Sometimes, our perception of a dream career might not be true in reality. And thats alright ! But what is more important is to take the strengths of your past experiences and apply it to your current role.
Anupama Prakash, our next pathbreaker, work as a Science Communicator, simplifying complex science to a level that is understandable to anyone with no technical expertise, because we live in a world that is dominated by science and technology.
Anupama talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about leveraging her science background to communicate science through stories instead of pursuing a career in research.
For students, a career is never a straight line. When you hit a roadblock, restrategise and try to figure out how to make the best of your past work !
Anupama, tell us about Your background?
I was born and brought up in Kerala. As my parents were bankers, they were transferred to different locations often, but most of my schooling was either in Kozhikode or Thrissur. My options for higher studies were always clear: I loved Biology the most out of all my subjects, and professional courses did not really attract me. So, choosing a pure science degree was the way forward.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
The common bachelor’s courses in Life Sciences were either Zoology or Botany, but I wanted something extra from these options. I came to know that St. Berchman’s College, Changanassery, offered a double main course, focusing on both Zoology and Microbiology, so I applied for it, and fortunately got in. After my undergraduate studies, I moved to the UK to pursue a master’s in Molecular Neuroscience. At this point, I was quite sure that a career in academia was it for me, as this was the most traditional career path.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?
In hindsight, I had decided to go with academia because of the wonderful picture it painted to an outsider. But it was once I dipped my toes in during my master’s that I realized that research isn’t that wonderful. Your passion can only support you for so long. Once I realized the pressures and intricacies of an academic life, I started questioning whether academia was really it for me.
I had cleared the interview stage and was lucky enough to have been offered a PhD position at a university in Germany, but I was convinced that I would not be happy pursuing research. So, I moved back home.
While looking for jobs at labs in India, I saw a job advertisement for Scientific Editors at Cactus Communications, which is the parent company of the world-renowned editing brand Editage. My initial plan had been to try the job out, as this was not a career I had ever considered. However, after joining, I realized that I loved editing (it definitely satisfied the inner grammar police in me :P). I worked as an Associate Editor with Cactus for around 2 years.
It was once I crossed my 2-year tenure that I started feeling like there was more I could do. Editing was fun, but it was not completely satisfying. At this point, I came to know that Impact Science, Cactus’ research communication services brand, was looking for people who can write and provide creative ideas on how to present science. I applied immediately and was fortunate enough to clear the interviews and join as a science communicator.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path
The skill set required in academia is very different from that an editor needs, and this is again different from what a science communicator does. When I joined editing, one of the major changes I needed to make was to consciously change the way I read papers. Before, I was content to distill down the essence of the paper, to focus on the science only, and not the technicality or language. But as an editor, every sentence requires my focus. An editor’s job is to make manuscripts the best version that they can be, so that the authors can convey their points clearly and easily. A basic knowledge of academic language, grammar, and journal preferences is helpful in this area.
When I transitioned to science communication, one advice I received was to deconstruct the “editing view”. As a science communicator, the advice went, my focus should go back to the essence of the research paper.
Luckily enough, rather than contradicting my new job, the skills I acquired over my time as an editor complimented it. Language remains a key focus of communication. Effectively putting across ideas is the essence of what I do, and the language skills help in this. The little bit of research experience and knowledge about the functioning of academia I received from my studies also helped in my editing stint and continue to contribute to my job as a science communicator.
How did you get your first break?
I saw a job advertisement for Scientific Editors at Cactus Communications, which is the parent company of the world-renowned editing brand Editage
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Where do you work now? Tell us what you do
Right now, I work as a science communicator as a part of Impact Science. I am a part of the content team, and our job is to come up with creative ways to tell stories about research and findings across all subject areas. We work closely with a design team, and together, we convert the highly technical research presented in manuscripts into easily digestible and attractive formats like infographics, video summaries, and press releases, each fine-tuned according to the expertise level of the intended audience. We also help institutions put their work and achievements out to the world through specialized videos. Through this, we help researchers share their findings with experts in other fields, and with the non-technical crowd.
The most important skill that I have found to be helpful in this job is communication (like the job designation suggests), or the ability to frame ideas and thoughts in simple, brief, and effective ways. This is not something that one knows inherently, rather I taught myself to do this over my time at Impact Science, and I am still in the process of learning. This is useful not just in coming up with the content, but also in conveying ideas to others in the team.
The best part of my job is when a client approves something in one take, but this is rare! 😀 There is a considerable amount of understanding of unique client expectations required as well, but once we nail it, and the client is happy with the final product, that is when the I am the most satisfied with my job.
How does your work benefit the society?
Our work is not just for other researchers. It is for the everyday person. For example, we have recently worked on several projects dealing with the coronavirus, and some of it involves simplifying complex science to a level that is understandable to someone with no technical expertise, because this is something that everyone is affected by. We make science, especially the science that has a direct effect on daily life, accessible to the public.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I can’t think of a specific work that I am partial to, but my favorite type of client feedback is when the researchers get back to us, particularly for infographics and videos, and tell us that it is more attractive than they could expect their work to be. It is a genuine pleasure to make research as attractive to everyone viewing or reading it as it is to the researcher who worked hard for it.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Based on my limited experience, the first thing I can say is, never be inflexible about your future. We are all changing as we grow, and what we enjoy doing when we are 18 can change drastically by the time we are 25. Second, never stop learning. If at any point, you feel like you are stagnant in your career, then that is the perfect time for you to figure out what you can learn and what you can change.
I’ve only started exploring science communication, and so far, it’s been amazing. Ultimately, my job comes down to the ability to tell a story well. I hope I can continue to learn this better as I grow in my role.