A meaningful career requires lots and lots of introspection, deliberation and exploration!

Siddharth Kankaria, our next pathbreaker and KVPY Scholar narrates his career story of how he came to the conclusion that Science Communication was what he wanted to do and talks about his work as a Science Communicator and Outreach Manager at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS, Bangalore). A fascinating career in science and humanities

Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal chats with Siddharth Kankaria about his career path as a Science Communicator at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS Bangalore).

Siddharth, can you tell us about your background?

I belong to a family of Rajasthani immigrants settled in Kolkata. I was born in Kolkata, and mostly grew up in Mumbai, before returning back to Kolkata for the last 4 years of my schooling. I have been living Bangalore for the last 8 years, except for being in the UK for one year.

I was always interested in both the Sciences and Humanities, but somehow my love and fascination for Biology always led me to choose science subjects during my school days. I was quite clear from my high school days (around 9th standard) that I wanted to pursue research in fundamental sciences, and not a career in Engineering or Medicine like most of my classmates. As a consequence, I had a very relaxed school life devoid of any tuitions or coaching classes, which really allowed me to explore other avenues of interest, and broaden my horizons at a young age.

What did you study after your schooling? 

After my high school years in Kolkata, I got enrolled into a local college offering a BSc (Honours) in Genetics. It was during this phase that I first heard about the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana (KVPY) scholarship meant for students pursuing fundamental science degrees. I decided to appear for this written exam and subsequently an interview, and soon got shortlisted as one of the KVPY fellows. To my surprise, the scholarship offer letter also entitled me to a direct admission into the newly initiated 4-year Bachelor of Science (Research) program at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bangalore. Needless to say, I decided to leave my current BSc degree at Kolkata and started afresh at IISc. 

The 4 year BS (Research) degree was initiated at IISc only in 2011, and I was part of the second batch of undergraduates to get enrolled. The course was modelled after the MIT undergraduate program, and allowed students to apply for a PhD directly after 4 years of undergraduate studies, rather than the combined 5 year duration of BSc and MSc degrees. Not only did it give us an option to save a year if we intended to do a PhD, but it also allowed us to stay for an extra year to earn a MS (Research) degree, in case we wanted to do that instead of applying for a PhD.  

The course curriculum at IISc was almost like a science equivalent of a liberal arts program, and mandated us to take foundational courses in several disciplines like Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, Biology, Humanities & Engineering, during the first three semesters. We were then allowed to choose from a number of elective courses for our 4th to 8th semesters. The course also required us to declare a major of our choice, and take a certain number of mandatory course credits in that subject, as well as undertake a few compulsory courses in Humanities and Engineering, apart from a one year thesis project during our last year. Not surprisingly, I decided to opt for a Biology major, and chose not to declare any minor, so that I could choose freely from a variety of courses in various subjects and gain a more balanced exposure to interdisciplinary subjects.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

Staying away from home for the first time, meeting and befriending so many new people from all over the country, and being at such an eminent institution was a very enriching experience for me overall. Moreover, I was also now fully independent financially, since my KVPY scholarship covered most of my living and educational expenses at IISc. 

However, my time at IISc was also an eye opener and a revelation in many ways, as I got to experience the highs and lows of working in a research setup from a very close proximity. In general, the extremely hectic course work, lab assignments and projects, as well as my enthusiastic involvement in all sorts of extra-curricular activities (theatre, writing, photography, organising fests) kept me on my toes all the time. In addition to this, I was also applying for multiple PhD positions during my final year at IISc, and giving all sorts of competitive exams like NET, GATE, GRE and TOEFL, while at the same time working in a research laboratory full-time for my Bachelor’s thesis project. 

This entire experience was incredibly stressful and in some ways led to a burn out by the end of 4 years. Additionally, I also didn’t get enough time to think about and articulate my research interests or my future plans for a career in academia. As a result of all this, I realised that I wasn’t yet fully prepared for pursuing a PhD in biology, or even be able to commit to a long term degree like a PhD, immediately after my graduating from IISc. 

Fortunately, my friends and family were a great source of strength and encouragement throughout this period. I have also been extremely lucky that unlike many other parents, my parents were extremely patient and supportive of my interests and inclinations, irrespective of how unconventional it might have seemed at the outset.

So, I decided to take a year off as a sabbatical, and explore other avenues within the field of science communication. My first tryst with science communication occurred just after I graduated from IISc, when I was selected to take part in the Annual Science Journalism Workshop conducted at NCBS Bangalore. I eagerly took up this opportunity, since I was keen on exploring the interface of science and humanities (science writing and journalism, in this case), and soon after the workshop, I decided to further explore if this could be a viable endeavour to pursue during my year-long sabbatical at home. 

My plan initially was to stay at home and work as a freelance science journalist. But, it soon became apparent that life had other plans, once I started networking with other science communicators, to try and explore other employment opportunities. Within 2 months, I had multiple job offers within science communication and related fields , and I decided to join one of them immediately.

Ironically enough, this job brought me back to the IISc campus, where the start-up called Gubbi Labs was based out of. I worked as the Content Editor of Research Matters, a flagship venture of Gubbi Labs which aims to bridge the gap between scientists and the general public, by creatively reporting on recent research from across India. As part of my job, I reported on exciting science in India, corresponded with researchers and scientists, as well as generated a diversity of multimedia content (podcasts, infographics, illustrations, photographs, videos, and social media content) to supplement their science stories.

After a year of working at Gubbi Labs, I was convinced that there was a lot of growth and potential for science communication in India, and that this would make for a viable as well as exciting career choice. I decided to give up my plans for pursuing a PhD in biology, and instead applied for a Master’s in Science Communication in the UK. The reason I chose to study in the UK specifically, was because science communication as an academic discipline was perhaps most the well-established in the UK, and also served as an ideal ecosystem of opportunities and professional exposure for me. 

I applied to Master’s programs in science communication at four different UK universities, and got accepted to all of them. Eventually, I decided to go to the University of Edinburgh (UoE), since their course was the most well-balanced one, and provided exposure to a diversity of topics in science communication, ranging from science policy, science education, media studies, dialogue and deliberation, science-art interface, social media management, and science communication theories. I also continued working at Gubbi Labs remotely for another 6 months during my Master’s, after which I decided to quit in order to focus on my Master’s thesis. 

How was the experience at University of Edinburgh?

During my stay in Edinburgh, I tried to completely immerse myself in a potpourri of experiences, ranging from my academic courses, internships, volunteering and work experiences, as well as getting exposed to the vibrant city culture, travelling, meeting new people, and engaging in lots of new cultural experiences. The time during my Master’s degree was also critical for me to gain a much more nuanced understanding of the field of science communication and public engagement, by learning about both the theory and practice of these fields. 

For instance, I worked as a Science Communicator at the Edinburgh International Science Festival in April 2018, where I facilitated a Mini-Mechanics workshop for children between the ages of 8 to 16. I also worked as an Event Manager at Pint of Science 2018, where along with two of my classmates, I helped organise the inaugural event for Pint of Science 2018 at Edinburgh – a pop-up exhibition called Creative Reactions, which celebrated the interface of art and science. 

I also did two placements during my Master’s degree at UoE. The first one was at EuroStemCell, where I assisted their Public Engagement team with various outreach and engagement activities concerning stem cells. The second one was at Proteus, where along with a classmate, I created a teaching resource for explaining a biomedical engineering innovation to young adults, which we later presented at the Glasgow Science Centre, as part of the British Science Week 2018.

These experiences were also immensely useful for me in building a strong network of colleagues working in similar fields,  and served as an invaluable resource for seeking suggestions, resources and feedback from.

By the time I completed my Master’s at the University of Edinburgh, I was particularly interested in science communication as a field, and wanted to work towards developing more effective ways of engaging society with science.

Although my plans were always to return to India eventually, I would have ideally liked to work in the UK for a few years to further nurture my skills within the incredible ecosystem of science communication initiatives thriving there. However, I realised that the job market In the UK was quite saturated with similarly qualified people like me, and additionally, it was getting increasingly difficult to get a work visa in the UK due to the imminent possibility of a Brexit happening soon. 

So, I decided to move back to India, since I felt I could contribute more meaningfully to field of science communication in India, where it was still relatively new and upcoming. In August 2018, I joined the Simons Centre for the Study of Living Machines within the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS Bangalore), as their Science Communication and Outreach Manager. I had applied for this job during my stay in Edinburgh, and had received a job offer much before I had completed my Master’s degree. 

Tell us about your work at NCBS? 

My current role as the Science Communication & Outreach Manager at the Simons Centre at NCBS, is a dynamic and multi-faceted one, comprising of a diversity of responsibilities:   

  1. Organisation & Planning – I help with the planning, coordination and organisation of various courses and workshops like the Simons-NCBS Annual Monsoon School, Physical Biology of the Cell, and Conflict and Cooperation in Cellular Populations.
  1. Event Management & Coverage – I help organise various science communication and public engagement talks, activities and events like Science Café, Out of the Lab, Jigyasa Project and Swissnex SciComm’18.
  1. Social Media Management – I help handle the various social media accounts for the Simons Centre at NCBS and NCBS Bangalore, along with assisting with the design and implemention of their communications strategies. 
  1. Writing – I also help cover various events on campus, and write science journalistic pieces about research on campus [a few examples: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5].
  1. Generation of Creative Collaterals – I help in conceptualising and developing various types of creative collaterals, ranging from short videos, posters, presentations, and also work with graphic designers to help create scientific illustrations for our communication outputs.
  1. Website Maintenance – I help maintain the Simons Centre at NCBS website, and keep it updated with the latest content, photographs, and events.
  1. Capacity Building & Training – Lastly, I’m engaged in various capacity building efforts on campus to help train people in areas of science communication, public speaking, scientific illustration, and popular science writing. I recently designed and organised a 5-day workshop on science communication, called The Craft of Science Communication, along with two of my colleagues at NCBS, and taught a module on Narratives in Science Communication.

Given the high flux of intellectual activity on the NCBS campus, my job is quite rewarding as I get to work and interact with a wide array of scientists, but also peripherally with designers, artists, poets, thespians, and social scientists. I have a high degree of autonomy in the way I work on campus, and how I achieve my goals, and people on campus are extremely encouraging and supportive of my work. 

Can you tell us about a specific work you did that was very memorable or special to you?

I had a great time designing and organising the 5-day Science Communication workshop at NCBS, and teaching a module on Narratives in Science Communication within this workshop. Apart from that, I’m really interested in the science and sociology of science communication as a field, and researching evidence-based science communication practice. In order to explore these areas further, I recently started a science communication journal club in Bengaluru called the SciCommSci Journal Club, which is a networking & discussion forum for science communication practitioners, researchers & enthusiasts to learn more about #SciCommSci, or the ‘Science of Science Communication’. 

What are the benefits of Science Communication to the world in general?

Science communication plays a crucial role in society in terms of communicating the latest scientific advances happening within research institutes – often funded by public tax-payer’s money – by translating them into simple and easily accessible formats. It also serves important developmental functions in a country like India, like increasing scientific literacy, furthering scientific temper, dispelling superstitions, promoting science as an attractive career alternative, and spreading awareness about scientific facts, especially those pertaining to health, nutrition, agriculture and energy needs. 

However, science communication is also increasingly being viewed as a means to bridge the informational and experiential gap between scientists and general publics, by creating spaces that facilitate meaningful interactions between people of varying backgrounds and expertise. It also serves to promote greater accountability of scientists and science to the general publics, and democractises science by enabling publics to participate more fully in scientific discourses.

In this regard, science communicators can be thought of as knowledge brokers who mediate meaningful interactions between people of differing expertise, by not only translating information into formats that can be understood by all the stakeholders, but also often co-creating new knowledge in the process of this translation. In this regard, I tend to agree with Martin W. Bauer, who explains in his introductory chapter of the book, Communicating Science in Social Contexts (Springer, 2008 – Communicating Science in Social Contexts ), that science communication must aim to empower publics by inculcating critical attitudes, healthy scepticism and rational decision making, rather than simply marketing the shared frontier of modern technoscience.

Your advice to students?

  • In my experience of mentoring numerous students, especially within the sciences, who aren’t too sure if they want to remain in academia, or if they should be pursuing less conventional career alternatives, I often see a lot of trepidation about taking risks and a tendency to pursue safe and conventional career trajectories. My advice to most of these students is to not be afraid of following your aspirations and dreams, no matter how far-fetched they might seem. Take some time off to explore your interests; take a sabbatical; take a chance on yourself!
  • Try not to be bogged down by external pressures like competitive exams, coaching centres, tuitions, and the pressure to ace every exam. They are all important in their own right, but they are not more important than you and your happiness. It’s a journey of self-awareness and learning how to balance everything in life, but don’t be scared of prioritising yourself and your peace of mind, every now and then. 
  • Studying one subject religiously or excelling in one degree course, might seem like the most important mission of your life, but do take out time to explore other interests, creative pursuits and means of recreation to stay on top of your game.
  • It’s always important to continuously work towards developing a well-rounded portfolio of not just academic outputs and extra-curriculars, but also various technical, interpersonal and soft skills that are increasingly being valued by most organisations and employers. You could always try to work part-time, engage in short internships, or even volunteer at different organisations, whenever possible.
  • Never underestimate the power of good networking.  It is critical to try and develop a strong professional network of not just your colleagues, but also of people vertically across different hierarchies in your field, as well as of people horizontally across different fields and profiles. Effective networking can prove to be instrumental in exposing you to new developments in your field, land you relevant job opportunities, and help you effectively navigate your professional life.

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