Author Archives: Rajeswari Pradeep Kumar

My FameLab India journey

Written by Rini Sharon, FameLab India Runner Up

“This is the pre-boarding call for passengers booked on flight AI901 to Chennai. Please proceed to gate number 3”, went the airport announcement as I sat there taking a stroll down the amnesia lane.

It all started as I set out on a beautiful trip to God’s own country, curious as I’ve always been, with a million dollar question in mind – “What does it mean to be a science communicator?” Surrounded by friends from various scientific backgrounds flooded with the passion to tell the world about their world of science, loaded with back to back sessions on the hows and whys of science communication, engaged in never-ending technical debates and made to feel at home by our fellow hosts, my over-enthusiastic mind nearly forgot that I was there to attend a competition. A competition that changed the way I viewed science, a competition that gave birth to the Science communicator in me- FAMELAB.

The South India Regional FameLab experienced a hard and healthy competition between researchers from diverse domains. None of the participants failed to charm us with their expertise and their exhibition of scientific skills. After many 3-minute bursts of breathtaking awesomeness, 3 of us were lucky enough to be chosen to represent South India in the Nationals. We stood there, one hand holding our trophies and the other holding our famelab buddies whose faces lit with a proud smile. Anxious and excited, nervous yet delighted we eagerly awaited our next course of expedition- Pune…

Fresh faces, new trainers, unfamiliar hosts and increased competition met us at Pune. What seemed like a sober sabbatical in the scenic campus of IISER Pune, turned out to contain two days of rigorous schooling, guidance and practice to equip us all for the FAMELAB India Nationals. The training which was conducted by the too-handsome-to-be-true Mr. Carl Byrne, included various fun yet wisdom imparting sessions like interview techniques, storytelling, taboo games and physical exercises ;-) . The merry-making came to a halt as the national finals neared. Anyone who decided to walk across the 2nd floor corridor of IISER Guesthouse would be stuck with the infectious competitive spirit of the participants and would witness cacophonous practices, heavy nail-biting and people with notepads pacing up and down the corridor. With the media coverage, live streaming, stage practices and online voting, the Famelab national finals much resembled a reality show. A little dance , some poetry, a lot of drama, some magic, everything from bursting balloons to going bald was witnessed on stage- all for one thing – communicating science! The fierce competition was finally lulled as they announced the 3 blessed scientists from India who would get the opportunity to experience the Cheltenham Science Festival in person.

Being a person who has never stepped out of India, I was extremely excited, elated and thrilled at the thought of being a part of an international science festival. Although the preparation for the trip was a painful process, with the leave request being rejected and the VISA being refused, there was enormous amount of support and help from the British Council South India that made this trip possible for me. Looking back now, it might just seem like another laughable experience, but no words could express my gratitude to British Council South India. As I got my VISA the penultimate day of departure, I sighed a breath of relief and set out on my journey to Cheltenham.

Cheltenham – amazing weather, amazing town, amazing people, not-so-amazing food! :-P The first few days sped past as we engaged with science communicators from 31 different countries, got acquainted with their language and culture, exchanged souvenirs and rendezvoused with many field experts who presented their insights about multifarious issues in the scientific terrain. It blows my mind away as to how people from across the nations worldwide could get along so easily just because they share a common passion – science. A lot of science was doing the rounds but everyone lay keenly in wait for the International finals!

The day arrives, and Mayur Bonkile, the Indian representative for FameLab had gone through umpteen practice sessions with myself and Sumeet. We sat ourselves down in the dim lit auditorium taking selfies with our newly made friends, chit chatting and betting about which country would win until we were silenced by the legendary FameLab tune which marked the grand commencement of FameLab International Finale 2017. Without exception, the finalists held the audience spellbound by their enchanting and magnetic performances and gave the judges a hard time deciding who would own the FameLab champion title. The South African contestant won a special place in everyone’s heart as she wiggled and hummed spreading her contagious humor among the audience and won both the audience vote and the FameLab International Champion 2017 title.

Farewells bid, bags packed, skills learnt, memories made. Above all, a life made richer by new found friends…

Lost in thought, I was awakened by the familiar voice, “This is the final boarding call for passengers booked on flight AI901 to Chennai. Please proceed to gate number 3 immediately”!

I make my way back home pondering about my million dollar question – “What does it mean to be a science communicator?”

I know the answer because I am one now.

Thanks to FameLab – the name that spells science in a never-more-fun fashion.

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My experiments with the CWIT Fellowship Chichester University, March – May 2016

by Shweta Taneja
Speculative fiction author
Charles Wallace Fellow, Chichester University, 2016
Contact: me@shwetawrites.com

What I like most about the Charles Wallace fellowship is that it can take any shape you want to give it, any direction you want it to take. This freedom of choosing, or not choosing, to write, to read and explore, worked quite well for me, someone who plans her book meticulously, with each scene in place and then decides to go into a tangent while writing it.

After the initial bouts of joy on being accepted had settled in (including a series of screechy phone-calls, a drinking party with friends and other distractions that expectedly derailed my work for a week in December 2015), I prepared for the UK visa. The process was as smooth as it goes considering one has to deal with the third-party clerk layer called VFS Global. I applied for the visa application with the following: The Trust’s letter; A letter from Dr Stavroula Varella from the Chichester Univerity; another letter from the British Council stating my travel details and the fact that I’d received the fellowship; a cover letter where I explained what this was all about and why I was heading to England; and finally, a print of my airplane tickets, though those weren’t required. I forgot to add in health insurance to the pack, but the Visa authorities-that-be must’ve understood the levels of my health from my cover letter, for within ten days I had my visa. (I took a health insurance later from HDFC, the cheapest one I could find.)

End of February 2016, armed with my passport, panic and excitement as well as a mini elephant, I left for London. London Heathrow was a breeze to negotiate. The marvellous Richard Alford, the one-man-army behind the Charles Wallace Trust based in London, had arranged for £600 to be collected at the Western Union, which happened with average ease. I chose to take this in cash (though they do give you a prepaid card loaded with the same money at a £10 fee, which is a better option if you don’t want to handle too much cash) and headed to Chichester.

From Chichester station, I took the bus, a rookie mistake when you have to drag the said mini elephant who is having a bit of a tantrum. I would suggest my successor to opt for a taxi from the station which takes a mere £5-5.5 to reach the campus. Dr Stavroula Varella, the linguistics professor who I’d been in touch with from India and who handles the CWIT fellowship at the university, met me at the library and helped me get a university staff card, an essential for making sure all doors open and you can issue books from the library. She also introduced me to that apartment that was to be my home for three months, located in the Oaklands building, a mansion house surrounded by lawns on all three sides and a road in between with beautiful sunset views and a few ghosts floating around. Creative.

There were two new things that happened for my fellowship in terms of logistics which I found really useful (the older fellows haven’t availed either of these facilities): One was the catering option I got added to my staff card. Catering option costs about £50 per month and gives you £8 per day allowance to spend at the campus canteen. The canteen offers hot meals for lunch and dinner as well as healthy sandwiches with a lot of vegetarian options if you’re so inclined. This covered two meals a day during the week and I just needed to arrange for breakfast and weekend meals. Saved me a lot of time, money and visits to the grocery shop. (Also helps if you’re sheer lazy when it comes to housework as I am inclined to be.)

The second thing was the prepaid card that Stavoula, the very helpful Lorna Sargent, programme administrator for the department and Jenny and Jody at the Finance department arranged. It was a University of Chichester prepaid card loaded with all the leftover grant money after the accommodation and catering had been subtracted. The card made it easy for me to book tickets, transact online and pay my bills, use in pubs and restaurants, anywhere really. I easily tracked all transactions on Expensify (a free app for most smartphones) and send the report to the Finance team at the end of my stay, with all the physical bills, something they would require as it’s a corporate card.

Another thing I found useful at the university was the gym. The membership to the gym is quite cheap for staff members (I got it for £12.5 for three months) and there are fitness instructors to help you with a personal plan if you’d like to know which machine does what to which part of your body. The gym also has an extensive indoor sports facility. Do bring your fitness gear with you.

WHAT DID I DO?
Having been a city-girl all my life, it took me a little time to adjust myself to quiet country life and set up a writing routine. After a rather late start, I managed to finish a draft of my long pending novel (the third in Anantya Tantrist series); took a two-week Easter break in London to explore exhibitions and get inspired in British Library reading rooms and museums; found the beginnings of a new satire I’m working on now; and finished the final editing of a paranormal novel which releases in July/August 2016 with Juggernaut Books. Alongside I wrote eight articles for my regular gig at Mint, attended classes, had conversations, travelled and read a lot, exposing myself to varied speculative fiction and comics. I also explored similarities and differences in social and political norms and perhaps came back with a somewhat clearer understanding of what makes us all humans.

I’d applied specifically to Chichester University for two reasons: One, the Folklore library, which intrigued the amateur story-collector in me. It’s located in professor Bill Gray’s study. Since Bill was unfortunately unwell, I couldn’t explore his library as much as I would’ve liked to. (Though the Folkore Centre was kind enough to accept and publish an excerpt of my latest book Cult of Chaos, in their journal Gramarye.)

The second reason was the phenomenal Creative Writing faculty in the department, something that turned out to be a brilliant decision. The English department at Chichester is small but very active and welcoming. They have a tradition where each of them take turns to take the CWIT fellow out for a cup of coffee or experience (which meant for most months, my timetable was packed with coffee/tea/cake treats, experiences and conversations). I not only made lasting friendships with most in the department, but also learnt a lot about writing, the business of it, and the challenges faced by others. Alison MacLeod, professor of contemporary fiction whose book Unexploded was longlisted for the Man Booker, taught me the art of writing short stories, a medium I’ve not really explored. She also played host to me, inviting me over to her lovely Brighton house and prepping breakfast as we discussed cultural differences, the business of teaching creative writing and what it takes to continue to write. With Dr Naomi Foyle, who is an author of a sci-fi series inspired by the political scenario of the Palestine-Israel conflict, I discussed elements in science fiction and fantasy and how to pace a story—over multiple fish and chips dinners. Hugh Dunkerley exposed me to modern poetry, while Stephanie Norgate explained to me the usefulness of writing workshops and feedback. Stephen Mollett introduced me to radio screenplays; Karen Stevens fed me food while we discussed the art of teaching writing and of writing. The department also had multiple author visits and events, which meant I met and interacted with established British and European authors like Jim Crace, Adam Marek, and Dorthe Nors and literary agents like David Godwin. Needless to say, it helped me learn and understand trends in contemporary writing in English and make some connections.

I’m a wandering soul and love to soak in nature and creative arts to inspire me into new directions. For this Chichester University was a hotbed as the university has active departments in dance, music, films and theatre. There was something or the other happening at least two-three evenings in a week, most of the things free. I became a regular at the jazz evenings, saw operas and orchestras, experienced modern dance, plays, dramatization of the Palestine-Israel conflict by a historian, attended a conference on Shakespeare and heard a panel on how sets are designed for theatre productions today.

Since I was in a university and had the freedom to choose, I’d decided in advance to attend a few classes. For this purpose I got in touch with Dr Hugo Frey, the HOD of History department at Chichester (who is also a fellow comic nerd and now a good friend), and attended quite a few history lectures on slavery, death rites, and racism. It was very interesting to go back in a class, listen in and also to understand how teaching happens in modern classrooms. It was also because of Hugo that I did a talk on Indian comics at the prestigious Cartoon Museum in London after attending a workshop there on British comics.

THANKS FOR ALL THE FISH
When you head to a new country, a new place, it’s both exciting and slightly panicky. A heartfelt thanks to Stavroula Varella, Simon Barker and Lorna Sargent for making sure I had everything I needed at the university and accommodating all my demands with bucket loads of patience and an unwavering smile. Though I’m a writer, I’m blessed with a personality which is hyper-extrovert. Which meant living in a mansion of 20-rooms, alone, wasn’t too much in the comfort zone. This loneliness vanished like smoke within a few weeks thanks to the welcome homes of Sandie Divers and her husband Ian who fed me multiple teas (yes the grammar works here) and loaned me a bike (loaning me another when my husband came visiting); Karen Stevens who let me sleep in her house, took me on hikes and multiple get-togethers. Other friends I made in and outside the university and my friends Anubhav and Neha who sheltered me while I was in London.

Finally an affectionate thanks to Richard Alford for meeting me at Trafalgar Square in London and then again coming to Chichester to spend a day around and making sure I was doing okay. And also listening in patiently as I rambled at the comic talk at the Cartoon Museum.

SNAPSHOTS
Here are a few images from my Instagram feed where I maintained a living journal of my fellowship. You’re most welcome to head there, browse through, see and comment.
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Finished a draft of a novel; started a new work and edited a third which releases in July-August 2016 with Juggernaut Books.

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Read a lot of unexpected titles and unexplored authors to force the mind to think and produce new ideas.

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Explored the countryside, breathing a lot of the sea, the fresh air and the skies. Also realized why the British talk about the weather all the time.

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Exposed self to a lot of pleasurable exhibitions and cultural stimuli. This is from the Alice in Wonderland exhibition at the British Library.

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Tried to understand the British culture as it’s now, its varied differences and similarities with my own.

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Tried, really, really hard to understand the difference between dinner and supper. Realised that JRR Tolkien hadn’t imagined the word ‘elevenses’.

EXTRAS
These are just tips and things I found useful as well as a few links for future fellows. Feel free to write to me and ask more on any of them.

HEALTH
- Hot and cold: I know it’s the obvious one, but I found the weather in UK fluctuating dramatically within a day, with cold winds that can grab by the neck if you’re not careful. Indians for most part are not used to it. My suggestion is cover up ears, head, neck and chest. Always, even when the weather feels warmer as it’ll happen in May.
- Hydration: All buildings in the UK have internal heating which can make it a very dry affair and even give you headaches if you’re not used to it. So drink a lot of water and eat fruits.
- Sickness: If you fall sick and haven’t brought any medications with yourself, the first step you can take is go to a Pharmacy. UK pharmacists can prescribe basic medicine. Also, the docs there don’t prescribe antibiotics easily, so do bring whatever you may need in a medical bag. For more serious things, head to St Richards Hospital’s Emergency ward, a small walk from the campus.

TRAVEL
- Trains are really expensive but not if you book in advance. So always plan ahead and book your tickets at the NationalRail website.
- Local buses are expensive, each way costing £5 (this is in 2016, for West Sussex area), so plan your travel around the area. I got a bike from Sandie and her husband Ian and used it for two months to go around the city as well as explore trails across countryside. Would highly recommend that as Chichester is pretty bike friendly. I also asked a lot of people I met to pick me up. They did go out of their way and it was kind enough of them to show me around the city and the areas.
- Chichester University has tied up with HostUK, an organization that arranges for British families to host international students for a weekend. I would suggest you to try it out. It costs £20 and your travel to the British family’s home. I made some great friends due to this organization.
- Since I need to hangout with people when I’m not writing, I also found Meetup, a location-based social network quite useful. I was able to go on multiple hikes with groups found here.

LONDON
- British Library: If you’re heading there, get your reader pass registration done online in advance. It makes sure you don’t waste a day when at the library.
- Home to stay: If you’d like to stay at someone’s home, my friends David and Oonagh, a really interesting couple who live in Finsbury Park, have a 4-BHK and are looking for tenants. They want someone for a minimum of 2-3 months. There’s a direct bus from their home to the British Library. You get quality conversation and a kitchen space to cook. Oh, and David also has occasional passes to Arsenal games (he’s a huge fan), so definitely think about it. You can email him for any queries you might have regarding London. Contact: david.todd.hunter@btinternet.com

All the best, you!

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#FameLabIndia – South India Winner, Prabahan Chakraborty’s experience

Somehow, the crowd seemed familiar.

A group of nerds who practice science had assembled from all over south India at this lovely little building inside the state university of ‘God’s own country’, one fine morning in late November. Things started like it always does – a shy laugh here, a brief hello there, exchanging names and stories about how the flight was caught at the very last minute. It all fit the formula – the equations of the first meeting – with potential friendship looming in the air.

And all of this, because we, the gathered folks, love communicating science.

Pause for a moment if you need to. Go ahead if you want ask me, ‘I have heard of learning science, but communicating science? Is it even a thing?’

It is, yes, a much bigger thing than you think it to be. Something so big and ingrained in our mental image of a scientist that if I ask you to imagine one, more often than not you would immediately think of this wiry man in shabby clothes who solves intricate problems by scribbling in air as he walks, lost in his own thoughts – someone who would start spouting Euclidean algorithms if you ask him how much is 70 divided by 7. The first part isn’t mostly true. The last bit is bang on.

It is an inconvenient truth that most of us who do science at any level often find it hard to explain our work to someone outside our field. As the cycle of research lives and thrives mostly between jargon-heavy grants and heavily jargoned scientific papers, we often end up getting a degree in science with zero degrees of comfort in explaining what we do to, say, our grandmother. We stumble, fumble and mumble something that is either remotely scientific or remotely comprehensible.

Which is why when I first got to know about ‘FameLab’, the largest science communication competition in the world, I took a step back and looked at it hard and strong. On one hand, it was a platform for exploring one of the biggest challenges you have as a student of science. On the other hand, you know for sure that tackling it is not going to be an easy job. And it was an easy job by no means! Thirty of the best budding science communicators (selected from out of 150 applicants) had assembled for a three-day workshop on scientific communication organised by British Council, India. It was to be followed by the FameLab South India finals. Workshop sessions by the no-other-title-would-have-been-suitable-enough ‘Rock-star of Science Communication’ Prof. Iain Stewart were both the cake and the cherry on it. Iain, an incredibly nice person who’s been the face of science programs on BBC for more than a decade now, laid out the road-map to talking science simply as well as how to battle the roadblocks that you might face while doing so. A session on writing grants by Dr. Satish Khurana was an added bonus for graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. To top it all off, Subhra Priyadarshini, the editor of Nature India, conducted an amazing hands-on session that gave us a brilliant insight into the lucrative career option of science journalism. Plus incredible hospitality by the British Council team made sure the event reached stupendous proportions.

Three days passed and the D-day arrived – the heats and finals of FameLab south zone. Amidst cheers and support from all of us, we took the stage one by one, and gave it our best shot.

And by then, the crowd was completely familiar.

We dispersed after a day, vowing to keep in touch, adding hugs to people and people to Whatsapp groups, sticking to newly found nicknames, cherishing memories, and we all took back with us polished, shiny pieces of the same dream that set us on this path.

A dream that promises a new breed of science communicators about to be born soon.

Dear Reader, watch out for us!

Submitted by Prabahan Chakraborty

Winner Prabahan

Winners with Mei-kwei

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Jobseekers bowled over by Kris Srikkanth!

Can you imagine being selected out of 400,000 candidates for a life changing opportunity? Can you imagine attending a 3 week course by the British Council without having to pay a penny? Have you ever attended a course where the certificate was handed to you personally by legendary cricketer and former India cricket captain, Kris Srikkanth?

That’s exactly what happened to the 23 first graduates of the fully funded Rin Career Ready Academy! They were the lucky few who had been given the opportunity to attend a 3 week intensive course to help them improve their English and get their dream job! Little did they know that this opportunity was going to change their skills and attitude towards learning forever.

Rin Career Ready Academy was the brain child of Rin (Unilever). They knew they wanted to give something back to the people of South India, who had made them so successful. They knew that many young people were held back in their careers because they lacked effective communication skills. They immediately realised that they had to partner with the very best, and quickly settled on British Council!

If they were excited, we were ecstatic. This was right up our alley and sat well with our values, ideas and plans for South India. Together, we created one of the most innovative and exciting programmes our team had ever been involved in. We listened to their ambition and we doubled it! We integrated the best of our English offer- Digital resources, which would reach out to hundreds of thousands of learners, Aptis to assess language skills and face-to-face training for 200 learners- a high impact end to the whole intervention.

When the British Deputy High Commission heard about the project, the High Commissioner, Bharat Joshi, was keen to support the cause. As a result, the training for the pilot batch happened at the lovely High Commission premises in Chennai. The students were absolutely floored when they saw their classroom!

The final participants were a mixed bag – a chef, a social worker, a housewife who suddenly has become the sole breadwinner after her husband had an accident – the only thing they all had in common was their desire to learn and turn their lives around. Over the 3 weeks the 23 students and their hardworking trainer, Veena, became a real family. The students travelled from afar, leaving home early in the morning to reach BDHC on time. Their punctuality, dedication and discipline during the entire course was exemplary!

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The 3 weeks flew by with innumerable CV drafts, mock interviews, fun, games, and lots of hard work. Before we knew it, the last day of the course arrived with the biggest challenge yet looming large. Every candidate had an opportunity to put their skills to the test and interview for real jobs.

D-day kicked off with interviews for top retail and sales jobs. After all the practice sessions in the nets, it was finally time for them to march out of the pavilion and onto the field. It was truly their time to shine and we couldn’t have been prouder!

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Much like in our beloved cricket, this series couldn’t end without a presentation ceremony to honour the star performers. And to make sure our heroes got the recognition they deserved, top representatives from all the teams were there to cheer them on, including Mei-Kwei Barker and Stephan Roman, from the British Council team; Tammy Sandhu, representing the High Commission and Meha Parekh from the Rin Brand team. These VIP dignitaries, headlined by Cricket legend Kris Srikkanth in his keynote speech, further inspired, encouraged and motivated the learners on their continued path to success.

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Certificates became trophies representing the blood, sweat and tears that had gone into this massive achievement and were handed out amidst much fanfare.

Here’s what some of the learners had to say about the programme:

D. Yuvaraj “ I am now confident to speak in English after attending this course.”

K Madan Kumar, “I have gained so much during this course, I have improved in email writing, spoken English, language etc”
Padma Priya Latha – “I wish my children get an opportunity to get trained like this”

Selvi–“ I am not scared any more, I talk to my family members in English, teach my kids what I learned here during the course. I am confident to go and get a job any were. With the confidence I got here, I have enrolled myself for computer classes. During this course I made friends, which I never thought I would do”

Jagannathan S – “We don’t want the training to end! I am very happy I got an opportunity to get trained”.
Jagan didn’t want the training to end, and we assured him that this was not the end but the beginning… Over half of our participants had been offered jobs and the others were well on their way to a new life, equipped with tools for success!

The journey continues as we travel around the other cities to touch more lives…. Watch this space….

Post by: Sitharay Nadine Krishnan

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