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KI-NIH Collaborative Doctoral Program in Neuroscience

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>> STAL SHRESTHA: I am very fortunate to have been able to participate in the NIH-Karolinska program, an exceptional Neuroscience collaborative PhD program that integrates an all-encompassing PhD training skillset geared towards producing outstanding neuroscientists.

Besides getting a PhD from a prestigious university - Karolinska is the university that actually decides the Nobel Prize in Medicine - the trainee also gets to do research at the NIH utilizing the state of the art resource. The program helps trainees develop several important and easily transferrable skills that are essential to becoming an independent scientist, including good management, scientific communication, an ability to work collaboratively within teams, and a 'can do' attitude.

While there is no need to learn Swedish - more than 99% of Swedes speak fluent English - the program is best suited to those with strong interpersonal skills, ability to connect with people from diverse backgrounds, and who enjoy being pushed outside of their comfort zone.

One of my favorite aspects of the program is that, every one and a half years, there is a symposium for students and faculty from both institutes to share their research. The symposium also helps cement personal and professional relationships within the NIH- Karolinska program community. Students and faculty often meet during the school year at informal social gatherings, in journal clubs, at briefings for ongoing and prospective students and, in Sweden, at talks by visiting Nobel Laureates, which are pretty frequent. Briefly, I came from Harvard, where I learned the fundamentals of biomedical research, and was fortunate to get an opportunity that allowed me to publish a first-authored article in the Journal of Pain.

While presenting this research at the Society for Neuroscience meeting, I learned about the joint NIH-Karolinska PhD graduate partnership program. In 2010, I matriculated to this program under the superb mentorship of Dr. Robert Innis at the NIH, as well as my co-mentor, Dr. Per Svenningsson at Karolinska. During my time in the program, I had the opportunity to conduct cutting-edge translational research using PET imaging and in vitro molecular techniques. In 2014, I successfully defended my PhD with eight publications - four of which were first-authored. One of these - a high-risk, high-profile project on the long-term effects of antidepressants during brain development involving several collaborators - was published in The American Journal of Psychiatry. Due to its potential clinical impact, the article was accompanied by an editorial by world-renowned child psychiatrists and behavioral psychologists. My other research used a gene-environment model to examine the effects of antidepressants on the serotonergic system.

My scientific research has allowed me to be the recipient of several awards - including the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology and Alavi-Mandell Nuclear Medicine Excellence awards in 2017, International Young Professionals award in Translational Neuroscience in 2016, Henry M. Jackson Postdoctoral Fellowship for the Advancement of Military Medicine in 2015, and the NIH Fellows award Research Excellence in 2014. Besides doing high-risk, high-reward research, this program also encourages trainees to develop essential leadership skills. For instance, I ran for and was appointed as the official partnership representative for this program for four consecutive years. This experience has allowed me to advocate for students and form deep and long-lasting friendships.

Currently, I am wrapping up my work as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the NIMH. My recent research has focused on successfully developing a novel biomarker for neuroinflammation and studying mechanisms during brain injury. I will be starting my medical training as part of the Track 3 MSTP, directed by Dr. Craig Blackstone at the NIH.

Finally, the NIH- Karolinska program provides a wonderfully comprehensive training program with essentials tools to pursue independent, cutting-edge research in neuroscience. This highly successful program, directed by our Training Director, Dr. Janet Clark, provides extensive support, guaranteed funding, and a rare training opportunity to do inter-institutional, collaborative, and transformative research that only very few places offer to their PhD trainees.