Cogbites Interview Series: Madhura Lotlikar

Welcome back to our cogbites interview series, where we interview cognitive scientists by asking them a few questions about their interests in science and what keeps them engaged both in and out of the lab.

As a reminder, you can learn a little about our own team of contributors by reading their bios (either on our author page or at the bottom of each post), but this is a chance to get to know some early-career scientists even better. Our last interview was with Dr. Cristina Zepeda, an assistant professor in psychology and human development at Vanderbilt University. 

This week we interview Madhura Lotlikar, who is starting her first year with Dr. Marc Roig as a Ph.D. student in McGill University in the department of Neuroscience. Her research focuses on sleep deprivation and measures to counter its harmful effects. Good luck on your journey, Madhura!

Madhura Lotlikar

Madhura recently attended ComSciConCAN, a communicating science workshop for graduate students. There, she drafted a blog post entitled “Train your brain to give directions,” which  explains different strategies we use to navigate in the world and how some strategies can harm our brain insidiously (now published on cogbites!)

Here’s our interview with Madhura:

Why did you decide to pursue cognitive science? 

Growing up I was interested to know what was going inside my grandmother’s brain who was very adorable, funny, and had Alzheimer’s disease. I worked on Alzheimer’s disease for a few years, but on a molecular and cellular scale – I am a molecular biologist by training. Specifically, I worked on understanding the mechanism through which Abeta – a protein contributing to the Alzheimer’s disease – is released by neurons (you can read about the research here). Although I thoroughly enjoyed my projects, I pondered at the end of almost every day as to where in the human brain did that process occur? How did it alter my grandma’s memory? How did it affect her learning abilities? How did she get lost in her own house? I did not have an answer!

So, I joined the rotation program at McGill University where I took a leap into cognitive neuroscience field for the first time through different labs. It thoroughly enhanced my understanding in the cognitive science topics like spatial navigation, neuropsychology of behavior change, learning, and memory. It was fulfilling to be able to learn and ask questions on how the brain encodes the information, how the brain changes in response to the information and how it processes and stores the information! Thus, I chose to do my Ph.D. with Dr. Marc Roig where I study human cognitive neuroscience.

What are you currently working on?

If you allow me to be cheesy, my answer is “I am working on me” 😀

Research wise, I am currently contributing in different capacities to more than one project apart from my main Ph.D. project-to-be.

My main project will be focused on understanding the effects of sleep deprivation on the structure and function of the brain using Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and examining if exercise interventions or naps can counter those effects by restoring or protecting certain brain functions. It is fascinating and scary to know how the sleep restriction of one night or two negatively affects our brain! Did you know that after sleep deprivation, we do not fully recover some of our learning and memory functions – even after recovery sleep –  until days later? I do not take sleep for granted anymore!

I am contributing to another fascinating project focused on investigating the associations of changes in posture and gait with early cognitive decline in older adults. This research is based on the motor-cognition interaction paradigm which posits that both functions (motor function and cognition) are regulated by shared brain resources. Numerous studies that show that cognitive impairment is more likely to progress to dementia if accompanied by motor function impairment, and motor impairments are more likely to lead to falls, fractures, and imbalance if accompanied with cognitive impairment… It was mind blowing to learn this concept. I will leave you with that to build on its implications!

What is the most exciting concept in cognitive science?

There are many concepts that catch me in awe like the mechanisms of forgetting, formation of memory (and false memory), neurophysiology of sleep, and the brain’s ability to extract concepts from new information and experiences. The fact that oftentimes our brain gets only one chance to encode information and make important decisions, predictions, abstractions of meaning from that is very intriguing!

If I must pick a winner, I think the most interesting concept is spatial learning. It is a beautifully orchestrated function that occurs through crosstalk between different brain regions. Our brain is continuously sampling and encoding the location we are in, the distance we travel, the boundaries of a room, and orienting us with our ever-changing head directions. Right now, your “place cells” are firing which are largely “coding” for the space you are at right now. If you close your eyes, walk ten steps, and turn left, most of you will still be oriented in this space and not feel lost when you open your eyes. The electrophysiology of this process and its replay during sleep are very fascinating!

What sparked your interest in science communication (SciComm)?

I proactively sought opportunities to give presentations on a science topics to the classroom and beyond during my undergrad. Years later, I got exposed to a very warm and rich SciComm culture in Boston and thought that I should nourish the seed of my interest by presenting science and test my feet in this field. Luckily, I got an opportunity to be in the Science Rehashed Inc. podcast – founded by my lab colleagues at Massachusetts General Hospital – as a writer and later as a production director. It was a huge learning opportunity, and I thoroughly enjoyed spreading the excitement of science to everyone. But soon I recognized that science communication also serves important functions like bridging the gap between scientists and society, to build the scientific temperament in public, to create trust in science, to curb out misinformation and to impact lives – because science impacts everyone! And through going on a lot of dates – most of who were outside of the science field – I realized that people are genuinely interested, but not always fully informed about science.

I believe there is gap and a demand for science communicators and that pushes me to improve as a science communicator.

Is there anything else you want us to know about you?

My hobbies are café hopping to understand the local café culture, capturing moments in photos, rambling in the woods, kayaking, and finding the best vegan ramen in every town!

Lately, sleep has become one of the most important parts of my day – I would easily miss a fun party for a great night of sleep! And unarguably it is fulfilling.