Keshav: Hi Abhilasha! Tell us something about Oxford.

Abhilasha Joshi is a PhD student at University of Oxford, UK. She did her schooling from Modern School, Barakhamba Road, Delhi and then joined IISER Mohali in 2008 as a KVPY fellow. With her, we dive into the life of a PhD student and reminisce about her time at IISER Mohali.

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Excerpts from conversation with alumni-writer Keshav

Abhilasha: Well, needless to say, Oxford University is 800+ years old and the oldest university in the English speaking world. It is quite amazing to be surrounded by such archaic architecture. It is a collegiate university which means that most functions are divided between the ‘University’ and various ‘Colleges’ (like Delhi University I guess!). It’s a very nice idea because the University is very big, and in my department, I meet only scientists. Colleges are a place to relax, have fun and meet people from diverse disciplines and broaden your horizons.

K: And what do you work on?

A: I work on understanding how time is structured in the brain. It is known that different parts of the brain have distinct representations of the outside world in terms of activity of certain kinds of neurons. Some neurons represent space in the outside world, some represent boundaries, and some represent the direction of the head of an animal. How these beautiful representations are generated is unknown. I am working on the cellular and network mechanisms which physically result in such representations.

K: Wow that sounds heavy!

A: It is related to last year’s Nobel prize in Physiology or medicine. It’s not heavy; I train mice to navigate in a virtual reality maze. It’s sort of a video game and I record (and try to make sense of!) neuronal activity in the medial septum which is a brain structure known to coordinate ‘brain-time’.

I think that my training at IISER was holistic …

K: Interesting! I wonder what it’s like working in a lab. 

A: It is a great experience and I cherish my training here. My advisor, Prof. Peter Somogyi has a great work ethic and promotes discovery rather than ‘adding data’ to previously established concepts. Our group works together on fundamental questions in Neuroscience. Say the problem is to understand spatial navigation. Everyone takes a different approach towards the problem. I’m doing electrophysiological recordings in the medial septum of mice navigating in a virtual reality maze. A colleague would instead inject something in the medial septum to understand which part of the brain these neurons are connected to. I sometimes feel like calling us the ‘Somogyi Lab United Front’. The Brain Networks Dynamics Unit, where we are situated, is a fun place to work at.

A: There are no working hours per se. I may not work on a Monday but work on a weekend. Generally, a strong work ethic is respected. I tend to stick to Abhilasha hours! Some experiments go on for 8 to 10 hours at a stretch. Some experiments may last for weeks. I think this requires us to have good physical and mental stamina. But then, there are times when I’ll not work but just read a book. So it’s quite chill.

K: I guess such flexibility is crucial for good research. But do you have more restrained responsibilities like teaching?

A: PhD students don’t have to teach, though some of my colleagues do. One could opt for teaching, but it is a heavy investment in terms of time and energy and my time is mostly organised by my animals!

K: And how do you support your education?

A: I get the Felix scholarship. It supports me for 3 years which is the expected duration of a PhD in U.K. The application process is very straightforward. You just need to tick a box saying you wish to be considered for this scholarship while applying for admission at the University. About 20 students from India are shortlisted for an interview and 6 to 8 make the final cut across all disciplines. From my lab, students graduate in about three and a half years. Getting funding from the department for an extra six months is usually not a problem.

K: That is extremely competitive, and the main focus is research. Did you have an idea of what you were going to do as you were joining Oxford?

A: I had a general idea. Broadly, a student should have some idea of their research problem; a precise formulation is better. I requested a period of six months to decide on a project.

K: Was this related to your studies at IISER Mohali?

A: I had not taken many specialized neuroscience courses at IISER Mohali, but IISER gave me good breadth. I have colleagues who have had training specializing in neuroscience, but I think that my training at IISER was holistic. For example, one needs to know electronics, statistics, behavioral biology etc. to do this kind of research, which I was comfortable with since I had the exposure. I have been studying cluster analysis since a month, which requires some knowledge of statistics. And my knowledge of biology was certainly at par with other students.

It isn’t a bad thing if you don’t have much background in a specific area..

K: Tell us more about your training at IISER Mohali.

A: The first two years at IISER were quite broad, we studied all basic sciences and math. The courses I took as a Biology Major were quite detailed, well-structured and thorough. Detailed courses in proteomics, cell biology, genetics, development and evolution all have helped me formulate my understanding of neuroscience. The courses I took in neuroscience and developmental neuroscience are comparable to the Masters level courses in Oxford, if not better. Also, the Evolutionary biology and Developmental biology courses offered at IISER Mohali were excellent.

final year thesis in evolutionary biology, which is very different from what I study now…

K: Did you have to do courses at Oxford?

A: I attended some Masters level courses for the first six months.

K: How would you compare the courses at Oxford and IISER Mohali?

A: I haven’t had many courses at Oxford, but as I said earlier, some of the major courses at IISER Mohali are very well structured. Yes, one difference at the undergraduate level here is that they have small study groups of 5 to 6 students and a tutor. This is something we missed at IISER.

K: Well, you have certainly had a very broad training. What led you to go into an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career such as neuroscience?

A: I sat in only one course in neuroscience at IISER Mohali. But I think the summer projects were very helpful. I would strongly suggest students at IISERs to make the maximum out of their summer projects. My first summer project was in cancer biology. Every summer internship led way to another. My third internship was in developmental neuroscience and the fourth in behavioural neuroscience. I should add that I did my final year thesis in evolutionary biology, which is very different from what I study now. I realized that I wanted to go from studying behaviour at population level to studying the cause of behaviour at the level of an individual. That led me to brain research. All this experience compensated for my lack of expertise in the area. It isn’t a bad thing if you don’t have much background in a specific area. You just need to convince people that you are capable and interested.

A: Oxford is an international space. There are many opportunities for a lot of fun and a lot of work. There are multiple events going on, concerts, plays, musicals, sporting events.There are various book clubs that accommodate a variety of tastes- from serious literature to science fiction! I usually go for hiking and bird watching. There are some very well preserved nature reserves and I think there is a strong sense of preservation of the environment in the U.K. in general.

K: Finally, what do you plan to do after completing your PhD?

A: I want to stay in academia. Maybe a post-doc in evolution of the nervous system from a systems point of view or study the brains of some other cool organisms. There are many questions, I just need to decide the one I can’t live without addressing.