine and systems biology meet in Basel, Switzerland. It included keynotes by international experts, workshops, tutorials and poster sessions.  It was during this meeting that they announced the young bioinformatics researcher award. It was for the first time that they opened the nomination for international researchers from outside Switzerland. After that meeting I went to an invited conference organized by the Society for Study of Evolution (Evolution 2015) in Guaruja, Brazil. In July, I received an SMBE Young Investigator Travel award to participate in the annual conference of the Society for Molecular Biology and Evolution in Vienna. It was a unique opportunity to meet scientists especially the people working on evolutionary biology, and to present our work. I was also invited to the Gordon Research Conference on "Archaea: Ecology, Metabolism & Molecular Biology”at Sunday River in Massachusetts, USA. The interesting thing about Gordon Conferences is that about 100 people including students, post docs, young scientists and senior scientists stay at a remote place for almost one week to discuss, share and network. The structure of the program was rather different from the typical conference schedules. We had early morning and late night sessions but everyday afternoon was free for outdoor activities.  I gave a talk and met many pioneers in the field and got to talk to them, which was a great experience. I am grateful to the organizer, Prof. Ruth Schmitz (Kiel), for giving me the opportunity to participate in this conference.

Shijulal has been interviewed by Mareike Schulz in August 2015.

In person

Shijulal Nelson-Sathi


2004 -  Bachelor of Science in Computer Science, Kerala University, India 

2006 - Master of Science Bioinfomatics, Mahatma Ghandi University, India

2009-2013 - Doctoral thesis at the Institute of Moleculare Evolution, HHU
“Role of lateral gene transfer during archael evolution”

Research Group:
Prof. William F. Martin, Institute of Molecular Evolution at HHU

Member of:
Interdisciplinary Graduate and Research Academy Düsseldorf (iGRAD)

Winner of the "SIB International Young Bioinformatician of the Year Award" 2015

Research Stays:
CCMB, Hyderabad, India
IBMS, Academia Sinica, Taipei, Taiwan

Personal Website

Verantwortlich für den Inhalt: Junior Scientist and International Researcher Center