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Can you tell us about yourself?

Neuroscientist Vidita Vaidya is most interested in learning how stress in its many forms affects the brain and how it functions. Dr Vidita Vaidya is an associate professor at TIFR Mumbai and a leading neurobiologist in the country. Her research group is interested in the pathways that regulate adult neurogenesis and their contribution to depression-related behavior. Their lab uses pharmacological and genetic approaches, and tools such as microarrays, in situ hybridization, immunohistochemistry and behavioral tests to understand the neurocircuitry of emotion. Dr Vaidya is a recipient of Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology for Medical Sciences in 2015 and is a Senior Overseas Research Fellow of the Wellcome Trust.

What motivated you to take up an offbeat and unconventional career of a scientist?

As a 12 year old kid I remember sitting in a cold auditorium at the Ciba-Geigy Research Centre in Goregaon, Mumbai listening to a fascinating talk by visiting scientists on the aggressive behavior of the hippopotamus. I remember walking back home to our house with my parents, both physician-scientists, and telling them that I thought studying behavior was the coolest thing. Growing up on the CibaGeigy Research Centre, I had plenty of opportunities to be around scientists of all different hues, including my parents. So it wasn’t very surprising perhaps that I found myself veering towards the sciences. It was a home in which scientific curiosity was always encouraged. It was also a home in which storytelling was part and parcel of all conversations. My grandfather who lived with us was a novelist and we had poets and writers in the extended family. To be able to get airtime at the dining table it was important to be able to tell a story. I meandered through a phase of an interest in archaeology and anthropology. I was fascinating by what made people tick and what were the drivers of individual personality traits and quirks. While there was no one Aha! moment in which I knew I wanted to be a neuroscientist, everything I got interested and excited in, took me towards trying to understand behavior. By the time I was 18 I knew I wanted to eventually study the brain and behavior, and I wanted to head that way through a broad degree in Life science rather than studying medicine.

Could you briefly take us through your scientific journey and about your interest in studying the brain?

I did my undergraduate in Life sciences and Biochemistry at St Xavier’s College. Post that I headed to Yale University, USA for my PhD. My first rotation was in a lab that did not feel was the right fit. It was highly competitive but I worried that all the fun and magic may get sucked out of science if I stayed in that environment for my PhD. My second rotation was in the lab of Prof Ronald Duman, and I knew I had found my PhD lab. I loved the questions the lab was asking and the atmosphere in which they were doing so. The Duman lab is focused on studying the neurobiology of depression. I spent five years there and took away with me a life-long interest in studying neurocircuits that regulate emotion. I also realised that since our entire life-span is spent largely grappling with the research questions we chase. To do so in an environment in which we are happy and productive and are able to take our work seriously but perhaps not take ourselves too seriously, is critical. I gained some amazing mentors who have continued to be the cheering section, critics and support group long after I graduated from Yale. After two short postdoctoral stints at Karolinska and Oxford I was champing at the bit to come home and start my own lab. I was very lucky that the Department of Biological Sciences at TIFR was willing to take a gamble with a young 29 year old.

Please tell us about your research?

How do the brain and body respond to stress? When in life are our stress responses shaped, and what are the mechanisms behind this phenomenon?

Neuroscientist Vidita Vaidya of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, India hopes to shed some light on these questions. Her research so far has shown, for example, that traumatic events in the early window of life—from birth to about the age of 12—leads to aging-related effects a few years later, where the hippocampus’ ability to generate new neurons is impaired.

These findings are timely, as we are just now learning how much our body’s response to stress in its many forms is closely linked to the development of non-communicable diseases down the road. And with the rising tide of diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other lifestyle disorders threatening to engulf us, that information can help health agencies formulate a response.

Vaidya has received many accolades for her research efforts, including the prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology in the medical science category in 2015. Below, she tells Asian Scientist Magazine about how traumatic early life experiences affect the brain, challenges researching in the field of neuroscience, and what it takes to run a lab in Asia.

Describe a completed research project that you are proudest of.

One of our research interests has been to identify the influence of early stress on the functioning of brain circuits that regulate emotional responses. By showing that early stress in rodent models leads to enhanced function of the serotonin receptor (5-HT2A) in the neocortex, we were able to identify the key role that the 5-HT2A receptor plays in the development of vulnerability to psychopathology. This finding was striking as it happens without changing levels or expression of the 5-HT2A receptor. Rather, the experience of early life stress enhances 5-HT2A receptor function at both the physiological and behavioral level. Further, we showed that if you block the 5-HT2A receptor during the period of early stress, you can prevent the emergence of anxiety behaviors and aberrant stress responses in adulthood. We have also shown that if you simply stimulate the 5-HT2A receptor during early postnatal windows of development, it is sufficient to evoke anxiety behaviors in adulthood.

What do you hope to accomplish with your research in the next decade?

We hope to gain a deeper mechanistic insight into how early life adverse experience shapes the development and function of key neurocircuits such as the medial prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus, thus establishing a substrate for vulnerability to psychopathology. We are also interested in asking questions on how early experiences could program resilience to psychiatric disorders.

Who (or what) motivated you to go into your field of study?

I would say my parents, who are clinician scientists. My father is a clinical pharmacologist and my mother is an endocrinologist. Dinner table conversations often revolved around science; their enthusiasm was contagious. I was also influenced by my uncle, who is a malaria parasitologist. My interest in neuroscience and behavior started coalescing in my teenage years, when I was deeply impressed by Diane Fossey and Jane Goodall and what I learned about their work in popular science books and movies.

If you were not a scientist, you would be..

A teacher – I love the idea of having the chance to share “oh this is so cool” moments with the younger generation. What is the best advice you have ever received? Retain the ability to laugh at yourself- it makes the most awful moments slowly switch into being ludicrous. Your message for young students and researchers. Make sure that your choices in science don’t take you down a road in which the magic, fun and joy of science disappears.