Iqra Shahzad Blog 2019

I was in my Evolutionary Dynamics class, learning about the Evolution of Cooperative Strategies, when my phone buzzed, there I saw a notification from Khorana Program and it said “Dear Iqra Shahzad, I am pleased to inform you…”, and suddenly the insipidity of the day, all but vanished. Of all the emails that I had expected to receive, I had not imagined in a million years that I would be selected. Exhilarated, I saw the time, the class was about to end. I remember vividly, with utmost chirpiness, I ran outside to my best friend, we read the email together that said, “Dear Iqra Shahzad, I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected for the prestigious Khorana Program for Scholars 2019. Congratulations!” 

There it was, the dream, that I had only hoped to someday fulfill right in front of me, a step closer to fruition. The dream to someday work in a world class Neuroscience Lab had just come true. What ensued after this fateful day, was a sequence of exciting events that left an indelible mark on me, both as a human being and as an aspiring Neuroscientist.

Following my submission for my preference of host laboratories in the United States, I learnt that Khorana Fellowship had just helped me realise my lifelong goal of working at an Ivy League University namely the Yale University. While theprocess of VISA applications and other paperwork was tedious to say the least, it was nothing compared to the joy of working for Prof. Dylan Gee at CANDLAB, Yale University.

My summer was supposed to kick-off with an orientation program at the University of Chicago. I along with the fellow Scholars got together at the New Delhi airport and headed to Chicago. Little did we know that we will miss our connecting flight and spend the most adventurous six hours at the Frankfurt Airport. It turned out to be the most enjoyable experience where the newest of friendships nurtured and the zeal for the summer in the US was shared. 

As soon as we landed in Chicago, we went out to explore the windy city late at night. The cold winds, the empty streets and the amazing company lit up my experience. The orientation program at the University of Chicago was one of its kind. We were addressed by the who’s who of the scientific community. It introduced us to the  research community at UChicago, the beautiful campus and the vibrant scientific culture. The day ended with a tour of the city and the beautiful Skyline. I will cherish each moment I spent with my fellow companions on this trip.

The next day I headed to New Haven, Connecticut. The small university town housed the very famous Yale University. I was fortunate enough to get selected in the CANDLAB. The lab opened avenues for my career in cognitive neuroscience, where I studied how the human brain develops over time and how it is at risk of a psychiatric illness. The work was at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology and mathematics. I assisted in conducting interviews and cognitive experiments with the patients. Performing fMRI experiments and analysing the huge chunk of data was the hallmark of the internship. Besides this, I participated in the outreach events weekly to recruit human participants for our study. The high-spirited lab members made the work so easy and exciting that my motivation to pursue a career in research grew. Prof. Dylan was so welcoming and always open to discussions. Sarah and Saddie were always there to help and guide for every query that I had. I remember how I shared my enthusiasm with Paola for fMRI data analysis and discussed the brain images of various subjects. Lab meetings were full of fun, amazing donuts and coffee with one common aim of understanding the human brain.

In addition to professional growth, this summer helped me grow in the personal domain as well.   I lived independently in my comfortable apartment with another student at Yale University. Her companionship helped me get through all the hurdles of living in a new place. We used to hang out in the evenings, cook together and have stimulating conversations on the porch. The vibrant international community at Yale, organised many interesting events during my stay that I attended such as the nature walks, astronomy events and evening gatherings over pizza.  In New Haven, the downtown was my favourite area because there, you could often find people enjoying their evenings, dancing and eating. And most importantly, the ethinic diversity of New Haven was extremely refreshing and enchanting, so much so that it made me feel right at home. 

Another exciting aspect of living in New Heaven was its proximity to New York City. Like many others, it had been a childhood dream to visit the Big Apple and see the Zenith of American Ingenuity, a city filled with culture, architectural marvel and all kinds of vibrancies that one could ever contemplate. Needless to say, I was enthralled by the New York Skyline, Brooklyn Bridge, the Belvedere Castle in the Middle of Central Park, Times Square, Empire State Building and Statue of Liberty. All the things I had only seen in movies as a child, and dreamt of visiting the City of Dreams. 

On the whole, the summer at Yale was a major turning point in my life. I got closer to the rich neuroscience community from one of the top universities. I am extremely grateful to the Khorana Program for making the summer of 2019 so memorable and enriching. Finally, I can proudly say that I am a Khorana Scholar of batch 2019 hosted at Yale University, the USA.”

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