Researchers need to work on the 'communication' part of science communication

This interview is part of a Series
This interview is part of a Series

Interview with Dr. Karishma Kaushik

Dr. Karishma Kaushik, Assistant Professor; Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellowship from the Department of Biotechnology (DBT), Government of India, talks about how she decided to become a physician scientist; her experiences running a lab; the role of science communication; and best practices for researchers, mentors, and supervisors.

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9 mins
Researchers need to work on the 'communication' part of science communication

This is the third and final part of the interview series with Dr. Karishma Kaushik, the physician-scientist who returned to India after a decade abroad, to apply her experience to start her own research lab. Read on to hear Dr. Kaushik’s thoughts on the role of science communication today and how researchers can start engaging in science communication activities. Dr. Kaushik also shares some very recent examples of successful science communication projects undertaken by her group.

To know more about Dr. Kaushik and her work, read the first part of this interview series here.

When and how did you develop an interest in and passion for science communication and outreach?

One of the things I know I have struggled with in my scientific career, and I have heard from fellow scientists that they do too, is finding ‘impact’ as we go along our career journeys. As scientists we write grants where we propose to ‘turn the field on its head’, unveil new drug targets, and develop rationale for novel treatment strategies, but a lot of this is long-term and cumulative work. Recognizing this, and my interest in communication and public engagement, I have consistently sought and created opportunities to take my expertise ‘beyond the bench’. I was also fortunate to learn and experience this first-hand in the US, which in my personal opinion, provides some of the best examples of outreach in their science ecosystem. As a PhD candidate, I mentored several school students as part of an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ program organized by the Department of Physics at UT Austin. Aimed at young girls, often from underrepresented minorities in science and first generation students, the program (through us mentors) gave them experiences in an advanced research laboratory at a university. Towards the end of my PhD, my advisor had the opportunity to instruct at the Hands-On Research School in Complex Systems at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy, and offered me the opportunity to be an assistant instructor. I used a part of my PhD work to develop an interdisciplinary hands-on module using microbiology assays and a mathematical model, to estimate the physical properties of an active antimicrobial component. We executed the model over 3 weeks for young scientists from across the world, at a cost of less than $1 per participant! We also published this in a scientific journal for others to replicate and adapt in different settings (PLoS Biology, 2015). This experience was game-changing, it gave me the opportunity to interact with scientists committed to outreach from across the world, and was above all, fun! I learnt the power of combining advanced science with outreach, not only for the audience, but also for the scientist.


Above - Karishma engaging with budding physician scientists at DIPS 2020, CSIR-IGIB, New Delhi (Photo credit: Aastha Vatsyayan)

You and your lab have also been actively involved in science communication and outreach initiatives. Could you tell us more about this?

Since then, I resolved to develop a ‘science outreach arm’ when I would have a group of my own! Of course, moving back to India was a huge transition, and this little ‘dream’ of mine got buried under the piles of papers and emails, and getting the science going. In March this year I told Snehal (our group member), that we should spend the summer (when I am not teaching) giving science talks at local schools in Pune. Then in mid-March the pandemic and related lockdown happened, and all our plans were waylaid. Then one day, in the midst of pandemic-related webinars and online meetings, I had a ‘Eureka’ moment! Why not do our outreach via webinars for kids? I shared my idea with Snehal, and she readily agreed! We christened our outreach ‘Talk to A Scientist’, and designed it to be hugely interactive platform where young minds could communicate live and share science with ‘real scientists’. Our first webinar on Talk to A Scientist was COVID-19 for young minds (6-16 years), and the response was amazing! We had 70 young minds, and the session was engaging all through out. At the end of the session, several children asked us details for the next one, and we knew our idea had worked! Since then we meet weekly, for one hour and have discussed a range of topics such as antibiotics, vaccines, microbes in food, and even work from our lab on biofilms. We also had a virtual tour of the biology lab and a hands-on session to build a microbial ecosystem in a jar!

We are now in Season 3, where our weekly sessions focus on science relevant to India, and we are also hosting guest scientists to share their work! We endeavour to keep this platform going, and building it out to include a small team and for wider reach such as including regional languages. We have also received the 1st IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant for this platform.

Apart from this platform for young minds, we have also used this time to initiate a series of webinars aimed at young researchers in India. We select relevant topics to discuss based on suggestions from the community. Our topics included Scientific Writing, Research Internships, and Using Social Media as a Professional Tool. We also ran a two-part webinar series on ‘Brain Circulation in Indian Academia’, where in one session we focused on ‘Preparing for a PhD abroad’ (for students and researchers), and in our second session we focused on ‘Returning to India as an Independent Investigator’ for early-career faculty. For these sessions, we teamed up with colleagues from across the community, and across our four webinars so far, we have had nearly 1000 participants!

Do you train your lab members to do science outreach? Also, do you believe this is something researchers need training for?

I encourage it, and proactively create opportunities for it, for sure! But I do think that this is something ‘organic’, and cannot completely be trained for. For one thing, the format of engagement (speaking, writing, video, or audio) will depend on the individual’s personality. And most importantly, the passion and drive for this has to be inherent. What is definitely possible, however, is nurturing and providing pointers on improving an idea or approach, for which researchers could seek relevant training.

Many researchers find that despite being knowledgeable in their field, they lack the public communication skills or confidence to be able to present their work to a wider audience. How do you think they can overcome this? And how can early-career researchers start practising science outreach independently?

I agree with this observation. According to me, a researcher usually has the ‘science’ part of science communication under control, it is the ‘communication’ part that needs to be worked on. A good place to start would be to take a few good courses in writing and public speaking, and developing a solid command over the language you intend to communicate in (does not have to be English at all!). This training or learning is also life-long; for example, who would have thought us scientists would have needed to face the camera in our professional capacities, and now in this new normal we are doing it all the time!

Subsequent to this, I would say early-career researchers can express interest in being a part of ongoing outreach efforts (blogs, websites, podcasts, etc.). This will be a ‘boots on ground’ type of training. Nuances of reaching audiences, setting up meetings, navigating conversations, keeping the flow of the piece can all be learnt here. This will also help them understand the platform and type of communication they would like to do.

After this, the only limiting factors are ideas and initiative!

What role do you think social media platforms play today in science outreach? And how can researchers make the most of social media?

Huge! I recently conducted (with Snehal and Samatha Mathew from CSIR-IGIB) a whole webinar on this for young researchers across India, and I am a vocal advocate for leveraging social media as a professional tool. Inspite of all its pitfalls, engaging on social media provides a wonderful channel to reach large audiences, have your voice heard, and receive new ideas. All of this is critical for outreach efforts today! So start with following groups engaged with outreach, express your interest to be a part of their efforts, observe how they handle their platforms, the do’s and dont’s of using social media in one’s professional capacity, and then try it out for yourself. All its advantages aside, it finally has to be something the individual is comfortable with.

Science communication and science outreach has assumed great importance in the wake of the COVID-19 crisis. Could you share any scicomm and/or outreach tips for researchers who are working on COVID-19 and need to communicate their work to a larger audience beyond the journal article?

Most definitely, there has been an unprecedented interest and need to communicate science, and do it well! Apart from getting the story right and knowing your audience, I would emphasize on quality of the work. This rapidly evolving situation has ‘forced’ a lot of institutes and organizations into ‘webinar mode’, and it is great that they are recognizing the need for new tools and strategies. But it is critical to make sure the discussions or writing or piece is of excellent quality and has been give due attention and time. No excuses for messy, ‘put together’ pieces!

Thanks for your time with this, Karishma. Your passion for science communication clearly shines through!

Read the whole interview series with Dr. Karishma Kaushik:

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Published on: Oct 14, 2020

Passionate about scholarly publishing, always looking to have memorable conversations with researchers and industry professionals across the globe
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