Category Archives: Science communication

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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#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

JNV_5260

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Challenges of talking science online

As we set the stage for the India debut of FameLab, world’s biggest science communication competition that brings together science enthusiasts onto a common platform, our guest blogger Subhra Priyadarshini talks about the challenges of talking science online.

FameLab International winner Padraic Flood presenting his research at the competition

FameLab International winner Padraic Flood presenting his research at the competition

For full-time scientists and researchers, retaining the quality and freshness of blogs is a challenge. So is it for full time science reporters. It is one more job to do in the day. Writing a meaningful science blog consistently demands as much time and energy as any of the other important tasks of the day. A periodic blog – say daily or weekly – also needs ample planning to remain useful and interesting. Many blogs, science or otherwise, begin with a bang, posting daily content and then petering down to weeklies and suddenly writing their own epitaph one fine day. The primary reasons: lack of interest, incentive, time or topics to write on.

For scientist bloggers, the thin ethical line to tread on is whether a blog or tweet on their own work takes the shape of blatant self-promotion or not. Many scientists I know blog anonymously just to avoid getting into trouble. The issue has been debated at many workshops and conferences globally and my contention is that there is nothing unethical to talk about one’s own work as long as the scientist is adhering to embargo or legal guidelines set out for his/her research by a laboratory or a journal. After all, scientists are human and would love their work to be appreciated, commented and debated about!

Indians are vocal and opinionated or, as Amartya Sen would have us believe, ‘argumentative’. So as soon as a blog piece or tweet is up in India, you can expect comments of various hues – some objective and rational, some angry, some offensive and some totally off the mark. Many blog pieces run the risk of being sabotaged into parallel discussions on absolutely unrelated issues. It is frustrating for a blog owner to press the ‘moderate’ button more often than the ‘approve comment’ button.

Another nightmare for serious bloggers is spam. ‘Fake passports and driving licenses’, ‘excellent quality branded shoes’ and ‘cheapest honeymoon packages’. Spammers and trolls are relentless. You might block them regularly, but there is a spammer lurking somewhere around to pop right in. A good spam-blocker is as much a pre-requisite to start using social media as an anti-virus used to be when we all started using laptop computers.

Science bloggers in India are a nascent tribe. Recently, a list compiling science bloggers from India on Twitter found a handful of serious ones, mostly scientists, some journalists, mostly outside India and just a few in the country: https://twitter.com/NeuroWhoa/india-science. Since the space is by and large unexplored, the scope is enormous. Anyone with good science writing skills has a chance of standing up and getting noticed.

By Subhra Priyadarshini, British Chevening fellow 2006-07 and Editor, Nature India
This post was first published in Current Science, and has been edited to suit the blog format.

Want to build your skills in science communication and get a chance to represent India at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK? Apply for #FameLabIndia.

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Why are scientists taking to the blogosphere?

As we set the stage for the India debut of FameLab, world’s biggest science communication competition that brings together science enthusiasts onto a common platform, our guest blogger Subhra Priyadarshini shares her thoughts on scientists becoming science journalists.

FameLab: The world's biggest science communication competition

FameLab: The world’s biggest science communication competition

The number of science journalists using a blog to replace or supplement their print avatars has grown phenomenally. They might chose to be objective, sticking to the traditional mandate of journalism, or to be opinionated trying to justify a point of view.

However, an eye-catching trend is that of scientists blogging on science and scientific issues. The growth in this tribe of online busybees is instantly apparent at international conferences on science communication where journalist bloggers are a minority!

The reason more and more scientists are debuting in the blogosphere is apparent – it gives them and their research a lot more exposure, helps them find grants or new collaborators and enhances career opportunities. It is also an intimate social-networking tool where feedback is instant, candid and ever-flowing. A newspaper story is like a movie that you might adore or abhor, but the maker might not know how you felt about it instantly. A blog piece is like live theatre, where the adulation or booing by the audience is instant. Also, a blog is an online resource that continues to receive comments years after it is posted. By contrast, comments on online news stories taper out within a couple of days.

Blogging, however, cannot and must not replace science publishing or reporting on science. A blog is a personal viewpoint, very often informal and not bound by the classic writing structure that science or journalism schools teach us. It could be as free-flowing or structured as its author chooses it to be. The best science blogs, however, retain the classical structure – answering all questions the reader might have, explaining the scientific concept in layman’s language while adopting a conversational approach and looking at the implication of the research/study at hand.

They exceed the remit of a science article or news piece by becoming invaluable online resources, pooling in supplementary data on the topic by way of hyperlinks, pictures, diagrams and references. Most times, space constraint and format do not allow everything to be tucked into a science or news article. A blog is an ideal place to accommodate such interesting asides. In that sense, blogging is not strictly science publishing or journalism but supplements serious and consistent science or reportage.

Next up: Part III: Challenges of talking science online

By Subhra Priyadarshini, British Chevening fellow 2006-07 and Editor, Nature India
This post was first published in Current Science, and has been edited to suit our blog format.

Want to build your skills in science communication and get a chance to represent India at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK? Apply for #FameLabIndia.

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Is social media the place for science?

As we set the stage for the India debut of FameLab, world’s biggest science communication competition that brings together science enthusiasts onto a common platform, our guest blogger Subhra Priyadarshini shares her thoughts on talking science on social media.

FameLab: The world's biggest science communication competition

FameLab: The world’s biggest science communication competition

Years back, when I made the switch from reporting science for the mainstream media (newspapers, magazines, news agencies) to an online medium Nature India, I was inundated with questions from well-meaning peers. Must I renounce the glamour of the printed word to embrace the vastness and click-or-miss anonymity of the cyber world? Doesn’t a story in black and white with the morning cuppa have a more lasting impact than one on an android phone or tablet on the go? Concerned colleagues advised helpfully: online is the future, yes, but the romance of print will never fade. And one science journalist of repute gave me a clear disapproval: ‘You are going to blog and tweet too? That’s not journalism!’

Having swum in online waters and having passionately peeped into the crevices, I am happy to report I have survived. And blogged and tweeted my head-off too. Which is one of the points of this blog series – what has the journey been like, should scientists and science journalists blog and use social media to communicate science, and where is this enormous information explosion in science communication headed for?

Before I get into these mind-boggling details, I have to admit: If there were no science bloggers and tweeps, science would not be as glamorous and widespread as it has become in the last few years. Hats off to this informed, funny, adorable and quirky brood which has made life on the internet worth living.

So why blog? The evidence is clear: science sections in newspapers are shrinking. Television wakes up to science only during a nuclear disaster, a satellite lift-off or a Higgs boson. There are very few widely read science magazines simply because they do not make great commerce. Science coverage in mainstream Indian media, like many other issues of merit, has traditionally been minimal, primarily because of advertorial pressures and the space crunch.

The obvious SOS route: go online. Report, comment, give opinion, analyse or put all that together and just blog. Or if you are the cryptic type: use the 140-character route to tweetdom.

Next up: Part II: Why are scientists taking to the blogosphere?

By Subhra Priyadarshini, British Chevening fellow 2006-07 and Editor, Nature India
This post was first published in Current Science, and has been edited to suit the blog format.

Want to build your skills in science communication and get a chance to represent India at the Cheltenham Science Festival in the UK? Apply for #FameLabIndia.

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