Please tell us about yourself

Achintya Rao, a science communicator who works with the CMS Collaboration at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, is currently pursuing his PhD in Science Communication.

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I’m wondering if you can start by telling me about your work.

My interest is with science communication. I did my Bachelor’s in Physics and I did the Master’s in Science Journalism. I’m doing a PhD in Science Communication while working as a science communicator for one of the biggest research collaborations in the world.

I work for the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Collaboration at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, and it’s a collaboration of about 4,000 people. One of my roles is to help disseminate the results and the process, and the technology that is being developed there for particle physics analysis.

The thing that I’m most interested in, from that point of view, is public engagement. Not just communicating research one-way to broader society, but making society feel like they have a say in research, of feeling like a part of the research process. That is not just something that happens in a secluded spot far away from their homes and does not affect them in any way.

This is trickier with areas of more fundamental research because it might not always be obvious how it impacts your life, and it can be something that inspires you but not necessarily be something you can participate in. So my interests generally have to do with communicating research openly.

And what are you doing with Mozilla?

My involvement has mostly been around a project that I am a facilitator with, rather than a participant in, strictly speaking. We have a project that stemmed from various conversations I had with physicists at CERN about cosmic rays.

Cosmic rays are physics phenomena that have been observed for about a hundred years. They come from particles ejected from supernovae that fly at very high speeds, hit our atmosphere, and produce showers of particles. We can observe those particles on the earth, on the surface of the earth, with fairly inexpensive detectors. Lots of schools have these detectors, and they’re all collecting fantastic data that can be used for research.

The one downside though is that many of them are collecting their data in fairly closed ways, and when data are available they are all using data formats that are not compatible with one another. And they are using data storage systems that are not exactly accessible or open — you need to contact someone and then after six months they get back to you with a username and a password that lets you log in through three layers, and then you can download a database.

The data, while they are interesting, are not really exploited to their maximum research potential. With the two global sprints that we have done with the Mozilla Science Lab, I’ve learned how working openly with these projects can help bring people together and foster a conversation.

We started off with two or three people who are interested in this kind of thing and in these kind of projects and now we’re getting one group from the Netherlands and a couple of colleagues from the U.S. who are working on trying to put their data sets together into a common analysis framework.

My role is to facilitate. I am not a particle physicist, I am not a programmer, I am not a teacher. My role is as a passionate campaigner for open science, to get these people to speak to one another, to bring them to a place where the conversations can happen that can help exploit the research data to the maximum potential.

The global sprint was a great introduction for me into this kind of concept and following that I was invited to be part of the Working Open Workshop and the Open Leadership Training Program.

Through that, I learned a lot from the Mozilla Science Lab about how to use GitHub, not just exclusively as a code repository and a place to flag issues with code, but as a complete project management tool. They taught us about the importance of defining a meaningful readme file and contribution guidelines and how to make people aware of how they can play a role in a project — making sure that it’s a welcoming atmosphere.

We learned how to have productive conversations around our projects and how GitHub and other web-based tools can be facilitate this. A lot of the conversations that happen in this domain happen via email — they are not happening openly.

Even if there are eight people around the world, eight projects working on this topic, no one else knows about them. You don’t know about one another’s work because everyone is working in their own silos.

That’s been my interest. It stems from an interest in public engagement because it is something that student groups and the general public can do. But also stems from a passion for making sure that science isn’t locked up. I wanted to make it open.

Can you tell me about a time where you felt a real sense of success?

At work, the high point for me was helping to communicate the discovery of the Higgs boson, which happened at the Large Hadron Collider in 2012. We prepared a lot of extensive materials to help communicate the results to the entire world.

It was something that captured everyone’s fascination. It took a lot of time to process all of the information and boil it down and disseminate it.

We spent a lot of time preparing background material, writing texts to explain the significance of the result. For example, What does “5 sigma” mean? What is a femtobarn? These data units are not familiar to people outside of this field.

I helped coordinate the translation of the background materials into over 20 languages. We thought a lot about how to share these materials online so that they could go beyond the English-speaking world and be used by everyone.

We conducted interviews and prepared those kinds of materials as well, and they got used quite a bit around the world to disseminate the story. That was a really a high point for me because I was there in the room when the press conference happened following the announcement of the discovery.

You’re currently pursuing a degree in science communication but you work at CERN. Is this a typical path for a science communicator? Can you describe your research a bit and how your program works?

That’s correct – I’m pursuing a PhD from the Science Communication Unit at UWE Bristol, but my research is on the Compact Muon Solenoid (CMS) Collaboration at CERN. Specifically, I’m studying the attitudes of the members of CMS towards public engagement with research (sometimes called “outreach”). I have also been working as a science communicator for CMS since 2010.

I don’t think there’s necessarily a typical path to becoming a science communicator or pursuing a PhD in the field. I started out with a BSc in physics from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai University, before getting an MA in science journalism from City University London. I then moved to CERN to work for the CMS Communications Group. Somewhere along the way, I considered a PhD and received support from my employers to pursue it. It’s been a very fortunate journey, and, I should admit, more than a little serendipitous.

My research relies on the analysis of quantitative data collected from an online survey and qualitative data collected from personal interviews. I’m trying to ascertain how attitudes towards outreach might vary (if at all) across nationalities, ages and academic positions, and if they’re influenced by the attitudes of one’s peers, superiors and funding agencies. I am a distance-learning, part-time research student (a horrible combination, indeed!), and am quite fortunate that I’m allowed to take my courses remotely via video-conferencing if needed. I’m almost at the very end of my data-collection phase and will be immersing myself into thesis-writing mode very soon.

How did you become interested in an offbeat and unconventional career such as science communication? 

I think I’ve been interested in science communication as long as I’ve been interested in science: even in primary school, I used to talk endlessly with my friends about whatever science books I read. I began to seriously consider it as a career possibility when I felt, in my second year of studying physics at university, that I might not be cut out for research itself. Admittedly, I wanted to pursue theoretical physics and in a sense it was the right call! I looked around at courses on science communication and finally decided to take up one in science journalism.

What do you see as some of the problems today and where do you think science communication will change in the near future?

Science communication, as I see it, is doing well. The academic field is thriving and is gathering valuable empirical data that has helped define scicomm policies at institutional and government levels. There is a growing self-awareness within research communities that they (we!) cannot work in isolation from the rest of society and that meaningful two-way communication is crucial to tackling the intellectual, technological and societal challenges we face. I see science communication playing a crucial role in science itself becoming more open in the future, ensuring that the knowledge we as researchers gather and produce on behalf of all of society remains accessible (in every sense of that word) to the whole of humanity. I’m aware that there is a certain naïveté in that statement, but I have reasons for being optimistic.

You created the PhD starter kit. Can you tell us how this came about and what you hope to accomplish with it?

Honestly, I’m not sure I can satisfactorily answer either of those questions. The PhD Starter Kit was the result of an e-mail I started composing to a friend who was about to start a physics-education PhD at CERN about a year after I had started mine. Like me, he’s based full time at CERN. But since CERN is a research facility and not an educational institution per se, we don’t get a lot of training in the “how”s of doing a PhD. And without wanting to complain about my situation, it is true that those of us not pursuing technical PhDs (physics, engineering, computer science etc.) don’t really have cohorts at CERN we can turn to for support or guidance. Over the course of my first year, I had cobbled together a list of tools and workflows that might help answer some of the “how”s. I decided to send my friend a list of all my suggestions, but then felt that it might be better off composing a public piece that any other PhD students might benefit from, if they found something of value in it. I didn’t expect it to be read by many people and I was taken by surprise at how well it has been received. I’ve been sent a lot of warm feedback and suggestions for improvement from people who’ve come across it. It was even featured on Software Carpentry and shared on Twitter by the Mozilla Science Lab.

As to what I hope to accomplish with it, I haven’t a clue! If it can help even one doctoral researcher in their research, I will consider that a win. I didn’t start out writing the piece with any specific aims in mind other than to share what I had learnt with others.

Do you have a favorite quote?

A quote I turn to quite often is from the verse 47 of the second chapter of the Bhagavad Gita. In the original Sanskrit, it reads: “कर्मण्येवाधिकारस्ते मा फलेषु कदाचन |” (Or “karmaṇy-evādhikāras te mā phaleṣhu kadāchana.”) It roughly translates to say, “You must perform your duties, but you are not entitled to the fruit of your actions.”