Interview with Scientist – Dr. Vidita Vaidya

Welcome back to the interview with scientist series. Last week, we had the pleasure of talking to Dr. Dheeraj Roy. In this week’s interview, we are glad to bring insights from Dr. Vidita Vaidya.

Dr. Vaidya is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR).  Her research group at TIFR 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 neurocircuitry that underlie complex psychiatric disorders like anxiety and depression. Using animal models of anxiety and depression, they study the molecular, epigenetic, and cellular changes that contribute to long-lasting alterations in behaviour. They also explore the importance of early critical periods in setting up vulnerability or resilience to psychopathology by using environmental, pharmacological or chemogenetic (DREADDs) perturbations. Their studies thus far have focused on the role of serotonin, the serotonin2A receptors and Gq signaling in contributing to behavioral alterations and cellular changes in limbic neurocircuitry observed in animal models of anxiety and depression. They are also interested in understanding the molecular and cellular adaptations that arise from sustained antidepressant treatment including fast-acting antidepressant therapies.

Vidita

Welcome Dr. Vaidya and thank you for taking out time to talk to us. Let us start by you telling us something about yourself

I am a Neuroscientist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR) in Mumbai, India, and the mother of a 13 year old. In addition to running a lab, I am committed to science outreach and communication.

What’s your area of research?

My group works on identifying the persistent molecular, epigenetic, architectural and cellular changes that mediate the long-lasting effects of early adversity on mood-related behavior. We also study the effects of chronic antidepressant treatments on neurocircuits implicated in the regulation of mood.

What do you think about the current publication trend?

 I am particularly excited by the establishment of bioRxiv, and also by a move towards peer-review process that is more transparent across some journals. It would be great if we could have an author-blind review process, which would further aid in tackling implicit bias.

Is publish or perish a valid statement for young scientists?

I think this is a valid statement. However, one hopes that in review process for tenure, promotion and awards, that committees use a more nuanced process to determine quality of impact of a young scientist’s work, rather than simply a judgement of where manuscripts have been published. Using the impact factor of a journal as the proxy measure to assess the quality of work done is a shortcut that should be actively guarded against.

What do you think of preprint servers? Do you think they are useful?

No question about it. We took a long time as a community to get here and it is in our collective interests to promote bioRxiv actively. This represents a pushback from the scientific community against the hegemony of big publishing houses with major commercial interests. One of the  additional benefits is that it also provides free access to scientific output for the tax-paying public that funds much of research.

Do you think science is communicated well to non-scientists? What are some ways to improve science communication?

We have a way to go in improving science communication to non-scientists. It is not a central priority for most practising scientists, and is only considered to be something you do on the side. In fact, sometimes you are not considered to be a “serious” scientist if you are passionate about science communication. We tend to actively erase from our memory that the money that funds much of research comes from the public, and that it should be mandatory for each of us to contribute in some shape or form to science communication, in particular within schools and colleges. Science communication could also play an important role in increasing diversity in scientific institutions which is currently lacking.

Science communication by scientists needs to shift from a “nice to do” to a “need to do”. This transition could be accelerated if funding agencies requested evidence of efforts towards science communication as a component of the scientific progress reports submitted, while this is true for some agencies it is still not widespread.

As we know, there are more PhD’s graduating every year as compared to available tenure track positions. Do you think there is way to improve this?

I think we first need to tackle the assumption that the only goal for PhD students is to enter tenure-track positions in academia. There are multiple other avenues and by labeling them as “alternate” careers we are not giving them space in discussions in graduate school, and end up doing graduate students a disservice. We tend to narrow ourselves to academic careers as the primary option, and hence create an environment in which exercising another choice is seen as a failure to stay within academia.
What are alternative career options for young scientists apart from applying for tenure track positions?

I would first remove the term “alternative” as it carries the underlying implication that only the ones who were “good enough” made it into academia. The minute we remove this bias we put all career options on an even platform, and then can discuss the most exciting career trajectory available amongst multiple choices. The skills one acquires during a PhD (critical thinking and problem solving, data analysis, working in large teams, writing, etc) are immensely valuable and applicable in many careers.

Industry, science policy, publishing, communications and media, entrepreneurship, data analytics, teaching, consulting are just some of the avenues. We have to start having conversations about career paths early in graduate school, and guard against our own biases.

Apart from science, what do you enjoy doing the most? 

Spending time with my family, travelling, a good book, movies and dancing.

What do you think is a recent scientific invention which has changed the way we do science now?

Wearing my neuroscientists lens, I would say opto- and chemo-genetics has changed how we can probe the nervous system to identify and understand the neurocircuits that regulate specific behaviors.

Thank you for your valuable inputs and time today. We wish you the best with your research.

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