Medical Humanities major at Columbia University
CEO of Simply Neuroscience
“Go take that really exciting course, challenge the curriculum limits a little bit, chat with a fellow academic you have nothing in common with.”
For Chinmayi Balusu, a rising junior at Columbia University, neuroscience acts as a home: a fascinating, familiar hub at the center of her interdisciplinary interests and experiences. This hub has empowered her to explore a richly diverse set of science-related pursuits, not only in traditional research settings, but also in outreach, communication, and advocacy.
Chinmayi’s initial curiosity about the brain stemmed from an innocuous blunder at a middle school science fair. “They always had these booths with brain models — the ones that you can take apart and play with. I was super excited [by that]. But when it was time to go, I tried to put the brain back together before realizing that I didn’t know how the parts should fit back together,” she recalls. “I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy! This is a whole lot more complicated than I thought!’”
“I tried to put the brain back together before realizing that I didn’t know how the parts should fit back together. I remember thinking, ‘This is crazy! This is a whole lot more complicated than I thought!’”
Determined to make sense of the brain’s complexity, Chinmayi supplemented what she learned about neuroscience in her high school classes with online resources — including YouTube series like Neuro Transmissions and Crash Course Psychology. “The experience of being able to start small, and then slowly explore my interest in this big ocean [of neuroscience] was a nice way to inch my way into the field,” she explains. Before long, Chinmayi was seeking opportunities near her home in northern California to compete in neuroscience events like the Brain Bee, further cementing her desire to pursue a scientific career.
Despite her reputation amongst friends as a “neuro nerd, through and through,” Chinmayi’s transition to Columbia led her to reevaluate exactly how she would pursue her education. Her desire for both breadth and flexibility in her coursework ultimately pushed her to choose Medical Humanities as a major.
However, because Medical Humanities is not classified as a true STEM major (unlike neuroscience or biology, for example), Chinmayi notes that this decision was challenging to make. “There are so many different opportunities, such as fellowship programs and scholarships, that I don’t qualify for simply because I’m not a STEM major in the traditional sense,” she explains. “It causes a lot of second-guessing.” Chinmayi’s experience, moreover, highlights the disadvantages of drawing a strong division between STEM fields and the humanities — as most universities do. Both areas contribute to our understanding of how humans act, feel, and behave, and as such cannot be fully understood without each other.
Nevertheless, Chinmayi has refused to let her education be constrained by inflexible academic structures. Her open-minded approach to science has led to opportunities not only within STEM labs but also as an advocate and leader within the neuroscience youth community. Chinmayi is currently a research assistant for the Aly Lab, a cognitive neuroscience lab within Columbia’s Psychology Department investigating the interplay between memory and attention. She is also the founder and CEO of Simply Neuroscience (a student-led nonprofit organization aimed at increasing neuroscience interest and engagement within youth), as well as an events organizer for Columbia Synapse (an organization that provides support to community members with brain injuries and invisible disabilities).
In the Aly Lab, Chinmayi works with graduate student Manasi Jayakumar to explore how fluctuations in attention during learning impact the organization of what people remember later on. In addition to granting her experience in collecting, interpreting, and analyzing psychological data, such work has also provided valuable opportunities for mentorship. “Manasi is always thinking about how she can help support me in my professional development beyond research, which I’m greatly thankful for,” Chinmayi reflects. “I’m thinking about exploring careers in medicine and healthcare and maybe pursuing an MD — so [Manasi] is always cognizant of how she can support the clinical side of my journey too.”
“Our aim was to build a mentorship platform that didn’t depend on what school you went to, or where you were located. You could be in the middle of Antarctica, and if you had an internet connection, we could find you a mentor.”
Chinmayi’s involvement in research thus far has also emphasized the value of diverse representation among scientists. “Up until college, I didn’t really see a lot of Indian or South Asian women in neuroscience,” she remembers. She credits her experience thus far at Columbia, in part, in helping her to more effectively recognize such issues of diversity and representation — even though the gap between recognizing a problem and rectifying it remains hard to bridge. “I’ve felt that, especially for undergraduate students, many Columbia spaces are really good about initiating [these kinds of conversations], but then the discussion often fizzles out in the long run.”
Chinmayi works to continue conversations on representation through her efforts as the founder of Simply Neuroscience. Though the organization began as a personal blog that Chinmayi started during high school, it has since transformed into an international network of students and scientists, united by their shared interest in the brain. “Simply Neuroscience was solely intended to be an online space where I could share the brain-related study resources that I used during school. Then, as social media does, more and more people started stumbling across it,” she explains. “First, we were a team of one, and then a small team of 10 people, and now we’re 300 volunteers strong.”
The initiatives that Simply Neuroscience offers are expansive and diverse, ranging from the creation of educational resources to the facilitation of larger-scale programs like virtual conferences, neuroscience-themed hackathons, and mentoring programs like the Action Potential Advising Program (APAP). APAP in particular has thrived in a year where COVID-19 made in-person events infeasible, ultimately connecting over 800 students and experienced science mentors from around the world. “Our aim was to build a mentorship platform that didn’t depend on what school you went to, or where you were located,” Chinmayi elaborates. “You could be in the middle of Antarctica, and if you had an internet connection, we could find you a mentor.”
Chinmayi also emphasizes that while she may be the organization’s CEO, its efforts are spearheaded by a deeply collaborative team of neuroscience aficionados. “Our group leadership model has been incredibly valuable for near-peer mentorship,” she reflects. “I don’t think it’s fair to say that since I’m the senior leader in this organization, that I’m the expert on everything. We work to give one another independence and agency while growing together. Sometimes we know what we’re doing; sometimes we don’t. It’s a learning process!”
“We work to give one another independence and agency while growing together. Sometimes we know what we’re doing; sometimes we don’t. It’s a learning process!”
Perhaps above all, Simply Neuroscience constitutes a critical push to make scientific research and education as accessible and inclusive as possible. Chinmayi’s own experience with navigating unfamiliar academic spaces underscores the value of identifying a network of supportive peers and mentors. “My parents are both engineers, but their education was in India entirely. They immigrated here to pursue further career opportunities,” she notes. “As the first person in my family to pursue life sciences and ultimately a clinical career route, it can feel like I’m flying blind at times.”
“It’s so important to keep thinking about what the next step is and push yourself to grow.”
Ultimately, Chinmayi remains inspired by the idea that the knowledge she currently holds about research, mentorship, and advocacy will only grow in the years to come. In the meantime, her advice to aspiring scientists highlights the value of remaining receptive to new opportunities. “It’s so important to keep thinking about what the next step is and push yourself to grow. Go take that really exciting course, challenge the curriculum limits a little bit, chat with a fellow academic you have nothing in common with” she encourages. “Just as the saying goes — never lose sight of your ambition!”
by Camille Gasser