Neelima is a Ph.D. student in the IPN. She is in Dr. Jean-François Cloutier's lab, where she is using the mouse olfactory system as a model to better understand the role of cell adhesion molecules in neural circuit formation.
Welcome to #IamIPN, Neelima! Congratulations on having a successful term as GSAN's former President! What was your experience like leading the graduate student association for neuroscience?
Being a part of GSAN, Graduate Student Association for Neuroscience, was very rewarding for me! Sometimes, it’s nice to get out of your research bubble and socialize with peers and GSAN definitely gave me the opportunity to do so. I formed some great friendships and also learnt a lot about how to work in a team with people with different views and ideas. I was student wellbeing officer for 3 years and GSAN president for 1 year. As wellbeing officer, I learnt a lot about being a better active listener and how to support someone in distress. Having a platform where people shared their concerns helped me realize that it’s ok to be vulnerable and that sometimes, sharing your concerns with the graduate community really helps get a better perspective on things and reminds us that we’re not alone! It fostered a stronger sense of community in me.
My experience as GSAN president was also great! It was really nice to see how enthusiastic most team members were and my overall experience was very enjoyable given how active this student association has always been! I definitely learnt a lot about time management and setting goals that are realistic.
Your passion to contribute to the collective good of our society actually traces back to your undergraduate years. For instance, you were part of a Social Involement Programme in India; you taught Math, Science and Social Science to underprivileged kids in Mumbai, and also travelled to the countryside to collect data for job generation for the villagers. Explain how these trips have impacted you.
So I did my Bachelor's at St.Xavier’s College in Mumbai and as a part of my undergrad program, it was mandatory for every student to complete a certain number of hours in some form of social involvement or community service. So firstly, as a part of this program, I taught elementary school kids Math, Science and Social Science. I think this was an excellent push for me to discover how much I enjoyed teaching! So much that even during my PhD program here in the IPN, I’ve had no second thoughts about volunteering for Brain Reach elementary and high school! I was also a part of an after school program called ISpeakScience during my PhD and enjoyed designing and co-teaching modules with my peers. I am truly grateful for my undergrad experience for giving me the initial push to discover my love for teaching and communicating science with a lay audience.
My trip to the countryside was also a satisfying experience! I had the opportunity to practice my Marathi (local state language) and also interact with the people there and collect information that hopefully benefitted them in some form or shape in the long run. It primarily raised my awareness from first hand interaction of how much some people were struggling. The satisfaction from this trip pushed me into taking up a similar opportunity when I was working as a research assistant in India from 2015-2016. I volunteered to collect information from families that were struggling economically about what educational resources they had access to for their kids.
That is definitely a memorable experience! Moving on to your academics, you completed your Bachelor’s degree in Life Sciences in India, and then completed your Master’s degree at the University of New Castle Upon Tyne in England. What inspired you to move from India to England to pursue your Master’s degree, and then to move to Montreal to pursue your doctoral degree within the IPN?
After my undergrad, I really wanted to do a Master's in neuroscience and I’m extremely fortunate because my parents encouraged me in every shape and form one can imagine to pursue further studies abroad. So we collectively looked into international programs that would be feasible financially and stumbled upon Newcastle, England. This was a 1 year Master's by research program in a town that was student friendly and relatively economical. It also gave me the opportunity to work in an ephys lab for 6 months and decide if I wanted to do a PhD or not. After my Master's, I decided that I wanted to do a PhD. However, I had a shift of interest into molecular and cellular neuroscience. So I decided to work on expanding my skill set for a year and half in India soon after my Master's. Subsequently, I was looking into PhD opportunities in the US and Canada as I wanted a change of scene and explore other countries. At some point my uncle who is also a neuroscientist (and also my inspiration to pursue neuroscience) and currently a PI at ETSU in the US, recommended that I look into McGill and when I did, I was truly impressed by how huge the IPN was as a program! Around the same time, I also read this book called ‘Permanent Present Tense’ by Suzanne Corkin that discussed some of Dr. Brenda Milner’s amazing work here at the Neuro! Soon after that, I was seriously looking into the IPN as an option and luckily my supervisor Prof. Cloutier responded to my email and everything worked out!
Interesting! One of the sources of inspiration for your pursuit of neuroscience is Dr. V. S. Ramachandran’s book titled “Phantoms in the Brain.” How did this particular book inspire you to study neuroscience?
It’s a really well written book and I strongly recommend it! I normally don’t read a lot of books for leisure but this one really managed to captivate me. So one of the topics discussed in this book is how amputees experience pain in a region of their body that no longer exists hence the name phantom limb. He basically goes deeper into what the basis for this phantom pain is and describes some of his experiments to alleviate this phantom pain. I was in my undergrad when I read this book and it was the starting point for me to take modules that were related to neuroscience and eventually pursue a PhD in Neuroscience.
Moving on to your current research project, which is being supervised by Dr. Jean-François Cloutier, you’re using the mouse olfactory system as a model to better understand the role of cell adhesion molecules in neural circuit formation. Please explain the objective of your research to our non-scientific audience.
My project involves using the mouse olfactory system as a model to understand the role of a family of cell adhesion molecules, called Kirrels, in circuit formation in the brain. Kirrels are homophilic cell adhesion molecules, and mutations in the Kirrel3 gene have been identified in patients with neurodevelopmental disorders such autism and intellectual disability. However, the effect of these mutations on Kirrel3 function remains uncharacterized. The primary goal of my project is to elucidate the mechanism through which Kirrel3 regulates synapse formation and function in the brain using a combination of in vitro and in vivo approaches.
What are the real-life implications of your research?
Just as we rely on various sign-posts in our day to day life to get to our desired destination, neurons in the brain also rely on various molecules that serve as sign-posts. Even if a small proportion of these neurons go astray it can have a major impact on how the brain develops! This is why it is important to understand how a healthy brain wires itself in order to gain more insight into what goes wrong in disease.
Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?
My goal is to be a PI and have a lab of my own some day!
Awesome! Let's do a series of rapid fire questions to finish this interview:
Favorite season in Montreal : Fall (happy medium between summer and winter)
If you could travel to one country right now, which would it be? Italy
One thing you miss from India: Spending time with my parents
One thing you miss from the UK: The architecture and of course spending time with my friends from there!
One non-academic/research goal you hope to achieve within the next several years: To get better at playing my ukulele and improve my French!
Thank you for your time, Neelima! Best of luck in all your endeavours!
Published on November 3, 2020