Having spent a few years in academia, I’ve realised that results and rewards take time to materialize. So, I often open up the statement of purpose (SOP) from my master’s application to remind myself of how and why I’ve come to studying neuroscience. I’m going to leave it here for anyone curious, or looking for an example SOP. Thanks to Sachin Phatak and Sumiti Saharan for their valuable time and critique that went into organising and penning these thoughts better than I ever could have on my own.
Here is this three-pound mass of jelly you can hold in the palm of
your hand, and it can contemplate the vastness of interstellar
space. It can contemplate the meaning of infinity and it can
contemplate itself contemplating on the meaning of infinity.
– Vilayanur Ramachandran on the human brain
It is in natural processes, in the tiny details of the nature’s laws, in their logical hierarchy and their spectacular outcomes that I see magic. Throughout my schooling, while physics and math together seemed to have the ability to unravel the most intricate of mysteries of our universe, biology seemed to throw words at me in a language that I just could not get. So, in retrospect, I was bound to choose physics and math as my subjects of interest. And I loved everything they together did, for the next few years. And like a typical to-be physicist, I spent the greater part of my education running far away from anything biology.
During bachelors, I enrolled myself in Research Education Advancement Program (REAP) an initiative by three leading science institutes of India to train highly motivated students for research careers in physics and astrophysics. The rigorous training program offered by scientists at REAP was instrumental in inculcating a sense of scientific understanding in me. Fun assignments like proving (graphically) the shape of planetary orbits to be elliptical using the 17th century dataset that Kepler himself had used, not only helped strengthen my foundations in physics but also made me realise how important well designed experiments and well structured arguments were. It was here, for the first time, I was sure that academia was where I wanted to be.
But why, you might ask, does this SOP start with a quote by Dr. Ramachandran on the human brain?
It was not until recently when I heard his TED talk titled ‘3 clues to under- standing your brain’, that everything I ran so far away from, came to me. I had not asked what should have been the most natural question: How does the brain- the most spectacular of natural processing systems through which we perceive, experience and understand our world - work? How does an entity as physical as this grey blob snuggled inside our head execute processes as complex and non-physical as emotions, learning and memory? What happened then was this absolute fascination with Neuroscience. I started spending more time in the biology section of the university library. I was curious to understand the workings of me. I was curious to know what makes me curious!
First steps in neuros
Passing out of university as a graduate in physics, electronics and math, it was time to fill this void of biology in my brain. I started looking for a computational neuroscience lab that allowed me to interface my physics and computer science background with the new found fascination in neuroscience. The Speech and Language Processing Laboratory, headed by Dr. Nandini C Singh, at National Brain Research Centre (NBRC) was just the perfect match. The lab studied neural correlates of language processing with bilingual subjects using Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) technique. Language and communication, which are elegant examples of neuroplasticity, aligned well with my scientific interests. I applied under the Summer Internship Program of NBRC that year and got an opportunity to work with Dr. Singh. As an intern, I developed a website to collect emotion ratings of subjects to decide on stimuli for an fMRI study aimed to identify and study the neural correlates of emotion induced by hindustani classical music.
Upon completing my internship at NBRC, I joined the same lab as a Research Assistant. I was particularly motivated by this oportunity because it is mostly given to students with a masters degree. As a research assistant I have had the opportunity to pursue my own scientific interests alongside helping with various lab projects. My research project focuses on delineating the key brain regions involved in processing written words across the silent, covert and overt reading modes, using fMRI. Analysing fMRI data using popular softwares like SPM and Brainvoyager has given me invaluable insight into cognitive design and fMRI technique.
To me, neuroscience feels like the final frontier in science: using the brain to understand the brain! I hope to use my experience in brain imaging and physics background to discover the ways in which cognition is achieved in the brain.
I am in strong favour of promoting public understanding of science and believe it to be particularly relevant in a developing country like India, where a career in science is often looked down upon. Active participation in science exhibitions, lecture competitions, literary and extracurricular activities throughout schooling have all given me the experience and confidence to be an eloquent and engaging presenter. I want to further develop and hone my science communication skills alongside scientific research and aim to be involved in promoting science awareness through jargon-less scientific writing, talking and teaching.
The research experience that I have gained over the past year has left me thirsting for more, and the Master’s in Cognitive Neuroscience at Radboud University, with its strong course work seems almost tailor-made for me. I realize that some disparity exists between my background specializations and desired future course of study. However, I believe that my extensive reading, desire to learn and sheer interest in the subject of neuroscience will fill up any gaps that my past might have left. While I am definitely the one who stands to gain more from coming to Radboud, I believe that I will be a valuable addition to your esteemed institute.
Thank you for your time and consideration.