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Dr. Umesh “Umi” Venkatesan is an Institute Scientist and Director of the Brain Trauma and Behavior Laboratory at Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute (MRRI). Umi received a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Johns Hopkins University. Afterwards, he worked as a Research Assistant at Kessler Foundation Research Center for two years before enrolling in graduate school. Umi was awarded his PhD in clinical psychology from Pennsylvania State University in 2017. During graduate school, he completed a pre-doctoral internship in clinical neuropsychology at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. Before joining the team at MRRI in 2019, Umi also completed postdoctoral training in Polytrauma and Traumatic Brain Injury Rehabilitation within the VA Boston Healthcare System. In our interview, Umi will tell us more about his life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:25)
The arts have always been a big part of Umi’s life. He has practiced Indian classical dance since the age of five, and Umi even danced professionally in New York City during graduate school. In addition, Umi is a classically trained singer, and he enjoys singing R&B and soul music. Beyond music and dance, Umi loves exploring new cuisine from around the world and trying food from local restaurants.
The Scientific Side (4:50)
Umi is trained as a clinical psychologist, and he currently studies behavior and cognition in people with neurological disabilities, particularly following traumatic brain injury (TBI). He is interested in how interactions between our physiology, our behavior, how we experience the behavior of others, and how others behave may impact our medical health, mental health, and general well-being.
A Dose of Motivation (6:21)
“All models are wrong, some are useful, and the best ones are meaningful.” – Umi’s adaptation of a quote from George Box
What Got You Hooked on Science? (9:25)
Going into his junior year of high school, Umi didn’t have a clear idea of what he wanted to do for his career. He signed up to take a psychology class, and he found the material on human behavior, social psychology, and the brain fascinating. After taking this class, Umi decided to major in psychology in college. However, when it came time to graduate from college, Umi still didn’t really know what he wanted to do next. Umi talked to his academic advisor, and she encouraged him to get a job doing something that interested him right now, without worrying about whether it was something he wanted to do for the rest of his life. He took this advice to heart and got a job as a Research Assistant at the Kessler Foundation Research Center. Through this position, he became involved in neuropsychology and rehabilitation research, and this experience drove him to apply to graduate school. Engaging in clinical care and working with people with TBI had an enormous impact on Umi and led him to pursue TBI research at MRRI.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (21:13)
Towards the end of his master’s degree program, Umi had all of his neuroimaging data analyzed and his dissertation ready to defend. At the last minute, it was brought to his attention that there was an issue with the way that the brain scans were collected and the sequences of the scans. As a result, Umi had to re-process and re-analyze all of his data from scratch. This was devastating news after he had been so happy to have everything done. Ultimately, the results and his interpretations didn’t change dramatically after re-analyzing the data, so he didn’t have to rewrite his whole dissertation. In the end, Umi successfully defended his work, received his degree, and the study was published in a well-respected journal.
A Shining Success! (24:33)
It’s always exciting when a publication is accepted or a hypothesis works out. However, the recent success that Umi is most proud of is being offered an Institute Scientist position at MRRI. This position has given him an opportunity to start his lab, launch his independent research career, and work with people who are great mentors. It meant a lot to him that MRRI was willing to invest in him and take a chance on him. It was also rewarding for Umi to make the leap of leaving his last position early to move to Philadelphia to pursue this exciting opportunity.
Book Recommendations (26:30)
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Most Treasured Travel (28:22)
Earlier this year, Umi visited San Diego to attend the Rehabilitation Psychology Conference. During the conference, he and a former lab member from Penn State presented on psychoeducation and treatment of cognitive problems in veterans with traumatic brain injury. This was an important and meaningful topic for Umi because he had just finished a fellowship at the VA where he interviewed and tested veterans, got to hear their stories, and developed frameworks about these topics and how he would approach treatment in this population. Quite a few people came to hear the presentation, and they got great feedback. The people and the science made the trip an excellent experience. He was also able to visit the beach, sample some local beer, visit the city of Temecula in wine country, and spend time with friends.
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (31:58)
In graduate school, Umi and his colleagues had a tradition of ordering matching t-shirts and doing a bar tour each summer with all the members of the two neuropsychology labs. Their mentors would put together a brain game where the objective was to collect all of the lobes of the brain, and people got pretty competitive. It was also fun to talk about professional development, science, the brain, and other things. They have also made it a tradition to go out to karaoke with fellow alumni who attend the annual International Neuropsychology Society conference each year. The group really feels like a family.
Advice For Us All (36:57)
You have to do something to know you don’t want to do it. When trying to decide what to do for your career, determine what you want to do right now, and try to do it. It doesn’t have to be something you do long term. Welcome change, and be comfortable with not being the expert all of the time. You’ll need to speak up and keep learning, or you’ll never become the expert.
Umi’s scientific program centers on aging with moderate-to-severe TBI (msTBI), and in particular, the proposed links between chronic TBI and neurodegeneration. A considerable portion of his research has focused on functional neuroimaging to characterize evolving and stable functional neural network alterations in msTBI, which may be associated with remote neurologic complications. Insights gained from functional imaging can also be used to ask targeted behavioral questions, and his work in this area has involved complex cognitive processes underlying memory and social functioning. More recently, he has developed an interest in pre- and post-injury biopsychosocial factors contributing to outcome trajectories and the long-term health of individuals with brain injury. In his leisure time, Umi enjoys participating in and promoting the arts; he is an Indian classical dancer and choreographer, self-professed choir nerd, and soul vocalist. He also enjoys learning about and experiencing world cultures, particularly their cuisines.