Eesha Chakraborty: Hi my name is Eesha Chakraborty and I am a rising senior from East Bay, California, and I will be conducting this interview today.
Eesha Chakraborty: Sojas Wagle is an undergraduate student at Brown University aspiring to become a psychiatrist specializing in gender and sexuality. He has been a part of the International Youth Neuroscience Association since 2017 and has contributed as the Journal Editor in Chief. He has won numerous awards such as the Coca Cola Scholarship, U.S. Presidential Scholar, and you have probably seen him on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire: Whiz Kid” where he won 250,000 dollars. On behalf of the entire Humans of Neuroscience Team, I am pleased to welcome: Sojas.
Sojas Wagle: Hi! Thanks for having me.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah! We’re so pleased to have you. Would you like to start by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah. So, Thank you so much for the introduction, my name is Sojas Wagle, and I am a sophomore right now at Brown University studying Psychiatric Epidemiology. I am the Editor-In-Chief of the IYNA Journal, where we publish a bunch of different articles about all aspects of Neuroscience that help inspire the up and coming neuroscientists of our world all around the country, all around the world, who are currently highschoolers for college students. I am the 2017 International Brain Bee Champion as well, so that’s part of my neuroscience story.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, so going off of that made you want to pursue neuroscience?
Sojas Wagle: Yes. So, a funny thing. The competition I did right before Brain Bee was the Geography Bee, and I competed in the Geography Bee in the eighth grade. I ended up ranking third in the nation for that, so I was very committed to that. Geography was a huge part of my life, basically throughout elementary and middle school.
Transitioning from geography to neuroscience seems like a huge jump because they’re very disparate fields, but one thing that I found interesting was I had this passion for visualizing, the ability to visualize an Atlas as a map transferred really well to neuroscience when I was visualizing the brain, spinal cord, and nervous system. Whenever it comes to pointing down, or trying to localize the source for a difference, and seeing different cerebrospinal pathways. That idea of visualising is kind of what got me into neuroscience. I thought it was a different way for me to express my passion for visualizing things. I think for neuroscience the social impact is pretty great and pretty obvious because the people suffering from neurological and psychiatric illnesses, you know, really benefit from the research done on all the things we’re able to visualize now.
Sojas Wagle: That really drew me in, and actually I had first taken a course at Duke in neuroscience, and it was pretty intro-level and I didn’t really think much of it, but that’s actually how I learned about the Brain Bee, and how I started studying AP Psychology as well. So I really got the best of both worlds through that, both neuroscience and psychology.
Eesha Chakraborty: So, going off of how you went to AP Psych, so what was your brain journey like from high school to college?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah, so AP Psych was a really great introduction for me, and I think it’s a great introduction for anyone interested in pursuing a career or just an interest in neuroscience because I think a lot of times neuroscience is a bit overwhelming for some people because the first thing they think of are really biological heavy parts of it, chemistry heavy parts of it, BCI parts it, the complexity and computational neuroscience. They really think about all these hard science aspects of neuroscience, not realizing that at its core neuroscience can relate to anyone.
Sojas Wagle: I think that psychology is the way that neuroscience relates to everyone and is such a great introduction because it really touches on how neuroscience applies to our life. When I was studying these chapters on psychoanalysis and Freud, it was super interesting and studying group social psychology, and seeing these different types of experiments that explain why we interact as individuals in certain situations, and even learning about mental illnesses and heartbreaking stories about people’s experiences with them, and how there’s such little knowledge about it to help treat and alleviate their symptoms.
Sojas Wagle: There are just so many aspects of it, that I just summarized quickly in this call, and I think that shows that it can be digestible but also very vast. So, it doesn’t discourage you when you’re first studying psychology, but rather just makes you want to learn more, and that’s what happened to me.
Sojas Wagle: So, after AP Psychology, I took the regular science courses that a student might take in high school, like: AP Bio, AP Chem, AP Physics, but all during that I was actually competing in the Brain Bee and doing my own studying by myself, in addition to school for that competition. That allowed me to gain a better grasp on neuroscience, doing its own justice to that field. I did a lot of studying for that, and since the International Brain Bee, I competed in that I think the summer right before my junior year of high school, the first half of my high school career was very much dominated by neuroscience because of the Brain Bee.
That was a huge part of my life then, and even after that I was able to continue it luckily because of a club that I created called The Brain Club, where we were able to do a lot of cool fundraising opportunities for local mental health clinics to get the word out about mental health, and to help destigmatize mental illness.
Eesha Chakraborty: Wow, that’s so interesting what you brought up about the whole Psych thing, because that’s what I think was a very influential part that made me interested in neuroscience and also the Brain Bee. How was your balance between the high school and the Brain Bee? It seems it was a big part of your high school journey.
Sojas Wagle: Yeah, Absolutely. So I think balance was something I was much better at in high school, than I am in college right now. I think it’s something that we’re always working on and I think there is some benefit to doing a lot of things in high school just because of the way schedules are built and we are at school most of our days, and when we’re at school we’re taking so much for classes, but when we come home a lot of our arrangements, whether it’s dinner, a lot of the things we took for granted, now we do ourselves in college, and it was easier to fit more things into your schedule when you’re, a high school student as opposed to college. There are so many different tasks, not just school, but as adults trying to find your way in the world. So looking back, I think that’s why I had so much time to do things in high school, and obviously I’m not saying it wasn’t difficult, but it was especially if you were taking a rigorous course load in addition to neuroscience. It’s a huge test on your stamina and your ability to keep on going even when you want to just crash, because you’re so tired from studying for your classes themselves.
Sojas Wagle: I definitely think that studying for the Brain Bee, actually having a passion for it, enjoying what I was reading and studying, I think that really helped me get through the whole process.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, time management is definitely a major obstacle, but do you think there are any other obstacles you faced in this path in getting to where you are today?
Sojas Wagle: Oh, Absolutely. I think to hear the path that even famous neuroscientists have taken it’s incredible to hear about the obstacles that they faced and how those truly defined their careers. I feel like growing up in the South, in Arkansas, states that are often forgotten and not exactly the top when it comes to education, for me to compete in these national and international competitions, coming from a state that was so underfunded in education, and so under resourced, I definitely felt like I’ll be thrown into the deep end, kind of figuring out how to swim one stroke at a time. A lot of people I’ve competed against they’d come from these big charter schools, like prep schools, and private schools, and me, from a public school in Arkansas, it was crazy to think I would be able to compete on such a level, so I didn’t even know that going into it, because I already had the negative mindset of “Oh my gosh, there’s no way someone from my backstory, from my hometown could do anything of a large scale in the field of neuroscience, I would have to compete against all these different people coming from around the country.
Sojas Wagle: Focusing on the fact, being in the moment, and not studying super huge goals that couldn’t be met, searching for goals that are within your potential. That’s what I did and really feel that benefitted me. I didn’t have expectations that I actually could not meet, and even when I passed my expectations it was more fulfilling that way because I was able to surpass my expectations, and that inspires you to be like “What more can I do?”. Having any type of obstacle in your path is that acknowledging the obstacle does not mean you’re admitting defeat or it does not mean admitting that you’re weak, rather you are traversing that path in the end. Because you have to realize that even though some people don’t have the same obstacles as you, you are traversing your own path and you just have to focus on your own path, rather than comparing yourself to others and getting into that very toxic mindset.
Eesha Chakraborty: That was really inspiring for me to hear, especially as a senior in high school with all these obstacles, it was really nice advice you gave. Despite all the obstacles you faced, your passion for the brain really motivated you, and going off of that, what about the brain still motivates you and makes you curious, and confuses you in a way that makes you want to learn more?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah. Absolutely. The brain is unfathomable, it’s like you’re thinking about yourself, you’re thinking about thinking, and the physical aspect in itself is mind blowing because you are stretching the limits of your mind to think about itself. That’s something that’s just crazy to say out loud. One thing that I would say is always on my mind, and I mentioned to my dad recently was when we were talking about physical injuries like if you sprain your ankle, after walking it off for some time, with a splint or getting some help or putting some ointment, whatever the cure might be that helps relieve the pain after some time, that sprained ankle becomes almost as good as new. With the brain, we’ve seen so many cases about people traumatized when they were a child and there’s something called ACEs that a lot of great psychologists are doing research in, including a psychologist I worked with in Oklahoma, whose doing research on these ACEs, which is an acronym that stands for Adverse Childhood Experiences. To see how those traumatic childhood experiences still have an impact on people when they’re an adult is just mind-blowing, because to think that everything else in the body, every muscle is told to be resilient, and withstand a bunch of stress, and a bunch of injury. The brain, even with the slightest hint of trauma, can have lifelong impact. When we see that in psychiatry, in mental health, it’s really a lifelong concern, a longitudinal concern. That’s when it trickles in to social impact, and one thing that I’m really disappointed in, for the United States is that we haven’t banned conversion therapy for many LGBT youth. To think I’ve seen so many people just online who are struggling with mental illness and are attributing to it because of these adverse childhood experiences that they’ve been through. Whether it be conversion therapy or some other trauma, it’s just so heartbreaking and I think that is really what motivates me to be that person, who’s doing the research and putting in the work to make a difference in someone’s life who thought that one instance of trauma during their childhood would define their entire life, and give them hope that they can have a fulfilling life in the future.
Eesha Chakraborty: Wow, yeah the fact that the brain, that there’s so much we don’t know about it, and the amount of power it has is really fascinating, but at the same time it can be quite daunting. As you said there’s so many aspects that we’re still researching, and even despite that there’s not that much about it, do you think that was a motivation for you? Or did it make you a bit hesitant? Why did you choose neuroscience as a career knowing that it’s so broad as a subject?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah. I honestly think that was a huge motivator for me to know that there was so much left to discover. I was able to picture myself in the field actually contributing something of value very easily because there’s just so many, you know, to contribute. Because it’s almost like psychiatry especially, even though it’s been around for so long I still feel like it’s still in its early stages of being effective. Because it’s really easily that history of hurting marginalized people, low income people, people of color, and so LGBT Individuals, it’s just really hard to grapple with the fact that now we’re slowly kind of deinstitutionalizing psychiatry, there’s so much more to do and that’s still applicable to neuroscience where it’s still a fledgling field, where we are just starting to understand the brain. Even to say the action potential, it seems like it’s pretty recently discovered, you know, Dr, Eric Candell, when he discovered it, he stole lies, he stole a robust researcher and these people who made cutting edge discoveries, it didn’t happen too long ago. I think that’s the crazy part of it, these discoveries that are really changing the face of neuroscience are happening in real time right now and that I think it’s so motivating because it’s so easy to find your place within that, that network of incredible neuroscientists who are all doing their part to find out more about the brain, and how that really impacts us as individuals in society.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, and it’s so true how so many of them are around, these neuroscientists are your role models, is there anyone in particular who motivates you every single day?
Sojas Wagle: I don’t have a specific neuroscientist who specifically motivates me, I think they all have contributed so much to the field, each and every one of them. I feel like I become passionate about a new aspect of neuroscience every day, and so I feel like it would be difficult for me to pinpoint one person because I feel that all of them have contributed so greatly to the field, and I think thinking about it in terms of a group of people makes it even more meaningful. I know that it’s not just this one person doing everything, or this one person getting all the credit, rather when people think about neuroscience, they think a large group of people who are doing a lot, in a lot of different fields to advance our knowledge of the brain. I think that seeing it as me being a part of a group, rather than me singling out someone in particular I think just makes it more meaningful that neuroscience is a very communal field, we’re all working together, and I love that.
Eesha Chakraborty: While there’s so many achievements, a lot of technology, and there’s been so much progress, do you think there are any issues regarding ignorance or stereotypes in your work, or have you faced any of these yourself, or noticed in another aspect?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah, I think ignorance is something that’s going to prevail everywhere because these systems of oppression are built into our society, and every field of study. Honestly, I think for neuroscience it’s definitely there and for psychology, psychiatry, it’s still very controversial especially within the LGBT community, and knowing that as a gay man, that homosexulity used to be pathologized and used to be considered a mental illness, and even today gender dysphoria is considered a mental illness and many trans individuals don’t feel comfortable with that, while others are confortable. So it’s just so much to think about in terms of just the nomenclature and terminology of everything, where we don’t even know how to traverse what is called illness and not illness, what is the point of making something an illness? So you really have to define a purpose, what is the purpose of us singling something out as an illness? Is it more so to create order and to marginalize individuals or are we actually helping them out? I think that is the question psychiatry is really grappling with, and not as much neurology is still pretty straightforward when it comes to that. Psychiatry still has to do a lot of work to make up for the fact that they’ve created so much trauma in and of itself, because of its history with psychiatric incarceration and institutionalization, it’s just so much to process because I think even today, coercion in psychiatry is still happening which is the reason why the anti-psychiatry movement is happening as well. There are a lot of different forces pulling and pushing all these different studies that involve the brain because it’s so controversial. So that’s why one of the recent competitions the IYNA journal was doing was in collaboration with the International Neuroethics Society. The reason why we were doing this competition was because neuroethics is going to be such an important subject in the future.
Sojas Wagle: When we have these technological innovations in society that are progressing and discovering more about the human identity, we’re going to have to grapple with these topics about: What does race play in neuroethics? What does gender play in neuroethics? What does technology play in neuroethics? How do we make sure people’s identities are protected? All of these different questions are really needing to be addressed, and I think this all really ties into the ignorance in the subject, and that there are people still being stereotyped for their job. I think that one thing in the future I hope we really have is more diversity in the field so that people in neuroscience can just do their research and contribute to the field without being stereotyped as someone who’s doing harm to the field, and hopefully see progress in that aspect.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, and you kind of touched on this already, and just to maybe go into more depth about this. Why did you want to be a psychiatrist, especially specializing in gender and sexuality? Do you see that in society there is a lack of research about this, or was it any other reason which really motivated you?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah, so psychiatry, I have a passion about it, because it’s at the intersection of science and neuroscience, and studying the brain, but also adds the aspect of social justice to it because these psychiatrists are not only treating patients in a clinical setting and just saying goodbye, but they are also these people who are the only supporters, when you’re being estranged by family members who stigmatize mental illness, and think that they are a lost cause for it, and there’s just so many stigmas that people with mental illness deal with every day. To be that person’s advocate in addition to their clinician, I think would just be the best job in my opinion and as for the lens of gender and sexuality, it obviously has a very personal connection to me, but also just looking at statistically, LGBT youth, since I want to go into youth and adolescent psychiatry. LGBT youth experience suicidal ideation and suicidal action more than any other minority group, and it’s really daunting especially for trans youth it’s really a health crisis to assure them that they belong and their ability to have someone to talk to, and to openly express their gender dysphoria I think is so crucial because it’s a topic that often doesn’t make the headlines unfortunately, and there really needs to be more research focused on that subject. I don’t just feel that its a health problem, it’s really taking over our society as well, the concept of gender sexuality because I feel like recently now we are understanding that its a way more complex phenomenon than it used to be and conceived as. It’s not as binary as we thought, it’s more fluid and now we have trouble even conceiving it to be that way, and to find more scientific basis and support of the identities of these people would help hopefully to destigmatize it even more. However, I do want to address though that there is unfortunately this conception that we need to find a scientific basis for every identity or its not valid. I just want to say that’s such a toxic mindset because it trickles into sociology and what exactly is an identity, and you realize that identity again, just like gender is a social construct and for us to try to validate certain identities but not others makes no sense because every identity exists or none do.
Sojas Wagle: It’s these conversations that need to be put at the forefront, and it’s kind of taboo and nobody really talks about it, and it doesn’t make the headlines, because it’s uncomfortable and people ignore it, and the ones who face the brunt of that and have that burden, are already in marginalized communities and have to face a drastic and more exacerbated impact on their mental health.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, I love how you just touched upon so many aspects of neuroscience because it just shows that’s not what a lot of people think about, just the aspects of the brain, it’s interconnected with so many fields. I though that was really interesting how you connected it all together, and I think what I’d like to ask next is, how do you feel about your current place in neuroscience? Do you understand what you want to go forward with? Or is there anything you’re really appreciating and enjoying right now?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah. Neuroscience, it’s always going to be growing. Like one thing that is really confounding to me right now is for me to say I want to have this definitive place in neuroscience I think would be a mistake, just because neuroscience has grown in the past year so much to the point where there are new careers in neuroscience and new fields in neuroscience that have constantly divided. Who knows?In the future I could occupy a place in the field of neuroscience that doesn’t even exist today. That’s one of my things to think about. So there could be changes in a field that is more technologized and that needs more human connection; there’s a whole other field that could delve into humanism, and a greater need of humanistic psychology and I could go towards that direction, and so I think it’s really dependent on what the future looks like, and I definitely don’t want to predict it and try to outsmart my future self now, but I definitely want to go into the field, but I think there are certain things I find myself interested about not just gender and sexuality or child and adolescent psychiatry, but even this past summer, I did an internship at a clinic specializing in anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders I learned about, but never took a particular interest in, but then after doing the internship I was very surprised an taken aback by how creative the field is. You can be creative in therapy and to hear from my supervising psychologist about the different ways she approaches exposure therapy sessions with different people, with different interests, to make it more personalized, I thought was really cool. For me, who is very involved in the arts, poetry and acting, creativity is always on my mind as well, and the ability to mix in the creative mindset and to be a psychologist you have to be creative and and possess that kind of a skillset. As an artist themselves, it brings up the question what makes a good neuroscientist? What is the point of neuroscience? That was really interesting because again like you were saying about the intersections in neuroscience, how its so much more than just structure and neuroanatomy. I think that’s a perfect example of how neuroscience intersects with aspects of society and creates properties than you only see when you are practicing in the field or you are giving therapy in the field. You’re in this mental health field, in the neuroscience field, you’ll see how creative some people are with it and twist and turn it to make it into something very applicable, very real, and very beneficial in specific scenarios. So I think that’s what I really love about neuroscience and that the future is whatever you mold and need it to be for a specific situation.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, and with everything that you’ve been interested in, is there something that you think that you haven’t delved as deep into, but would like to learn more about?
Sojas Wagle: I think I would really be interested in studying more about group social psychology.
I remember I first learned about it in AP Psych and learned about experiments like how the Holocaust happened, people are stuck in a group mindset and can become complicit, etc. Today I think it’s so relevant because everything that we do right now, and just politically even there’s so many atrocities being perpetuated against marginalized people and to think there are so many people complicit in it, and you’re thinking how is that possible? We think that humans are naturally good people, naturally clear cut moral compasses,but is that true? If it is true what’s happening and what’s interfering with that compass? Is there some kind of social/psychological phenomenon that we don’t really know enough about? I feel that so much more needs to go into that research, so that people see each other as people and that will be normalized. Unfortunately it’s not normalized enough, even though it seems pretty straightforward.
Eesha Chakraborty: Kind of going off of that question, just to add on, what do you think the field of neuroscience needs more of?
Sojas Wagle: I think I said this earlier, but it needs so much more diversity, and I think the reason why is when it was originally devised, most fields are like this, by heterosexual, privileged white men. So you see that in everything, in all fields, you’ll see that trickling in every field and it has huge impacts on people who are marginalized and actually need services and support from the field, and if it’s not serving that purpose, serving everyone equally, that’s where a problem occurs. I feel like a lot of people are already grappling with race, the #BlackLivesMatter movement, how race is functioning in everything, how race is functioning in technology, artificial intelligence, and I feel we need to be doing the same thing in neuroscience. It definitely is a really hot topic and definitely needs to be addressed. The brain, the mind, that’s where the origin, where a lot of racist ideologies are steeped in. To understand how neuroscience interlocks with sociology, and if there is some way we could gain some knowledge about the brain to help us combat the social justice issues that would be incredible, but the only way we could do that is if we have enough diverse professionals who can use their different experiences as a person of color, as a member of the LGBT Community, to really inform the way that they conduct their research and inform the purposes that they’re driven by. I think that diversity leads to diversity spots which in turn lead to more productive solutions. It really forces academia to critically think of itself, and to critique itself, rather than just get bogged down in one perspective, and completely ignore perspectives that might represent other people who don’t have the same socioeconomic privileges as the academics or the elites.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, I agree like diversity is something that needs to be achieved, not in just neuroscience, but also other sciences, in so many different fields. Given your perspective in neuroscience, how do you think we can bring about that diversity?
Sojas Wagle: That is a really difficult question, to bring about that diversity I think we have to actively look for it. I feel like there is a stigmatization of diversity of policies like Affirmative Action, things that people term as reverse racism, and they don’t realize that they order for reverse racism to occur, and it needs to be wiped out, which it definitely hasn’t.The difference between Affirmative Action and actual racism is that racism is embedded into society’s structures. People of color always face these oppressive systems and that’s just how it is to live as a person of color in society. Reverse racism is this idea that in order to prioritize people who have been oppressed and to finally give them a pedestal upon which they can voice their concerns is to neglect the feelings and the voices of the people who already are being heard. So I think there is this need to compensate, and I feel like the need to compensate for these societal injustices, I feel like we need to actively look and search and employ people of color, people from underserved minorities in medicine, in neuroscience, both academia and clinically.
As we’re seeing even in medicine it’s really informing doctor’s work even when they’re not realizing it. Black mortality rates are even higher, COVID-19 pandemic mostly targeting low-income, black communities. Race is going to inform the way you think because of your experiences as a human being. Not like an insult to someone who doesn’t have that much experience, but rather its an acknowledgement of “Oh I don’t have that much experience, so I should gain expertise from someone else”. It’s such a straightforward line of thinking, even in medicine when someone, when an internal medicine doctor, or a general practitioner doesn’t know something about a specific illness, not in their speciality, it’s common knowledge to do have that speciality. So I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for some people to understand that we need to do the exact same thing with race and diversity, that you, if you don’t belong to a minority group, you don’t have the expertise to really talk about or resolve that issue, rather you have to get the expertise from someone who is in that community, who can speak on the issue.
Eesha Chakraborty: I really like the example you gave and it really put the issue into perspective. Kind of going on a different tangent, what is the biggest misconception about neuroscience or a misconception being about you in neuroscience?
Sojas Wagle: I would say the biggest misconception in neuroscience there’s a barrier between neuroscience and society and that there’s not a lot of mixing going on. I feel like it’s very similar to the way a common person looks at the brain. Someone who hasn’t studied the brain, and only has an idea from the media, would have an understanding that maybe the brain can be chopped up into different continents, with distinct purposes. It’s basically like the Hunger games almost, each part of the brain has a specific purpose and function, it’s super discrete and easy to understand but we could not be farther from the truth. The brain is constantly changing, and only sometimes can we say this part of the brain may in certain occasions play a bigger role in this process, but we don’t know, we don’t have a large enough sample size. I feel like that is the story of neuroscience’s life, sometimes it’s this, sometimes it’s that, we don’t really know because it’s so hard to pinpoint anything about the brain. I feel like that kind of ties into where people feel like neuroscience and society are discrete, when they are one in the same. Not taking them apart, like this is how society functions, this is how neuroscience functions and we are society, so it really dictates a lot about how the world works. It can really throw you once you realize that, and to me, it was a whole existential crisis, like okay, does free will exist? Philosophically, how can we ever advance something that is controlling us? Medicine is just a loop of thinking about thinking and then it’s overwhelming. I think it’s okay to admit that neuroscience is overwhelming, even though I said it’s very digestible, like psychology specifically. I think that once you’re advanced enough you would be remiss to say neuroscience isn’t overwhelming and complex way more than anyone can fathom in a lifetime. I think that understanding that and admitting that is the only way to do justice to the field. I think that understanding that nothing in neuroscience is discrete and the way neuroscience interacts with everything else is not discrete is a huge way to beat that misconception that everything is simple to understand.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, for sure and like you come from a very unique perspective about all this which I thought was really insightful for me and being a high schooler, just hearing about your story was really inspiring, and I just wanted to ask how do you get yourself ready for such a challenging career in neuroscience? What was the prep in high school that really got you prepared for this complexity that we talked about?
Sojas Wagle: Originally, I thought that high school wasn’t a stage where you think about neuroscience, but I feel like now where you get the word out through amazing organizations like Simply (Neuroscience), like IYNA, that are trying to really recruit and spread the word about neuroscience, that it isn’t just a lofty subject for admissions when you’re older, it’s a subject that’s very in-touch even with high schoolers, and more high-schoolers are realizing it. If you look in the past, I was actually talking to someone at Brown, they were saying that students shouldn’t study the brain or neuroscience till they’re older, and just major in biology, and I really disagreed with that. If you have a passion and a specific purpose to study the brain, I think you definitely should study it. You shouldn’t reject it because an academician says “Oh it’s too hard for you to understand”. I think a lot of people underestimate the capabilities of young people, and I think it’s definitely doable. I would say take as many classes related to neuroscience as possible and there’s so many different ways you can do that, it’s not just AP Psychology, but also aspects of science like AP Physics, AP Chemistry, AP Biology, or even taking sociology classes. I think having a really well-rounded mindset going into neuroscience is crucial because you would be remiss to think neuroscience is just a singular field that has nothing to do with anything else. I think that getting that foundation of seeing how it ties into different science classes and different fields of the social sciences or even the arts, I think will really give you a unique perspective about neuroscience. I think outside of school if you really want to get involved in neuroscience specifically is I of course encourage them to get involved in the IYNA, or Simply (Neuroscience), or any neuroscience organization that allows them to take charge of a project whether it is marketing or spreading the word about neuroscience, developing a curriculum or writing an article, whatever it is I think it’s perfectly valid to voice their passion for neuroscience. I think there’s a lot of different ways you can do it, and I don’t want to endorse a specific way to do it, because their are so many brilliant young neuroscientists who’ve taken different traditional and non-traditional paths, and I think doing what you’re passionate about is going to lead you to the right path, whether it be involved with neuroscience or not.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah that was really good advice, especially I think for myself taking all of these into account. Another thing that I thought was really quite interesting was that you, in school, it wasn’t all just neuroscience or academic for you, you did do other things, like you were a bit into the arts. How do you think that also connects into your neuroscience journey?
Sojas Wagle: Yeah. I love talking about the intersection of arts and neuroscience because it boggles people’s minds and upsets the binary thinking that we’ve all been tricked into thinking. Everything is so much more spectral than we imagine at first. I’ve seen how for me in college, people are surprised that I’m also involved in theatre, and that it’s a thing that’s going to impact my ability to be a good doctor in the future. Which is wild to think about, like what about research and clinical, I mean it’s all great, but when I did theatre I really learned to understand the human experience, and emotions, and really learned to have this presence. I realized how when you’re a doctor, when you’re a researcher presenting at these conferences, it’s this idea that the brain is being tricked into thinking about the brain and so there’s so many different things to take into consideration when there is a patient, and you are a neurologist, and the patient is going to be picking up on cues on how much does the neurologist sympathize with me, and what I’m feeling, because often times patients and research subjects feel disconnected these fields have a history of feeling superior to everyone else, and having a lofty mindset. To approach them with a very humanistic mindset, I feel like it really lends itself to humanism. Understanding the human experience, you become a better person and are able to relate to people so much better. I think that transforms everything you do, makes it abstract, to be able to write something that’s still understandable for average audiences that’s not super chock full of jargon, I think is really such a great skillset to have that is not counted enough. It’s so amazing to be able to connect with audiences from different skill levels, so that ability to connect with humans and understanding human experience at a deeper level than just a surface level understanding of “Oh, this is neuroscience, this is the biological underpinning of it”, there’s so much more to that and you really have to transcend that you, yourself are human, and you should take advantage of that.
Eesha Chakraborty: Yeah, and do you think being in Brown has had a special impact on your interests? Being with such a diverse group of individuals, with all so many different passions, and just the work ethic, has that impacted you in any way?
Sojas Wagle: Absolutely! What I really love about Brown is that because of the diversity and the ability to collaborate with each other just because of how flexible the curriculum is. You have the open curriculum, there’s no prerequisites, and I think that there is this sense of academic freedom where we are charting our own path. To be able to do that is such a great power to have in our hands as undergrad students, it’s very honoring that the Dean put trust in us to get a well-rounded experience on our own terms. One flexible thing that’s been really great for me at Brown is creating my own major. At the beginning of the interview I said I was studying psychiatric epidemiology, and it doesn’t sound like a major because it’s not a major anywhere but psychiatric epidemiology is a field you would typically have as a doctoral student. For me to have that ability, to create my own major, to plan my classes, and to chart my own journey to the time I’m writing my honors thesis is just such a huge privilege to have. I think it’s defining my academic journey at Brown because I feel so much more independent and not as suppressed as I would have to be conforming to a core curriculum that I really didn’t want. It’s really freeing, and I’m appreciative that I get to explore my passions before post-grad, where I would dig deep into the topics I’m interested in.
Eesha Chakraborty: I’m so glad you brought that up about creating your own major, and I think before we wrap up I just want to ask if you think you’ve had any special mentors, like parents, or a professor, or anyone in general who has really been impactful throughout this whole neuroscience journey that you have?
Sojas Wagle: There have been so many people who I feel like have exposed me to how amazing neuroscience is. I remember when I first started out for the Brain Bee, Dr. Andrew James in Little Rock, Arkansas was the one who was hosting the local chapter for the Brain Bee, and I remember I was in correspondence with him a lot and he was my first introduction to the competition. His undying support and his ability to connect me with an internship with Oklahoma Psychologist doing research on ACEs, you know he’s done so much for me, and I’m so thankful he was able to give me such great exposure to the field. There were so many other doctors who helped me prepare for the Brain Bee, Dr. Feeland, Dr. Kamabund, and so many different neurologists who were able to show me sociology slides, and brain specimens, just so helpful, and to have them there as great mentors to look up to. In terms of Brown, I love my faculty advisor, who I’m conducting research with, and another doctorate student, but also Anna Lee, who is another advisor who really pointed me to opportunities where I could receive internships like the clinic in the summer. There’s just so many people to name like my previous PI, who gave me a good introduction to Brown, there’s just so many people, it’s crazy to think because my past life was completely different. Everyone who supported me, my mom, my dad, and my brother.
Eesha Chakraborty: Wow, that’s so great. You have so many different people in your life who really helped you shape who you are today. If you look back at your journey, what are some things that you’re really proud of that you did, and would recommend to others?
Sojas Wagle: I think my biggest recommendation is always to reach out to experts that know more. I always had this trouble, I know that in college there’s this joke that you have this aversion to go into open hours, to professors, and I had that aversion as well. I think we see these people almost with like a god complex and in fear of them that either we’ll be rejected by them or look weak, when in actuality I feel the growth I’ve made was because I reached out to them. I don’t think I’ve ever made tremendous growth in my neuroscience or psychological knowledge by reading a book on my own. It was the practical knowledge that I received because they were so selfless, and people really want to help to cultivate the next generation of neuroscientists. So they were in our shoes once, and they give back to us, and I hope that when you grow up as well that cycle will continue. It’s a very perpetual cycle to get as many people involved as possible, it’s a huge part of diversity, and never be afraid to cold email because you never know where that will lead.
Eesha Chakraborty: Thank you so much for the interview, I learned a lot and it’s given me a new perspective, thanks for your time today.
Sojas Wagle: Yeah, thank you for having me!