Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research
AsianScientist (Mar. 20, 2022) – Mental health is a state of mental well-being that enables people to cope with the stresses of life, realize their abilities, learn and work well, and contribute to their community, according to the World Health Organization. While mental health is much more than the absence of mental disorders, these disorders such as anxiety and depression could negatively impact the quality of people’s lives.
Some of these mental disorders are shaped by early life stresses, which can change brain functions. However, the mechanisms that alter brain function and lead to these disorders are poorly understood. Vidita Vaidya, who recently won India’s Infosys Science Prize in the Life Sciences category, has been trying to understand these brain mechanisms underlying mood disorders. Her research examines how serotonin, a neurotransmitter, influences brain energy regulation and behaviour after stress or trauma in early life.
Vaidya’s parents are medical scientists and doctors. She had the privilege of growing up on a research centre campus in India, which exposed her to interactions with researchers. Science, she says, was something that was discussed quite a bit around her. In her teens, she developed an interest in behaviour and pursued it in her research.
Vaidya holds a PhD from Yale University and has extensively researched to understand the molecular and cellular mechanisms that contribute to mood disorders. She spoke with Asian Scientist Magazine about her research, women in STEM, and why we shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously.
Tell us about your research interests in the neurobiology of emotion.
I am interested in understanding the brain circuits that eventually drive, produce and modulate emotion. There’s nothing we do that doesn’t have an emotional component. In the brain, however, it is not as well understood as movement, sensation, learning, or memory. I’m interested in analyzing and being able to study how the circuits driving emotions function. I’m also curious to figure out how they are modulated by early life experiences, which could be stressful or positive, and pharmacological agents such as drugs for anxiety that can change emotional states. I’m eager to learn how all of these interact with the brain to change behaviour.
What challenges did you face while pursuing your research or as a woman in science?
I consider myself remarkably privileged and lucky to be the only child of parents who supported every dream I had. My husband, in-laws, and kids have also been immensely supportive. So I did not face any challenges within the family setup, far from it. I recognize how critical that [support] is because it’s already tough enough to navigate a career in STEM subjects. Failure is an inherent component of science.
There have been times when I was the only woman in the room. You look around and realize that you’re really in the minority. So there is an awareness you carry, that STEM is not yet an environment where the number of women at all levels is reasonable. The numbers are evenly spread out in the biological sciences, at least in the early career stages. However, you’ll see attrition at each step, and as you climb the ladder, you’ll have fewer and fewer women. Navigating a career in science can get difficult if you also have to juggle child-rearing, household management and familial care responsibilities without a support system. And many people don’t have it. So it’s unsurprising that the numbers are so low because the onus of caregiving disproportionately falls on women.
Do you think that government policies can help more women stay in STEM?
I do believe that government policies have a profoundly critical role to play. India has a generous maternity leave policy for government employees. But we don’t have a similarly generous paternity leave policy. If you’re a single parent, you need an even greater degree of support. So institutional support is vital.
The government has a huge role in ensuring that the institutions it funds and supports work towards developing more equitable and inclusive working environments. But it takes more than just policies. Ensure that you look around the room and ask if diversity is missing. More often than not, institutions default to waiting for diversity to emerge, but it won’t appear unless there’s an active effort to promote equity.
How can the scientific research community in India become more successful?
The ease of doing science in India needs to improve substantially. Some of the challenges come from the fact that we don’t yet have a full-fledged ecosystem in many sub-disciplines.
Moreover, science has largely been the domain of government-run institutions in India. Private sector players need to join forces. We also need to realize that for India to be a technical powerhouse, it [needs] knowledge generation within the country. To drive knowledge generation, we require more public-private partnerships. We also need to ease the process of doing science.
Are you facing any challenges in your research?
I work with serotonergic psychedelics, which are now emerging as a breakthrough therapy for treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders, including post-traumatic stress disorder and major depression. There have been many successful clinical trials, and active research is happening worldwide.
I would love to research specific serotonergic psychedelics, which are schedule-one drugs and difficult to import into India. You have to deal with some red tape and bureaucracy to obtain specific permissions. As a result, I am able to work with only some psychedelics but not with others. And that’s because I can’t work around the red tape associated with it. So, you get delayed in an international quest because we haven’t yet tweaked our rules fully.
You recently received the Infosys prize. How has that impacted your work?
When an award is announced, the spotlight is not just on the scientist but also on the subject of research. Since my work is mental health-related research, it highlights the importance of working in this area. It may encourage many more people to work and grow the scale of research in this area.
What are your research goals for the future?
My team and I have stumbled on some exciting findings with the serotonin receptor, which is one of the significant receptors that serotonin binds to. We know that this receptor plays a vital role in two ways – in shaping the effects that early life experiences can have on the brain in the long run. The nature of experience, especially stressful experiences, seems to target this particular receptor and change how it functions. So we are very interested in exploring that further.
Secondly, and serendipitously, we found that serotonin, through the receptor, directly changes the number of mitochondria in specific neurons and their efficiency at producing energy. It turns out that serotonergic psychedelics also target the same mechanisms. So one of the things we are exploring quite closely right now is how serotonin and serotonergic psychedelics directly influence bioenergetics in the brain.
If you had not become a scientist, what would you have become instead?
I would probably become a storyteller!
What do you do outside of work to relax?
I like reading, travelling, playing throwball, watching movies, dancing and exploring all the new eating joints in Mumbai!
What advice would you give to aspiring researchers in Asia?
It is a privilege to be a scientist and a researcher – so it is always important to keep that in mind when one hits road bumps and challenges. Failures are sometimes the most interesting junctures where novel discoveries can happen if one does not allow failure to become a deterrent. Also, remember not to take yourself too seriously.
This article is from a monthly series called Asia’s Scientific Trailblazers. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Photo: Infosys Science Foundation
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