Celebrating Women Making History at MPFI: Dr. Vidhya Rangaraju, “The Leader”

This post is part of our Women’s History Month series of features spotlighting some of the women making history at MPFI.

March 11, 2021
Vidhya Rangaraju

Max Planck Florida group leader Vidhya Rangaraju is not only a “woman in science” – she is a woman in many different areas of science. During her career as a cellular neuroscientist, she has worked as an engineer, a chemical biologist, a microscopist, and a biochemist on three different continents. But her international scientific career had origins very close to home, through the mentorship of her sister.

“She was my go-to person to solve chemistry and math problems, discuss which Bachelor’s degree to pursue, and even decide between graduate schools. This experience molded me to look up to role models within reach that I could learn from at every stage of my life,” Vidhya recalled.

Vidhya has had many mentors during her career, who she found through work relationships, conferences, or even by reaching out to people over email.  “Each of them has played a fundamental part in shaping my career through their advice, feedback, or ‘cheerleading’. To name one, my postdoc advisor, Erin Schuman, played an instrumental role in my career planning and remains an unrelenting source of support in leading my independent research team as a female scientist,” she said.

Vidhya joined Max Planck Florida in 2020 as a research group leader, where she launched her lab study how the brain is powered. “We mainly focus on mitochondria, the energy currency generators of a cell. As defective mitochondria are found in many neurodegenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, our research findings will lead towards a better understanding of these disease mechanisms and aid in developing therapeutic interventions,” she said.

But on top of the challenges of starting her lab, Vidhya recently welcomed a new baby last year, giving her a new perspective on the challenges faced by working mothers. “I have gained even more respect for the amazing women in my life, including my mom, who have managed to achieve success in their chosen career paths while also being the primary caregivers of tiny human beings. On days I feel overwhelmed with juggling work and our 7-month-old baby, I think of my mom, who did the same with three children. And somehow, everything falls into perspective.”

In her new role as research group leader, mentorship continues to be important to Vidhya. Her gratitude for having received support throughout her career has led her to make it a priority to help inspire the next generation of scientists. Vidhya points to positive role models as an essential factor in attracting women to STEM careers. “Women in science come from different cultures and face different levels of challenges and glass ceilings. I, therefore, think that listening to what each one needs should be of utmost importance before providing support, as one size does not fit all.”

As for her advice to young women considering a career in science, Vidhya had this to say: “In the pursuit of ‘having it all’, I sometimes wonder if we end up ‘doing it all’ when balancing work and personal life. My advice to women is to learn delegating wherever appropriate and not hesitate to ask for help so that they can give their undivided attention to their passion projects one at a time.”