March 30th
IC3i Interviews Visual

IC3i Alumni Interview #9: Gokul Rajan

Discover the IC3i Alumni’s professional paths in our series of interviews.

Gokul Rajan
Gokul Rajan

Gokul, can you briefly tell us about your PhD project in Institut Curie?

During my PhD at Institut Curie, I worked in the neuroscience laboratory of Dr. Filippo Del Bene in the Genetics and Developmental Biology Unit. Here, I developed a comparative approach in neuroscience utilizing different fish species: the idea was to study divergent behaviors in evolutionarily closely related animal models to understand how very conserved neural circuits can produce divergent behavioral outputs. Using this approach with whole-brain imaging and neuronal manipulation in two related fish species which swim and explore their environments differently, I identified a population of neurons which modulate the duration of movements.


What did your journey look like before relocating to Paris?

Before my PhD, I studied Biotechnology at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Bombay. During this time, I worked on genetic engineering and virology projects there. My interest in behavior and neuroscience led me to join the Neuronal Systems Lab of Dr. Joby Joseph at the Center for Neural and Cognitive Sciences in Hyderabad (India) where I got some experience with electrophysiological recordings from single neurons. Then, I wanted to scale up these recordings to a brain-wide scale to look at population activity in the brain of behaving animals. At the time, in 2016, this is exactly what the fish neuroscience community was doing with calcium imaging in the small larval fish brains. That’s how my interests brought me to the Del Bene lab in Institut Curie.


Why did you decide to do a PhD?

I have always been driven by curiosity as far as I can remember, so a PhD was really an obvious choice.


Is there something particular about the IC3i program that attracted you the most?

IC3i was uniquely attractive – it offered a very international research environment at Institut Curie, in the heart of Paris, surrounded by a rich history of art, science, and culture.


According to you, what are the 3 key points to successfully complete a PhD?

Perseverance, time management and keeping the big picture in mind!


Could you tell us why?

Because I think doing a PhD is like solving a giant jigsaw puzzle but on a timer: at any given time, you should focus on the mini puzzles within the larger puzzle; but at the same time, you also shouldn’t forget that they are part of a larger puzzle. So, it is essential to zoom out occasionally to critically look at the pieces that you are assembling. In the end, it is also a creative pursuit, and you can’t do justice to it while chasing deadlines, so you also need to learn to prioritize and manage time.


Was it hard for you to integrate outside academia (considering that you’re not a native French speaker)?

When I arrived in Paris, I first lived in the beautiful Cite Internationale Universitaire de Paris (CIUP) overlooking Parc Montsouris in the 14th arrondissement. This is a great place to be as an international student in Paris – there are lots of other international students who live here, and many activities happen on campus. This makes the initial integration very easy. I also took French lessons at the Mairie (city hall) to pick up some basic French which was also useful in terms of life outside academia.


Outside the lab, how was your life in Paris?

Paris had a lot to offer outside the lab – whether it is just a stroll through the city on my bike or a picnic in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, the hilly park with beautiful views opposite my studio in the 19th arrondissement or simply an afterwork run in CIUP – it never disappointed me. And if you like art, history and museums like me, there is always something happening in the city – I must have cumulatively spent a few weeks in le Louvre.  Above all, I made friends from all over the world during this period and these connections will last forever.


So, you got your degree now… how does the journey ahead looks like?

In my current research in the lab of Dr. Michael Orger at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, I am using new imaging methods to study aversive memories and their representation in mature brain-wide neuronal circuits. Going forward, I would like to continue my work in neuroscience as an independent researcher and use behavioral and brain imaging tools to investigate neuronal circuits in the context of learning, memory, and evolution.


Looking back, do you think you would’ve done something differently which would’ve changed where you’re standing today?

I can confidently say that if I had a time machine to go back in time and make the choices around my PhD again – thesis topic, lab, institute, supervisor, city – I would make the very same decisions all over again. It’s been an incredible experience.


Any advice for the readers who are wishing to embark on a similar journey as yours?

For anyone embarking on a PhD, there is nothing more important than choosing a work that really interests you and finding a supervisor who is not only a good scientist but also a good mentor. I was fortunate to find a good combination of this.


Interview conducted by Ayan Mallick, February 2023.