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Akshat is among the new breed of science writers who decided to do their magic with a pen rather than a test tube. He is a scientist and is currently completing his PhD in organic chemistry at the University of Oxford, UK. In July, he will be joining The Economist as the Richard Casement intern. He has written for numerous publications including Nature, The Economist and Chemistry World and keeps an attentive look at scientific progress made by India, his native country.
Akshat gladly agreed to answer a few questions for The SA Incubator as he prepares to take his big leap into the world of science communication.
Hello and welcome to The SA Incubator. How did you get into science and how did you get into writing? How did these two trajectories fuse together?
The only teacher in school that I did not trouble was probably a science teacher!
Seriously though, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated with how things work and science has been my favourite subject. When the time came to choose what to study at college, I opted to do chemical engineering because I liked chemistry and maths the most. It turned out that maths in chemical engineering was nothing like the kind of maths I enjoyed. So during my undergraduate studies I focused on my other love ? chemistry. Pursuing research opened a whole new world for me. Having a great organic chemistry teacher ensured that, by the end of college, I wanted to pursue a PhD in that subject.
I discovered my love for writing during my time in Mumbai as an undergraduate student. I started blogging in 2006, and the same year launched a college newsletter. Initially, I wasn’t sure why I enjoyed writing so much. As a high school student, I had never shown keen interest in writing essays. I only realised later that I did not enjoy being taught a language when the emphasis was mainly on fiction. Both my writing initiatives – blogging and the newsletter – helped me learn and enjoy writing through fact than fiction.
During my time at Oxford while pursuing the PhD, I had made it one of my goals to explore writing. But with a lot of lab work at hand, that task seemed too big to take on. So I decided to narrow it down and focus on writing about science. My first article was published in 2010 in the science blog of The Cherwell, a student newspaper. It was an exciting start partly because the story was about something I had been experimenting with.
What professional experience have you had so far?
After writing for a few student publications in Oxford, I went on to join the editorial board of the University’s science magazine, Bang!. In the latter half of 2010, I was invited to be the chemistry blogger at the Lindau Nobel laureates meeting and got an opportunity to write an article forNature. This was followed by an internship at Chemistry World where, apart from research news, I had the opportunity to write about business, education, and policy. All that alongside researching the use of cannabis.
Since then I’ve done freelance writing for Chemistry World and The Economist.
Since your scientific background is in chemistry, many of your writings are related to the field. How do you go about communicating chemistry to a general audience?
My approach to communicating chemistry is that of any good journalist writing a science article ? find a great story, make it relevant and entertaining to the audience.
It’s interesting that you ask that question. It is true that, among all the sciences, chemistry features the least in popular writing. But I believe that it is a subject that probably has the most direct relevance to the general public (yes, more so than physics or even biology!). There are a lot of reasons that people quote for why chemistry doesn’t grab people’s attention, but my take is that not enough writers have championed the cause of promoting chemistry. This is something I’d like to do.
You do write about other topics not related to chemistry per se. How much of a challenge is it, for you as a writer, to dabble into a different field of science?
Being trained as chemist gives me only a small advantage because, even within chemistry, some research can be as different as physics is from biology. My approach, which I learnt from the rigours of graduate study, is to quickly analyse the information and use what is relevant. I only write about something if I understand it well. Things unrelated to chemistry need some additional effort, but, in the end, good science articles emerge from taking a simple, straightforward approach.
India is growing economically and it is pushing its science sector forward as well. This makes science communication increasingly important. How is science communication in India? What is being done and what, in your opinion, should be done in the future?
It is heartening to see the focus that science has received in India in the recent years. The media landscape hasn’t caught up to that frenzy though. From speaking to science writers in India, I understand that despite public’s appetite for science articles not enough gets published in the mainstream media. The media’s aversion to foster home-grown talent has meant that there are few science writers and fewer science magazines.
I have previously lamented about science news in Indian publications, and not much has changed since then (apart from the launch of PopularScience India). There needs to be better, more informed and non-syndicated science news in India. There are a lot scientific misunderstandings and myths in India. A Ben Goldacre-style column in a leading Indian daily would do a world of good to keep those at bay. Maybe something I can aim for!
Going back to writing, which story of yours do you like best?
You will be joining The Economist as the Richard Casement intern shortly. It is notoriously hard to get into The Economist. What do you think did the trick for you and what advice would you give to future aspirers?
I was very pleased to hear the news. I am not sure what worked for me. Maybe I can ask my boss once I start.
After being shortlisted for the interview, I dedicated a couple weeks to preparing for it. That period was a lot of fun. I took the opportunity to familiarise myself with The Economist and kept myself up to date with science news, with a keen eye for good stories to pitch.
The interview was more like an informal chat. We discussed story ideas for that week’s edition of The Economist, the current science journalism landscape and the architecture of a good science article.
What are your hopes and plans after your internship? Do you intend to continue writing about science?
I have all intentions to keep writing. Being able to surround myself with new ideas and sharing them with an audience comes with a unique high. It is something that I haven’t experienced doing anything else.
Apart from writing about science, I would also like to explore writing for different genres. I am fortunate to be living at a time when science affects business, politics, international relations, and so much more. May be science writing would be a way into the wider world of journalism.