Dheeraj Roy was born and raised in the United Arab Emirates, but his parents, both doctors, are from India. Each summer of his childhood, he'd travel to India and stay with his grandmother, who became like a second mother. He remembers how, over the fragrant lunches she'd cook, she'd tell him fables to imprint strong morals onto him. He remembers how important it was to her that he grow up to be respectful and kind.
A few years ago, Roy traveled to Bangalore to visit his grandmother again. When he walked into her bedroom, she didn't recognize him—he had to introduce himself. To help her understand who he was, he recited a few of the moralistic stories she'd told him so many times. Eventually, after much effort, she began to recall bits of their past together. The next day, he'd have to remind her all over again.
Roy was shocked. "Someone so full of life who would hug and kiss me every time we met now could barely remember who I was," he recalls. "I was so sad but I couldn't do anything about it."
As a high schooler in Dubai, Roy had been into sports and video games and mostly got B's in school. His parents wanted him to study harder, but he didn't understand why.
For college, Roy moved to Philadelphia to attend Drexel University. "I don't know if it was the sudden separation from home or just cultural shock," he says, "but I was determined to make my parents proud. I knew they had to sacrifice a lot to send me to the United States, both mentally and financially, and I couldn't live with myself if I just blew the opportunity. Something changed me forever when I landed here. Since arriving, I have focused on my education."
At Drexel, Roy majored in biomedical engineering; the plan was to go into robotics. But the summer before his senior year, he took a neuroscience workshop at the University of Pennsylvania and was surprised to discover how much he loved studying the brain. He graduated summa cum laude, then got himself a job in a Harvard University Medical School laboratory, researching the brains of mice.
After two years of doing that, he entered a Ph.D. program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, where his advisor is the Nobel Prize winner Susumu Tonegawa.
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So far, Roy's research has revealed that certain types of memory loss happen not because the original memories are lost, but because they can't be retrieved. Using flashes of light on specific brain cells in mice, Roy and his team were able to bring back "lost" memories.
Whether the future holds optogenetics as a cure for Alzheimer's in humans is yet to be seen. If it is, Roy will be remembered as a pioneer in the realm.
To those interested in going into neuroscience research, Roy says that the best advice he could give is to find a mentor who believes in you. For him, that is Tonegawa. "Susumu respects people who are driven by the scientific process. He works with me on research projects like a friend," Roy says. "He is constantly mentoring me and trying to teach me everything he has learned, and really cares about my opinion. This is something I would never have dreamed, but to experience it is really humbling."
Most recently, Roy and Tonegawa co-authored a soon-to-be-published paper about Roy's work manipulating single-memory traces in mice.
Roy's long-term dream is to run a research institute focused on Alzheimer's and dementia. "I passionately hope to understand memory disorders so that someday we can help those suffering from these conditions," he says. "Spending time with a family member who had Alzheimer's, and realizing how memory loss affects a person's life, motivates me every single day."
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