Rachana Deven Somaiya is more than curious. She’s just as eager to share what she’s learned with others. That combination has earned the doctoral candidate in Virginia Tech’s Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Graduate Program a series of awards.

Somaiya recently received the Outstanding Scholars in Neuroscience Award from the National Institutes of Health, the Virginia Tech Aspire! Award for student learning, and the 2021-22 Gaskins Graduate Scholarship. Somaiya works as a graduate research assistant in the lab of Michael Fox, a professor at the Fralin Biomedical Research Institute at VTC in Roanoke. He is also director of the School of Neuroscience in Virginia Tech’s College of Science.

“I’m deeply grateful for all of these recognitions of both my research and my desire to give something back to the scientific community that has done so much for me,” Somaiya said.

The Outstanding Scholars in Neuroscience Award Program (OSNAP) recognizes graduate students and early-career neuroscientists with great academic potential who are conducting exceptional brain research.

Somaiya carries out research on how cells involved in vision form functional connections in the brain. She found that when the connections between the nerve cells (neurons) from the eye and the brain are eliminated, another particular class of neuron that must migrate to a specific area in order to develop the necessary integrative cellular network in the developing brain doesn’t know where to go. Somaiya also discovered that a type of glial cell in the brain (astrocytes) plays a key role in coordinating communication between neurons in this process.

The annual Virginia Tech Student Affairs Aspire! Awards recognize five students who exhibit curiosity, self-understanding, integrity, civility, courageous leadership, or embracing the Virginia Tech’s motto, Ut Prosim (That I May Serve).

Somaiya was recognized for her commitment to curiosity.

“I like that this honor is not recognizing one specific thing on my curriculum vitae, it’s recognizing why I have that CV,” Somaiya said.

The award notes Somaiya’s outreach work that makes science accessible to the general public and encourages students to pursue science. She co-founded the Big Lick of Science Podcast, is president of the Virginia Tech Carilion Student Outreach Program, and has organized career panel discussions for local students interested in pursuing science.

Somaiya grew up in India and is in the first generation of her family to attend college. She credits her success to hard work, but also to supportive parents and the good luck of finding strong academic mentors.

Her outreach work aims to make success like hers less dependent upon luck by providing others with the support she benefited from, she said.

The Gaskins Graduate Scholarship awards Somaiya $5,000 to benefit her and her research, provided by philanthropist and alumnus Ray Gaskins ’64.

Somaiya expects to defend her dissertation and graduate in May, after which she plans to pursue a career in academia, starting with a postdoctoral fellowship. She will use the Gaskins Scholarship to attend the Society for Neuroscience conference and the Gordon Research Conference on Thalamocortical Interactions – both important opportunities to network with neuroscientists for whom she hopes to work.

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