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Pure science

Dr Vidita Vaidya, a TIFR Reader, tells you all you want to know about the life
sciences and biochemistry

Let’s begin with a glimpse into your background.
I did my HSC in Science from Ruia College, Mumbai, after which I went to St Xavier’s College for my bachelor’s in life science and biochemistry. I was not interested in doing clinical medicine, at least the way in which it is taught in India, which is largely to get you into doing practice, rather than research. I found research interesting. After my BSc, I went to the US. I did my PhD in Neuroscience at Yale. My first post doc was at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden and the second one was at the Oxford University in the UK. I came back to India and set up my own lab at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).

What do you do at TIFR? What all does your work involve?
I’m what a research institute calls an assistant professor. It is called a TIFR’s Reader’s position. I have a group of about 12-13 people comprising of PhD students, students doing Masters, post-doctoral fellows and technicians. We are interested in understanding the neurobiology of depressive disorders and depression, how is emotion coded in the brain, what are the parts of the brain that mediate emotional behavior, how do the circuits get influenced by experiences, how do they go wrong and how they work right. We are trying to identify the parts of the brain that underlie our ability to feel happy or sad, pleasure or lack of pleasure, anxiety and fright.

What is it about neuroscience that fascinated you so much?
I was fascinated by the brain. Unlike any other organ of the body, it is capable of giving your entire sense of identity, sense of self, changing the way you feel about the universe, influencing you as well as your surroundings. It is phenomenal how much of our sense of identity, culture and experiences are regulated by how our brain functions. I found all this very interesting right from when I was 13.

What would be the career path for students who want to venture into this field?
It helps to have a solid background in basic sciences during your graduation. This can be in any form of basic sciences. It does not have to be biology. It can be physics, chemistry, math or psychology. Unfortunately, in India, taking up psychology means you will have to give up the sciences. If you could do psychology along with math, physics and biology, it would be ideal. Other than that, there’s really no requirement.

The life science programs at St Xavier’s College as well as some other colleges in India are really good. I would not encourage people to do biotechnology, because it narrows you down to a specialised approach. It leaves out a large amount of biology that people need to know. I would recommend classical biology programme like life sciences. In life sciences, you are learning ecology, environmental science, zoology, biochemistry etc. You get to learn a lot of things.

What options does a science student have after completing BSc?
After a BSc or a BPharm or even a medical degree, you can apply to a post-graduate programme. You can apply for PhD programme in the country right after your BSc or after your MSc. In India, there are PhD programme at TIFR, The National Brain Research Centre in Gurgaon, and NCBS — a branch of TIFR in Bangalore, Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, IISER in Pune. IISER also offers you a BSc programme that requires you to give the IIT entrance exam. If you do any of these programmes for your bachelors, you can get into the PhD programme across the country or abroad.

Are PhD programmes abroad better than the ones in our country?
I applied for my PhD 18 years ago. At that time, the kind of neuroscience done in the country was limited in terms of the approach and I wanted hard-core neuroscience training; therefore, it made sense for me to leave. I think that has now changed. Now, I feel you can get good neuroscience training in India. But there are also quality PhD programmes abroad. They even have fellowships, so students can go fully funded.

What is the fee-structure for PhD programmes in the country and abroad?
The fee structure for PhD programmes in India is very straightforward. You apply and you get a fellowship. Our graduate students are paid approx Rs. 14,000 per month. Their on-campus housing is heavily subsidised. They have to pay a rent of 100-200 rupees. In this way, your expenditures for five years are completely taken care of. In addition, these programmes give you the freedom to do whatever you want in science and the joy of choosing a field you find fascinating.

Does a person pursuing neuroscience need a certain kind of aptitude?
I think you have to love it, you have to be fascinated by the problems and you have to be in awe of what you are dealing with. You have to have a desire to solve problems, experiment and utilise an analytical approach to look at data. You also have to enjoy the process of interacting with people because science is now a social enterprise, you have to work with a team of people.

What kind of a job can a person apply for after completing PhD?
A fundamental question that every student should answer is what he/she wants to get into. For academic research (being in a university-type set-up), you do a post-doctoral fellowship for a few years after your PhD. A post-doctoral fellowship gives you a chance to break-free and become independent. You can have your freedom in the lab and at the same time not worry about raising funds.

In India, there are more and more academic positions opening up because this is an area that will grow in our country. People apply to institutes that are government-funded.

Alternatively you can go into the industry right after your PhD or after your post-doctoral training. These are the kind of avenues that exist in a very simplistic sense. However, a lot of people who get into science do a variety of things beyond this like scientific writing, science journalism, patent law and looking at intellectual property, policy of science, how to manage science and policy of managing funding associated with science. There are a variety of options out there.

What would be a day in the life of an assistant professor be like?
An average day would begin with me walking into the lab at around 9:15-9:30 am. I start off my day interacting with my group to find out how things are going with them, if there are any problems. We think of new ideas, plan and modify the designs for experiments and then we look at data.

I have a component of teaching as well. I teach a full-fledged neuroscience course every alternate year for six months. If I am teaching, I also involve a component of preparing for my lectures. There is a fair amount of writing work that I have to do. We write and publish our work in international or national journals. Sometimes it also involves travel.

Then there are the administrative responsibilities. However, in terms of priority, my first priority is the lab and interacting with my lab people. If there is an experiment for which they need help, I am always there. I usually wrap up my workday around seven-thirty in the evening.

And finally, what’s your message to our readers who aspire to make a career in neuroscience would be.

I would say don’t go by anything anyone else says. What is actually scary is how much advice HSC students in this country seek. I can understand the need for advice, but you have to first listen to what’s within you. If you enjoy science, if you enjoy the process of learning something new, don’t worry about finding the right job or earning money or the scope of that particular career. Don’t be scared when people tell you there is no scope, there are no jobs, how will you manage; you won’t earn enough, etc. because that is not something you should start being daunted by at the first step. There is no reason why you cannot do well, why you can’t earn well enough. All these things are possibilities and you just have to want to do them badly enough. Listen to your heart.

About Vidita Vaidya…

I like reading. I pick up a variety of things to read — work-related stuff, fiction, non-fiction etc. I also love music, dance, working-out, going for an aerobics or a salsa class etc.

It feels really good to be setting up a lab in my own country. One of the achievements that I am probably most proud of is to get a team of people to mentor. The quality of work that we produce is something that I’m proud of.

-Priya Chaphekar

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