Project Prakash recently hosted an event, “UnrulyArt,” at its center in the Shroff Charity Eye Hospital in New Delhi. The participants were children who had been treated for congenital cataracts under Project Prakash in the last few years. Among the oldest of the Prakash children participating in the event were sisters Bushra and Fatima, who had traveled with their father from Panipat in Haryana, covering a distance of no less than a hundred miles.
One of the rooms was transformed into an art studio without rules. The children, the Project Prakash team, and volunteers worked on shared canvases, using paint-colored sponges, bottles, and a variety of tools and paints, resulting in exceptional and joyous creations. Project Prakash, a nonprofit founded by Pawan Sinha that provides sight-restoring surgeries to curably blind children in India, began UnrulyArt with the intent to expose these children to art and give them opportunities to strengthen social skills, collaborate, and take pride in their unique creations. During the recent UnrulyArt event, the children have the chance to explore new textures, colors, and sounds, surprising their teachers and peers. The creations from the UnrulyArt event will later be exhibited to raise awareness about the experiences of Prakash children.
Later in the day, we sat down with Priti Gupta — Project Prakash’s postdoctoral research scientist — to learn about her experience on the project. Gupta, who also took part in the Resonance Program organized by the Mittal Institute in 2013, discussed how being exposed to neuroscience during Resonance was instrumental in defining her research interest.
How did you become interested in working with Project Prakash?
I got to know about Project Prakash when I first met Pawan Sinha and his team at Resonance, an MIT-Harvard-IITD summer school in the field of neuroscience, which I attended in 2013. At that time, I was pursuing my PhD in Neuromorphic Engineering from Dayalbagh Educational Institute in Agra. The idea that one could pursue groundbreaking neuroscience research and help humanity at the same time resonated deeply with my goals in life. While I was pursuing my academic objectives, I always thought that I should utilize my education in a way that benefits humankind at large. When I learned about Project Prakash, it just seemed like the perfect avenue. I continued to stay in touch with Professor Sinha for many years, and after submitting my PhD thesis, I approached him to ask if I could be a part of Project Prakash. He very kindly took me on board, and there was no looking back.
Tell us about your role at Project Prakash.
As a postdoctoral research scientist at Project Prakash, I have been leading the Indian research team, ensuring that all research activities are conducted smoothly. I have been involved in several studies that investigate how different aspects of the brain develop once sight is restored after prolonged visual deprivation. Each study that I have been a part of has allowed me to understand more deeply about the mechanisms of learning and plasticity in the brain.
What impact have you personally seen the organization make?
From the time of its inception until today, Project Prakash has made a significant mark in the neuroscience and ophthalmic communities. Before Project Prakash came about, children with congenital blindness beyond a certain age were often left untreated because it was generally assumed that even after surgery their vision would not improve since the “critical periods” for visual learning had passed. Some of the groundbreaking Prakash studies forced a reconsideration of this notion and showed that even after several years of being visually deprived, the brain retains significant plasticity, and there is tremendous scope for improvement in functional vision. This greatly influenced the medical policies that cast doubt on the effectiveness of treatment for congenital blindness beyond a certain age. Many initial Prakash studies also furthered the understanding of how different aspects of vision improve relative to each other, thus helping the doctors formulate better prognoses.
I have been very fortunate to have witnessed the impact Project Prakash has had on the lives of several children suffering from congenital blindness. It has been extremely heartwarming to see how children rediscover themselves after gaining vision. The joy of observing a child see for the first time is unmatched, and being witness to this on almost a daily basis has been extremely gratifying. Project Prakash has impacted the quality of life of hundreds of families and I feel very lucky that I could be a part of their journey. On a more personal note, when I go to neuroscience conferences and meet people there, almost everyone has heard about Project Prakash and the work that we do. I feel extremely proud and I can tell that there is definitely an impact.
Can you describe your experience during the Resonance Program in 2013? How does it influence your research now?
When I attended Resonance, I was pursuing my PhD in Neuromorphic Engineering, which is a branch of engineering that deals with designing electronic circuits that are inspired by the brain. While I was always interested in neuroscience, being from a technical background, I was not exposed to neuroscience in a structured way. I think Resonance bridged that gap for me. At Resonance, I learned about different facets of neuroscience research, the state-of-the-art methods currently being used in experimental neuroscience, the broad scope of the field, and the open problems. Interacting with researchers from MIT and Harvard — two of the pre-eminent universities in neuroscience research — motivated me a lot. Attending Resonance did influence, in a big way, my decision to pursue neuroscience research, and I am very grateful for that.
How do you see Project Prakash growing in the years to come?
The years ahead are going to be very exciting for Project Prakash. While we will continue to find and treat several children with congenital blindness and undertake interesting scientific investigations, we are also planning to expand our reach to other parts of the developing world. Two other aspects on which we are working are education and employability of the Prakash children. It often happens that even after gaining sight, our children go back to their villages and continue attending blind schools. We want to help them learn to use the vision that they have acquired and provide them basic education so they can be integrated with mainstream schools. Empowering our children and giving them financial independence so that they can grow up to support their families is another important goal that we will be working towards. We are approaching different organizations that could help us train and find suitable jobs for the Prakash children.
Can you talk about your own goals or future plans?
In the years to come, I see myself as an academician and a researcher in a top-tier institute of the country. After having worked with Project Prakash for so many years, I understand that the current knowledge of brain development and childhood cognitive impairments is limited and there is much to explore and understand before we can make a big difference. I will continue to pursue cognitive neuroscience research and gain expertise in childhood cognitive disabilities and rehabilitation and in the future train young researchers in this exciting area of research.