Pioneer Scholar Spotlight: Nikita

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Pioneer research program scholar spotlight Nikita

“At the cusp of the pandemic starting, there wasn’t much research being done, and I thought, why not try to find out more and contribute to research on COVID as best I could as a student.”

Pioneer scholar Nikita, from Bangalore, India, comes from a family that “honored and cherished STEM fields.” Her grandmother was a chemistry professor, her grandfather’s work “involved a lot of math,” and so, she says, “I grew up in an atmosphere surrounded by all the sciences.” Her path to her Pioneer Research Program in the research area of neuroscience seems almost inevitable now that she has completed it, but it involved some twists and turns.

Nikita began her science studies in sixth grade with biology and chemistry. She really took to biology, beginning her interest in life sciences. A ninth-grade project with stem cells led her to think biotechnology would be her field, then studying for AP psychology tests inspired a new interest in psychology. However, it was a chapter on neuroscience in her study materials that led her to “where my heart belongs.” Neuroscience combines biology and psychology, with some physics as well, and her Pioneer Research Program confirmed her feeling that this is the area she wants to study at least for the next four years. Another family connection, a relative with a degenerative disease, was the inspiration for focusing her interest on studying the root causes of neurodegenerative diseases and the aging brain.

Nikita came to her Pioneer program with research ideas already in mind—lots of them. “I came into Pioneer with 50 topics that I was really interested in writing about,” she said. Her professor suggested narrowing the list to 20, and while she was working on that, a newspaper article on Indian patients experiencing neurological symptoms after mild COVID caught her attention and became the basis for her research topic: the neurological manifestations of COVID-19.

Nikita is a very organized person, a skill she needed for her research. Because her topic was in an area that hadn’t yet been studied, she wasn’t sure how to begin. Her professor helped again, suggesting she first find the source of the article. After that, one article led to another and one topic to another, until Nikita had what amounted to an outline organized by links to articles she had read.

Learning to write a paper in proper academic form was something Nikita particularly valued about her Pioneer experience, as was having her results validated by a recently published paper by a more seasoned scholar. Learning the importance—and the joy—of networking was another valuable experience. Not only did her professor provide both guidance and help, but Nikita also learned a great deal from her international cohort. “There are a lot of biology and psychology nerds,” she says, but finding a community of “neuroscience geeks like me,” people her own age, provided the beginning of a network that she continues to build. She thinks it’s “amazing” that friends, young colleagues from Turkey and California, are writing for her neuroscience magazine.

Nikita will be continuing her neuroscience studies at Columbia University’s Barnard College. She imagines her future will include a Ph.D., becoming a professor, and doing more research.

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