Nature Award for Mentoring Goes to Scientists Who Put People First

Nature Award for Mentoring Goes to Scientists Who Put People First

The 2019 Nature Awards for Mentoring in Science honour two scientists from India - Professor Roddam Narasimha, and Dr Vidita Vaidya, who Nature says “prioritize people over competition and publications”. First published in 1869, Nature is the world's leading multidisciplinary science journal.

Vidita Vaidya, a neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai, India, received the mid-career achievement award. Roddam Narasimha, who collected the lifetime-achievement award, is a fluid dynamicist at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bengaluru, India.

Nature says, “Both earned praise from former trainees for prioritizing the success of their laboratory members over competition or a publish-or-perish mentality, and for the joy they find in science.”

Speaking to CSP, Vidita says she did her PhD and higher research in Europe and the United States and set up a lab at the age of 29. Today, she is researching “how life experiences, either positive or negative can organise and modulate brain circuits to set up either vulnerability or resilience for psychiatric disorders.”

We know from the realm of Psychology, she says, that early stress or trauma is a major factor for psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety and schizophrenia. She is trying to understand, what changes mechanistically in the brain – why trauma increases risk and why positive experiences increase resilience, or why sometimes individuals who have undergone trauma manage to exhibit the most amazingly resilient qualities. “How that is manifested at the level of the brain in terms of molecular, cellular and circuit changes. These are the things we ask.”

Her lab is interested in (1) understanding the neurocircuitry of emotion, (2) its modulation by life experience and mood modulatory drugs and (3) the alterations in emotional neuro-circuitry that underlie complex psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression.

She along with her team, is particular interested in things which increase the neuro-protective effect. “Neuro-protection not just in the context of psychiatric disorders but also in the process of aging. The things that would protect the nervous system, given that your neurons live with you your entire life unlike other cells of your body which you shed and replace. Our questions is how do you protect these long-lived cells and keep them in optimal functional health.”

It was during her research abroad that she learnt many of the things about mentorship. “But I would say that my own parents who are medical doctors and PhDs began my mentorship at home. I grew up in a large joint family and my grandfather was a Gandhian freedom fighter and I was influenced by them.”

In the US, “I was blessed to have stellar mentors who were beautiful human beings who helped me not only in my scientific journey but also helped students to become good humans. They viewed the two as being intrinsic,” says Vidita.

Vidita was very young when she stated her lab. She credits Veronica Rodrigues and KS Krishnan, senior faculty in her department (Department of Biological Sciences) for mentoring her. “I was very young and raw and was just finding my feat. They are incredibly generous human beings with a view of science as being larger than individual success. Being at the receiving end of mentorship helps emulate the best practices. What I saw in them was remarkable generosity. I have felt that when they faced challenges, they very selflessly and generously worked for the next generation.”

Vidita was nominated for the award by her students, mentees and former post-docs. She hopes every generation passes on the knowledge to the next. “Science is global and you are a part of a process of inquiry which is much larger and bigger than you and will outlive you.

Nature writes that Vidita knows the toll that graduate studies, along with the setbacks inherent to research, can take on students. Her philosophy is to put “people over productivity”.

Asked about her thoughts on Indian Psychology, Vidita says, “From an Indian perspective, all of us who have been lucky to have been mentored here have a wide perspective of science, not contained within any affiliations or boundaries. Human civilisation has been exploring questions about how we and our brain respond to the environment and that is the underpinning of all psychological enquiry, in neuroscience etc. It is difficult to postulate if insights from one civilisation are superior to those of another. I would not go down that road for I think mankind has been asking these questions over and over again.”

Vidita says there is enough room for all approaches, with each having a value. “There are definitely values to the approaches that are there say within Vedanta philosophy, that are there in Sufism. My view would be that there is much to be gained from each of these approaches.”

Nature reports that those who nominated Narasimha lauded his accessibility, openness to students’ thoughts and dissenting opinions, and insistence on giving credit for their work and ideas.

Roddam Narasimha, winner of the lifetime-achievement award. Credit: Prof Roddam Narasimha

Narasimha's interests have been in fluid dynamical problems associated with aerospace and atmospheric sciences. Narasimha credits mathematician and aerospace engineer Satish Dhawan, for mentoring him. Dhawan also taught Narasimha to tackle research that would have applications that benefit India. Narasamiha’s hobby is to attempt to understand the epistemology that drove classical Indic science during its most productive age, during the 1500 years or so from Caraka to Nilakantha.

Nature’s mentoring-award programme, which in 2019 marked its 15th year, annually confers two prizes: one for a mid-career mentor, and the other for a lifetime of achievement in mentoring. Each year, the awards recognize mentors from a different country or region.

The 2019 awards sought nominations from India, a country that produced 24,300 PhD graduates in 2014, the fourth-highest number in the world after the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany. The nominations were judged by a panel that included Indian scientists working in the nation and abroad; each award had a prize of 700,000 rupees (US$9,800).