Scientists Simplifying Science

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Debaleena Basu

Debaleena Basu has 3 articles published.

My trysts with stage fright

in That Makes Sense by

Public speaking. If these two words evoke a frightened sigh or a sudden desire to slowly vanish without anyone noticing, welcome to my erstwhile world. While I was always supremely confident in informal conversations with my peers, I stammered, stuttered, or just stayed quiet through most of the formal scenarios in high school. In 9th grade I was asked to read the poem ‘Macavity, the mystery cat’ by T.S.Eliot in our English class. The book was right in front of me and I did not even have to stand. And yet, as the teacher called out my name, I froze, and my heartbeat shot up. The pounding didn’t stop till well after I had finished. I didn’t actually do a bad job, but that did not prevent the onset of these symptoms again when I was offered the prospect of reading out aloud in class.

In 11th grade, I was determined to tackle this problem—I was well versed in the English language and was reasonably articulate, yet why did speaking in front of others terrify me? I joined leadership training classes. The class itself used to be almost empty, and all that was required was to speak on a random topic. The setting suited me perfectly—few people meant fewer witnesses to my shortcomings and the lazy pace helped me ramp up my confidence in tiny notches. However, a class strength of 5 meant that many-a-times, I was speaking to an almost empty class and after some initial flustering, I soon got habituated without a huge deal of improvement.

 

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.” — Eleanor Roosevelt

 

College life was low-key in terms of extra-curricular involvement. My pattern of debating and discussing with friends, while staying quiet in class continued. While two of my friends went on to participate in debating competitions, I could never muster up the courage. The next time when I had to talk in a formal setting was when I had to present my Masters’ thesis. My friends at university came from varied backgrounds, and some, unlike me, had to suffer the combined bout of stage fright and inexperienced meandering through the English language. Seeing my friends struggle and yet try their best to overcome their drawbacks did embolden me—we were all tensed and filled with dread, but in all fairness, their struggle was harder. My main armor in such a situation was to practice till I had the entire flow clear in my head. I would write down most parts of the talk, a practice I continue till this day, though I have become increasingly flippant about it. I think I practiced my talk at least twenty times before the final day, which helped me to deliver a decent lecture despite initial shakiness.

 

I … never could make a good impromptu speech without several hours to prepare it.“- Mark Twain

 

Joining the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) opened up a Pandora’s Box of opportunities for public speaking. We had regular ‘journal clubs’ which meant presenting a scientific paper in front of the department every few weeks. Adopting the adage of ‘practice makes perfect’ I made full use of my journal club slots. My presentations got better and the fright went down quite a few notches. As with many other irrational fears, the pounding heart, clammy palms, and the extreme anxiety have not really gone away. They appear at the beginning of every talk and yet with experience, I am able to manage them well—and are usually not detected by the audience. The pretense of confidence has been an old friend and as time passes, conviction continues to replace it.

One major turning point in this trajectory was joining the students’ council at IISc. I had been volunteering for quite some time, and soon got an opportunity to introduce the committee I worked for in the main auditorium during a freshers’ orientation program. It was a 3 minute talk and I was only co-speaking, but my stage fear came back in full force. I had never spoken in such a big hall before and lost quite a bit of sleep over that 3-minute introduction. I remember continually practicing the talk while pacing up and down  in the restroom on the program day. All the frenzied preparation paid off and the actual staged introduction (which was probably the 101st time I was vocalizing it) went off without a glitch. Since then I have given a lot of such 3-minute introductions, votes of thanks, and opening sentences for students’ council programmes during my tenure. I managed to be a (hopefully!) not-so-unsuccessful teaching assistant for the neuroscience module of the newly initiated undergraduate program at IISc. Much experience has been gathered, and the potency of stage fright seems less. While flamboyant, impromptu anchoring for shows or programs seems very unlikely, gearing up for a well-practiced academic talk does not seem as terror-inducing as before. In all this rigmarole, I would always remember the surreal jubilance I felt after giving that first 3-minute introduction—it was such a small thing in the light of so many significant milestones people cross, and yet, I knew, it was a very important personal landmark for me. I was the same girl who once trembled reading a poem out aloud, and had never imagined that I could actually talk to a big audience, and I had just done that. I remember that feeling afresh and it is one of those things that occupies my life’s memory box.

 

There are always three speeches, for every one you actually gave.  The one you practiced, the one you gave, and the one you wish you gave.”  –Dale Carnegie

 

Public speaking is something integral to a scientist’s life, whether it is taking classes or giving talks at a conference. Not all scientists make brilliant speakers, and while that requires a different kind of effort, this piece is for all those out there who are struggling with a fear of public speaking. I believe what helped me was starting out in small groups, instead of accelerating into a high-pressure arena. If one looks around, one would see many with the same predicament, so do not give up! Practice groups also work wonders, however, if that is not possible, just practice aloud and do fair assessments. Take pride in the smallest of successes and egg yourself on! If I could reach a level of ease starting from the nadir, so can anyone else! You are your best cheerleader and if you stumble, inject some comfort and much-needed enthusiasm and get ready for the next round. The tougher the journey, the greater is joy of crossing the hurdle. There is no end to learning, there is no final destination, but only traversing from one elevating goal to the next, culminating in one remarkable path.

 

A book may give you excellent suggestions on how best to conduct yourself in the water, but sooner or later you must get wet, perhaps even strangle and be “half scared to death.” There are a great many “wet less” bathing suits worn at the seashore, but no one ever learns to swim in them. To plunge is the only way.” — Dale Carnegie

 

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About the author : Debaleena is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. She loves writing and has recently forayed into the domain of science writing.

Illustration : Ipsa

head-shot

Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing.

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Rejecting academia’s gilded mirror

in That Makes Sense by


Gilt: superficial or false appearance of excellence; glamour ; adjective : gilded

Sometimes I wonder whether we value our true selves. We repeatedly push our many fallibilities, the numerous chinks in the armour, and the wavering doubts behind our shiny projected visages. We love advertising our confident, competent personas, and every facet that dims the glow is made to hide deep within.

When one is initiated into academia, full of high hopes and lofty goals, scarcely does one comprehend the bumps in the route ahead. The myth of the model graduate student propagated since time immemorial, wafts around institutions and all the newcomers strive to attain perfection. Somewhere in the way, when the flurry of the courses is over, many start experiencing private dejection and isolation. Doing science is not easy. There is no manual that can dictate each and every step of the Ph.D. process. There is no secret recipe that would suit every graduate student. It is when the experiments start failing, the theories do not add up, and the lab hours become long and miserable, that the initial enthusiasm starts waning off and pessimism sets in.

In my (relatively) short academic career, I am yet to come across someone who has not gone through periods of intense self-doubt and diminishing self-esteem. Every graduate student falters at some point. But at the tipping point, there is little to cushion the fall. Academia thrives on almost monastic dedication and has little to offer to the vulnerable and confused. The circulating adage that ‘everyone else is doing fine, therefore I shouldn’t whine’ only adds to the burden of living up to the expectations of your advisor, your committee, the institute, the funding agencies, and mainly, your own self. Many bright students who had assumed that they would make good research scholars face a rude rejection when they go through the rough patches of doing science. The negativities are exacerbated by the fact that there is very little emotional exchange about this topic. It is considered normal to feel a little bruised—it happens to everybody! No need to make a big deal; slogging on is the call of the day…

try one                  Illustration : Ipsa Jain

 


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Thus, they suffer their private struggles of self-doubt alone, and in sets the feeling of ‘not being good enough’. Many recover from this intermediate stage, chipping on to finally carve a decent thesis. But for others, the struggle takes a toll, lowering their work productivity, and sometimes leading to serious mental health issues. A little sharing with peers will let one know that they are far from being alone in the pit. We look around and see achievers, and retreat away in shame and guilt of not doing enough. But if truth be told, each one of those achievers has their own tale of misery and desperate labour that we easily overlook. Every award has a trail of toil, every pedestal its share of falls.

We do no good by being so adept at hiding the hard, convoluted history towards academic success. While there may be institutional mechanisms in place to handle depressed students, few students actually reach out. The culture of shame for a struggler is still subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) present in most scenarios. Most will just internalize the feelings and try their hardest to trudge on without acknowledging any difficulty. In such a landscape, our constant endevour to present better, polished versions of ourselves does not help. Why not just break the image of false perfection and admit how much those onerously long hours, frustrated days, and hopeless months have been a part of the journey?

It will help some of us may feel a little less alone. Peer comfort is the most effective form of supportive therapy. Sometimes we spill the beans about our struggles to our closest friends, but why should this be taboo at all? Even the ‘model’ graduate student would have had his not-so-good-days, which lie hidden behind his many honours. This may do nothing for the next academic job, but if shared, may light up many a strained PhD student’s path. The solace in knowing that someone has been at this place and survived and is doing well is much more than any got from a professional pep talk. For they have shared our journeys and we are sharing theirs. How beautiful it would be if us all puny graduate students form a symbiotic network and work towards helping ourselves as well as our friends! Sharing the ups and downs of our journeys go a long way in motivating someone who is struggling in believing that the pains will end someday, and to never give up on oneself.

We do not need to be a living–and-breathing resume. Putting our best feet forward should perhaps be reserved for job interviews. Even if we are at the top of the game currently, the marvellous uncertainty of the path may lead to less lucrative pastures in future. For our own selves, for our friends who might have fallen tad behind, and for all the starry-eyed students yet to come, it is time we shed our gilded mirrors and be just as proud.

 

Debaleena Basu

211120131373

 

 

 

 

 

About the author : Debaleena is currently pursuing her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from the Indian Institute of Science. She loves writing and has recently forayed into the domain of science writing.

About the illustrator
IMG_20151008_111034_1444282874501

Ipsa is pursuing a Ph.D. at Indian Institute of Science. She loves to draw and paint. Biologist by training. Wants to gather and spread interestingness.

 

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Tackling the networking monster for introverts

in Sci-Pourri by
Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (French, 1796 – 1875 ), The Artist’s Studio, c. 1868, oil on wood, Widener Collection. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

“Gloriously alone with her own thoughts for company, she was but walking in the painted landscape–wishing that she may remain locked there for all ages to come…”

 

I stared at the far hillocks wondering what time it was. Languid evening chatter created a fairly noisy din around me. The only other familiar face was meditatively sipping her aperitif, an Aperol Spirtz, glistening like the setting sun. The experience was surreal, sitting among strangers in a sleepy Italian town far away from home, isolated amidst the banter.

It has been two years since the 2-month work visit to Italy and that uneventful afternoon. Needless to say, the ‘Friday evening drinks’ networking meeting did not go that well. As an exchange student, I remained an outsider to the conversation spree and fled the scene as soon as propriety allowed. My prowess at battling the monster of ‘networking’ has only but barely improved. I have never made an attempt to intentionally befriend a resourceful person, even as the conventional ‘ networking tips’ guidelines admonished and berated my introverted self.

Recent times, however, have seen a change of heart. Don’t get me wrong, I am still not effective at networking. However, there has been an important realisation.  Networking need not be a slimy word reserved for relentlessly pursuing connections for material benefit, neither does it have to involve a charade of niceties directed towards some assumed gain. Yes, there will always the aggressive ones, who revel in the glory of the pursuit of beneficial associations. But that does not have to be the only form of networking. At the heart of it, it stresses on building relationships. One does not have to chase every rich, famous, and accomplished person ‘just in case’. One need not even attend those (typically) disastrous networking events wherein strangers meet, greet and leave after a bout of cheerful small talk.

For those who are disillusioned or distressed with the new craze in networking, well, it isn’t new. Throughout the ages, we have trusted people we know more than outright strangers. We have always given weights to human connections. Today, ‘networking’ is promoted as a marketing strategy, but it can be a rather gratifying experience if we focus on its essence and not just as a professional aid.

Get to know a famous scientist or entrepreneur exactly for that: to learn about his experiences and enjoy the conversation as it is, without wondering about how to glean benefit for your career. Who knows?—A positive first chat may forge a lifelong friendship, initiate a support system, bring forth great advice, all adding positivity to your situation. Of late, I have started reaching out to people gingerly, and have been surprised at the warmth I have received. For introverts, a sense of a distinct purpose, rather than an ‘I should be friends with as many influential people as I can’ attitude also helps, in my opinion. At a recent event, I wanted to ask one of the speakers about a possible freelancing opportunity. The swarm of gung-ho admirers did not give away and I just could not break-in; besides the prospect itself was mortifying for me. Finally I did get an apprehensive sentence across as she was going to her car, and we are ‘networked’ now! She was the only person in the illustrious panel I attempted to connect with, and thank heavens for that; the pressure of preparing something to say to the others which would be just the right ‘pitch’ might have been too much…

While offline networking is how it started, the phenomenon of online networking has been a godsend for networking-shy people like me. No eye-contact, no awkward facial expressions, and no uncomfortable silences! These, along with the protective barrier of a computer screen have transformed the networking monster into a friendly puppy (well, almost). I am much more comfortable email-ing or even chatting with people I would like to connect with. It is also easier to grow a thick skin for non-acknowledgment online than for a face-to-face disdainful snub. Online support forums are very useful to conquer the hesitation and unease involved in approaching people, especially for us introverts.

So here I am, a not-really-networked person preaching lofty about the right way to do it. There is no actual ‘right’ way but all of us do not have to buy into the business-strategist’s definition of networking. The introverts will fit in some part or the other of the networking pyramid. The emphasis should be on making it personality-allied. So let us all share the manifold benefits of networking. Some of us will have fewer nodes in our relationship-connectome, but who knows—perhaps the weights are greater!

Debaleena Basu

211120131373

 

 

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