Choudhury, a research technician in the Tadross Lab and soon-to-be medical student, draws from his experience in brain science to create science and healthcare podcasts for anyone to enjoy.
Trainee Spotlight is a series of interviews from the Duke Institute for Brain Sciences that showcases the science and lives of the people behind the lab coats studying the brain at Duke. Want to suggest someone for the series or nominate yourself? Email the DIBS Director of Communications Dan Vahaba.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
I. Kjaerulff: How did you get into studying the brain?
A. Choudhury: When I was in high school, I enjoyed subjects like biology, chemistry, physics, math, but I didn’t love any one in particular. Then when I got to college, I took a neuroscience intro course. That was when I really first was like, oh wow, I can apply all of these into the discipline of neuroscience.
I also played a lot of sports growing up, and going into my senior year before I started college, there was a lot of press coverage around CTE in NFL players. Learning about that and seeing how it manifests in the brain, I really became interested. I got involved with an Alzheimer's Disease research lab where I spent four years during undergrad working.
IK: How did you get started with your current position?
AC: I graduated from Washington University in St. Louis back in the spring of 2020. I was a little bit uncertain on the postgraduate career option I wanted to pursue, so I spent a full year working as a medical assistant.
That was my first time being away from an academic medical center, removed from wet lab research. When I was working as a medical assistant, I was really missing the lab. Then, I had the opportunity to relocate out here to Durham and get back involved with research. I had a lot of experience working in preclinical Alzheimer's Disease models, and the Tadross Lab actively works on Parkinson’s Disease, another neurodegenerative disease, so it was a great transition.
Some of the motivation behind joining the lab was to explore the possibility of going the M.D.-Ph.D. route. Dr. Tadross was a big reason that I considered a Ph.D. He told me the pros and cons of both, and his original advice was always, there's no harm in applying to both. So, I applied to medical school this cycle and will be matriculating in the summer of 2023.
IK: Congratulations! So, you're a part of the lab that’s pioneering DART. Can you tell me a bit about that?
AC: Dr. Tadross is the one who invented DART. DART stands for drug acutely restricted by tethering. What makes this tool really unique is that it enables cell-type-specific pharmacology in behaving mice.
Half of the lab is made up of biomedical engineers, and half of the lab is made up of neuroscientists. All the biomedical engineers spend a lot of time developing the tool so that we can use it to study the brain.
The projects I spent a lot of time working on in the lab are related to Parkinson's Disease. Before joining the lab, I'd always just thought of Parkinson's therapeutics from the perspective of replacing dopamine (i.e. L-DOPA). But with DART, we can utilize different drugs to treat systems.
IK: How is this research making advances in the brain science field?
AC: One of the main benefits of DART’s cell-type specificity is that it allows us to disentangle the side effects from the therapeutic effects of a particular pharmacology. It allows us to use drugs in our experiments not previously utilized clinically. For example, one of the drugs we use in the lab is called gabazine. If you were to deliver gabazine systemically, it would invoke seizures. A gabazineDART lets us target this drug to specific cells, which enables us to reap the rewards of its therapeutic effects while avoiding the seizures.
This is all preclinical work, but I see it as the first technology of its kind that allows us to study the brain in this way. We can learn so many more novel mechanisms.
IK: Tell me about your Brain Bee Podcast!
AC: When I was a sophomore in college, I met Dr. Erik Herzog, who became one of my really good advisors. We felt like a lot of high school students don't get the opportunity to say, hey, neuroscience is a possibility and really see themselves becoming a neuroscientist.
The St. Louis Brain Bee was my first opportunity with educational outreach. Before each competition, we would hold what are called tutorials, where a couple of other undergraduates and I would go out to the neighboring high schools and lecture on neuroscience. Students were always chomping at the bit to find educational resources. Then, COVID happened and we couldn't do those types of things for students. I was like, how can I recreate these tutorials in a way that can be accessible?
One of the things I really wanted to do was include a diverse set of podcast guests because it's really important for every listener out there to be able to see themselves. Equal representation is something we really struggle with in higher-level science today, and I firmly believe that science will only get better as it grows more diverse. That was another benefit that we were really trying to look for.
I started getting the ball rolling in the summer of 2021. There was a lot of going back and forth about what exactly we wanted to do with the podcast, and then there's a lot of recording and editing. I was like, let’s go for it because I’m not going to have this much time ever again. It was something I had always thought about and never had the platform to pull it off or a specific niche to fill.
IK: What about the Unbiased Estimator podcast?
AC: I met Daniel Wang, a Duke medical student, through a couple of mutual friends, and I told him that I have my own podcast. He told me about his idea for a podcast to increase awareness and provide an educational resource for medical trainees about healthcare economics, which is definitely a very under-emphasized point in medical education today. I brought all my editing expertise, and it has been great because I get to learn a lot about healthcare economics along the way. Our goal is to provide an educational resource for medical trainees by medical trainees. We are really trying to make it so that trainees can understand why a medication costs what it costs, what options there are for patients struggling to afford treatment, how patients make decisions, etc.
IK: Where do you call home?
AC: That's a tough question. I was born in Omaha, Nebraska. Then, I spent some time in Rochester, Minnesota. But I would call Iowa City, Iowa, home. That's where I spent the majority of my childhood and went to high school.
I was a big sports fan and in Iowa City, the biggest thing to do is follow the Iowa Hawkeyes. My first job was actually selling programs at the Iowa football and basketball games. It was awesome for me because I'd also get a free ticket to the game. It's one of those things where if you're in Iowa City, you become an Iowa fan.
IK: Now that you've relocated to Durham, what's your favorite food here?
AC: One of the places I go to pretty frequently is Med Deli in Chapel Hill. I just love all the options with the different sides you can have. Here in Durham, I would say Alpaca for sure.
IK: Do you have any hobbies you dabble in outside of your work?
AC: I love playing pickup basketball. I try to do it as much as I can. It's a great way to get to know people outside the lab!
IK: Definitely. What is the best pro tip you've learned being in academia so far?
AC: Science Twitter is such a hidden gem that I was only peripherally aware of in college. It's so easy to stay on top of current papers that are coming out. XYZ is a leader in their field, and they retweeted this paper. Maybe I should read it. I utilize it on a daily basis.
IK: Do you think you'll continue with neuroscience work in the future?
AC: Clinically, I'd say the specialties that are most interesting to me right now are definitely neurology and psychiatry. Seeing how applicable neuroscience is in the clinical practice of psychiatry has been really interesting. Long term, I'd love to continue doing neuroscience research, whether that be as an M.D.-Ph.D. student or M.D. student, at a basic science level, or at a clinical level.
If you are a Duke undergraduate, graduate, or postdoc student studying the brain and would be interested in taking part in an interview for this series or want to nominate someone, please reach out to Dan Vahaba, Director of Communications at DIBS.