I don’t believe in plans. I believe in trying the hardest and making the best out of situations.
I didn’t stumble into science; I was guided slowly to it, and left surrounded by it, with the freedom to explore. Throughout my school years, I remember my brother loaning me old copies of the Nature magazine from the British Council Library and encouraging me to skim, but not read through them. “It’s okay if you don’t understand”, he’d say, “that’s the feeling that’ll stay with you through most of life. But see if you want to ask the questions ‘why’ and ‘how’”. And that’s how, unconsciously, but gradually, science creeped into my being.
Through my years in Bachelors at Presidency College (now University), Kolkata, and then Masters at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi I became more and more fascinated about neuroscience. As I read more, the incredible experiments by early neuroscientists - all of the Sherrington experiments in particular, where they disabled parts of brains (mostly in cats) and observed behavioural deficits or changes, blew my mind. And then came Hodgkin and Huxley, recording these minute currents in such simple preparations of nerve cells and studying them in as detail as single ions! The brain rules every bit of us, and yet it is the most unresolved part of our physiology. Is it even a feasible endeavour to solve ‘the human’? And where will that take us? These questions baffled me, as I navigated through my academic life and inched forward into neuroscience. Leaving the realm of books, I entered into my actual practice during my years at the National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), Manesar and then at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), Bangalore. There was no looking back after that.
I’m currently pursuing my PhD in Neuroscience at the Brain Mind Institute at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) in Switzerland in the lab of Prof. Ralf Schneggenburger. I’m studying how initially neutral experiences can turn unpleasant, if they occur often with unhappy or painful circumstances. I’ll pick an extreme example to demonstrate this, but this happens every day in our lives. Let’s say you’ve lived through the atrocities of war, but very long ago. Years later, a car backfires in your neighbourhood, but to you, it sounds like a gunshot, and you run for cover, because you associate this noise to your past experience of wartime. The brain, and especially a structure called the amygdala, helps you predict these things and the next time you notice a small feature of that horrible past experience, you’re already on alert that something might go wrong. This is crucial to help us learn from the past. I’m trying to understand which circuits in the brain help guide you to that behaviour, what steps in this process are essential and how the brain itself changes in the process. I use in-vivo optogenetics, live calcium imaging in freely moving mice, and combine them with ex-vivo electrophysiology to dissect these brain circuits involved in learning and memory.
My tryst with the mysteries of neuroscience has been a seven-year-long affair already, but the fascination hasn’t abandoned me. Every day is not easy. Grad school is definitely not, but I wouldn’t trade lives with anyone. I think the mantra for surviving grad school is to be able to deal with defeat. To anyone starting out, this would be my only advice: if you believe that after a crushing defeat, you can wake up the next day and convince yourself that it’s a new day with new possibilities, then grad school is for you. It’s a way of life, it’s about not taking things personally. We’re here to solve a problem; most often, problems that we know little of. Be prepared to be baffled, and that bafflement must spark inquisition. That’s all there is to it!
I don’t believe in plans. I believe in trying the hardest and making the best out of situations. I’d like to remain in academia, but my biggest driving passion is to make science available and approachable for all. I’m currently doing this in my small capacity as much as I can. I’ve written an article for Resonance, a journal dedicated to providing material for graduate and undergraduate teaching, and I want to write more. I’m associated with an organization called the Pint of Science, through which, every year in 400 cities worldwide, on the same 3 days, we bring science researchers into the local cafes and pubs and enable a general audience to listen to and interact with them. Recently, a few of us grad students and postdocs spread over the world, have recently formed a platform called Biologically Speaking, where we host scientists bi-monthly to give free and engaging talks to an audience spread across the globe, academic journeys, age groups and fields. I’m also proud to note that we also celebrated the long-standing contributions of women in academia through a 2-day long conference called “Herstory of Science”, because ‘history’ sounds like it leaves half the population behind! My absolute dream is to make science the predominant conversation of our generation---it’ll help resolve many of the issues that plague the world right now.
Shriya is a PhD candidate in Neuroscience at the Brain Mind Institute at the EPFL, Switzerland in the lab of Prof. Ralf Schneggenburger.