Humans of INKspire

Garima Shah | Researcher, Leader and Life-long Learner

For those who are not familiar with you, what is your story?

I’m a 24-year-old Indian-Canadian and my family and I immigrated to Canada when I was five. I’m an only child, but I actually never felt like one having always been surrounded by my extended family. Growing up, I had the best of both worlds. In addition to my Canadian culture, which I derived from my experiences at school and with friends, I was also instilled with Indian values from my parents and extended family. A typical day in the household meant that while I went to school, my parents also went to school because they were doing their Master’s degree in engineering. So upon coming home, I was either in Bharatanatyam classes, an Indian classical dance form, or I was at swimming lessons or piano lessons or soccer practice or being taught how to read and write Gujarati, which is the language that my family speaks at home. These values and traits that I formed over the years have allowed me to accept my identity as an Indo-Canadian with great pride.

Alongside these interests, I’ve also been intrigued with the mysteries of the brain. I would ask my parents various questions such as “Why does the same situation affect individuals differently?”. With engineering backgrounds, my parents tried to answer the questions to the best of their knowledge, but also encouraged me to pursue neuroscience. So that’s why I attended the University of Toronto Scarborough and did my Bachelors of Science in neuroscience. And then, because I was even more curious about the brain after that, I’m now pursuing my PhD in neuroscience at Johns Hopkins University.

Image for post

Garima combining Bharatanatyam and Bollywood dance styles into an elegant performance.

How did you specifically become interested in the field of research? And what kind of impact do you hope your research will have?

I don’t think I have one specific answer to that. It was many events in life that have gotten me to appreciate neuroscience and dive deeper into the mysteries of the brain. So I would say, initially, it was just my curiosity. I’m a very curious person. I just asked a whole bunch of questions to my parents and they would answer to their best abilities. My dad would go into biology and neuroscience books and try to find the most coherent answer for me. That was my initial exposure to neuroscience. Alongside that, my family is also very spiritual in the sense that we do a lot of meditation. A lot of the questions that I had about the brain and the mind were left unanswered, especially since the more I meditated, the more I grew curious about what’s really happening in our brain.

My research in particular focuses on anxiety. I think mental health is a bit of a taboo topic, and I’m glad that individuals are becoming more aware of it now. While I was in university, I didn’t fully realize it (and I’ve never been diagnosed for anxiety or depression), but I could sense that the ability with which I was able to do something at home was compromised when I was doing something in a stressful environment, such as an exam hall. Even the thought of writing an exam would sometimes “freak” me out. I would probably go back and say that that was due to my anxiety. Events like that particularly got me interested in learning more about anxiety. The best way to learn more about this was to go down the research path. I’m learning and trying to discover what the underlying neural mechanisms of anxiety are in the brain. We know how brain regions are interconnected and involved in anxiety, but we don’t know how neurons (cells within the brain) work together to produce anxiety-related behaviour. So that’s what I’m trying to figure out through my PhD.

What are some of the biggest things that you’ve taken away from your journey?

I think one of the biggest things my journey has taught me is to be adaptable to all situations. Those who know me know that I can sleep at any time, anyplace, and for as long or short the time permits. Many people ask me how I do it, and I tell them that it’s a developed blessing. It’s something that I’ve had to develop throughout my experiences over the years. I would say my sleep journey growing up has been rather interesting. During my childhood, I don’t recall having the conventional sleep setting. Especially while both my parents were doing their Master’s degree, I remember every night, we would go to the university campus and while they worked, I would take my sleeping bag out and sleep on the table next to them. In these conditions, the lights were bright, people were talking, there were no stuffed toys to cuddle with and there was no such thing as a conventional bed. I knew at that time that my parents’ success was important. But at the same time, so was my sleep, and there was no alternative to the situation. So I had to accept it and learn to adapt to the situation. As I grew up, I realized that it wasn’t just about sleep. I use sleep just as an example to illustrate that there are instances in everyone’s journey when there’s only one solution that you have. And at that point, one has to understand that the most important trait of all is the willingness to adapt because you may find yourself having a developed blessing of your own.

Image for post

Garima taking a nap on a bench during her visit to Disney World.

What is your advice to youth who have not yet found their passion?

I think that there’s no handbook to finding your passion, or there’s no one way of getting there. And to me, it’s an evolving concept at different stages of your life. I’ve had various passions over the years and they continue to evolve. There are two things that I’ve learned in trying to find my passion. The first thing is to not limit yourself in the things that you want to learn. To all the youths out there, I would say take up as many opportunities as you can and think of new things that you want to do. I explored various realms such as hockey lessons, palmistry classes and calligraphy. Some things I was good at and some things I failed at miserably, like hockey. But don’t worry about failing. I don’t want to give the false hope that you’re not going to fail because everyone fails and failing is part of life, but it is something that one must also learn to explore. Keep trying and keep learning because one day or another, you’ll definitely find your passion.

The second thing is that there’s no shortcut to finding your passion. In exploring new things, I think the hardest part is to actually commit to the task, and the initial phases are the hardest part. For example, piano lessons were one thing that was super hard for me to sit down and practice because it was a task that I dreaded. But I learned that regardless of what task it was, I wanted to give my 100% effort and then at the end of it, if I liked it or not, that was totally up to me. But I don’t want to look back and think that I didn’t try enough. It’s a hard process, finding your passion, but it’s not supposed to be easy. Keep exploring all the opportunities that you get and give 100% to every opportunity.

Image for post

Garima performing experiments as part of her PhD at Johns Hopkins University.

What was the most important thing that you learned this year?

It’s impossible to see where a life altering decision will lead you, and when one is faced with many diverging options, it’s normal to wonder where one path will lead versus another. Very early into the COVID-19 outbreak, I learned that at times when we’re faced with multiple different paths and life-altering options, making the decision swiftly and then walking on the path with confidence is key. This realization hit me while I was about to cross the Canada-U.S. border. I’m a Canadian student studying in the U.S., and when I heard the news about the Canada-U.S. border closing down due to COVID-19, suddenly everything was put into perspective: I wouldn’t be able to visit my family, they wouldn’t be able to visit me indefinitely, and we didn’t know when this was going to end. In addition, Johns Hopkins University was moving towards full closure. So what about my research? Where was that going to go? Clearly, there were many things to suddenly think about, and the first thing that came to mind was my family.

I drove down to Buffalo and left my rental car there, but the real question was how do I get from Buffalo to Toronto? My family wasn’t able to cross the border to pick me up, and I didn’t want to take the risk of taking a flight or bus from Buffalo. So, as Robert Frost would say, I took the road not taken, which was that I started walking across the U.S-Canada border. It was a crazy experience: 1.5 kilometers or so with two huge luggage bags and a backpack, and me being a super petite person, no one would have actually imagined that. But after 45 minutes of lugging my luggage and snapping pictures of the moment, I came to terms with the situation. I realized that this is the only way about it. I’m glad that I took the road less traveled by and I walked on it with confidence because that to me has been the greatest learning lesson of this year so far. I have a feeling though that COVID-19 is probably going to bring about many more lessons that we all need to learn this year.

Image for post

Garima making face masks for our frontline workers as part of the Stitch4Corona initiative.

If you could take anyone for coffee, who would it be? And what would you like to talk about?

I think this is a super interesting question. I don’t think or know whether he would want to go for coffee, but someone that I would want to sit and chat with would be S. N. Goenka. In 2016, I went on a journey of self exploration by enrolling myself in a 10-day meditation camp, where no technology, pen or paper, or talking was allowed for 10 days. The goal of it was to see things as they really are. It’s a way of self transformation through self observation that focuses on your mind and body by directing your attention to all the physical sensations that you experience. The foremost teacher of this meditation technique was S. N. Goenka.

My experience at this meditation camp was liberating and quite contrary to what I’ve learned about the brain through studying neuroscience. Some of the questions that I still have are “Why does meditation have such a different effect on individuals?” and “Why does one person feel one thing whereas another person feels another thing in the same situation?”. I’m always mind-boggled about the science behind meditation. Is there really a science behind it? There are so many phenomena that individuals experience while meditating yet we know very little about the science behind it. I’ve heard stories about individuals with incurable diseases who have implemented meditation techniques and actually gotten cured from it. S. N. Goenka himself has said that he had headaches that were incurable. He was taking dozens of pills but nothing was working. And then he started this meditation technique and implemented it, and in a short span of time his headaches were gone. No doctor was able to pinpoint why the headaches just came and went away. He thinks and credits a lot of that to meditation. There’s no logical explanation to what’s happening right now in our body and minds. But S. N. Goenka is definitely one of those people that I would love to chat with and learn more about his perspective on meditation. Maybe that’ll provide me some more clarity with my questions.