This interview is part of a series of interviews of the “Women in Research” blog that features young female scientists participating in the 68th Lindau Nobel Laureate Meeting to increase the visibility of women in research (more information for and about women in science by “Women in Research” on Facebook and Twitter).
Arunima Roy, 30, from India, is an Alexander von Humboldt postdoctoral fellow at the University of Würzburg, Germany.
She studies why children with psychiatric disorders cope in vastly different ways. Some children are resilient to their mental health problems and have relatively better life outcomes than others. The hope is that if they understand what enables these few children to cope well, they can eventually help everyone to reach their full potential despite their psychiatric problems. Enjoy the interview with Arunima and get inspired.
What inspired you to pursue a career in science?
I have always been interested in understanding child development and human behaviour. I trained as a medical doctor and was keen on becoming a psychiatrist. However, it was during my undergraduate internship in the psychiatric department that I realised we know little of the human brain. Even though certain psychiatric disorders have been well studied in human populations, we don’t understand why and how they occur. Combined with the lack of objective tests and limited treatments, psychiatry is perhaps the most complex of all medical specialisations, and despite these limitations, physicians still must help treat the very real mental health problems of very real people. For these reasons, I turned to science, in the hope that perhaps I could contribute to our understanding of neurodevelopment and mental health.
Looking back, that was a very naïve outlook. I cannot hope to understand all the brain’s secrets on my own. In fact, one person may not even be able to grasp all that is already known about the brain.
The brain is a very complex organ and understanding its functioning in humans has so far proved to be very difficult. We are only beginning to get a glimpse of its mechanisms for some functions that we consider very basic, such as ‘what happens when we look at an object?’, ‘how do we remember?’, or ‘how do we find our way?’. Despite the disillusionment (that I will not be able to research my way through all of psychiatry and neurodevelopment) I am not in any way disheartened, as neuroscience keeps me on my toes with the exciting mysteries I get to encounter and solve.
Who are your role models?
My biggest scientific inspirations are Michael Faraday and Émilie du Châtelet. Faraday was entirely self-taught back when science was a leisurely hobby pursued by upper class men who had the time and money to invest in research. Du Châtelet, though not entirely self-taught, was persistent in educating herself. She immersed herself into mathematics and physics at a time when it was highly unusual for women to study at all. This maverick spirit showed up throughout her life: she wrote a lengthy critique of the Bible and used her mathematical knowledge to develop gambling strategies. Both these scientists made momentous contributions; Faraday is known for his electromagnetic theory, while du Châtelet challenged the understanding of kinetic energy and momentum. Both these people are inspiring because their lives demonstrate it is possible to excel in science if one has the will to overcome obstacles.
How did you get to where you are in your career path?
After graduating from medical school in India, I joined the doctoral program at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. Here, I worked at the department of psychiatric epidemiology and psychology. Coming from a medical background, I had little research experience, so I had to retrain myself to conduct scientific studies. I completed my Ph.D. in two years, following which I was awarded a fellowship to join the psychiatry department at McGill University, Canada. There, my task included analysing data from a large longitudinal clinical cohort. I advised medical residents and psychiatrists on statistics and research methodology, taught an epidemiology course, and took on administrative work for the graduate school. During this time, I also developed a project to understand the neural and genetic underpinnings of Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in adulthood. After spending two years at the Psychiatry department at McGill, I received funding to join the molecular psychiatry division at Würzburg University, Germany, where I’ve been learning wet lab skills. I am currently investigating the influence of epigenetic changes on mental health.
I have been fortunate to have worked with some of the most supportive individuals during my research career. Prof. Tineke Oldehinkel, my Ph.D. supervisor at the Groningen University, not only helped me develop my scientific abilities and critical thinking capabilities, but also immensely supported me in my research endeavours. Prof. Lily Hechtman, my supervisor during my McGill traineeship, was an enormous source of inspiration. She juggles clinical practice and research and works literally non-stop. Seeing her dedication to research made me work harder. Despite her busy schedule, whenever I asked advice, be it the middle of the night, at 4 am in the morning or on a weekend, I always received her feedback swiftly. Her mentoring has taught me essential skills in supervision.
The obstacles in this journey were the difficulties I faced in broadening my research expertise. I always wanted to do interdisciplinary research, however, the process of getting there was tough: no one would want to take a chance on a person who was not trained in their research area and I found it hard to get the experience I needed in other research fields. In fact, coming from a background in medicine, I was also impeded on my way to pursing a Ph.D., as it was believed to be difficult to transition from medicine to epidemiological research. However, I learned the statistical skills needed for my doctoral studies in under half a year and I am glad all that is now behind me.
But ironically, one of the biggest obstacles in science isn’t the science itself. It’s finding the funding to be allowed to do science at all. The hardest part of every position has been finding the next one, and it’s a sad state that instead of using our mental energies to wrangle datasets, today’s young scientists are spending their productive energies hunting for new grants.
What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
It’s hard to pick a single project. What I love the most about science is the process; refining the unknowns into testable hypotheses, developing an apt experiment, gathering data and, the most fun of all, analysing and making sense of the results. At the end of it all, every project ever done and to be done will be exciting and a step forward in our understanding of our universe (or multiverse?).
What’s a time you felt immense pride in yourself or your work?
I feel privileged to be able to do research. I am happy that I am at the forefront of human knowledge, I am happy that I get to interact with the experts in numerous fields, and I am grateful that I can participate in the important task of altering (in a good way) humanity’s views of the world.
All that said, you can’t beat external validation. One spends so long toiling away in the lab or staring at numbers on the screen that it’s great to see your work be recognised, whether it’s getting papers published, getting invited to present at conferences or being interviewed about your research.
What is a “day in the life” of Arunima like?
My day starts at 6 am when I use my early morning energy to read papers. I arrive at work at 9 am, where I try to complete all high-priority efforts by noon, such as writing or editing my manuscripts and sending important emails. Lunch time is at my desk, I usually use it to get more reading done. After that I either run experiments in the lab or do data analysis, while responding to incoming emails. Between 5 pm and 7 pm, I either attend a meeting or complete work left over from the day, such as unattended emails. I arrive home by 7 pm, where I usually cook dinner and finish other chores. With any luck, before bed I can find the time to finish up the day’s emails.
What are you seeking to accomplish in your career?
It’s nice to be published and present my work at academic conferences, but ultimately, I’d like my career to affect the broader world. I want to be useful for doctors developing new treatments, and I want this research to eventually help people with mental health problems.
What do you like to do when you’re not doing research?
What free time are you talking about?? (my boss will be reading this…)
Okay, okay, I sometimes dance, sometimes play games, sometimes try to write, then fail, then try again… I read many books, but I don’t think I’ve finished one since I started medicine. A busy week will distract me, and when I come back to the books I was reading I find myself re-reading previous sections I’d forgotten. I like cooking, but only if there is someone to feed it to (Yes, I have become my mother and it is too late to do anything about it).
What advice do you have for other women interested in science?
One of the biggest determinants of your scientific career is going to be your mentors. The search for a good mentor can be difficult, but it’s not something you can afford to neglect.
Keep trying your hand at the things you want to do, even if people say otherwise. I mean, if I took the advice of people around me I would have neither gotten my medicine degree, nor completed a PhD. So, if there’s something you want to do, just go for it.
In your opinion, what will be the next great breakthrough in physiology or medicine?
I think the modern information technology revolution suggests a lot of promise from its biological analogues. If we can decipher DNA or the workings of the brain, it could usher in whole new paradigms of biological science in the way that the emergence of computers and the internet created whole new fields. The possibilities seem unbounded: artificial creation of DNA? Data storage on DNA? Also, I want dinosaurs, and no number of Jurassic Park movies will dissuade me.
Maybe one breakthrough will be in neuroscience – it is possible. We have some good technologies to peep into neural circuits and functions in vivo.
There are of course more down-to-earth hopes. I hope Alzheimer’s is curable soon, infectious diseases are wiped out, prenatal screens eliminate infant morbidity, fertility spans are improved. Another thing that will probably happen soon is a further reduction in cancer fatality rates (fingers crossed). We’ve been making progress for quite some time now, and many people seem to miss one of the biggest causes for optimism: although cancer has been a tough nut to crack, unlike viruses or bacteria, cancer doesn’t evolve. So once we’ve cured a cancer, it’s beaten for good.
What should be done to increase the number of female scientists and female professors?
Right now, we have too many female scientists and too few female professors. Until we can increase women’s prospects of “making it” in academia, increasing the number of women in the academy’s lowest ranks is doing more harm than good! People joke that the progress we’ve made in representation has come from higher-paying jobs luring all the men away.
Grant applications should be blinded, especially since some of the best justifications for unblinded applications don’t apply here: a grant committee rarely needs to interview candidates, after all. Even when this measure is demonstrated to increase womens’ funding opportunities, there seems to be little will to implement it.
I don’t like the commonly floated options of better maternity and childcare support in academia, simply because there should be better maternity and childcare support for everyone. Only then will women be truly free to pursue any career they wish.