The Faces Of NGC

An interview with Radhika Menon

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Radhika Menon is an emblematic NGC face: she is one of NGC's webpage designers and editors. Radhika was a PhD candidate in the Munich branch of AG Berninger. She recently completed the writing of her PhD manuscript and has already started her new job in industry. In this interview, she is sharing her interest for neuroscience, the PhD-experience and NGC.

Why did you choose to study neuroscience and do a PhD?
I was always fascinated by the functioning of the brain. A family member’s psychiatric illness led me to read up about it and that’s probably when my interest was sparked. Most of my initial interest stemmed from neuroanatomy. I was one of those weird people who watched gruesome videos of brain surgeries in their free time!
My first experience with real neuroscientists was unforgettable. It was exactly 10 years ago, in January 2009,  when I was selected for a cognitive neuroscience workshop at the National Brain Research Centre in India. I was exposed to the work of many distinguished international neuroscientists. Needless to say, I was completely hooked! Around the same time, my then-boyfriend and now-husband bought me a spectacular book named ‘Phantoms in the brain’, authored by V.S. Ramachandran and Sandra Blakeslee. A very good choice for a first gift, I have to admit! 😉 It was a great read, very engaging and introduced me to similar literature by other authors, especially the works of Oliver Sacks!
I then worked in India for three years in a lab that brought together stem cell biology and neuroscience and gave me the opportunity to work on cutting edge stem cell techniques and apply them to the study of neurological disorders. This was a very productive time for me and led me to the brave decision of doing a PhD! 😊

How was your PhD experience?
My PhD experience? Wow, that’s an emotionally loaded question! It was exciting and frustrating, in equal measure. I started with a lot of enthusiasm, which started dwindling by the end of the first year, since we were a rather new lab with its inevitable new lab problems.  Eventually, my mentor rescued me from the situation, and I settled into a project and was able to start doing experiments consistently. I started by working on reprogramming human brain pericytes into neurons, then worked on generating human stem cell derived pericytes to be converted into neurons. Around this time, the field of organoids was booming, and brain organoids were just entering the arena. My supervisors thought it wise to invest in this upcoming technology and I was thrilled. I worked on establishing brain organoids in the lab, which was a daunting, but exciting task! I then used it to study the reprogramming of pericytes into neurons and then to model a rare, X-linked disorder called Opitz Syndrome. So, I followed a typical PhD journey, with many projects leading up to the final one. And much like many others who have been down this path, I went through phases of self-doubt, depression and the rare moments of ‘successful experiment euphoria’. By and large, I believe I was driven by my love for the field and helpful colleagues who kept me going. I’m yet to defend so there will be more to add to the experience. Fingers crossed!

What did you like/dislike about leaving your country for a PhD position?
I loved the idea of pursuing my PhD in a different country. I had a pretty good experience with my research stint in India and was really looking forward to working in a more international environment. I was not disappointed at all and I was very lucky to be in a lab that encouraged us to attend and present at many conferences and workshops, which really helped me during the PhD.
What I missed was, of course, the food and my family and friends (not necessarily in that order). Starting a totally new life in a new country with a substantial language barrier certainly did not come easy.

Why did you join NGC?
Chiara Galante, my friend, fellow PhD-survivor and NGC co-founder, came up with this brilliant idea to start a neuroscience colloquium. She has a penchant for science communication and she turned it into a very fruitful venture. I would often see her animatedly describing her ideas for NGC and it was great to see her passion for it. It was really nice to have a forum to discuss PhD woes, upcoming talks, do mock thesis defenses and learn about the neuroscience chapter in the Mainz-Frankfurt area. Chiara passed on her enthusiasm for NGC to me and I was happy to be part of it, even in the smallest way.

What was your motivation to design the NGC website?
My motivation came from two sources: Chiara and her aforementioned passion for NGC and secondly, a drop in my experimental success. During a rather difficult time of my PhD, when I was seriously doubting my abilities, I took refuge in doing something I had never done before to take my mind off the low phase. I took it up as a small challenge to make the NGC Blog, read up blogs and watched many videos and honestly really enjoyed the process of creating something. It was sort of a personal project for me and I was very happy to be part of shaping the NGC journey.

Written by Isabelle Arnoux. Picture: courtesy of Radhika Menon. Featured Image: NGC/Design.

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