Having been at home for the last few weeks, I had the opportunity to see a few gripping movies based on the spread of virus. Through “edge of the seat” storytelling and impartial representation of facts, the underlying messages were communicated by the movies in a very clear and effective way. This got me thinking about the power of Science Communication through storytelling.
Anusheela Chatterjee, our next pathbreaker, Science Writer at TIFR, Hyderabad, works towards building a bridge between science and society through popular science articles that highlight the research being done in the institute in an accessible manner for the outside world.
Anusheela talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about deciding to combine her interests in the sciences and writing for a career in Science writing.
For students, science is not just about technical work, it is also about being creative in communicating research in the context of the real world.
Anusheela, tell us about your background?
I grew up in Kolkata. Throughout my years in school, I had a strong interest in Biology. If I was asked what propelled me towards studying Biology, I would be unsure as to how to answer it. Perhaps, my interest in the subject was quite innate. I am sure that I was not studying it with a particular career choice in mind; it was simply the joy of learning something new and exciting.
Apart from this, I did take to reading and public speaking. Regarding the former, I did not buy a lot of books but was completely dependent on two libraries. The school library was my source of books in English while a small neighbourhood library had a wealth of Bengali literature. My parents encouraged my reading habit and also insisted on variety when it came to reading.
When it comes to public speaking, I participated in a number of debates- both interschool ones as well as on a national level. I continued to participate in debates in college as well. The practice of debating helped string together a coherent flow of thoughts- something that has come to good use till today.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I took up Microbiology (Honours) in Lady Brabourne College, Kolkata. When I was in my second year of college, I came to know about Tata Institute of Fundamental Research from a senior. That interaction opened new doors, the importance of which I understand today. After completing my Bachelors degree, I went on to pursue a Masters degree in Biology from TIFR, Mumbai.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I wasn’t one of those students who had decided to become a science writer when in school itself! My path into this career has been influenced by multiple pivots and each have contributed to my training.
My high school English teachers (Ms. Sagarika Ghosh, Ms. Rinku Gangopadhyay and Ms. Lavanya Bose) seeded an interest in writing. Dr. Aditi Nag Chaudhuri, who taught me biochemistry in college, was one of the first individuals who egged me on to push myself harder and gain a deeper understanding of the science.
When I was studying in TIFR, I started volunteering with the outreach team. The science popularization and outreach activities in TIFR are spearheaded by Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya. Arnab encouraged me to give public science lectures for the ‘Chai and Why’ series. TIFR Mumbai organises two open houses, per year, on a massive scale. I also started assisting in organizing these events. In addition to the above, I became an editor on the social media ‘Chai and Why’ page. During this time, I realized that I was enjoying communicating science more than being actively involved in benchwork.
Meanwhile, I was writing non-scientific articles on a personal blog. These articles were mostly observational in nature. When I decided to pursue a career in science writing, Arnab suggested that I start a science blog, which will give me some practice as well as contribute to my portfolio.
The research training in TIFR equipped me with skills to understand the science, and the science outreach experience provided deep insights into communicating in an accessible manner.
Tell us about your career path?
When I was pursuing my Masters degree, I was trying to understand what factors were responsible for maintaining a certain density of mitochondria along a neuronal process. In hindsight, I can compare my research experience to an act of solving a mystery. I knew some facts, was aware of a plethora of possibilities, and had quite a few tools at my disposal to tinker with mitochondria in the neurons (I used C. elegans, a tiny worm which grows to a maximum length of about 1 mm, as a model system). This entire exercise taught me how to interpret a particular result, while keeping in mind the strengths and limitations of the experimental approach.
Now, there was a point when I realised that I could translate the same skills to writing. When I write an article about a given topic, my approach remains quite similar sans the experimental part, of course. I give utmost importance to covering the basics. Also, my training helped highlight the flow of thought while cruising from observations, to the inferences and finally the concluding statements. Is there any other interpretation of the experimental observations? This prevents me from going down that spiral wherein the article is more of a puff piece. I always make it a point to mention the limitations along with the strengths. Overselling the science is a BIG no-no.
While I was taking baby steps in learning the art of science writing, my volunteering experience with the TIFR science outreach team was a crash course in handling public engagement activities. It was sometime during the middle of my Masters course that I decided to combine both my interests in the sciences and writing. I started considering science writing as a career option.
At the same time, I was quite aware of the realities of the job opportunities in this field. Initially, I had planned to take up a content writing job that would help financially sustain myself and I could develop my science blog simultaneously. However, things turned out to be quite different.
How did you get your first break?
Towards the end of my Masters degree, two wonderful opportunities came by. TIFR Hyderabad was looking for a science writer while NCBS Bangalore had advertised a position for a ‘news coordinator’. I applied and got job offers from both places. Upon completion of my Masters degree, I decided to join TIFR Hyderabad. It was a new institute and I was entrusted with the responsibility of helming its science communication and public engagement activities. I must admit that this has been the most rewarding learning experience till date.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: One of the biggest challenges that I have faced is the fear of not knowing or doing enough. While I have mostly learnt on the job, I also constantly seek out opportunities to train myself further. Most of these involve taking up writing assignments that put me outside my comfort zone. For example, I have been writing more about research in fundamental physics and chemistry.
Challenge 2: My work entails a constant monitoring of multiple official social media handles of the institute. While I do advocate for a creative use of social media as a tool to engage people with your science, sometimes it may get a little overwhelming. I have come up with ways to not get distracted by the hundreds of notifications. I follow a schedule wherein a couple of hours per day are completely dedicated for social media work. However, I do run a frequent periodic check for urgent queries on social media.
Where do you work now?
At present, I work at TIFR Hyderabad as the science writer. I am also the Programme Head of the Science Media Centre. My position packs in a quite a few interesting responsibilities.
– Writing popular science articles that highlight the research being done in the institute.
– Setting up a science media centre.
– Curating the official social media accounts of the institute.
– Organising activities and workshops aimed at building the science communication skills of graduate students in Hyderabad. I have also brought out a newsletter that encourages students to pen down their science stories.
– Organising public engagement activities such as a Science Café called ‘Sawaal-Jawaab – Conversations on Science’. I have been focused on regularising these sessions and increasing our reach among the public.
– Compilation of all official reports regarding the scientific progress in the institute.
– Handling press relations and coordinating all recent science news
– Creating scientific illustrations for posters.
– Developing content for the website.
I also attend conferences and workshops as an official science reporter. One of the memorable stints was at an EMBO-EMBL symposia on microtubules. This was the first instance that gave me an experience in science communication on an international scale.
The primary skills that I require are that of writing and organization. The latter is very crucial when it comes to scaling up the science communication activities in the institute. I have always asked for help when attempting large-scale projects. Fortunately enough, I have always received the full cooperation and support of TIFRH members. It is important to realise the need to rope in researchers, educators, artists and IT experts when embarking on a new project. This brings together the expertise of multiple individuals yielding more fruitful results.
There are two things that I am very thankful for- first, I have a lot of independence; second, I wake up in the morning and look forward to going to work.
How does your work benefit the society?
My efforts are directed towards building a bridge between science and society. These initiatives include two-way modes of communication, thus giving an opportunity to get feedback from the people. This feedback will help improve the community outreach initiatives.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
In 2018, I initiated an ‘Art and Science Dialogue’ with the Department of Fine Arts from University of Hyderabad. Graduate students from TIFR Hyderabad teamed up with the artists and came up with an art exhibit that was inspired by research. The success of that event gave me the confidence to go ahead with more projects.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
If you are interested in pursuing science writing, it would be helpful to start writing. You can start with a personal blog and then move on to writing for online science news portals. One can improve their skills by writing more, acquiring constructive feedback and incorporating that feedback into future writing. Not only does this help build a portfolio, it also gives you sufficient practice.
Please do not resort to a career in science communication as a consequence of not wanting to do research. Careers in science communication require very specific skill sets.
At this point, I am trying to set up the science media centre of the institute. I am also focusing my efforts on bettering my craft by taking up more challenging writing assignments.