Viewing the brain of a live, freely behaving animal and watching its neurons fire in real time, is probably far fetched even for science-fiction. But as they say, sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction!

Roshni Christo, our next pathbreaker, Field Application Scientist at Neurescence, a Neuro-Tech Startup in Toronto, supports neuroscientists in studying brain circuits using Neurescence fluorescence microscopes.

Roshni talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about how her fascination for the human brain led her on to a PhD in Neuroscience and subsequently transitioning to the industry as a member of a pioneering team involved in designing multi-area live brain imaging to understand brain diseases.

For students, and especially those who read science fiction, remember that it is in your hands to transform fiction into reality. You just need to believe in yourself !

Roshni, please tell us about Your background?

My childhood was spent between India and Oman, as my parents were working in Oman. From very early days, I had a strong liking for science, especially biology. It was also fuelled by the fact that my mom was a nurse and her work fascinated me. I enjoyed practical classes and drawing science records. Communication was always my strong point. I enjoyed reading books.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my graduation and post-graduation in Biotechnology. I then completed my PhD in Neuroscience.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

In 7th grade I found myself reading a book gifted by my dad, ‘How to develop a super-power memory by Harry Lorayne’. As I started reading the book, I was struck by the idea that the brain can be considered a muscle, and that exercising it regularly strengthens it, by using unique memorisation methods. I never ended up with a super-power memory, but found myself drawn to the human brain, with all its fascinating complexities. I voraciously read science fiction and listened to speeches by Vilayanur Ramachandran.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

I was obsessed with the idea of studying the human brain from my 7th grade. Medical school was my priority and I assumed that I would pursue MD in Neuroscience. My attempts at securing an admission were unsuccessful and the other option to attain my goal was to pursue a research career.

After high school, I enrolled for BSc. Biotechnology program in Mahatma Gandhi University, Kerala. I then moved on to pursue my MSc. Biotechnology at VIT university, Tamil Nadu. I then completed my 6-month internship at All India Institute of Medical Sciences, Delhi and had my firsthand research experience. I had a chance to work on patient retinoblastoma (retinal cancer) samples and learn the whole research process.

I consider myself fortunate to have landed a PhD position in Neuroscience at Cochin University of Science and Technology, Kerala in Dr. CS Paulose’s lab. I was also awarded the University PhD scholarship for the first two years and an ICMR scholarship for the remaining 2 years of my research. I worked on brain neurotransmitters in hypoglycemia. 

Hypoglycemia is the most common metabolic problem occurring in newborns and can result in irreversible brain damage leading to severe developmental abnormalities. My work confirmed the increased protection offered by Bacoside A, the active component of Brahmi, thereby decreasing neuronal damage and providing effective functional recovery of the brain. We have thus put forth a promising therapy which ameliorates the risks for permanent neuronal damage and reduces the incidence of lifelong disabilities.

It was during my PhD that I have gained appreciable knowledge in the field of cell and molecular biology and functional imaging using confocal microscopy. Working with rodent models and neuronal cultures, also enhanced my understanding of the human brain, igniting a passion to pursue research further.

I then pursued my postdoctoral research at Baylor College of Medicine, USA, where I was instrumental in fluorescently tagging dendritic spines to study learning and memory. The extrovert in me loved interacting with people and communicating science.

Moving across three countries, I joined Neurescence Inc, Toronto as their Field Application Scientist. Neurescence, a leading optical imaging startup, designs miniature microscopes to help neuroscientists study brain circuits. I support Neurescence technology development and serve as the scientific contact for neuroscience researchers. I support neuroscientists, accelerate the translation of research discoveries into new treatments, by training them on Neurescence’s cutting edge technology.

How did you get your first break?

A lot of LinkedIn networking and being active on LinkedIn by posting neuroscience content helped me get noticed. People were interested in connecting with me and learning about my research and skillset.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: 

Being in a new country like Canada, and not having a network was one of the biggest challenges. LinkedIn networking helped a lot. I even connected with friends who gave me references and gave me a chance to meet people over a coffee. It helped me build friendships and professional relationships with people.

Challenge 2: 

Transitioning from academia to industry was very challenging, as I didn’t know how to put together an industrial CV. I enrolled in the FB group called STEMpeers and applied to their Gurukool program. It was here that I met peers and mentors online and they helped me tailor my resume. I made good friends who were also transitioning like me and their experiences also helped me.

Challenge 3

I joined a startup, and the startup culture was very different from the academic experiences I had. I had to switch between multiple roles, including research, marketing, sales and business development. The first few months were challenging but I had great mentors inside the company who helped me navigate the process. An open communication and taking initiative helped me correct mistakes and transition into the role successfully.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I work at Neurescence, which is a neuro-tech startup in Toronto.

I support neuroscientists by training them on live animal brain imaging using Neurescence fluorescence microscopes.  I am responsible for new installations, customer training, and product demonstrations. I participate and discuss customer specification requirements to a team of scientists and engineers in the company.

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

Good communication skills and research skills with the ability to concisely explain scientific concepts to different audiences is one of the main skills needed. I have gained it as a PhD student and the extracurricular activities that I have undertaken during my career. I was a volunteer mentor to students and that helped me enhance my communication skills.

What is a typical day like?

A day in the life of a startup is highly variable. Some of my days are totally focused on neuroscience research, where I read the latest research papers and perform brain surgeries on mice to do live animal imaging.

I am also part of the marketing team where we plan and implement marketing strategies, promote our product on social media, write content for email marketing campaigns and website designing.

I attend a lot of meetings in a day, team meetings to troubleshoot customer problems, business meetings to discuss how to integrate our product in different markets and sales meetings to interact with new customers and close sales.

We build new and improved imaging products to help neuroscientists conduct brain research.

What is it you love about this job? 

I never thought that it was possible to view the brain of a live, freely behaving animal and watch its neurons fire in real time. Live animal brain imaging blew my mind the first time I ever watched it happen. Now I am one of the members of a pioneering team involved in designing multi-area live brain imaging.

How does your work benefit society? 

Our goal is to help accelerate neuroscience research by finding better assessment tools for brain diseases and developing effective therapeutics. We hope to make a significant contribution to the effort to create a better quality of living for people with neurodegenerative diseases.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

We document our work that happens behind the scenes as cartoons and publish it once a month. It gives our research community a chance to connect with us as well as understand our product. Writing the storylines and seeing the idea is one of the happy and memorable experiences.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

You might feel self-doubt, intimidated, out of your comfort zone and may even come close to giving up. It’s normal to feel overwhelmed but never accept failure. Whenever in doubt, ask for help and keep an open mind to learn from your mistakes.

Future Plans?

I’d like to build and manage larger teams and continue advancing as a leader. I’ve found I really enjoy mentoring and leading a team, even more than I enjoyed working as an individual contributor.