Perceptive technologies can help people live better lives by fostering self-regulated proactive healthcare through behavioral science.

Megha Sharda (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Cognitive Neuroscientist at Atom EI, uses evidence based research to nudge people towards their wellness goals through behaviour design, gamification and AI.

Megha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about applying her core expertise at the intersection of academic and clinical research to understand human behavior for a more inclusive and holistic design.

For students, cognitive applications of neuroscience are finding their way in product design, user research and the broader areas of understanding customer needs !

Megha, can you take us through Your background?

I grew up in Calcutta, West Bengal. I studied in an all-girls school and grew up in a single parent home, with little male influence. Many people in my family are engineers, mostly the men. My aunt was an early inspiration. My mother was a teacher. Although my grandfather expected me to study engineering, I was never under any pressure to do so. As a result I could express my rebellion by not really preparing for any of the engineering exams seriously.

I had always been a good student and loved Math and Biochemistry. Though I also had an interest in computers, my school did not have the option of studying computers in 11-12th std, so I ended up taking physics, chemistry, math and biotechnology (a new subject then).

I had always been quite certain that I did not want to be a doctor or an engineer, but I wanted to work in the field of medical research. At the same time, my interest and aptitude in numbers deterred me from studying pure biology subjects. Hence, at that time, biotechnology seemed like the ideal combination with potential for interdisciplinarity. 

In addition, I was very involved in school fests and activities, was part of the school quiz team and involved in organizing multiple events as the school Head Girl.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my B.Sc. in biotechnology from VIT and an integrated Masters-PhD program in Neuroscience from National Brain Research Centre (NBRC), Gurgaon.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

It was an elimination decision. I did not qualify for any of the engineering exams and did not appear for any of the state exams for either BSc or Medicine. I also wanted to move to a different city.

I wanted to study Math or Applied Science with the prospect of doing research. I was quite certain I did not want to leave the country for my undergrad.

All of these factors culminated in my career decisions, I suppose.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

My thought process around career decisions has always been on the basis of elimination. I often figured out what I “did not” want to do before I knew what I did.

Secondly, I didn’t really have any mentor, and as a result no knowledge/exploration of alternate paths, which made me all the more determined to explore more.

However, the last two years of school were tough. I was not only struggling with some mental health issues, I also spent far more time on extra-curricular activities than on academics. As a result, I did not really qualify for any scholarship. I was fortunate that my parents could afford private university fees in a college like VIT. During my undergrad, I got to explore many options since this was a large university. I was part of a Robotics team. I also took elective courses in Biological Spectroscopy and Neuroscience. This one class, along with personal experiences, triggered my interest in the brain. I was becoming more sure of what I wanted to study. However, I still wanted to live in India and at that point there was only one nascent Neuroscience program at the National Brain Research Centre in Manesar, near Gurgaon. This was an integrated Masters-PhD program. I did not really explore any other internships in college.

Once I got into NBRC (I was actually on the waiting list, but made it eventually), it was a different world.

There were 100 odd professionals on campus from varied backgrounds such as physics, medicine, biology, engineering, and several other backgrounds. Our discussions on Neuroscience, research, the brain and life in general extended far beyond the classroom. It was unlike anything I had ever imagined or seen before.

During my first year, I was heavily influenced by popular science books and articles in magazines such as the New Scientist and Scientific American. And through the various lab rotations, I was quite certain I wanted to work with humans and not animals. One particular article on “mirror neurons”, some inspiring conversations and a personal interest led me to choose Cognitive Science and Neuroimaging as my specialization, and Autism as my clinical group of interest. An important point to note here would be that it has always been important to me that I enjoy what I am doing and I am reasonably good at it. So aptitude and satisfaction have always trumped practical things like future prospects, stability, finances etc.

Getting into a PhD program right after undergraduation can be daunting. But it also provided ample learning opportunities. Unlike a job, a PhD provides a platform for training across multiple domains. I not only needed to come up with a scientific proposal for my dissertation, but also had to interact with children and families, organize meetings and test sessions with various clinics in the NCR region, learn how to program, learn how to design posters, present my research at small and big conferences, train junior interns or trainees and finally write academic papers to disseminate my research. Thus over 7 years, while I did not earn a lot of money (PhD stipend is measly, but enough), I acquired a number of skills. During this period I was also able to attend and present at a number of International conferences. I must add here, that it was not all hunky dory. While research affords a certain level of independence, there is always a power dynamic at work with one’s advisor. Learning to navigate this dynamic can often be stressful and disheartening, as can the general publish or perish culture of academia. And like most others, this affected me as well.

I finally completed and published my thesis on Auditory processing in Autism spectrum Disorders. My thesis added to an under researched area in autism and built foundations for a music-based intervention for improving communication. As a natural next step, I wanted to pursue a postdoc where I could take this work further. Once again, I had 2 shortlisted labs where I could do this research, and unlike most others, I did not really explore other options. I applied to both, got into 1, got a scholarship to do this postdoc in Montreal, Canada. I was thrilled. I had decided to spend the 5 years of my postdoc abroad, then return to India and open my own lab. That was the ideal trajectory. Alas, life had other plans.

I spent the first 3 years of my postdoc designing and conducting a clinical trial of a music intervention for children with Autism. Once again, it was a rather ambitious undertaking and required me to collaborate with a number of people across institutions and further consolidate my all round skills, both general and domain-specific. During these three years however, I also realized that getting an Assistant Professor job (the natural next step for a postdoc) is not the end of the struggle but only the start of another one. I was also discovering many things about the academic environment that I had slowly begun to dislike. In particular, the uncertainty, the disproportionate competition ( the total number of postdocs in the world far exceeds the number of faculty positions), the sometimes toxic environment and more specifically, the inordinate amount of time taken to translate any research into ground reality.

I spent the last 2 years of my postdoc in a new lab with the goal of exploring my options in academia and coming to a firm decision. This particular position was not something that I was passionate about, but I still learnt a lot. This time also allowed me to come to terms with the fact that it was okay that despite a reasonable CV, I did not want to pursue a career in academia (although I hadn’t the faintest idea of what I would do). I began exploring/thinking about all possible opportunities I could pursue — and that would get me back to India. This forced me to think outside the box. I started looking at NGOs, Think Tanks, Small research organizations, and companies working on applications of brain science and what not..

I moved back to India in 2019, without a job. I took a bit of a break to travel and allow myself to explore options. Until now I had never really had a break. I worked with a couple of NGOs but did not quite enjoy it. Then the pandemic struck. I was unemployed (out of choice) for 4-5 months. Then I started exploring opportunities once again. I started looking at LinkedIn profiles of people/roles that interested me in the intersection of Mental Health/large scale social impact/tech. And I often randomly applied even to intern positions. One day I heard from my current employer – the cofounder of a digital wellness startup. And the rest, as they is history.

How did you get your first break?

Completely by chance. I think I have been very lucky in that sense. I really did not work explicitly towards it, whether it was applying to NBRC, Montreal or Atom.

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

The biggest challenge was to wait for “something” to happen. And while this was often difficult and disheartening, it eventually always led me to think about a Plan B, which is always a good idea.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

Currently I am the Behavior Science Lead and founding member of an early stage digital wellness startup called Atom EI. At Atom, we are developing a mobile application using behavioral science and gamification to help people build healthy habits for lasting change. We believe that technology should help us, not distract us, from our wellness goals. Currently, we offer daily meditations and bite-sized articles based on scientific research on building habits. We are still learning about what our users need, and hope to expand to a larger platform where people can use Atom to track multiple habits as well as read a variety of articles around self-improvement. You can check out the app on Google playstore. Interestingly, cognitive neuroscience and psychology determined a lot of our early product decisions. This is because they can inform not just the app content, but also provide a broader perspective about user needs and behaviors which is crucial for building any human-centered technology.

My own work here involves behavioral science and content research, content development, product management, software design/testing as well as management. Key skills required for my job are domain knowledge of behavioral science, ability to conduct research and collate new information from multiple sources, managing and training interdisciplinary teams, learning on the job, understanding human behavior for user research and user experience design. A typical day involves training meetings, online discussions for planning, updates meetings as well as a little bit of content research, analytics, product design, user interaction and interviews research. Things change rapidly depending on the current focus.

The best part about this job is that I’m constantly learning new things. At the same time, I am also able to apply all the skills and knowledge I have acquired during my academic research career.

How does your work benefit society? 

Our goal is to help people live better lives through responsible use of technology. We use evidence based research to help people build healthy habits for lasting change and long term wellbeing. My hope and firm belief is that this app will provide concrete benefits to many of its users.

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

The clinical trial of music intervention in autism. 

My PhD thesis was based on speech and music processing in school age children with and without autism. I used functional brain imaging as well as behavioral tests to study these phenomena. Speech and music have a lot of commonalities, both at perceptual as well as the neural level.  My research showed that children with autism had alterations in functional brain networks underlying speech and language processing compared to children without autism. However, the functional brain networks underlying music processing were very similar in both groups. Given the overlap between speech and music, this suggested that it might be possible to use music as a window into the autistic brain. This is interesting because for many decades there has been anecdotal reference to intact musical abilities in people with autism, despite difficulties in verbal communication. My thesis demonstrated the neurobiological bases of these differences and laid the groundwork for development of music-based interventions in autism.

In my post-doc in Montreal, that is what I did. We developed a semi-structured music based intervention and conducted a clinical trial to evaluate its effects. This was much like any drug trial, except the “drug” in this case was weekly music sessions or in the case of the “placebo”, just individual play sessions without music. We studied 50 school age children with autism who were randomly assigned to each group. We evaluated the children before and after the intervention period on measures of social communication as well as brain connectivity. We found that children in the music group had better social communication post-intervention compared to the non music group. And this change in behavior was also accompanied by a measurable change in brain connectivity. These are very exciting results as they lay the ground for developing more evidence-based music interventions.

You can find my published research on Google Scholar.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Just because you don’t know something, doesn’t mean it does not exist. Always leave space for surprises and unforeseen events. And most importantly, have faith in yourself and your abilities. And if you have the privilege, do not compromise.

Future Plans?

Plans have a way of going awry. I avoid making them. However, if things work out I would like to start my own venture in the space of Queer Mental Health.