An Unexpected Path to Neuroscience
“I've always been interested in learning about how the mind and brain interact and how that drives decision making,” This is why Shivani Venkatesh, a curious, driven third-year student at the University of Minnesota, decided to pursue a neuroscience minor in addition to her major in psychology.
Like many students in the College of Liberal Arts, Shivani’s trajectory has changed a few times. While her major didn’t change throughout college, her track and career goals—from law school to medical school—did.
“I was not tied down to a major or a specific track in my life,” Shivani says. “Being in CLA made that an easy transition. My education has been very holistic and all encompassing. Psychology in particular has allowed me to focus on people, and how physical and mental health are integrated within one another.” She also liked the language requirement of her education. “It forced me to take a language and learn Hindi. I’m not a native speaker, so it was pretty hard for me, but I enjoyed it,” she says
During her first year Shivani took course with Professor Richard Lee. "He taught a freshman seminar course called Fresh Off the Boat: Growing up Asian American. I definitely learned a lot in his class about the intersection of Asian culture and mental health," Shivani says. After taking a few more psychology classes, it was biopsychology—the dichotomy between neuroscience and psychology—that solidified her interest in neuroscience. The course was co-taught by PhD students Scott Burwell and Tatyana Matveeva. “It talks about the brain and its functions. Here’s what happens when you do drugs, sustain an injury, are depressed. It’s very interesting to see the physical as well as the mental side of things,” she says.
Shivani had begun her undergraduate career with an interest in in criminal law. She was particularly fascinated about what motivates someone to commit crimes. She even had law school aspirations until an experience with Hennepin Healthcare (formerly Hennepin County Medical Center) changed her mind. “I ended up loving my time in the lab. The more I’m there, the more I realize that I want to be a doctor.”
Shivani’s involvement with Hennepin Healthcare began with a spontaneous decision. Her friend from the dormitory asked if she wanted to check out a volunteer position at the hospital. “I figured that since it was a volunteer position, if I hated it, I wouldn’t have to do it,” Shivani says.
Shivani volunteered in the Brain Injury Research Lab at Hennepin Healthcare for fifteen hours a week during the school year and around thirty-five during the summer. “The work can be pretty tiring,” Shivani says, “especially trying to recruit patients for the various studies or reading articles for literature reviews for six to eight hours.” After two years, her dedication paid off; she was hired.
The Brain Injury Research Lab
Hennepin Healthcare’s Brain Injury Research Lab has several projects underway. These include using nerve stimulation for brain-injury treatment, brain-injury classification, long-term outcome assessment, a neck-strengthening program for the prevention or mitigation of sports concussions for student-athletes, eye-tracking and ocular rehabilitation for mild brain injuries, spreading awareness, and many others.
Most of Shivani’s work involves recruiting subjects for these brain trauma studies. “We have healthcare software, and we see everyone who’s going into the emergency department. We see everyone in the entire hospital pretty much,” Shivani says. She looks for people with any sort of brain trauma by looking at their charts. If she determines the patient meets the required parameters, she reaches out to them to see if they’re willing to participate.
“It’s very novel stuff, what we do. When you get a brain injury, you usually go through a normal CT scan. You can’t really tell concussion systems by looking at that. Our projects are finding better ways to diagnose [brain injuries],” Shivani says.
Influences and Upward Mobility
Shivani has a lot of people she looks up to, many of whom are involved with Hennepin Healthcare. Dr. Molly Hubbard, a sixth-year neurosurgery resident, has played a large role in Shivani’s development. “[Dr. Hubbard] told me that as a woman in the STEM field you really have to push and advocate for yourself. It resonated with me. I am more adamant and persistent about what I want in life because of her,” Shivani says.
In fact, Hubbard encouraged Shivani to ask for an internship at the center, something that normally isn’t offered to people who haven’t yet earned a degree. One day, Shivani asked Dr. Uzma Samadani, the principal investigator of the Brain Injury Research Lab and an associate adjunct professor of neurosurgery at the University, if they could offer her an internship. “I let her know that I had been there for a year and a half and had done some good work . . . [Dr. Hubbard] told me that I should advocate and speak up for myself. So I did it,” Shivani says.
Dr. Samadani, has also played a large role in Shivani’s growth. Whatever research she’s working on, Shivani helps with it. “She has kind of become my mentor. It’s really nice to see a woman of color as an attending. It’s not something you really see in a male-dominated field. It’s definitely inspiring to see,” Shivani says.
Outside of the Lab
In addition to contributing to potentially groundbreaking research, Shivani is a proponent for political change. Shivani was the former secretary for Women for Political Change, a club that is dedicated to empowering women through politics.
Last June, the club organized Take Back the Night, an event that supports the victims of sexual assault. “We got a bunch of student groups, speakers, and we had a march as well,” Shivani says. All the money that was earned was donated to the Aurora Center for Advocacy and Education, a resource on campus for victims of sexual assault or relationship violence.
For the Future
Shivani will graduate next fall. She plans to take a gap year to work and study for the MCAT on her own own time. “I’m planning on taking [the MCAT] next May and applying that year,” Shivani says, “I’m interested in surgery. I’ve shadowed a couple of them at work and it was very exciting. I know that it’s what I want to do.”
This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.