Chinmayi Balusu is a sophomore at Columbia University, founder of Simply Neuroscience, and invited speaker at EntrepreneuHER2020. We asked her to share her experiences as a speaker at the world's largest all-female makeathon and her initiatives at Simply Neuroscience.
What was your experience like at the EntrepreneuHER2020 makeathon?
So female founders panel — super, super fun. Some of the women that I was tossing ideas back and forth with were women whose work been following for a while. Or perhaps we met there for the first time, but it was honestly wonderful to meet the other wonderful ladies there. But other than that, seeing the enthusiasm of attendees was really wonderful.
I can say, in a heartbeat, that EntrepreneuHER2020 was the event that stuck with me the most out of everything I've participated in so far. And I'm not saying that because I'm biased. I truly found that I walked out of there with a lot of reflection.
And I'm thinking of Kaylee's (founder of Reinvented Magazine) point; She had mentioned at one point that she sings when she's happy. And she knows she's happy when she's singing and having a jolly good time. I was reflecting on that the other day when I was doing some fun karaoke in my room. But I think that these kinds of connections are really powerful. And when you still reminisce on those kinds of events, it's just stuck with you. So, I don't just say this because of bias. I truly mean it.
How did you get started in your field of interest or passion, and what first prompted you to get involved in the work that you do?
My main passion is neuroscience. And to be honest, there were a number of chance encounters along the way in Late Middle School and early high school that started to build up. It really grew on me kind of like moss or fungus in a way. But, I found that it was a perfect way for me to learn science. From our perspective, that was not just biology or not just one specific niche, but rather, anything from bringing together a lot of different scientific perspectives to understand everyday actions, such as eating and sleeping, and what the brain's link with those processes are all the way to trying to discover problems for really major illnesses that affect the brain. That's sort of how I came about discovering my passion. It was through playing around with brain models at science fairs and exploring a more hands-on way through research, internships, and even through college courses.
What is your founding story of Simply Neuroscience? Why did you start this? And who do you start it for?
It's for young students, like myself. I guess I could say it's for young students around our age, who are either maybe just discovering your interest in neuroscience or really love it and wish to further that interest before perhaps they get to college or even beyond. The mission is to bridge the early neuroscience gap because neuroscience as a field is often not introduced to many students until they're later on college or beyond. This organization, Simply Neuroscience, started to bring awareness to the fact that all students should have access to neuroscience resources or any initiatives that they want to get involved in, regardless of their educational background, where they live, or what identities they may have. The second part is also bringing light to the fact that neuroscience isn't just neurobiology or neurosurgery like many people would commonly assume. Rather, there's so much involved in the field; it's incredibly multidisciplinary. So really illustrating that you don't need to go to medical school, and you don't need to be a PCI or researcher. There are still so many careers you can get involved in.
How do you maintain a balance between your professional and your personal life?
I think being a full-time student definitely bleeds into my personal life as well, because both it's a professional and personal identity, being a student and just an enthusiastic learner. So, I would say that there's no set time where I take time off from being a student. But, I think taking breaks is definitely important. I'm pretty fond of gardening. At the end of the day, I'll usually take an hour or two and head out into our family garden and just spend some time outside, and that gives me a little bit of a break from having a very regimented schedule from morning to eight at night. So I would say that I still take time on the weekends to get involved in such with simply neuroscience and other volunteer initiatives.
What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced through your work?
I would definitely say I'm in no way an expert when it comes to neuroscience. And so I feel like a lot of times people criticize me or downplay my work at Simply Neurosciences saying, "It's just a student-led nonprofit. You guys aren't a professional neuroscience organization." Or "what do you know, you're just in your second year of college. You don't have a Ph.D. or an MD degree in neuroscience, so what do you know?" And it's a challenge because you don't need to have a degree to promote neuroscience accessibility. Simply Neuroscience's outreach impact and the numbers speak for themselves. And we know that we're making a difference every single day. So it's not like this is just, you know, something superficial or surface-level in any way.
When it comes to when people start criticizing, we're still going to keep doing our work. And we're still going to try to make a change.
Criticism and feedback can be harsh at times, but it's also like, hey, you just got to keep going on.
What is the most important lesson you've learned so far?
It was built into me by the current educational system that I needed to wait until I was older to do these kinds of things with neuroscience impact or even in any activities for which I needed to have a firm college degree, an advanced degree behind my back, be older, be more reputable, or credible to go out and try to help in the community. I've realized and pushed back against that a lot. Maybe in 10 years, my current work will be super minuscule compared to hopefully what I'd be doing in 10 years. Perhaps it'll be on a much larger scale. But that doesn't mean that what I'm currently involved in or volunteering with is insignificant. It's building into something bigger and better continuously.
So I think the biggest lesson that I've learned is that big statement, but the time is now, right? The time is now. And anyone can make an impact. You could be 13 years old or 23 years old, and you could still make some change.
What are some resources you would recommend for aspiring female leaders? Which have you used and benefited the most from?
Honestly, shout out to Google, just like answering the most random questions like how one goes about acquiring 501(c)(3) status, for instance. other than that, I would definitely say that there are a number of older females that I look up to in nonprofit leadership, for instance, or even in the research world. And though I haven't necessarily spoken with all of the people I look up to, I think just seeing how they go about doing their work and how they go about framing this impact of translating the work they do into a larger space is really inspiring. So I would definitely say social media. Using it to your advantage and following the journeys of older folks who have come before us or following our peers' journeys is really important. I can definitely speak for the female science community; it's very much an attitude of building each other up. We have each other's backs. It's about forming a solid community.
If you could tell your younger self one thing, what would it be?
There are always bigger, better things coming if you have a positive outlook. It's the whole concept of a growth mindset. You always put good vibes out in the world, and good vibes shall return to you. I feel that I'm a lot more educationally, professionally, and personally. I'm happy. I'm content. I'm excited for the future. And I think that where I am in the present right now is a great place. Personally, I think I'm growing into things that are bigger and better. But I would say that there are definitely places, you know, middle school, high school, where I didn't feel like I belonged. For instance, I feel like many of us women are grouped into this competitive atmosphere with male counterparts, especially being, you know, female. And I feel like I see this a lot in the Asian community as well. And when you're putting everyone together in this Asian category, it's incredibly detrimental. Often, in high school, I was like, yes, I'm Indian. But, I'm also being put down because I'm the only female in this room. And I'm the only neuroscience kid in a room of tech junkies. Many different things in high school made me feel like it wasn't the right place for me. Let's keep looking. I would just say to my younger self that it's always okay to keep looking for a space that truly fits you.
What is one piece of actionable advice you would give to young women in this day and age?
If you want to get something done, you can do so if you put your mind to it. And it can be as simple as just doing a homework assignment. Pursue your passion project if you want to nail an internship or if you want to get a summer apprenticeship. I think that a lot of us females, we experienced signs of imposter syndrome. And I think that it's crucial to remember at the end of the day that it's okay to take a shot, shoot your shot, and then fail rather than assume that you're going to fail and not try something. So, I would say, put yourself forward. If you fail, it'll hurt. But it's okay, at least knowing that you've tried it, and you're not going to regret it.