Veronica Rodrigues (1953-2010) was an influential neuroscientist who helped cultivate and gain recognition of a thriving biosciences community in India. Despite being remembered as one of India’s greatest modern scientists, Rodrigues was born and raised in Kenya, entering India later as an adult and falling in love with the country. Rodrigues’ education spanned multiple continents – she began college at Makerere University in Uganda, but political turmoil led her to transfer her studies to Trinity College Dublin. At Trinity, in addition to a degree in Microbiology, she got a source of motivation that would set the path of her future career, although not in the way she expected.
When she read the papers of the Indian scientists P. Vijay Sarathy and Obaid Siddiqi, it was their work on bacterial genetics that excited her and drove her to write and ask to do her PhD with them. When she arrived at Obaid’s lab at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), however, she found that Obaid had shifted his research focus to neurogenetics, especially the molecular makeup of olfaction (the sense of smell). Rodrigues took up the subject with passion, making so much progress that she was offered a position at TIFR while she was still a student.
She spent several years in Tubingen, Germany’s Max-Planck Institute, where she pioneered research into the now-thriving field of olfactory coding (how the brain interprets smells) before returning to TIFR, where she expanded her research into how the neurons coding this information develop. Because her work was at the leading edge, she often had to develop new experimental techniques, many of which are currently used in labs around the world. She would likely have appreciated this global reach of her work, as she placed a strong emphasis on science communication and was always eager to collaborate.
It is fitting that, as a researcher of development, Rodrigues herself was instrumental in the development of the scientific institutions she worked at and the scientists she mentored. She became leader of the TIFR’s Molecular Biology unit, expanding it so much that it led to the development of a separate prestigious research institution in Bangalore, the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), to which she would move towards the end of her much too short career. In addition to fostering the development of students in her own lab, she created and led a biennial neurobiology course at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, where she taught and mentored students from developing countries. Rodrigues died from breast cancer in 2010.
Photo credit: Apurva Sarin