HUMAN: Sloka IYENGAR
LOCATION: NEW YORK, USA
Domain: Data Analytics, Neuroscience and Research, Philanthropy
Job Profile: Neuroscientist, Course Scientist at The American Museum of Natural History, Marcomm Director of Statistics Without Borders, Award-Winning Bharatanatyam Practitioner
The Sabarmati River in Western India has seen many significant historical events and is the location of Mahatma Gandhi’s ashram from where he fought for India’s independence. This historical place has birthed many influential figures that have come and changed the world in their unique way.
And this remarkable story is a journey of a mother and a daughter who personify what their hometown represents to the world. And their extraordinary lives genuinely embody one of Gandhi’s most famous quotes:
‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’
So, here’s introducing Sloka Iyengar, a neuroscientist by profession and a trained classical dancer from New York with her roots in India. She is changing the perception of academicians and scientists worldwide with her diverse philanthropic work and her research on healing the human body and mind through art forms.
She holds various positions in organizations like Statistics Without Borders, WCAPS NY Chapter, and New Leaders’ Council making a social impact across geographies. She is currently a course scientist for the American Museum of Natural History. She is also an award-winning Bharatanatyam dancer who is discovering ways to use art forms to promote positive mental health.
Growing up in Ahmedabad
Sloka grew up in Ahmedabad in Western India and recollected how she dabbled in many art forms in her childhood.
‘I was one of those children who are interested in everything. So, I love to dance, and I have been dancing since I was five. And I also remember turning pages of a book when I couldn’t read and admiring the shape of words. Then reading was also encouraged by my parents. There used to be this Sunday market by the banks of the Sabarmati River where we get books by weight.’, she reminisces.
She and her school friends would exchange these books, and a love for reading was inculcated at an early age.
She gaily reveals, ‘My childhood was happy and very active. With my love for reading and writing, I approached Margie Sastry, Wee India’s editor, the children’s section of Times of India. This is one of the country’s biggest newspapers, and I asked her to include me in the section they had just started. So, I was ten and rode my bike to the editor’s office to convince her to have me on her team.’
So that one summer, she conducted several interviews and wrote interesting articles on topics like embroidery that children can learn during their summer holidays.
‘Interestingly, I did my undergrad in pharmacy. After I finished school, I didn’t know much about the world of pharmacy, but I found it interesting. I can recall how we used to have this whole section on drugs that affect the brain, and I realize how little we know of how the brain work.’, she discloses.
She recounts how her parents encouraged and allowed her to explore different opportunities.
‘I came from a lower middle-class household, but my parents never told me I couldn’t do something. I would ride my bike to all these places, and there were no cell phones then, but they never stopped me. It’s the best gift they could have given me.’, she lovingly reflects.
Encouragement and life lessons came from many sources, and she feels tremendously grateful for how it has shaped her.
She relays her experience, ‘I was encouraged by people in so many ways, like I remember Sister Rosaria, the librarian in my catholic school. She would wrap our borrowed books in sheets to take extra care of the book and respect the knowledge contained in it. And the editor of the newspaper gave me the freedom to explore. All my gurus in my dancing classes… I am still learning how to balance life from them.’
Being an avid animal lover, she confesses how her mother influenced her to care for animals and the environment.
‘My mother was like the champion for stray animals and protecting the environment. We would have wounded pigeons in our homes, and we learned how to take care of them. So, after my undergraduate, I worked at a shelter for stray animals in Ahmedabad.’, she explains.
She remembers how stray dogs were treated inhumanely, especially by the local municipality that would send vehicles to catch them by tongs.
‘The organization I worked for was a visionary. They introduced a humane way of catching strays with a net, and my job involved taking care of anywhere between two and 250 to 300 dogs in a day. I was like 20 or 21…right out of college. So, I got to work on animal advocacy and creating a gentler environment for animals.’, she describes her early work.
That animal shelter would propel her toward her love for neuroscience and wanting to understand how the brain makes us who we are.
‘I used to wonder how a mother cat knows that she has to take care of her babies, and observing animal behaviour increased my interest to learn more about the brain.’, she divulges.
A Neurological world
One of the most influential persons in her life has been her mother, Radha Iyengar, who passed on values she still cherishes.
‘Today is my mother’s birthday; she was among the kindest people I know. She will tell me that if I find somebody in trouble, I have a moral responsibility to do something about it. So, in Ahmedabad, the weather can get scorching and unpleasant. And if she finds out anyone is in the hospital, she will visit them. She was a personification of idealism with practicality.’, she recollects.
Her mother’s life lessons have stuck with her over the years, and she understands how it has become a moral compass for her.
She says, ‘Sometimes we look at the world and say we can’t do anything. Just because you can do little doesn’t mean you can’t do anything. That lesson has stayed on with me.’
She admits she had a keen interest in chemistry and biology in her academic life and would drive her parents and teachers mad with her questions.
‘I was very quizzical as a child, and you could call it having a scientific inquiry. In pharmacy, I had so much to learn and know. And elders in those times would shush you up if they didn’t have answers. I grew up near the Sabarmati River, where Mahatma Gandhi started his freedom movement, and I always wondered how we could clean up our rivers. There were a lot of questions around me that needed an answer.‘, she recalls.
Then, she decided to move out of India and further her education. Her Ph.D. program had a course that allowed her to take some biotechnology, microtechnology, and law classes. She could take these graduate courses and do rotations for six months in different labs. This experience would lead to meeting her advisor and building a lab together.
‘My advisor was also new to the Uni, and they had funding for a student. I walked into a lab with nothing and had the opportunity to create a lab from scratch. It was challenging but also extremely rewarding.’, she reveals.
They had built a color rig or electrophysiology equipment to amplify and record electrical activity and find a way to study them. That was the start of her neuroscience journey.
‘Given my experience and education, neuroscience shows you how the brain is the last frontier. We have understood almost everything about the heart or liver, but fundamental questions about the brain remain. We don’t know what makes us conscious, how we have a set of ethics, or how we create functions as human beings.‘, she explains.
The questions that are still left unanswered in this field motivated her to continue her research.
She analyses, ‘The fact that we live and function as living things is amazing. But how do we fire these neurons, and what leads to our thoughts? Especially animal cognition and how animals think and what their framework is.’
This analysis has led her to delve deeper into the connections that exist behind our minds and mental health. She is trying to work on healing through an art form now.
‘My recent passion is to bring health equity where if one goes to a doctor, you get medication. But much more happens outside the doctor’s office, like our social connections or sleep. So, I am thinking of ways to heal through music and dance.‘, she explains.
Being involved in art as a way of expressing herself for as long as she can remember, she explains how using technology to democratize art is essential.
‘The dance or the art form I practice is deeply rooted in South India. But I have been able to bring it to New York as I have the tools to make that happen. We have these technologies to make things happen, such as computational neuroscience, which tries to understand how these billions of neurons lead to circuits. So how can we predict and understand human behaviour.‘ , she describes.
Epilepsy is one of the nervous system disorders that she is keenly working on, and she is trying to recognize the various that affect a lot of people and their families.
‘Specially with my work on Epilepsy… as we know, seizures are a synchronized electrical firing, and we have a lot of technology to study brain frequencies during seizures. So, we can use these tools to predict it before it happens, which would be pretty amazing.’, she confesses.
A Pro Bono journey
Sloka recalls how she had a minimal dating life and had plans to adopt before meeting her husband, Michael.
‘My parents had an arranged marriage, and it didn’t seem like marriage was something I wanted. I had plans to adopt and continue my work and research. Then Michael saw me in my community garden, where I performed in 2014. He saw my face and name on the flyers. And he found me online.‘, she remembers.
Her chance encounter with Michael changed it all, and she has now found her marital bliss.
She admits, ‘He is someone I really admire. He is a physicist, and I love talking to him about physics and various concepts. Maths and physics were something I was intimidated by as a young girl. We met through dance, so it does have a special place in my heart.’
One of the happiest additions to her family has been a puppy that has brought new hope and love to her household.
‘Me and my husband…we are gone for close to 10 hours a day, and with Covid, I didn’t want a pet as it didn’t seem fair to have without timings. But my husband saw a puppy on the website, and we fell in love with it.’, she reminisces.
Besides her love for animals, Sloka also volunteers for several organizations creating a social impact worldwide.
She reveals, ‘I grew up doing a whole bunch of things like dancing, writing, and academics was amazing. When I was in a different country with a different atmosphere, I felt like I missed out a lot. So, I started volunteering for Statistics Without Borders and a few other organizations in New York. I could use my scientific and artistic training to create a direct impact.’
Volunteering gave her a much-needed push to do the kind of things that she wanted to do and meet people with a passion and talent to create changes in the world.
‘My association with these organizations has taught me how to manage people and also the value of their time. Somebody is donating their time to a cause, and how do you keep track of all the moving ways? It has made me a better organizer, and I strive towards bettering myself.‘ She uncovers her motivation to work for pro-bono organizations.
She is also a part of the New Leaders Council in the United States, where she was recently selected as the co-director of the NYC New Leaders Council (NLC) chapter. She fondly recalls how she worked for an organization called ‘Pallium‘ in Kerala, where the founder is a Padma Shri Awardee, one of the highest honors for Indian citizens.
‘I am the co-director of the New Leader’s council this year, and I also work for an organization in South India called ‘Pallium’ that provides palliative care. So, they care for people at the end of their life or people with chronic diseases, help them access pain medication, and advocate for palliative care in general medicine. The founder is one of the most humble and efficient people I have met recently, and I am truly inspired by it.’, she describes.
When asked where she derives all the energy and motivation to continue philanthropic work, she has to look no further than her past to draw inspiration.
She reveals, ‘I have had fun doing this kind of work since I was little. Every day can get mundane, and seeing our work’s impact inspires me. My Ph.D. advisor, David, always told me nothing worthwhile is easy. Suppose it’s one paper that is taking forever to publish or a paper with 60 authors; it is laborious but rewarding. So, all these works can seem tiring and stressful, but the impact makes it worthwhile.’
Another inspiration she has in her life is a famous Bharatanatyam dancer, who, in his early 80s, is still dancing like his twilight years.
‘I remember when he came to New York to perform, and he is like 84 now and still dances. He is one of the most amazing people I have met. He had a show the night before and did a full rehearsal. He danced for like two hours on stage. I was just in awe. And what he said was that self-pity kills motivation. It really gave me a perspective.’, she reminisces.
A Challenging path
Her early experience of India’s highly competitive academic scene was a challenge she had to overcome alone. She recalls how she didn’t have the skills to cope with such a demanding environment at that young age.
‘I found the experience of growing up in a very competitive environment in India very stressful. I don’t think I could thrive in that kind of competition. Especially after 12th grade, your marks and the field you choose matter greatly. So, I was lucky that I got into pharmacy and ended up enjoying it.‘, she admits.
Leaving her life and work behind in India and moving to the United States was a bittersweet journey for her.
She reveals, ‘Coming to the US meant that l had to leave my family and friends, all the pets I took care of in the shelter, and it was difficult. I had my studies and everything, but my homesickness was severe.’
Another challenging period happened as she lost her near and dear ones, and grief silently crept into her life.
‘My father passed away three months before I defended my Ph.D. I went to India, finished my dissertation, and then returned to New York. I honestly don’t know how I did it. Then Losing my mother and my mother-in-law in a period of six months… There is no resolution. I mean, you have to go on. You can think about it, but nothing is left to repair.,’ she confesses.
She also recalls losing her close friend, Carol Schachter, who had been like a family and someone she could rely on over the years.
She admits, ‘I made close friends like Carol over the years of my stay here. She was one of the wittiest, funniest people around, caring, generous, and with a mind unlike any other. People like her made the transition bearable, and losing her has been tough.’
The transitionary period of leaving her home country for a new one has been a voyage of finding herself.
She explains, ‘I was in South Carolina at the time. I grew up in a big family, and you meet many people in India. And here a lot of people drive rather than walk. So, I didn’t drive for the first few years and would walk to my school. So, people must have thought it was weird. A lot of the human interaction I took for granted made me realize how different it was here.’
Her perception of the world was shaped as a result of being raised by a headstrong mother in a patriarchal setting; who wanted her daughter to explore the world on her own.
‘My mother never taught me how to cook, and she used to say that no man will ever tell my daughter that she needs to cook. I used to help her in the kitchen, but she was adamant about me doing other things. And growing up as a vegetarian, my options were limited here. So, once I started living alone here, learning everything was quite an experience. Over time I met so many friends, and I think the assimilation happened gradually.’, she reveals.
Many of her life’s influences have been from her mother, who set a stellar example for her daughter to follow.
‘She loved animals. Whenever she found wounded pigeons or birds, she brought them home and cared for them. This was even before animal shelters existed in her hometown. So, I grew up connected to animals. That love is nothing purer. I love plants too. I feel rewarded for taking care of something or somebody. Just look at plants; they can’t talk or communicate, but they communicate through a change in color or shape. It teaches you compassion.’, she describes.
Taking forward the lessons she has received over the years, Sloka has dedicated her time to various causes, such as a dance program for senior citizens to help them heal through art.
‘I like the challenge of making a dance form that I have practiced for so many years universal for people of all ages. Something that even a 70-year-old will be able to learn. It’s amazing to take this art form so close to my heart and help people who might have never thought of even dancing in their lives learn it.‘, she explains.
Dancing has been a way of life for her for as long as she can remember. Darpana Academy of performing arts in Ahmedabad was one of the first places where she learned the art form.
She recalls, ‘Practicing this artform for years has been quite a revelation and requires a certain dedication. I remember how my family encouraged me, and I used to go there three days a week. My mother was also a Carnatic vocalist, so art was always around the house. So, the academy had Bharatanatyam and folk dance, and I ended up loving folk dances. There was puppeteering and drama… just an immersion of all art forms.’
Many happy memories she has of her early life revolve around the academy where she and her mother would attend shows on traditional Indian Epics like Ramayana.
‘We would attend shows like the one on Ramayana where they showed the play from the perspective of Sita, and looking back, it was quite revolutionary. It was truly formative.,’ she responds.
She would implement these experiences in her dance programs where the emphasis is not just on dance but on the whole essence of the art form.
‘It’s something I try to teach in my students too. That dance is not just movements but some textures and lighting influence it. Like what is the color associated with love and feelings? If there is a spotlight and a light or a dark background really changes the emotions. So, it is like a holistic experience.,’ she explains.
As a multifaceted neuroscientist, she describes how dance signifies something more than just art.
‘The privilege of being able to move and the amazing things we can do. Our body is a spiritual tool … at the basic level, it teaches us to appreciate our bodies. I feel very grateful for it.’, she admits.
अग्रे गन्तुं मार्गः
Sloka recalls how her mother has been the force behind her throughout her life.
‘My mother grew up in Jamshedpur, an industrial town in North India. We are from the Southern part of India through ancestry, but my grandfather moved there as he worked at Tata Steel. So, my mother had a pretty cosmopolitan upbringing for her time. She had music all her life and loved singing.’, she remembers.
But life during that period in India was challenging due to the frequent famines in the region. She recalls her mother narrating her stories about how food grains were distributed through ration cards.
‘My mother was born right after India got independence and grew up with limited means. She was one of six children and a force of nature for all of us. She would have thrived so much more if she had been born in this era. After she married my father, they shifted to Ahmedabad. It was a new culture and a new language. They had to assimilate themselves. Even in that new place, she took up teaching and stayed on being very active.,’ she admits.
The Senior Iyengar had faced their own hurdles in transitioning to a new place and culture that Sloka would face decades later. But the valuable lessons they have left for her still resonate with her today.
She advises, ‘Eventually, one learns how everything works out in the end. No one knows what is going to happen. I had that outlet to express myself through dance. The world is much bigger than us, and many opportunities exist.‘
Seeing her mother and Kathy, her mother-in-law’s lives made her realize how patriarchy is inherent in different cultures and the need for better treatment and care for senior citizens.
‘When my mother was diagnosed with lung cancer, I saw the social treatments and the forces at play. I realized how insensitive people can be to senior care and stood up for her in her final days. It’s one of the proudest things I have done in a long time.’, she narrates.
She has a list of people who have influenced her and shaped her career and life.
She elucidates, ‘My dance guru and Amma, Maheshwari Nagarajan, who in her late 70s has shown me a different perspective of dance with her progressive thinking. I have been learning from her since I was five. Then Ela Bhatt, the founder of SEWA (Self-Employed Women’s Association), does so much work for female textile workers. And the other most important person in my life is my husband, Michael. He is a scientist himself, but his holistic way of viewing the world and analysing things is something I really like about him. He is also quite objective. A lot of influences for sure in my life.’
Her advice for young people looking to enter the field of neuroscience is simple and revolves around finding one’s interest and passion.
‘Having a solid foundation of knowledge that you can build on is very important. Neuroscience is an amazing field, and there are many ways to approach it … whether it is analysing brain cells and looking at their electrical activity or the field of psychology or criminal psychology. You also have AI that is being used for neuroscience. It is such a multifaceted field, and finding your interest in it is important.’, she explains.
One of the important lessons she has learned by being in the field for many years is the value of a good mentor.
‘Nothing can be more valuable than a good mentor. Because with that knowledge, how will we interpret what we know? Someone showing you and teaching you is invaluable.‘, she reveals.
This passionate Neuroscientist has not just shattered the idea of being a scientist confined to labs but shown us how to live the most fulfilling and enriching life by setting an example with her life and philanthropic work.
She accepts, ‘How scientists validate and view knowledge needs to be reformed. Appreciating knowledge that comes outside of the lab is necessary. Our views and thinking of a generation of knowledge needs a shift.’
That need for reformation and finding the ‘joy’ of working for causes that impact people and create a better place for others motivates this extraordinary scientist to thrive on making a change in her domain.
Sloka’s journey has indeed shown us the real essence of compassion and selflessness to create an impact in the world.
As an ancient Hindu treatise on the art form, Natya Shastra, written by the sage Bharata, talks about the importance of nurturing our mind and soul:
‘Yatho Hasta thatho Drishti,
Yatho Drishti thatho Manah
Yatho Manah thatho Bhaava,
Yatho Bhava thatho Rasa.’
This can be loosely translated as ‘Where the hands are, the eyes follow. Where the eyes are, the mind follows. Where the mind goes, there is expression. Where this is an expression, the mood is evoked.’
Scientists like her are not just evoking the need for social change and humanitarian action but, in reality, changing our world one Mudra at a time.
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