Thanks to the ever growing tentacles of the internet, there is a growing need to fight misinformation and deliver usable science to the general public for the benefit of our society !
Anushka Khasnobish (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Contributor and Podcast Host at Useful Science, decodes complex research papers and summarises them with the aim of disseminating science from research papers to our daily lives.
Anushka talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about the versatility of Science Communication whether it is as being part of a PR team of research institutes or by helping scientists to disseminate their research information to the public or in science advocacy by playing an important role in formulating government policies around healthcare, climate and a variety of other fields where scientific research is a game changer.
For students, it is incredibly satisfying to bridge the distance between science that happens in the laboratory, behind closed doors, and its impact in our daily lives !
Anushka, what can you tell us about your growing up years?
I was born and brought up in Kolkata, West Bengal. My parents were central government employees. I come from a line of educators. My mom was a mathematics school teacher in Kendriya Vidyalaya. I am close to the maternal side of my family. Many of my uncles took up their hobby as writers and are published authors. Me and my cousins have tried to follow this trail with our ever-increasing love for creative arts, stories and books. In school, I loved participating in skits, poetry recitation competitions, and storytelling competitions. Since my childhood I have thoroughly enjoyed and loved every segment of performing arts, stories and poetry.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I did my Bachelor’s in Microbiology from Lady Brabourne College under the University of Calcutta. I have always known what I shouldn’t do rather than what I really wanted to do. I knew I didn’t want to become a doctor or engineer. I wanted to still be associated with biological sciences, and when I joined Lady Brabourne College in 2011, the course of microbiology was going through a sea change and I guess I found a subject that let me be in touch with my creativity. Knowing that I was studying something that’s around us and yet unknown to the naked eyes has always fascinated me and spurred my creativity.
I wanted to explore life away from home. So, I gained admission in Pondicherry University where I did my Master’s in Microbiology. The two years in Pondicherry University gave me a sense of independence, and initiated my journey of adaptability and sustainability. As a class representative, I was able to organize cultural events with my fellow classmates on one too many occasions and those are the happiest memories of my life as a master’s student in Pondicherry University.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?
In 2017, I was working as a research assistant in IASST, Guwahati, India. I have a hobby of browsing the websites of institutes whose cultures have struck me as unique, and of which I would really love to be a part of, in any capacity. One such institute is IISER Pune. So one morning I was happily browsing through the IISER Pune webpages when I saw that they were accepting applications for a workshop – “Women in Science Journalism”- organised in collaboration with the British Council. It was a 5-day workshop and our instructors – Dr Rebekah Smith McGloin, Dr Heather Sears and Dr Katy Tuck – were from Coventry University, UK. Up until attending this workshop, I had a vague idea about science journalism or science communication. This workshop helped me dig into a lot of things around science communication – right from the basics to how to get started, to having your elevator pitch ready whenever start looking for jobs. Being in a room full of like-minded people with a love for science, words and communication meant that we were building lifelong relationships in addition to unraveling this new field. I went on to attend the second level of the workshop as well in 2018, which was for a shorter duration and much more focused on polishing our pre-learned skills from level 1. This led to my producing some science communication articles that I was really proud of and made me realise that being associated with science communication sparks a sense of joy in me.
The workshop also helped me get in touch with an organisation called Science Seeker which compiles science news and files them according to their subject matter. I volunteered and joined as editor for the Microbiology bundle. This helped me stay in touch with trends in microbiology research across the world. Also this was the first gig where I could use my creativity to summarize scientific articles in 1-2 sentences that would stop readers from scrolling and draw their attention to the science news.
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
When I was around 9 years old, my cousin brother and sister-in-law got into the PhD program at Stanford University. When they went abroad for their studies, I would writer letters to my sister-in-law and she would tell me about her life as an international grad student in the US. I was so fascinated by this that I told my family I would like to have such an experience too. The last semester of my masters requires us to do a research project from scratch. I worked with the genomics laboratory in our university and loved the whole process of the project, from literature review to experiments to trouble-shooting and finally defending my thesis. It was a wonderful experience and I wanted more of that. So I started applying for PhD programs abroad, especially in the US and Europe.
Most of these PhD programs required research experience after post-graduation. So I joined the bioinformatics centre at National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases(NICED) in Kolkata. My supervisor there knew I was applying for PhD programs abroad. NICED has collaboration with JICA (Japan International Cooperation Agency) and there is a laboratory for Japanese scientists. So my supervisor suggested that I consult these scientists and see if there is a way to apply for PhD programs in Japan. Following their guidance I was able to find out about MEXT Scholarship and Okayama University which eventually became part of my career.
My time at the Institute of Advanced Study in Science & Technology (IASST), Guwahati, after Post-Graduation, helped me to become an independent and adaptable researcher. Also the project I worked on here was directly related to my field of interest and that helped me build skills and knowledge for my PhD in the future.
Moreover, since science writing is a non-traditional career option in India, which amounts to scarce job opportunities in this field, I really wished to have international experience and thus decided to follow my dream to study abroad.
I applied for a PhD to many countries at the same time. The MEXT scholarship is one of the most competitive and esteemed scholarship offered by Japanese government. I applied for this scholarship under the guidance of one of the Japanese scientists at NICED and his colleague in Japan. There are several screening stages for the scholarship and thus the application to join the PhD program would take nearly about a year. The best thing about this scholarship is it doesn’t require one to have any Japanese language ability. Every university offers a 6 month compulsory intensive Japanese language program which helps you to get around with life in Japan. But the research was completely in English and so I didn’t have any problem with my studies.
My field of specialization is human microbiome. There are microorganisms everywhere around and in our body. These microbes are in a mutually beneficial relationship with our body and they are very sensitive to any changes in our body. This community of microbes is called human microbiome. There are various diseases in the world for which early diagnosis is essential. One such disease is IgA nephropathy (IgAN) which is a kidney disease. The aim of my research was to explore whether there are any changes in the salivary microbiome (microbial community living in our saliva) of patients with IgAN as compared to healthy subjects and whether this information can help us design a diagnostic tool for early detection of IgAN. My PhD work was able to address a research gap, but the sample size of my study was equivalent to a preliminary research study. To be able to translate the lab work to a usable diagnostic tool, a larger and global project is required.
While I was doing my PhD in Okayama University, Japan, I came across a podcast called PapaPhD where the host interviews people with successful post-PhD careers. I would highly recommend you to listen to this podcast even if you are not a PhD student as the podcast is a huge collection of episodes where you can learn about non-traditional career options. So back to my story, while listening to the podcast episodes, I resonated a lot with the speakers and thought of getting in touch with the host of the show in hope of getting to know about the interviewees. David Mendes, the host of the show, was very kind to respond to me and we scheduled a zoom call to discuss more. On the zoom call I told him the various episodes I really found interesting and that I would like to connect with those interviewees to get some career guidance. When we were talking about science communication, David suggested that I get in touch with Maryse Thomas who is the director of Useful Science. With David’s reference I was able to connect with Maryse and expressed my interest in being part of Useful Science in order to get a first hand experience of science communication. She onboarded me as a contributor and I have been a member of the Useful Science community ever since.
As I was listening to a lot of podcasts I wanted to test whether I can be part of one too. Useful Science has its own podcast team, though they initially did not have any requirement for new members. However I wasn’t ready to let that stop me. So every now and then I would ask Maryse if there was an opening for the podcast team and eventually Maryse connected me with Alex Garinther who manages the communication around Useful Science. Alex and I had an interesting chat on zoom at the end of which he thought I was a good fit for the podcast team as one of the hosts.
Another experience that you may find on my profile is that of newsletter editor for a startup organization called Scientistt. During my PhD, I realised Twitter is a good source of information for opportunities that don’t get posted as job Ads or internships. That’s when I came across a tweet by the Scientistt team looking for a Newsletter Editor. Though I had no prior experience in this role, I applied anyway. I got a callback and worked with Scientistt for about a year as Newsletter Editor where my main job was to highlight best blog posts, video posts, latest podcast episodes and provide information about any upcoming events organised by Scientistt. Initially I used to only prepare the content for the newsletter. However I felt I had time to learn how to do more and I started making the newsletter from scratch, starting with the written content, the graphical items and designing. This experience helped me stay on top of my creativity and I learnt how to use designer software and platforms like Canva to their maximum potential.
How did you get your first break?
Working in the field of science communication has always been my side hustle. I would love for it to turn into a job opportunity that pays someday down the road. Useful Science was my first opportunity in essential and organised science communication. And as I mentioned, I landed this opportunity by talking to people. Whenever you try to connect with people who seem to have similar interests as you, 99% of the time they are going to respond. So, building contacts and relationships will always help you broaden your career possibilities and also help you pinpoint which of these possibilities actually spark joy. Trust yourself and start networking!
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
One of the initial challenges that I had was I did not know whom to talk to. I did not know who could guide me and help me explore scicomm as a career option. The Internet is a good place to start looking. We all spend a lot of our waking hours scrolling through videos. Therefore, one approach that I took to help me address this situation was I started watching scicomm career videos on YouTube and searched for podcast episodes related to the same. Then I tried to find the hosts or the interviewees from these channels on LinkedIn and sent out connection requests. One tip I would give here is always use your laptop or computer to send out connection requests on LinkedIn because then only you get an option to “Add a note”. ALWAYS add a note with your connection request. The note usually has a word limit so something in the lines of “Hi, I watched an episode on scicomm on your “channel name” channel on YouTube. Can we meet over zoom for a quick discussion on your career path?” should do the job. When you are trying to get somebody’s attention, start with making them the hero of your story, ask about their journey, their choices. It will help you get a better idea of the role you are aiming for and if it’s a good fit for the life you envision for yourself and would also help you build a strong foundational relationship with your contacts.
Where do you work now?
I am a Contributor and Podcast Host at Useful Science. It is an international volunteer run organisation which aims at disseminating science from research papers to our day to day lives. The technical skills needed for being a contributor in Useful Science are already there in researchers – to decode complex research papers and summarize them. Also, Useful Science members have put together an onboarding document for freshers who are joining the team to guide them through the language, styling and technicalities that one should keep in mind while drafting the summary. There are usually 2-3 editors who check the contributor’s summary and after revisions when everybody gives a thumbs up, the summary is posted on the Useful Science website (https://www.usefulscience.org/). It is a voluntary role which means that I don’t have a typical day associated with this work. On some days I would be reading a paper not related to my field of study at all, because I find that topic intriguing. On other days you can find me digging scientific literature to find interesting study around a chosen theme for the podcast episode. The favourite part of being a science communicator and a member of the Useful Science community is that I know my work is bridging the distance between science that happens in the laboratory, behind closed doors, and our daily lives. Making science more accessible while retaining the actual scientific information from published work is super energizing and fulfilling to me.
How does your work benefit society?
Science communication can take different forms. You can be part of the PR team of the research institutes and help the scientists to disseminate their research information to the public. You can be a science advocate and play an important role in how government policies are formed around healthcare, climate and a variety of other fields where scientific research is a game changer. You can fight the misinformation available, thanks to the ever growing tentacles of the internet. The last factor is what inspires me to be part of this field of work. I am not in a full time employed position of science communication yet, but knowing that I am doing my part to help the world fight misinformation and delivering usable science to your fingertips is motivating for me. If you resonate with this, science communication might just be your calling too.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
As a member of the podcast host team at Useful Science, I recorded an episode about food and allergies (https://www.usefulscience.org/podcast/53). I summarized a paper about food habits of pregnant women and how it can affect the babies and so on. I loved summarizing this research paper so much especially because at the time of the recording, my sister had just given birth to my beautiful little niece and I was trying to be the aunt who could act as a science-based advisor and comrade to my sister as she navigated through parenthood. After this episode was published many of my friends and relatives who were parents themselves said that the episode helped them a lot as it changed their mindset in dealing with their babies when feeding them. Knowing that something that I loved to do has impacted the lives of so many others is an absolutely special feeling. I still feel overjoyed whenever I recap this in my mind.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Science communication is a growing field in India. So there might not be established career paths for you to aim for. Your best bet will be to read as many science based news articles, magazine articles and try to get in touch with the authors. Talking to people who are in the field of work that you would love to be in is the first and most crucial step in starting your journey. Talking to them about their journey, their experiences would help you understand if scicomm is for you or not. It will also help you chart your path on how to start moving on it.
I wish to continue to upskill myself and explore how I can turn something I love to do into something which also pays my bills and becomes my career path in the future.