Dr. Kanaka Rajan is a computational neuroscientist and Assistant Professor in the Department of Neuroscience and Friedman Brain Institute within the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai. She received her bachelor’s degree in Industrial Biotechnology from Anna University in India, her M.S. in Neuroscience from Brandeis University, and her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Columbia University. Kanaka conducted postdoctoral research as a Biophysics Theory Fellow at Princeton University before accepting her current position. She has received numerous awards and honors throughout her career, including the Sloan-Swartz Theoretical Neuroscience Postdoctoral Fellowship, Brain and Behavior Foundation Young Investigator Award, Understanding Human Cognition Scholar Award from the James McDonnell Foundation, Sloan Research Fellowship in Neuroscience, and Friedman Brain Institute Research Scholars Award from the DiSabato Family Foundation. In our interview, Kanaka shares more about her life and research.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:58)
Running is a passion for Kanaka, and going for a run often helps her think more clearly. In addition, she enjoys sketching urban scenes and scientific themes.
The Scientific Side (5:12)
In her research, Kanaka builds mathematical and computational models of the brain to better understand how the brain works. Her goal is to better understand how the neurons and synapses of the brain work together to create complex processes like learning, memory, and decision-making.
A Dose of Motivation (7:23)
“The more involved your work, the more placid your mind.” – Kanaka’s father
What Got You Hooked on Science? (10:36)
Kanaka has been fascinated by the brain since childhood. Growing up in India, Kanaka’s grandmother with schizophrenia lived with her family, and Kanaka was driven to better understand mental illness and the brain. However, she didn’t have a straightforward path to a career in neuroscience. In college, Kanaka began studying engineering, but she also became interested in life sciences. She completed internships in neuroscience labs, and when it came time to decide what to do after graduate school, Kanaka chose to apply to graduate programs abroad. Eventually, she discovered her passion for the mathematical, theoretical, and computational aspects of neuroscience that she continues to pursue in her research today.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (22:42)
Her time as a postdoctoral fellow was a dark phase of her career. Postdoc positions were designed to be one to two year periods of apprenticeship where an early career scientist could hone certain skills before starting a permanent position. However, over the years, postdoc positions have evolved into longer and longer periods with no clear end goal and a lot of uncertainty. Kanaka had wonderful mentors as a postdoc, but she struggled with a long string of failures. In an effort to get independent funding to pursue her own research questions, Kanaka submitted over a dozen research grants. All of them were rejected. Finally, an organization called the Brain and Behavior Foundation took a chance on Kanaka and agreed to fund her proposed project. This helped launch Kanaka’s career, and things continued to improve from that point.
A Shining Success! (25:39)
Within the first two years of leading her own independent research laboratory, Kanaka has received major grant awards from both the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as other foundation grants. Her lab also published a great paper in the prestigious journal Cell that they are very proud of. While these have all been extremely exciting victories, Kanaka and one of her colleagues at Mount Sinai have decided to also celebrate all of the little wins. When they submitted a big federal grant, this colleague appeared in Kanaka’s office five minutes later with a bottle of champagne. Now their whole floor makes time to celebrate these little wins together.
Book Recommendations (28:00)
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert, Doughnut Economics by Kate Raworth
Most Treasured Travel (31:54)
Earlier this year, Kanaka traveled to Breckenridge, Colorado to attend the Computational and Systems Neuroscience conference. This is the largest meeting of computational neuroscientists, and it was the first time Kanaka would be attending a conference as a principal investigator accompanied by her lab members. Despite only forming 18 months earlier, her lab was invited to do three big presentations at this meeting. This was a big deal for Kanaka, and it was rewarding to see her team present their research. Though Kanaka didn’t hit the slopes afterwards to ski herself, this is one of her fondest scientific travel memories.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (33:55)
Retreats have been a fun tradition in different labs that Kanaka has been a part of over the years. Whether it is the whole department or just a few related labs, it is fun to get together off campus and decompress. In graduate school, they used to stay in the Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York for their retreats. At the time, Kanaka had not been in the U.S. for very long, and it was fun to experience the culture and get to know her fellow lab members. Kanaka’s current lab hasn’t yet planned their first retreat, but they are working on finding the perfect destination.
Advice For Us All (38:04)
Outwork them, outhustle them, and outlast them, and you will succeed. Though there are systemic issues that we are still working to address in science, if you work hard and are persistent, you will get there. Also, find something else besides your work that drives you, occupies your mind, provides a venue for success, and builds resilience.
Kanaka is trained in engineering, biophysics, and neuroscience, and she pioneers novel methods and models to understand how the brain processes sensory information. The Rajan Lab seeks to understand how important cognitive functions — such as learning, remembering, and deciding — emerge from the cooperative activity of large-scale neural processes through computational modeling. The resulting integrative theories about the brain bridge neurobiology and artificial intelligence. Kanaka is passionate about promoting diversity within the sciences and making academia a safe space for women and minorities. Outside of the lab, she is an avid runner and enjoys spending time with her rescue dog Zuul. To stay up to date, follow Kanaka on Twitter.