“Graduate study will enable me to become the relatable role-model for aspiring young scientists in Nepal … that I lacked while growing up,” explained Sanju Koirala ’19 as she anticipated beginning her fellowship as the Simons Fellowship in Computational Neuroscience at Emory University. “I aim … to learn more about a topic that I am passionately curious about and to continue gaining knowledge; a process that has always empowered me,” she wrote in her successful application.
Selected from among 97 applicants, Koirala began pursuing her dream of becoming a neuroscientist as a young girl, curious about the brain and disturbed by the stigma associated with mental illness in her country. Aided by her selection as one of only 15 participants in a program funded by the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, she was able to apply to colleges without worrying about paying fees or travel expenses. Her receipt of a full scholarship to Hamilton was just the beginning of a major cultural and intellectual transition.
I was enthralled by the different ways in which people perceived, interpreted, and expressed the same event in the environment.
Her interest in psychology research at Hamilton developed over the course of her eclectic academic and research experiences that included psychology and neuroscience classes as well as creative writing and philosophy classes. “I was enthralled by the different ways in which people perceived, interpreted, and expressed the same event in the environment,” said Koirala.
In true liberal arts fashion, she wove science and arts to create a multidisciplinary Emerson project using creative writing as a tool for psychological healing in Nepal after the devastating earthquake there. She engaged with middle school children to help them use poetry and stories to express their perception of the earthquake. She worked with psychologists to implement art programs to ease the transition back to school.
“Through the project and diverse coursework, I got an opportunity to observe how people perceive, think and interact with the world. Such observations bolstered my interest in quantitative research and led me to join Professor Vik Bejjanki’s lab where I worked on a project examining multisensory integration in young children.”
In introducing Koirala for her induction into Sigma Xi, the international research honor society for science and engineering, Assistant Professor of Psychology Vikranth Rao Bejjanki said, “It would be impossible to adequately convey all the ways in which Sanju is impressive, in the couple of minutes I have. So let me say this: all Sanju has ever needed is an opportunity – she has the dedication, creativity, talent, and maturity to convert every opportunity into a successful outcome.”
Koirala’s fellowship provides cutting-edge training in computational neuroscience and represents great preparation for a career in independent research. Because it is based at Marcus Autism Center, she will be able to study the mechanisms underlying Autism Spectrum Disorders using computational techniques well aligned with her interests, using these techniques to study normal and abnormal development and behavior. Her selection was based, in part, on her unique skills in developmental social neuroscience, particularly in regards to data collection and analysis using eye-tracking technology and advanced computational methods. Previous Simons Fellows have gone on to Ph.D., M.D., and M.D./Ph.D. programs as well as to research positions in computer and software engineering.
“Hamilton prepared me to think critically, communicate properly and be more confident in myself. In addition, Hamilton is full of kind, friendly, and passionate people which makes you want to be one. I believe all these soft and hard skills are equally important to be a good researcher, especially if you are working with a clinical population,” Koirala reflected.
“My professors have always given me advice, encouragement, and support to move forward. I also talked to alums who helped me navigate the application process and provided their insights while making a decision.
“It is so humbling to realize that I get to work on projects that will directly impact the way autism is understood, diagnosed, and treated. I want to do science and share it with society, and this fellowship is the perfect opportunity for me to begin my career.”