Congratulations to Divyangana Rakesh, winner of the 2022 Flux Dissertation Award! Dr. Rakesh recently completed her PhD in Neuroscience at the Melbourne Neuropsychiatry Centreat the University of Melbourne, where she conducted developmental cognitive neuroscience research with her supervisor Prof. Sarah Whittle. Her winning dissertation, entitled “Associations between early adversity, brain development, and mental health during adolescence”, demonstrated that both childhood maltreatment and low SES are associated with widespread alterations in brain structure and function, revealing neurobiological pathways through which adversity can impact children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Given Dr. Rakesh’s research findings regarding the importance of childhood experiences in shaping later outcomes, it is perhaps no surprise that she herself can recall early childhood influences on the winding path that her own life has taken thus far. Always fond of books, Dr. Rakesh opened her own mini library when she was just seven years old, hand-making library cards and distributing them to kids in her neighborhood. Beginning her endeavor with the frustration that her friends weren’t reading enough and the fact that she could only talk to adults about books, she closed down her library business when she encountered the opposite problem of never having her books returned on time. But little library or no, Dr. Rakesh’s entrepreneurial spirit and fierce love of learning remained strong.
Touched by mental health experiences in her family and friends, Dr. Rakesh began to wonder about neuroscience as a way to understand what makes us who we are. In college, she pursued biochemistry as a pathway toward studying neuroscience but admits she wasn’t sure about pursuing the subject long-term. After college, she went on to complete an MBA and took a job in Brand Management at L’Oreal, hoping to build on her skills in communications. After several years in industry, she found that she was still curious about the brain and missed academic science, so she decided to move to France to complete her Masters of Research in Neuroscience at the University of Bordeaux.
Growing up in India, Dr. Rakesh saw socioeconomic disadvantage all around her. In particular, she was acutely aware of the intergenerational transmission of poverty and the consequences it had for many facets of wellbeing. Moving to Australia to pursue her PhD, she sought to investigate the neurobiological mechanisms that could help explain how socioeconomic disadvantage leads to long term impacts on mental health. Her outstanding dissertation work helped to provide some answers to these important questions, pointing to specific changes in brain structure and function that were associated with adversity.
Taking a unique path from academia to industry and back again gave Dr. Rakesh a distinct set of skills and perspectives. Dr. Rakesh describes her transition back to science as “moving to something that made me really happy – I was really grateful to be doing what I liked,” but she also remembers feeling surprised at seeing PhD students working largely by themselves (relative to her experience in the business world where communicating and working with multiple individuals and teams was routine). She wondered, “why are all these people learning by themselves? We have so much to learn from each other!” Leveraging her experience in business and communications, Dr. Rakesh always sought to ask questions and learn from experts when she encountered something she didn’t understand. She therefore advises the students that she mentors to ask experts for guidance rather than re-inventing the wheel.
Dr. Rakesh also shared some additional advice for early-stage graduate students. First, she says to “focus on learning and absorbing information” rather than getting stuck thinking about producing research outputs like publications, particularly in the beginning. Second, she recommends investing time at the beginning of the PhD program to learn computer programming skills. As she herself learned programming through self-paced courses, she saw a huge increase in her productivity and thought “Why have I not been doing this my whole life?” Third, she says “don’t be afraid to try things! This is your PhD!” She often sees graduate students getting bogged down by self-doubt and perfectionism, waiting for the perfect idea or sentence to emerge. Instead, she encourages the students that she mentors to not be afraid to pitch their ideas and get feedback on early drafts of work that they do not consider perfect.
Dr. Rakesh sees understanding individual variability in outcomes as an important direction for future research. She wonders, “why is it that not all kids experiencing socioeconomic disadvantage perform worse than their peers?” and “how can we use this to target interventions?” In particular, Dr. Rakesh is interested in disentangling the influence of various factors that comprise what we collectively refer to as socio-economic status, such as household income, neighborhood income, and parental education and uncovering factors that may buffer the effects of disadvantage on child development. Additionally, in her future work Dr. Rakesh hopes to integrate different types of measurements, including neuroimaging, passive behavioral monitoring, social behaviors, cognitive functioning, family history, etc. to get a better picture of the whole child and use this information to predict the trajectory of children’s mental health and cognitive function. She hopes to one day use this information to make schools a more equitable place for learning. We, at Flux, wish Dr. Rakesh the best of luck as she embarks on her post-doctoral research!
Arielle S Keller, PhD
Neuroengineering and Medicine Post-Doctoral Fellow Department of Psychiatry, University of Pennsylvania