The need of the hour is creativity, especially in communicating science in a way that science education becomes more accessible, fun and interesting for school students from any background irrespective of language or strata !
Somdatta Karak, out next pathbreaker, aims to solve the disconnect that science education in schools and colleges has with contemporary scientific research and its implications in our lives.
Somdatta talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about realizing her calling to improve scientific education in schools, empowering young students to decide what they want to study in science by maximising access and exposure to science to all those interested.
For students, Research and Outreach are like two sides of the same coin, because outreach brings research out of the confines of the lab and shows its benefit to the society, thus incentivising more students to take up research. Take up a career in Scientific Outreach !
Somdatta, tell us about Your background?
I grew up in suburban Mumbai in the 90s in a middle-class family with a government employee and a home-maker as my parents. Throughout my school I had single-mindedly thought of studying biology, but as a medical doctor (because I didn’t know better). Fortunately for me, I realized in high school that I can’t stand the sight of blood, and chose to look into other ways of studying biology.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I studied chemistry and biotechnology for my undergraduate studies, and my masters in biology from TIFR (Tata Institute of Fundamental Research). My postgraduate degree was a by Research degree – where one needs to work in a lab for 3 years, and produce a thesis based on which one is evaluated (unlike other exam-oriented courses). During my postgraduate degree, I worked in neurobiology, to be more specific.
I did my PhD (Sensory and Motor Neuroscience ) from The University of Göttingen, funded by Georg August Lichtenberg scholarship.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
I have been influenced by many science communicators across the world who have made science education more accessible, fun and interesting ! I have had teachers who have believed in me, who have been influencers to think of education as a notable and worthwhile sector to get into.
The science festivals organized at German universities (when I was a PhD student there) for public were an inspiration for me to translate a similar ecosystem back in India.
Our education sector is going through a revolution currently. My fellowship with Teach for India offered me a unique view of how I could integrate my training in science and my experience in education.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
During my undergrad, my Chemistry teacher introduced me to the National Initiative on Undergraduate Sciences – a new program that Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education was beginning. Without her, I don’t think I would have ever known of the program. And on her insistence, I joined their chemistry program – not a decision I think I would have ever taken myself. It was often challenging to sit through courses and complete tasks with other chemistry students. But at the end of the course, i understood the extent of how much I did not know, prompting me to embark on a quest to understand nature in more detail.
That possibly set the tone for my Master’s degree by Research. I knew that I did not know much, and in these three years, I wanted to learn to deal with that feeling. All of that was happening while I was studying how Drosophila larvae habituate themselves to smells.
Walking on uncharted territory has an undeniable charm. And I wanted to continue with it, and hence started my doctoral work. During my PhD I continued working with Drosophila’s sensory system. But this time, I wanted to study how it hears sounds.
While all of this was happening, I had not thought of it so much as a career step. I believe (and I feel privileged to be able to do so) that I did not have to think of how to get a job during my education. But I definitely thought of it when I was close to submitting my PhD thesis. And I realized my calling was in working with people more directly than what academic sciences offer. And if I thought of a sector where I wanted to contribute, it was definitely school education. So, I decided to get trained in the education sector at the grassroots.
I started with a fellowship with the Teach for India (TFI). I worked as a full-time teacher in a low-income school in Mumbai in the day. And nights were consumed in understanding the shortcomings and opportunities in education.
While I was a TFI fellow, I volunteered with Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education (HBCSE)’s CUBE team. At CUBE, they try to orient young students, mostly from colleges, into research. I explored how a similar module can work with school students.
I also volunteered with Leap for Word, and worked with women from low-income communities in Mumbai to empower them towards becoming English educators. This was my first experience working with adults.
I then moved to Germany for a short time. While I worked as a postdoctoral fellow, I volunteered for a community of PhD and postdocs, and started as a project coordinator for their new blog series. It was during this time I came across many cool science communication initiatives, mostly those in the western world.
I then moved to India – to Hyderabad, which was a completely new city for me. I interned with the outreach team of TIFRH and worked with local schools, and understood their ecosystem for six months.
After that and till date, I have been working with CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB). I lead CCMB’s science communication and outreach efforts. I work with teachers and students from all across India (now with the digital platforms). I design various programs that aid in taking cutting-edge science and philosophy of science that traditional syllabi often miss out on for different reasons.
How did you get your first break?
It happened by networking. When I moved to Hyderabad, I realized that HBCSE’s (Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education,TIFR) ex-Director was leading the outreach efforts at TIFRH. Given her previous work, I was positive that her focus would be on education. I cold-emailed her asking if I could intern. She responded, we met and decided to work together. It was a privilege that I could work without a pay then.
This, however, let me grow my network among educators and scientists alike in Hyderabad – that led me to my current position at CCMB.
What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: Working with people: For most of my life, I have worked as an individual. It was only when I started working in education, I had to start working with teams to maximise the impact. Also, my current role requires me to meet new people all the time. Over time, I have tried to become a more patient person, giving enough space and time to the other person and ‘learn’ to be empathetic.
Challenge 2: Working without role models: When I made my shift from academia to education, I had no role models to follow. I wasn’t aspiring to become a long-term conventional teacher but contribute as an educator. Such paths were just opening up in science education in India. Picking a fellowship, volunteering and internship options changed these for me. These put me in circle of people who were inspiring for me, were like-minded and had similar ambitions in life.
Challenge 3: Creativity: I feel I am a good manager, who can critically observe and implement. But creativity, to me, comes only in spurts. So, I also surround myself with colleagues and collaborators who are extremely creative.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your work
I solve the disconnect that science education in schools and colleges have with contemporary scientific research, findings and their implications in our lives.
One has to be a people’s person. It helps to be creative. One should be able to face multiple problems at the same time, be calm and patient. Being a teacher to a class of teenagers helped me grow all of these to a large extent.
There is no typical day for me. Some days I am discussing with students and teachers of schools and colleges of what they would like more from science research institutes. Other days, I am exploring with my colleagues in science on what we can offer. There are days I spend working with artist collaborators who help in creating content that is more accessible. On some other occasions, I might be seen fighting for better platforms of science education or communication in India. And some other days, I am nose deep in administrative work finishing a report for a policymaker.
What is it you love about this job?
There is nothing more fun and inspiring to me than to be able to listen to ideas of young minds. These are idealistic, ambitious, pure and innocent. This job lets me have that in abundance.
I really enjoy are when I try to come up with or implement strategies that help in taking science to young students. The challenges typical Indian students face, are many. This includes not having access to science – a field that is fast-moving, and textbooks most of Indian students use are barely able to keep up. Many students also limit their understanding of science to merely the techniques used for addressing the questions rather than the depth and profoundness of the question. I strongly feel the main reason for this is science is presented to most students as an ossified piece of information, and not as a continually evolving understanding of nature around us. When I am able to address any of these issues, I am the happiest.
How does your work benefit the society?
I suppose my work (along with others who are in similar roles) sets the tone for many science communicators and science research institutes in India to think of how to connect with the student and educator communities around them. I hope that together we can build an ecosystem where we maximise access and exposure to science to all those interested, and take it beyond the confines of ivory towers.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
As a TFI fellow, I realised literacy is one of the biggest challenges India faces. Science, often taught in English, is also scarred by the challenge of literacy. It was then that I had thought of creating content in science using visual art. Creation of zines (https://www.ccmb.res.in/Zines) and comics (https://www.ccmb.res.in/ClimateChangeChallenge/Comix) on topics of science is very dear to my heart.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
It is almost impossible to predict what future possibilities will look like. So, I do not recommend planning your career by the job that you will do. Instead, I advise identifying your privileges, skills and interests. A happy life is often found at the intersection of these three things, I believe.
I would like to be part of initiatives that democratise knowledge. I want to lead initiatives where I empower young students decide what they want to study in science, and how. I want to see them redefining education that impacts our daily lifestyles beyond its scope of readying us for jobs.