“If you see something interesting, you can and should follow up on it, even if it’s not what you’re supposed to be working on and even if someone else has told you ‘Oh yeah, I noticed that too, I don’t think that’s interesting’ — That doesn’t mean it’s not interesting!”
In baby pictures, Dr. Anita Devineni can be seen wearing medical scrubs. “My parents assumed I was going to be a doctor from the age of six months,” she says. Anita’s parents, both medical doctors in her hometown of St. Louis, Missouri, immigrated to the United States from India to maximize the opportunities available to their children. By encouraging Anita and her siblings to pursue careers in medicine, they hoped to ensure their children’s stability and success. While the medical path resonated with Anita’s sister, who is now a doctor, Anita pursued a different, but no less ambitious, path of her own. Owing to her natural curiosity and individualistic bent, Anita became a neuroscience researcher. Since college, she has been unraveling the mysteries of sensation and behavior using tiny fruit flies, often identifying deep puzzles where others saw irrelevant details. Currently a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia’s Zuckerman Institute, Anita’s audacious personality has defined her unique path through life and science.
Anita’s interest in science was sparked by the biological building blocks that make us unique: genes. “I didn’t really realize that this was neuroscience, but the first time I really got excited about studying biology was when I found out that there are variants in genes that can change your behavior,” Anita says. When reading about genetics studies as a high school student, Anita wondered, “maybe some people are more risk-taking than others because of some gene that they have!” Although Anita has come to realize that some of these studies may have had methodological flaws, her fascination with the idea that genes influence behavior has persisted.
“…the first time I really got excited about studying biology was when I found out that there are variants in genes that can change your behavior“
As Anita neared the end of high school, her parents had their sights set on East Coast, Ivy-League colleges for her. But Anita was drawn to Stanford University on the West Coast, impressed by Stanford’s strength in the sciences and charmed by the Bay Area atmosphere. “I really liked the vibe out there,” she says. “It just seemed more chill.” She settled on an uncommon combination of applied and abstract concepts, choosing to study biology and pure math. In biology classes, Anita learned how large numbers of cells add up to create life, while in math classes, she learned how to prove that addition exists.
Anita’s biology courses motivated her to seek out neuroscience research opportunities at Stanford. Neuroscientists often study mammals like mice and rats, but these experiments did not appeal to Anita. “I hate blood,” she says. “I didn’t really want to work with mammals. I thought that sounded kind of gross and sad.” Anita joined the lab of Dr. Liqun Luo, where she studied brain development in fruit flies. Working with a postdoc, Anita identified genes underlying abnormal development of neurons (brain cells) that allow flies to smell. While Anita had been worried that research would be dull, she found Dr. Luo’s lab to be a social and intellectually stimulating environment. Ultimately, Anita’s positive experience in Dr. Luo’s lab inspired her to pursue a PhD in neuroscience.
Anita aimed to attend a graduate institution where she could study the relationship between genes and behavior, the question that ignited her interest in biology. This aim led her to attend the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), defying her parent’s east-coast wishes once again. At UCSF, Anita was quickly captivated by the work of Dr. Ulrike Heberlein, who studied, of all things, drunk flies. “Flies get drunk,” Anita explains. “If you give them alcohol, they have all these motor impairments, and there are very specific stages of intoxication…But with repeated exposures, they’ll show tolerance to alcohol.” Anita joined the lab of Dr. Heberlein, where she initiated an ambitious project to uncover the genetic basis of addiction in flies. The first step was to quantify alcohol-consumption behavior using tightly controlled experiments called assays. Anita explains, “When I started, people were just starting to figure out how to use assays to actually measure how much food or liquid a fly is consuming, which seems kind of trivial, but flies are so tiny that it was really hard to measure how much they were drinking.” With hard work, Anita overcame these technical challenges and developed the required assays, revealing that flies have a preference for alcoholic solutions and even display some features of addiction. Anita published these crucial results in a highly-cited scientific paper.
“Your projects definitely change a lot in graduate school, and you don’t have to keep doing what you started out doing.”
While her behavioral assays were a smashing success, linking addiction to genes proved challenging due to the variability and complexity of alcohol-consumption behavior in flies. Thus, Anita pivoted to other problems. “Your projects definitely change a lot in graduate school, and you don’t have to keep doing what you started out doing.” During her experiments, Anita had noticed that male and female flies behaved differently. Other researchers had observed this as well, concluding that this was an uninteresting detail, but Anita sought a deeper understanding. Undeterred, she performed experiments to elucidate the genetic and neural underpinnings of sex-specific alcohol-related behaviors, leading to myriad insights. She stresses, “If there’s something really obvious staring you in the face and you can tell it’s not just a technical artifact, it’s probably something really interesting! It must be something.”
After receiving her PhD, Anita relocated to New York City to start a postdoctoral position in the lab of Nobel Laureate Dr. Richard Axel at Columbia University, much to her parent’s delight. Once again using fruit flies, she turned her attention to the taste system with which she had become acquainted through her studies of alcohol consumption. In one project, she studied why hungry flies enjoy the taste of vinegar while fed flies despise it, revealing neurons in the brain that mediate this hunger-dependent response. In another project, she studied an often unexplored dimension of neural activity: time. She found that some neurons responded at two different times, when a fly started and stopped tasting a substance, and that these different responses had distinct ways of modifying connections between neurons.
Despite her successful end results, Anita encountered no shortage of setbacks along the way. “I spent a year or two getting nowhere on the project; doing stuff, but nothing worked,” she says. During this period, Anita became disillusioned with science. Her interest was rekindled when she leaned into her passion for sharing science with others through volunteering and teaching. “Talking to other people about science gets them excited, and then it gets you excited, and then you re-discover why you liked it,” she explains. Anita created a blog called Brains Explained, allowing her to engage in this outreach on her own terms.
“Talking to other people about science gets them excited, and then it gets you excited, and then you re-discover why you liked it”
“We talk about inequities in science, but there are so many disparities in terms of what people at Columbia have access to compared to people at smaller schools.”
In addition to successfully rekindling her love of science, Anita realized that her blog was an avenue for her to share information and resources available to her as a Columbia postdoc with other researchers. For instance, her article on writing a particular grant is one of the most-read online articles on the subject. “I started realizing this is actually a way to start leveling the playing field for people across the world or across the country. We talk about inequities in science, but there are so many disparities in terms of what people at Columbia have access to compared to people at smaller schools.” Beyond her blog, Anita has sought to level the scientific playing field through mentorship. For instance, after being intimidated by programming early in her career, Anita now makes a point to introduce the research technicians she mentors to computational techniques. “One of my passions going forward is to try to make sure that everyone gets exposed to a little bit of programming when they’re young,” she says. “Quantitative approaches are important in almost any kind of research.”
Anita has navigated a long, winding, and challenging path through science with persistence, originality, and a passion for helping others. Currently on the job market for faculty positions, Anita will undoubtedly bring all of these qualities with her as she moves into the next stage of her career. Amazingly, her parents are still trying to convince her to attend medical school. True to form, Anita continues to forge her own path.
by David Clark