Scientists Simplifying Science

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Theory of Creativity

Story of Science: Dr. Ramray Bhat

in Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

Ian Leslie said, “Curiosity is unruly. It doesn’t like rules, or, at least, it assumes that all rules are provisional, subject to the laceration of a smart question nobody has yet thought to ask. It disdains the approved pathways, preferring diversions, unplanned excursions, impulsive left turns. In short, curiosity is deviant.” And Ramray’s journey exemplifies the curiosity led transitions in his subjects of research interests at all phases of his career. He claims that he gets bored easily and cannot continue on the same thing for a long time.

As a nerd growing up in Calcutta, his inquisitiveness drove him to look up encyclopedias and science books. Being the text book ‘good’ student with good grades made him choose the option, biology and medicine.

I was inquisitive about things around us.’

Being questioning, he was more interested in interactions of physical world with the biological world. He remembers being intrigued by the shape of fishes towards the end of high school. He found it interesting that shape of most fishes is like a spindle in all cross sections. He wondered if hydrodynamic environment affects shaping of fishes. He bugged several physics students and found it annoying that the answers were not revealed in the many textbooks and encyclopedias he owned. He realized that there are a lot of biology-related questions that are still unanswered and that was the bait for him to lean towards basic research. He wanted to seek answers, a pursuit that continues to this day.

The fish is spindle shaped along all axes.

‘Does water movement shape the fish body?’ Ramray wondered.

However, he studied in a medical college, and he realized that most curriculum in India tend to dumb down curiosity.  He was driven into self education – reading biology, physics and mathematics books outside the strict curriculum. He believes that this reading developed an unorthodox and unconventional curriculum for himself that allowed him to ask different questions. He viewed his training in medicine as an alternate route to ultimately being a researcher. He claims that his training in physiological and pathological aspects on human biology were useful in gaining perspective on some of his research later.

I would read (science books) whatever I could get my hands on.’

He visited labs in Calcutta and Bangalore during his vacations and worked there. His interactions with scientists like Vidyanand Nanjundiah and Amitabh Joshi deepened his inclination towards basic sciences research.

After finishing his training in medicine, he started his doctoral studies at SA Newman’s lab in upstate New York. He worked on pattern formation in limb development. He elucidated novel information on the effect of physical forces on pattern formation and on how molecules come together to form a network leading to the same. These answers are reminiscent of his interest in shapes of fish. His love for pattern exists in physical and biological worlds. He also has a keen interest in architecture and pattern occurrence in man made structures as well.

He sought newer science for his postdoctoral studies. He worked with Dr. Mina J. Bissell on breast morphogenesis. There he dissected the importance of glycol saccharides in mammary tree branching. This time his research on morphogenesis had a relation with human pathogenesis. After four and half years, he sought a change and got recruited at the MRDG, IISc. There, he is now working on understanding the differences between metastatic routes of two different cancers, breast and ovarian.

Transitions allowed me to keep my love for science fresh, as well as, vigorous as it always was.’

While this is his first step as an independent principal investigator, it may not be the full stop for his transitions. We are on the lookout for all the things he will do with his love for curiosity and science.


About the author and illustrator:

Ipsa Jain is Ph.D. student at IISc. Wants to gather and spread interestingness. Prefers drawing and painting over writing. Posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

 

 

 

Editor: Sayantan Chakraborty, PhD

The contents of Club SciWri are the copyright of PhD Career Support Group for STEM PhDs (A US Non-Profit 501(c)3, PhDCSG is an initiative of the alumni of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. The primary aim of this group is to build a NETWORK among scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs).

This work by Club SciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Curiously Robert

in Face à Face/SciWorld/Theory of Creativity by

“A great storyteller dances up the ladder of understanding, from information to knowledge to wisdom. Through symbol, metaphor, and association, the storyteller helps us interpret information, integrate it with our existing knowledge, and transmute that into wisdom”, said Maria Papova. Going by that, it is only fair to say that Robert Krulwich is a good storyteller -one curious soul who learns and talks and writes about the wonders of science.

Starting his career as a journalist to cover politics and economics, he had his first brush with science while covering the story of identifying Huntington’s Chorea disease. It was then he met Milton Wexler, a psychoanalyst popular among Hollywood stars, who wanted to understand if his daughter and wife suffer from the same disease. It was in his pursuit that he invited young science stalwarts for parties in Los Angeles, among his usual Hollywood clients. Amidst those fun-filled activities in the unusual teaming of scientists and movie actors in LA, they went on to find the first ever genetic marker for Huntington’s Chorea back in 1983 when there was no PCR or fancy sequencing machines. Covering this story had Robert thinking that, unlike finance analysts and politicians (who he had reported about regularly until then), scientists were having the time of their lives being ‘curiously alive and busy.’  The excitement of learning the unknown was so contagious that Robert decided to be the ‘reporter of very little things’ for ABC News, so he could cover bacteria, genes, atoms and other little things which cannot be seen with the naked eyes. While his boss was not too keen on the whole idea, he did manage to do it. The desire to explore and learn about this completely different world had got into him. While he did not train in science (he studied law), he has learned science as a part of his job.

With his new found passion, he did a television show on string theory – something that he admits might have been the most difficult thing to show on television. His show went on after an hour long show that had cocktail waitresses and extra terrestrials (E.T.) having sex. And to his joy, he could keep the audience (3.5 million people) glued to the television screen, listening to him talking about a ‘squiggly wave’ that some scientists believed to be the fundamental particle of the universe. His boss was surprised that the audience that enjoyed the show about cocktail waitresses and E.T. would watch a show about Physics.  He believes that people can have seemingly contradictory ideas in a span of two hours. And that people will listen, if you have a good story to tell.

He makes stories that are ‘beautiful’.  While beauty is a subjective meditation, a musician knows she got it right when she listens to the notes. Likewise, he ‘just knows’ when he achieves the right balance and knows when a story will hook you and stay in your mind long after it has been told. He calls it ‘renting the brain space’.  This is what Robert and Jad Abumrad do at Radiolab. He and Jad use a system to arrive at a delicate balance of ‘beauty’ which is a combination of fun, learning, and the simplicity of storytelling. The method involves what Robert calls, ‘smarty and dummy edits.’ After working on a piece, researching it, writing, and recording; he turns to replaying it. During this exercise, one part of him knows the story and one does not. While one questions the choice of words, the other thinks about whether concept is understandable as a whole. After that, the story goes to someone who is an expert on the subject to make sure that the content is scientifically correct. Then the story is conveyed to a lay person who does not know about the subject, to specifically identify the parts that are not clear. Speaking of a lack of formal science training, he conceded that not understanding science could be a disadvantage, “because of all the things that you don’t know, you don’t know.”  The advantage, he thinks, is that he is closer to the audience, who is as naïve as him. It is through this process of multiple edits and re-edits, filtering the script multiple times by both the informed and uninformed that a right balance (the beauty?) is arrived. This process of learning brings surprises, wonder and joy for him and those elements are then successfully conveyed to the audience. From his experience at Radiolab, he knows if you describe something joyously, ‘it is hard to resist’.

Jad and Robert, hosts of Radiolab. (Photo Courtesy: WNYC)

He mentioned that it is easy to appeal to basic curiosity. He shared the experience of talking to the slightly disagreeable bunch of politicians in Virginia who believed that science is a conspiracy against their God. He questioned them how the cloud stays in the air, or why is the sky blue. How the big white puffy cloud that is so huge- so moist- and hence so heavy, staying up in the air with nothing holding it beneath. And then he prompted them to use their God-given mind to answer the puzzle. He observed, if you ask a question, people always want to know the answer.

Sun and clouds. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

He pointed out that much of the hostility to science comes from the fact that science language is inaccessible to the masses. People assume that they are not going to be able to understand it; they feel left out of the conversation and, hence, threatened by science. He revealed his tricks for sharing science with people who are suspicious of science. He mentioned that simple visualizations of science are particularly useful in these kinds of scenarios since not everyone can read scientific data. Like to an anti-vaxxer, you would present the data may be like this:

A representational graph that depicts the drop in disease prevalence after introduction of vaccine at Year 3

And then, adopt the other person’s view, conspire with them. Ask them why they think the government or the doctors would want to make so many people sick. And often such people are not able to come up with good arguments and then you can gently show the data again while generating doubts about their arguments. This, in his experience, opens up people’s minds to the idea of science, and educates them about the rational underpinnings of how nature works.

I wondered if religion could be the reason of hostility towards science, as religion and science are often perceived as exclusive of each other. Carl Sagan wrote in ‘The demon-haunted world, “the very act of understanding is a celebration of joining, merging even if on a very modest scale, with the magnificence of the cosmos…. Science is not only compatible with spirituality; it is a profound source of spirituality.” I asked Robert’s opinion about these two seemingly contrasting ideas. He made a poignant observation, pointing out that faith is about seeking a closer relationship with the universe and seeking ‘enlightenment’. While faith and religion give you the feeling that you know certain things about the universe, science gives you a sense of being stupid. A scientist is often excited while standing next to a mystery, trying to understand it, devising tests of the universe, discovering some of the answers, which in turn opens up more questions. Hence, the practice of science, while trying to understand the universe, always keeps one feeling stupid and sometimes even wrong in light of the newly revealed data. Scientists are, he noted, like excited people watching the climax of a cricket match when it’s still not clear who will win. Religion is more about seeking peace and comfort and staying away from trouble. While they are different, he says, it is possible to practice the two together.

Creature in the woods. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

He opines that by provoking fundamental curiosity of the human mind, one can get people interested in science, irrespective of religious affiliations. He asserted that his job is not to convince anyone of anything. This is reminiscent of what Isaac Asimov said once, “Now, they may say that I believe evolution is true and I want everyone to believe that evolution is true. But I don’t want everyone to believe that evolution is true; I want them to study what we say about evolution and to decide for themselves.” This is exactly what Radiolab does!

During the discussion on hostility towards science, he also mentioned that science fiction, poetry, and literature prepare humans for newer ways of appreciating science. It is kind of interesting, he pointed out, that time travel is not mentioned in any ancient text in eastern or western culture, but H.G. Wells and his peers thought of it way back in 1850’s all of a sudden. They not only took us to the future but also got us back from the future.  Fast forward 150 years and now a seven-year-old dreams of traveling back in time and meeting dinosaurs. Time travel, now a part of human imagination, was not the case a few centuries ago! It (Science fiction) often operates within the confines of known boundaries of science, and trespasses from there to explore new ideas. The contribution of science fiction to the progress of science is celebrated well.  It is known that space travel, the internet, online learning, wasting time on the web (yes, I know you are reading this online) were predicted much before they happened by the likes of H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Arthur C Clarke and Issac Asimov. Isaac Asimov said, “Science fiction is important because it fights the natural notion that there’s something permanent about things the way they are right now.”  Such literary artwork allows science to remain in public imagination. And Robert has clearly done his part by bringing science to everyone via his art of storytelling.

A portrait of Robert by the author

During my discussion with Robert, I could observe in action what Maria Papova said about storytelling. Through his experiences of storytelling, his observations have transcended knowledge and into wisdom. Stephen Hawking wondered, “Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?” As thinkers, let us take an infinitely small step closer to the answer, perhaps the ultimate wisdom.

Cover image: Curiosity. Drawing by Robert Krulwich.

About the Author

Ipsa Jain is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Dr. Ananda Ghosh, Dr. Somdatta Karak and Anand Varma edited the article.

Ernesto Llamas: the sketching science guy

in Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

Sketching Science is a well-known blog amongst the scientist community. Most of the posts relate to the guy who cries after a PCR fails, and stays inside the lab irrespective of weather and time. The wit and humor packed in the sketches have supplemented the constant need for coffee. The blog has become one of the most popular amongst the scientists in a short span of just a year. The main blog does not reveal the identity of the cartoon maker or the model. The first revelation, no, the guy in the images is not the cartoonist. The Sketching Science guy is a lab colleague of Ernesto Llamas, the creator of Sketching Science. Secondly, No, I am not revealing the name of the model (perhaps some other day). On behalf of Club Sciwri, I spoke to Ernesto. Frequently, he uses two tools: the micropipette and the iPad stylus. In this post, he shares with us his beginning, his present, and his future aspirations.

I.J. How did you choose to become a scientist?

E.L.  My father is a psychiatrist and my mother a painter. So, since I was a child, I was surrounded by both science and art. My dad inspired me to go into life sciences whereas my mother was a significant influence to get into the art world. When I was about to finish high school, I heard about Genomics, and I was very keen to study it. However, back then this field was still emerging in Mexico, and only two Universities had this degree. Thus, it was tough to get admitted. I tried, but I was not accepted. Then, I decided to study Biology at the best University of my country, the National Autonomous University of Mexico. Moving to Mexico City and studying Biology opened up my mind and horizons. I found my passion for molecular biology.

After becoming a Biologist, I decided to pursue a Masters in Biochemistry. During my Master’s I started working in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana. It was the first time I did real experiments using a micropipette. I was very interested in chloroplast biology.

After finishing my Masters, I wanted to move out from Mexico. Science is a career that allows you to travel and meet new people, and interact with them, either via conferences or going to different laboratories. I was very motivated with the idea of studying a Ph.D. abroad. I applied to several places, was rejected by some but finally, I came to Barcelona to the Centre for Research in Agricultural Genomics (CRAG). Nowadays, I am still working on plant biology using Arabidopsis as my model. I am in my 3rd year and planning to defend my thesis this year.  I have been able to publish some of my work from my Masters and Ph.D.

I.J. Since when have you been sketching and painting? How did Sketching Science come about?

E.L. Since I was a kid, I have been painting. In my school notebooks, there were sketches and doodles everywhere. I also took some painting lessons where I had the opportunity to learn watercolor and oil painting. Once I joined the university, I did not get much time to paint, sketch or doodling. However, during my Ph.D., I re-discovered my passion for art. I received an iPad as a gift, and I started to using it to take notes, and again, there were digital doodles and sketches everywhere. I was attending to seminars, and while taking notes, I was drawing the speaker, the images, and charts shown in the presentation.

I am a fan of social media; I used so see all the amazing blogs like AsapSCIENCE, PHD Comics, IFLScience, and others. I noticed that many others do not show much visual material about the life of scientists in a research lab. So, I decided to illustrate everyday struggles in a molecular biology lab.

In the beginning, I decided to open a Twitter account, but I did not get much response there, so I started using Instagram and then Facebook back in March 2016. It has been a year since I started and I am very thankful for the help provided by wife, lab mates and the “Sketching Science guy” that give me a hand to recreate the humoristic situations that happen daily in the lab.

Experiments do not always work correctly. Doing science can bring you frustration, but you have to keep working and fix your mistakes. You just have to make fun of your errors and keep going. For example, if your PCR did not work, you just need to laugh about it and try it again, and that is the message I want to spread with my posts.

That’s how it started, and I think it is going well because the number of Sketching Science followers are still increasing.

I.J. How did it evolve into a business?

E.L. I am just starting to transform Sketching Science into a business. It is super hard to manage a business and finish a Ph.D. Right now I am quite busy, trying to write my first author paper and my Ph.D. thesis. Some companies have contacted me to make some advertisement for them, and it is rewarding because my work is appreciated and support me to keep creating content. I am planning to make an appropriate business platform. Once I finish my Ph.D., my plan is to have a proper website with engaging images to communicate science.  I would like to have some sponsored content to create the website and keep Sketching Science’s social networks growing.

But for now, I am just focusing on finish my P.h.D. and is a lot of work. Right now, it’s just my wife and me who are doing this; she helps me with social media and with the upcoming website. To transform Sketching Science into a proper science communication platform will take some time. I will need some funds or financial aid to become a professional.

However, I am looking for post-doc positions right now. But sometimes it is hard to get one. I do want to follow an academic career. Nevertheless, if I do not get a suitable position, I will focus on Sketching Science a 100% and look for other options during the meantime.

Science communication is a relevant thing right now, so I think it’s okay to keep developing Sketching Science and follow a scientific career.

I.J. How supportive is your PI and your institute?

E.L. My PI is very supportive. He knows what I am doing. I also make a lot of cartoons for lab presentations, and I think he likes them. Right now, I am helping him create visuals for reviews and posters. We are also planning to come up with a book. Regarding CRAG, I think most of the people there know that I am the creator of Sketching Science.

I.J. Why do you think visual media is relevant in science communication?

E.L. So, a text is not very inviting. I am more a visual person. I believe that a colorful and balanced image is more exciting and inviting. For instance, when I see a post on Facebook with an attractive image, I automatically click the link attached to the picture and I read the article. Definitively, posting visual content on social networks, it’s a powerful tool to communicate science nowadays.

I.J. How has been your personal experience juggling a Ph.D. and a Facebook page?

E.L. When I started I was posting one drawing per day. Every day was tough, so now I create one once in a week. I am busy most of the week; I try to make something during nights, or in the train on my way to the Institute. Particularly, I work mostly during weekends creating stuff for Sketching Science. Designing the sketches somehow releases my stress.

I.J. What kind of feedback do you receive from your followers?

E.L. I have had some great responses for some of my posts. Some months ago, I made a post about the PCR protocol, and one follower recreated the whole set of sketches taking photos of himself. For the post “Summer is coming” another fan sent me a picture of him wearing the same lab coat, shirt, gloves, and sunglasses just like the Sketching Science guy! It is nice to see how people recreate some of my work.

Albus Dumbledore said, “Happiness can be found even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light.” On behalf of the scientific community, I thanked Ernesto for bringing the much need break from the cycles of frustration.

 

About the author

Ipsa Jain is a Ph.D. student at IISc. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Dr. Neha Bhudha edited the article.

 

 

 

 

Madhushree: the Maverink girl

in Theory of Creativity by

Madhushree Kamak is perhaps one of the few in India who can address themselves as scientific illustrators. I interviewed her about her journey and the challenges she’s faced while fulfilling her aspirations.

Madhushree is trained in biological sciences at the TIFR, Mumbai. It was there itself that she started drawing and sketching science for her laboratory. Her mentor Dr. Sandhya P. Koushika encouraged her to not only delve into science but also fulfill her creative pursuits. She soon found herself drawing illustrations and generating schematics for her presentation and posters, and, with time they were appreciated. Madhushree’s lab mates recognizing her potential started making requests for their own illustrations. The news of her elegant and artistic skill spread across departments and requests for illustrations were lining up in no time. Such an exposure made Madhushree realize that active research may not be her only option forward.  She was fortunate to not only have a supportive mentor, but also that she worked with C. elegans. The C.elegans community has always encouraged the fusion of science and art. Madhushree received international exposure when she grabbed the opportunity to exhibit her illustration at the Worm art show of the 2015 C. elegans International Meeting at the UCLA. The adulation and encouragement propelled her further.

DNA by Madhushree

The time that Madhushree spent in giving out favors not only helped her realize her passion for scientific illustration, but also an increment in scientific knowledge. What struck me the most during our conversation was her unquenchable zest to learn. Although she didn’t receive any formal art training, she found a teacher in YouTube and acquired many useful skills for illustrations and animations.

Upon finishing her masters studies, she pursued a career in scientific illustration. She formed a one woman freelance scientific illustration company called MaverInk. Her own shares of challenges for sustainable work are no less. While scientists and editors do appreciate her talent, she is yet to attract enough tasks to bolster her career. It has been hard, yet she has also realized that there’s an empty niche in India, and she hopes to take it forth and build it up. Over the last few months, her networking efforts have borne fruit and she has been able to approach suitable clients hoping that it soon turns into a viable option.

Bull by Madhushree
Bull by Madhushree

Being someone who aims to pursue similar goals as Madhushree, I am compelled to express my admiration in her willingness to share ideas, and collaborate. In his book, Give and Take, Adam Grant pointed out that it is in the win of such givers that the whole community celebrates and there are no losers. As for me, I’ll forever be her cheerleader and admirer.

 

 

 

Gabriele Fallopio & The Human Anatomy

in Theory of Creativity by

 

This series highlights dead ol’ scientists, who went against the grain and started something cool. Most of them faced opposition to their ideas and beliefs, but they made some fundamental discoveries.

 

Illustrations by Leslee Lazaar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am a neuroscientist, who is passionate about communicating science using visual art. I use illustrations, graphic design, infographics, collages and photography to condense complex scientific concepts into stylish and attractive visuals.

I have a PhD in Neuroscience from National Brain Research Centre (India) and post-doctoral research experience from Harvard Medical School (Boston, USA).

Apart from contributing content to many science blogs and magazines. I have authored a science book  for young adults called “The Five Senses”

Buy it here –  http://www.amazon.in/Five-Senses-Reference-Guide/dp/8184770340

You can reach me at leslee.lazar@gmail.com

From the Right Sense to that Perfect Shot: Anand Varma from National Geographic

in That Makes Sense/Theory of Creativity by
Honey Bee Larva in Plastic well plate

“But it seems to be less obvious somehow that to create anything at all in any field, and especially anything of outstanding worth requires nonconformity or a want of satisfaction with things as they are. The creative person — the nonconformist — may be in profound disagreement with the present way of things, or he may simply wish to add his views, to render a personal account of matters.” wrote Ben Shahn.

Working on my unconventional thesis on “creative folks in science communication” I happened to bump into Anand Varma, a science photographer by profession. If you love National Geographic, you might be able to locate his featured work there. Anand Varma shared his stories from his childhood and more with SciWri.

Curiosity and spirit of adventure dominated Anand’s childhood. He grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. Encouraged by his parents, he was found running into the creeks in the forest that extended beyond his backyard. His attention was captured by the leaping frogs and the trailing ants; he observed and tried to comprehend them as much as he could.

A bioluminescent mushroom from Brazilian forests.

This idea of observing the world around and exploring outdoors was, and remains, the motivation of his pursuits.

During his early teens, he was fascinated with different kinds of fish. His love for fish was so captivating that the idea of being an ‘ichthyologist’ enthralled him. Once he learned that one could be a scientist who observes fishes for a profession, it was the most obvious thing to do.

Soon after, he set out to be a biologist. One summer, he got the chance to assist and travel with a National Geographic photographer, David Liittschwager. That’s when it hit him that a photographer is as much as a scientist, exploring unknown, documenting it all through the eyes of an optical lens. Re-evaluation of his choices and aspirations led him to weigh his decision to be a science academician.  Academicians focus on a narrow question and spend a lifetime of work towards answering the same question in-depth. He realized he was someone with a short attention span and greater love for outdoors and exploration. A career in photography would allow him to stay outdoors, have fun exploring the world, meet interesting people, and understand a diverse set of problems that affect our world. He believes self-analysis and constant revaluation of interests and openness of mind and sight are the way to go forward. Anand believes that narrowing one’s goal to association with particular institute or a particular job may make one indifferent or blind to other good opportunities.

Like many who try to pursue unconventional routes, he grappled with uncertainty and fear of instability in trying to understand his choices and motivation, a process that took about four years. A creative, enriching pursuit was pitted against a comfortable certain path (a tenure track). It turned out that work kept pouringin and there was no time to take a break and reflect upon the choices. Academia became the fall back option and the walk to be a professional photographer continued.

Janthinobacterium growing in petridish.

He feels lucky to have been able to do what he is doing today, which is following his passion and making a meaningful living out of it. “It was so random,” he said, to have made a mark. While the career choice still has elements of uncertainty inherent to the nature of the job, he feels comfortable with his choice.

“Has the advice, ‘follow your passion’ held mettle or not?” I asked Anand. “While it is nice to ‘follow your passion,’ it is not a comprehensive advice,” he mused.  “One also has to find an audience for their love, find a way to connect with the audience. If one wishes to pursue their passion as a career, one has to evaluate the worthiness of their passion for an audience, however big or narrow.” He believes that your passion has to produce something that other people value.

Another thing that comes as part and parcel of this advice is that one must be prepared to live with anxiety and risk. Taking risks and plunging into an unknown experience and surviving them is how one learns to live with the fear. One does not always know what the outcome will be. On the lines of what Maria Popova said, one must regularly update their goals and choice to be on the path. That would mean walking into unchartered territories again and again and having to live with uncertainty and anxiety.

A prepared mind and open eyes are a must for one to be able to evaluate opportunities. He advised that one must not pin goals to a specific job or organization, but rather that goals should be about what one wants to do more generally. He knew that he wanted to explore nature and be outdoors, it was not his goal to work for the National Geographic. This allows one to be open to a wider range of ‘compatible’ opportunities and less dependent of the whims of a specific company or institute. The bigger picture also allows one to identify the ways to connect with an audience.

Close up of female Coppery-bellied Puffleg hummingbird.

He has now been a photographer for a decade. As someone who believes in the evolution of choices and goals, he now wants to improve his storytelling skills and collaborate with talented storytellers in other fields. He aims to find more innovative ways to answer the question, ‘how do you get people to connect with nature?’

As part of understanding what he wants to learn, he and Prasenjeet Yadav conducted a science photography workshop at NCBS, Bangalore. From the questions participants asked, he hopes to identify central ideas about, ‘how does one tell a story?’ The biggest factor, he believes, lies in understanding the audience to know what their interests are; what they already know and how what you have to share will add novelty or value to them.

If one looks at the body of work that Anand has created, novelty is certainly one of his motivations. He seems to have a signature style where he strives to create a novel and striking way to portray subjects that have been photographed previously. I asked him about his inspirations and influences in the making of what I think of as ‘the Anand Varma style’. He said, “It is a personal call most of the time. I took me a long time to make photographs that I was satisfied with.” This is a reminder of Ira Glass’s observation that great artists start with a good sense of taste, and they succeed when they figure out how to produce work that matches the standards they set for themselves.

 

'Mind controller' horse hair worm comes out of house cricket
‘Mind controller’ horse hair worm comes out of house cricket. 

Talking about influences, he mentioned two contrasting themes. His initial training was with National Geographic photographer David Liittschwager. David appreciated the power of simplicity where the subject is drawn far away from its context, and one can enjoy all the details of the subject up to the stray hair on its face. Another influence was from Japanese animation where each frame has so much visual information that it is difficult to blink one’s eyes without missing out on magnificent details.

He strives to find a balance between maintaining simplicity while cramming in visual information to hook the readers. According to him, a good image is one where you would not want to take your eyes off it. The balance between mystery and familiarity is what makes an image striking.

The wisdom he shared with me speaks to the volume of experience he has gained, despite being a relatively young artist. “A wise person is an experienced person. Practical wisdom is a craft and craftsmen are trained by having the right experiences. ‘People learn how to be brave,’ said Aristotle, ‘by doing brave things.’ So, too, with honesty, justice, loyalty, caring, listening, and counseling”, wrote Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in their book Practical Wisdom: The Right Way to Do the Right Thing. I hope to seek newer experiences actively and plunge right in. How about you?

 

About the author

Ipsa Jain is Ph.D. student at IISc. Wants to gather and spread interestingness. Prefers drawing and painting over writing. Posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

 

 

 

Walk from academia to photography: Prasenjeet Yadav

in That Makes Sense/Theory of Creativity by

“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles… And indeed, that IS the question: whether to float with the tide, or to swim for a goal. It is a choice we must all make consciously or unconsciously at one time in our lives. So few people understand this! Think of any decision you’ve ever made which had a bearing on your future: I may be wrong, but I don’t see how it could have been anything but a choice however indirect — between the two things I’ve mentioned: the floating or the swimming.” wrote Hunter S. Thompson in letter to his friend Hume Logan.

During his journey, Prasenjeet Yadav has shuffled his choices, from what may seem being a ‘floater’ to a ‘swimmer’.  He started out as a science student from a small city (Nagpur) who worked his way up to get a research position at National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), as well as improve his linguistic skills in English. While pursuing research on Tiger genetics as a research fellow, he made the choice of leaving academia and to take up science photography professionally. In this interview he speaks to Club SciWri about his story.

I.J. When and how did you fall in love with science?

P.Y. I was always curious about the world around me and it was the result of my curiosity that made me start caring about science and nature. I grew up in Central India, on my father’s farm near Nagpur surrounded by jungle. ‘How?s’ bothered me as much as ‘what?s’ did. I wanted to understand the behavior of animals, stripes of tigers, color of the snakes, and calls of the birds I would see around me. The folk tales I heard while growing up were laced with wild jungle characters and I would wonder why they behave the way they do.  I often got anecdotal responses from the elders in the village, which did not sound reasonable even then.Science was the lens through which the behaviors made sense. Back in school it was the only subject I studied for,and managed to pass (laughs).

Farm in Nagpur where Prasenjeet grew up

I.J. When was your first brush with the camera?

P.Y. (long story) I was the guy in the school class who did not care about cricket, not a very common place thing among children of my generation in India. I was met with jibes and taunts when I would abruptly talk about the leopard I saw.  I knew then pictures would be the proof of my experiences. I anyways liked the idea of taking a moment from time and give it to infinity. It was profound, so fascinating. My father had some interest in photography. He gifted me a ‘hot shot camera’. It had one roll, one view finder, a lens and you click. I actually had to earn the roll and the allowance to develop by cleaning my dad’s vehicles every morning at 6 AM. I spent my time looking at the world through the viewfinder of that hot shot camera trying to get that one perfect shot. Things changed when I bought my first SLR camera, after coming to Bangalore. After setting up thousands of PCR reactions, I would spend my evening capturing ants and frogs and snakes at the herbarium in the campus.

Praying Mantis

I.J. When did you decide to make the call of going over to photography completely?

P.Y. It was during the time, a year almost, that I spent at the herbarium that made me realize my interest and potential in photography. Honestly, I knew I wasn’t an academic genius, but I was hard-working. I felt that despite getting my work published in decent journals,I was not sure if that is what I wanted to do any longer. However, during my time as a researcher, I spent a lot of my time talking to my engineer friends who only perceived me as a tiger poop collector. I took some efforts to explain them my research, and I realized I enjoy communicating science. It keeps my curiosity alive. During the process of my research, at some point it went into too many details where I felt my curiosity slipping away. While I understand the importance of intricate details in research, I do not feel that I could do this for long.

Steam glory on a leaf

I.J. You often say, “I am made of my failures”. What are the failures you refer to?

P.Y. I think what you define and perceive as a failure really depends on your perspective. At a time, flunking in chemistry exam was a failure. Looking back at it now, it’s just plain hilarious. There was a time in my academic career that I started feeling that I was not satisfied enough. I was failing my own expectations for a good academic career. I realized I was not doing well and there seemed no point in continuing this. I was in a matrix- of science, conservation, and photography and science communication. I was standing at one end and hoping all of it funnels towards me. Well, that was not happening and I felt, I was failing.  I realized I should just change my position in this matrix. Looking back, it was not a very conscious decision, but rather I followed my intuition. I believed if I do what I like; things will eventually fall into place. What was once my ‘failure’, is now my strength. I understand better the science of the subjects that I photograph. I understand the jargons in the community and can make sense of things. The ‘failures’ have set a foundation for leaps in my current choice of career.

I.J. How did people perceive after you ‘quit’?

P.Y. After I quit, I called up my mother who is quite cool, and told her about my decision. She said, ‘Okay, padh-likhleta to acha lagta’ (roughly translates to: Okay, if you had gone on to study, it would have felt better). But gratefully, my parents did not object to my choice. I guess my financial independence also helped. However, I felt like a failure because I quit my research within three years while others had put three decades into their research. I couldn’t help myself out of this. And I feel my own opinions about myself were being reflected in people’s perception of me. And I took their perception seriously; it was a reality check for me to evaluate my situation better.

I.J. What have you been upto since you ‘quit’?

P.Y. I like to observe and observe and observe. I like to identify processes, look for some patterns and tell a story. That’s how I got into science in the first place, seeking a good medium to look for meaningful patterns. I have been experimenting with the camera. I got my first gig by chance. Me and my friend, we were dog-sitting for an NCBS professor while he was away. During that time, a BBC filmmaker KalyanVarma landed up at the house looking for the professor. Instead, they ended up talking to me. They were planning to make a movie on monsoon. I suggested the story of migration by nomadic Dhangars tribe and their relationship with pack of wolves that follow them. Filmmakers got excited by the idea and later I ended up working with them for six months in Central India for the story. After that, I documented a project for NCBS, Govt. of Sikkim and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment that was funded by Department of Biotechnology. I went to Sikkim and documented the work Sikkim students were doing across various fields on diversity and ecosystem of the state. I developed it into a photo story that was appreciated by funding agencies and the researchers alike. After that, a lot of people who in my perception, thought of me as a failure came around and appreciated my work. It felt nice and made me realize that the work like this has a lot of value.

A sikkim researcher measuring forest cover

Slowly one thing led to another, and I published with many major magazines and newspaper house In India. I realized that the stories I did were not just specific to Indian audience and had international value. They were stories on conservation, climate change, sustainable energy etc. Then I looked for opportunities and found National Geographic Young Explorer grant. I applied for it and actually got it. That is the time when I felt, did National Geographic just approve of what I have been doing! Since then I have worked on various projects with them. They have helped my growth tremendously by sending me to photojournalism workshops, recommending me for several international film and photo festivals etc. I call myself freelance photographer but in last three years, I have freelanced only with National Geographic (chuckles).

Frog mating

I.J. What is your opinion of a good photograph?

P.Y. I believe that a good photographer is not the one who takes a good picture of snow leopard. Snow leopard is exquisite; any picture of it will be worth. A good photographer is someone who can make stunning, novel and an interesting picture of the most common subjects such as ants. It’s the story and perspective that matters more than the equipment.

Scorpion (clicked under UV light)

In conclusion, I would quote Hunter again, “I’m not trying to send you out ’on the road’ in search of Valhalla, but merely pointing out that it is not necessary to accept the choices handed down to you by life as you know it. There is more to it than that — no one HAS to do something he doesn’t want to do for the rest of his life.”

About the Author

Ipsa Jain is Ph.D. student at IISc. Wants to gather and spread interestingness. Prefers drawing and painting over writing. Posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

Arjun Srivathsa: scientist and communicator and cartoonist

in Biodiversity and Environment/Face à Face/Theory of Creativity by

The daily ritual of pipetting cells and solutions made me realize that I’ve been oblivious and was living in a different world. On my journey to becoming a science illustrator, I was under the impression that there were a mere handful of them in the world. As I progressively talked to people, I realized it was only my ignorance. While I try to make my footing as an illustrator, it’s my privilege to showcase my fellow illustrators. Although some of them are exclusive and have a defined niche, I aim to reveal their stories and journeys for more people to learn. I sometimes wonder if I am the child of Horace Slughorn. Like Horace, I see myself at the center of a web where each thread connects an artist. While Horace exploited his network for pineapple candies and free tickets, I am going to use this web to bring out motivating stories for as long as I am able to spin more threads. I had the pleasure to meet Arjun Srivathsa, a wildlife artist and cartoonist. He dons the hats of a wildlife researcher, conservation scientist, and an artist. Following is our conversation:

I.J.  How/when did you make the choice to be a biologist and that too a wildlife researcher?

​A.S. Ever since I can remember. I profoundly loved animals as a child- as most children do, I guess. Starting with high school and all the way through college, our teachers or professors would ask us to introduce ourselves to the class. My stereotypical answer to that was I wanted to become a ‘zoologist’; I didn’t know that wildlife biology was a separate field of study. Following an undergraduate course in life sciences (with Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology as the core subjects), I pursued a M.Sc. in Wildlife Biology and Conservation. A Ph.D. in Interdisciplinary Ecology has been somewhat of a natural progression.   

Wildlife tourists By Arjun
Wildlife tourists By Arjun

I.J. When did you realize your passion to be an artist? Was it during your M.Sc.?

​A.S. I have been an artist all my life, although I didn’t learn it professionally. It started out as a hobby that I continued to pursue. I would doodle on all my school notebooks- animals, cartoons, caricatures of my teachers and what not. During my undergraduate years, I spent quite some time on my art. That’s when I experimented with oils for the first time. It continues to remain my favorite medium. But now, I don’t get a lot of time to draw on canvas. So, I’ve switched to digital art. Although I don’t enjoy it much, it’s much faster.

I.J.  What’s your inspiration for art? What are your favorite subjects/style?

​A.S. Most (almost all) of my artworks are inspired by nature and wildlife. I enjoy working with oils on canvas, acrylics, color pencils, etching/stippling and cartooning. It’s been 4  years since I dwelled into digital art. I found it useful for making cartoons (although not as gratifying as traditional media). It also became a very handy tool for combining art and science to create my “science-toons”. I now use these science-toons for science communication and conservation awareness. 

I.J. How has the response been to your art from the scientific and non-scientific audience?

A.S.Art in Science or #SciArt – as it’s known on social media – is a very powerful tool for science communication. A lot of scientists lack the skill of science communication. It is often difficult to let go of statistical jargon and esoteric nuances of our fields and “dumb-down” science for non-scientists. Art bridges that gap in a very effective and innovative way. I also received positive feedback from scientists regarding my work. And the main reason I started communicating science via art was that someone who’s not remotely connected to academics can learn and appreciate the work of Indian wildlife scientists and conservationists. While it is difficult to accurately measure my artistic impact, I think it’s certainly not negligible. My cartoons have been used for fund-raising, creating awareness, sustainable harvest of marine fish, education of school children in distant villages etc.  

King Cobra by Arjun
King Cobra by Arjun

I.J. Is art only a hobby or do you also freelance?

​A.S.  Both. I use art to de-stress from the relatively exhausting academic life. I publish a lot on social media. But, I also freelance when people or organizations approach me with projects. I strongly believe in an endeavor involving goodwill and creative freedom. So, most of my work (if not commissioned) are free for anyone to use as long as their purpose is to create awareness on wildlife conservation or nature education.

I.J. How supportive have your PIs/teachers been when you engage in art as an expression?

​A.S. It’s a bit difficult to answer this question. My PIs/mentors have never hindered my endeavors. Sadly, in our institutionalized academic scenario, science communication or nature education etc. generally do not count as units of success or achievement. It is yet to qualify in the league of conference presentations or journal publications. So, while my mentors have always been supportive, there are no mechanisms (that I know of) where this can be formalized and be given more credence. 

I.J.  Are there any stories/anecdotes that you would like to share?

​A.S. I was giving a talk at a climate change-themed event a couple of years ago, and I used some of my artwork from the science-toon series to elaborate about the sea food crisis and crash in marine fish stocks. I have learnt from my experience that it’s not easy to convince people to change their food preferences. But at the end of my talk, one person raised his hand, thanked me for the information, and pledged to give up sea food. I used 9-10 cartoon panels to convey the scientific information published in some top-notch journals. Although I’m not sure whether those papers made an impact or not, I was glad that the medium I chose was powerful enough to change at least one person’s attitude. I wish more scientists engaged in science communication. They don’t have to do it themselves, but liaising with communicators, artists, and educators can make science accessible to the common man.

Elephant Iworry by Arjun
Elephant Iworry by Arjun

Proust had once said that habits ruined lives. “A blanket or a shroud of familiarity that descends between us and everything that matters dulls our senses and stops us appreciating everything, from the beauty of a sunset to our work, and our friends.” He believed it’s the artists who can “strip away this habit and return life to its deserved glory.” While my ignorance about science-artists has been rectified, my appreciation for their work continues to grow. I hope their cumulative work will shine more light in the daily lives of scientists and pave a way for an elegant expression of science.

 

About the author:

Ipsa is a Ph.D. student at IISc Bangalore, India. She wants to gather and spread interestingness. She prefers painting and drawing over writing. She posts on Facebook and Instagram as Ipsawonders.

 

Facing adversities with alacrity – the odyssey of an aspiring Data Scientist

in ClubSciWri/Face à Face/That Makes Sense/Theory of Creativity by

There’re always stories about people who flourish or aspire to flourish while tackling challenges and setbacks during their training or profession. This time I bring to you the adventure of Urszula Czerwinska. Urszula, or Ula as her friends call her, is a Ph.D. student at the Institut Curie, Paris. Throughout her higher education, she’s donned the hats of an entrepreneur, a blogger, and that of an aspiring Data Scientist. She’s encountered her fair share of challenges during her education, but as we’ll learn, it’s the perseverance that drives a person to fulfil his/her passion. Ula’s tale highlights the determination and resilience required to achieve what at one point may seem inconceivable.

“I’ll never doubt that my parents have always had the best intentions for me. But they believed in the idea of ‘predisposition’. Simply put, one must perfect their skills for the talent they possess, rather than learning something completely new. That’s why I never got involved with sports, I didn’t go to art school (my drawings were good, but that wasn’t enough). I was shy as a kid and that’s why my parents advised me to choose a career that doesn’t involve a lot of social interaction. I don’t agree with the dogma of predisposition any more. Of course, it’s easy for some to be good in maths and for others in sports. But it doesn’t mean that one cannot learn. People change, I changed a lot through my experiences. I don’t aim for the Olympics, but I feel content going to the gym or dance classes. I previously considered it as a waste of time as I couldn’t be the best at them. And that so because I wasn’t ‘predisposed’ to sports. In my opinion, our future lies in our own hands. We can convert our weakness into strengths, only if we want to, and if we are ready to invest our time and efforts doing that. I also think that we have the capability of changing our thinking – to forge the path of our education and our career. It’s actually a proof that we can always get better and improvise.” – Urszula ‘Ula’ Czerwinska.

The journey begins – there’s plenty to learn

Ula’s Polish. She left for France at the age of 18 to pursue a joint degree in Biology and Mathematics in Roscoff. During her Bachelor’s, she studied an entirely new subject – programming. “And here’s the funny part – I sucked at it in the beginning”, she says. “I had troubles typing on a French keyboard (which is an AZERTY one)! While most of the students were finishing their exercises, I was still looking for the “?” button on the keyboard.” At one point, self-annoyance took a toll on her and she spent a lot of time studying using online resources. “Once I understood the logic of Python, the rest went smooth. I absolutely nailed the final project, and subsequently, I applied for a short internship in Bioinformatics at the end of my second year.” Ula also had the chance to study in Singapore as an exchange student. There, she shared classes with students who had completely different backgrounds than hers, such as, business. It was very enriching for her as she was exposed to the tools they used – like Prezi – and applied it to her own life science projects. She mentions a thought by Walt Disney that drove her, “All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them – This quote motivated me to take the decision in my early years to go to France and fight for good grades.”

While she was finishing her Bachelor studies, Ula’s heart remained close to biology since it seemed like a mine of complex problems that she could solve with mathematics and programming. After applying to several Systems Biology Master programs across Europe, she finally chose the most flexible one in Paris at the Center of Interdisciplinary Research, supported by the Bettencourt Foundation. The uniqueness of this program was that a big part of the curriculum was designed by the students themselves and involved several internships. The coordinators encouraged the students to take part in initiatives, create thematic clubs, and of course, have fun with what they did. She decided to spend some time in a lab in Institut Curie, what would later become the home for her Ph.D. “I had to program in Java, and I had no clue about it. I spent half the time teaching myself and that too in a specific context of a software on which I had to work on. I felt demoralized as I was not progressing anywhere, and to make things worse, my supervisor left for 3 months. I was completely lost! But I started asking for help from postdocs in my lab and finally succeeded in coding a part of the software – it even got published!”

The following experience, although discouraging (as Ula would put it), was life changing for her – the iGEM competition. It’s an international competition in Synthetic Biology: modifying organisms to solve real world problems, or to the least, have fun. Her team worked all summer as an interdisciplinary unit to develop beauty products that would help people smell better though reprogramming their skin microbiome. The very idea of creating a product, something that people could use in their everyday life in itself was highly motivating for her. Their team also consisted of designers who helped them a lot with product design and attractive visuals. “This made me realize that science is not necessarily research, it’s very diverse.” Consecutively, during the final internship of her Master’s, she partnered with her friend and colleague Cristina Garcia Timermans to launch a startup called Eco-Smart Solutions. It was aimed at designing probiotic cleaners.

Eco-Smart Solutions – a beautiful failure

The startup was co-founded by Ula and her colleague Cristina, driven by their entrepreneurial enthusiasm after the iGEM competition. Initially, their idea was to design a probiotic cleaner containing bacteria that would eat dirt. This product would clean deeper and independently of the surface texture. Most importantly, it would not result in the creation of chemically resistant bacteria. The to-be treated surface’s natural microbiome would’ve been regulated by their cleaning microbiome, hence preventing the creation of a biofilm to which dirt sticks.

They discerned that the Paris metro system would be a great place to start, as it’s very hard to clean. Furthermore, it’s being cleaned using water at a high pressure that has a detrimental effect on the walls. “We even met the R&D team of Paris metro, but they said that the metro was clean, and basically that was it.” The team did not give up yet. Guided by their teachers, they continued with the project, but in the form of studying the microbiome of Paris metro. This would 1) unveil the metro’s micro-diversity, and, 2) aid them with designing a customized product.

Probiotic cleaners are wide spread. They’re used in hospitals across England, and on a regular basis in the USA, especially for cleaning animal farms (probiotic cleaners have positive impact on an animal’s health). Therefore, they also decided to test the existing probiotic cleaners and natural cleaners like soap. “We had a lot of fun in the lab that was not high-tech, and working with a tight budget within a short time.” They spent their days in the metro collecting samples from stations per their own protocol design. “And in the evenings, we would attend startup events and pitch competitions.” The samples they collected were sent for sequencing, but they encountered issues analysing them. “We asked a bioinformatics research team at the university for assistance and it turned out that the DNA we had collected was not of good quality. Hence, we couldn’t draw any conclusions from the analysis.” As conditions would turn out at the end of their internship, Ula and Cristina decided not to carry on as full-time entrepreneurs as at that time they didn’t have enough capital, and in parallel, they both had secured Ph.D. opportunities.

“We failed, but it was a beautiful failure. We created and executed a project form A-Z, learnt about visualizing aids, making a business plan, and studying the market. Although our skills and resources were not sufficient, I am incredibly fulfilled with this experience.” Right at this moment, a Polish saying crosses her mind which as Ula puts, matches one of the negative aspects of her character. “I’d rather die on my feet, than live on my knees” – Emiliano Zapata. She explains, “We need to be flexible nowadays, and sometimes, we need to get down on our knees to stand up later.”

Crafting the path of a Ph.D. – the challenges ahead

Ula started her Ph.D. in the same lab where she previously interned during her Master’s – engaging in unveiling the complexity of transcriptomic data with unsupervised learning. “This was perfect for me! I had to search for factors that drive biological processes in the ocean of noise.” The lab had also secured funds specifically for her, in case she didn’t secure a scholarship. “What I encountered next was one of my biggest failures, and it hurt my ego a lot!” Ula had applied for a Ph.D. scholarship with a career defining project in mind. She’d also apply for an MBA program for Ph.Ds. “During that time, I was convinced that I didn’t want to stay in academia and so, this project was the perfect opportunity for me. I could accomplish as a researcher while gaining access to management jobs right after my Ph.D.” Unfortunately, she wasn’t selected for the final round of interviews, and it disheartened her. “I even thought of giving up on my Ph.D., but I decided against it as I liked my topic of work.

Severely demotivated and lacking a vision for herself, Ula attended a Ph.D. talent fair in Paris. She realized that companies look for analysts with her skills sets – machine learning, R, Python. She received the same impression upon conversing with the representatives of one company. “This moment opened up a whole new universe for me – Data Science.” Following this defining moment, she decided to craft her extra training skills using free online resources and courses to ultimately land the job of a data scientist following her Ph.D.

Ula describes herself as an aspiring data scientist or a budding data scientist. There’s no definitive explanation for Data Science. “To me, Data Science is analytics, data visualization, machine learning, database management and big data.” Or to be abstract, it’s more like detective work: looking for patterns in data, building predictive models from data, and shaping the world based on accessible information.

For a layman – let’s say there’s a playground where a lot of kids are playing. Every kid is different, but they share some similar characteristics – hair colour, dress type, behaviour etc. Now if we look at say five more playgrounds and try to search for the same characteristics, we’ll end up with some properties that are either common or discrete amongst the kids. Using these properties (data), we can try to predict a prevalent picture (model/pattern) of the characteristics/behaviour of most children. Therefore, what we end up with is a meaningful description of the existing information. This is what Data Science looks like. But of course, it’s not this simple.

“Indeed, the Harvard Business Review has cited Data Science to be the ‘sexiest’ job of the 21st Century”, but why is it so appealing? “It’s appealing due to the power it gives to the companies in all sectors – finance, medicine, education etc. Given the vast availability of resources, it’s also not the hardest profession to move into or learn.” What’s sexy about Data Science is that it’s a relatively new field, geographically unbound, and is spreading like wild fire across all industries and disciplines.

Blogging – a tool for personal branding

Ula’s also a Senior Blogger for PLOS Computational Biology. “PLOS Computational Biology is very generous with its titles. I am a regular contributor for them.” She received communication from PLOS while she was about to attend an international conference on computational biology – ISMB in Orlando, USA. They were looking for live-bloggers for this conference. “I was already thinking of setting up a personal blog at that time, and the communication from PLOS turned out be the right trigger for me.” PLOS appreciated her initial work, and therefore, she continues to write for them on matters pertaining to computational biology, in addition to Data Science and associated Ph.D. careers.

Her personal website highlights the versatility of her writing skills – from career transition to live blogging. As she humbly mentions, “Honestly, I don’t think I’m a good writer. My English is far from perfect, but I keep working on improvising it by reading a lot. The Economist has turned out to be a great resource for me. I also think that apart from me writing the articles that I publish with PLOS, the hands of the editors also wean magic and make my scripts smooth. And as far as content is concerned, I try to be honest and share my experiences and thoughts. Funny as it may seem, I don’t take my writing to be versatile as I don’t write about travels, cooking etc. I only cater to what concerns me the most – Ph.D. and Data Science.”

Writing for her takes a lot of time, but once an article is published, it provides Ula a lot of satisfaction as her audience can read and review her point of view. Plus it’s still faster than writing and publishing in peer review journals.

The Pivigo Ambassador – another feather on the cap

Once Ula defined Data Science as the domain of interest for her Ph.D. studies, she started researching in-depth about it – more so about the skills needed and how to acquire them. There were and still is a range of online courses and materials. “I also subscribed to many mailing lists of Data Science websites”, she discloses her secret to me.

Pivigo – The Data Science Hub as it states on its website is a data science marketplace and training provider based in London. Ula’s determination in exploiting available resources led her to this platform and found the S2DS (Science to Data Science) program. S2DS is a program that helps Ph.D. students or postdocs in STEM to transition to Data Science. Their program takes place both in London and online. Students work on real problems of companies and are extended job opportunities following the program. “I would like to consider this as an option at the culmination of my Ph.D.” Interestingly, Ula found an advertisement about their ambassador program in their newsletter. “I contacted their community manager and I agreed to be the Pivigo ambassador in Paris.” Ula was already settling in.

“My role is to mainly spread the spirit of Data Science and information about the S2DS program”, describes Ula. They’ve also proposed that if she organizes any events in Paris that revolve around Data Science, Pivigo would support her. Ula chips in, “Most importantly, although this role is not a formal engagement, it has inspired me to instigate the community and create a Data Science Club at the Center for Interdisciplinary Research (CRI).”

Lessons from a journey well taken – an inspiration for everyone

For Ula, the journey as an entrepreneur, blogger, and an aspiring data scientist has not been easy. She deems herself fortunate enough to meet her colleague turned friend for co-founding the startup, and to convince their teachers for investing in it. “Although we didn’t play high risk, we didn’t also lose a lot of money, but most importantly we gained a lot in experience”, she confides in me. “I don’t treat blogging seriously as it’s a new role for me. I don’t even force myself to write regularly – I just follow my inspiration. I guess, the hardest part is Data Science. I realize that I need to prove myself in this field and it’s not easy for me with the workload of being a Ph.D. student”.

The time is ripe for Ph.D. students to explore resources outside their lab in addition to polishing and nurturing both new and existing skills. Curiosity and determination play an important role in achieving success. But some may feel diffident to do so. Ula adds, “I reckon if someone is shy, the best way would be to find a buddy from their lab or institute who can accompany them for some outdoor ventures. It’s more motivating to give a joint effort as we feel less insecure. It’s also crucial to realize that courses and networking are not side activities – they are as important as or even more important than your experiments, if you want to continue your career outside of academia.”

Alice Roosevelt Longworth once quoted, “Fill what’s empty. Empty what’s full”. It reflects on the idea of not only enjoying life and taking the best from it, but also share with others our own knowledge, competency, philosophy, and ideas.

Ula’s now following her own plan of gaining skills, reading, and interviewing companies. She also feels that being a part of the Ph.D. Career Support Group keeps her motivated for achieving her goals. She’s optimistic and hopes that future employers will recognize the passion in her for Data Science. And when Ula tastes success in her own terms, we will be there to applaud her.


About Urszula:

She’s a dynamic young scientist with an entrepreneurial spirit and high interest in Big Data, design, fintech & business analytics. She’s a self‐directed innovator working towards creating an opportunity to transition from academia to Data Science companies.

She also runs her own blogging website: https://urszulaczerwinska.github.io/

Follow her on Twitter @UlaLaParis

About Sayantan:

I’m an IRTA postdoctoral visiting fellow at the National Institute on Aging – National Institutes of Health, Baltimore, USA. Apart from science, I invest my time in networking, writing, organizing events, and consolidating efforts to build a platform that brings together scientists and industry professionals to help spread the perception of alternate careers for life science graduates.

Follow me on Twitter @ch_sayantan

 

Creative Commons License
This work by ClubSciWri is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Robert Hooke and the microscopic world

in Theory of Creativity by

This series highlights dead ol’ scientists, who went against the grain and started something cool. Most of them faced opposition to their ideas and beliefs, but they made some fundamental discoveries.

 

Illustrations by Leslee Lazaar

 

I am a neuroscientist, who is passionate about communicating science using visual art. I use illustrations, graphic design, infographics, collages and photography to condense complex scientific concepts into stylish and attractive visuals.

I have a PhD in Neuroscience from National Brain Research Centre (India) and post-doctoral research experience from Harvard Medical School (Boston, USA).

Apart from contributing content to many science blogs and magazines. I have authored a science book  for young adults called “The Five Senses”

Buy it here –  http://www.amazon.in/Five-Senses-Reference-Guide/dp/8184770340

You can reach me at leslee.lazar@gmail.com

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