Scientists Simplifying Science

Monthly archive

December 2016

Abhisheka the multifaceted artist and scientist

in Biodiversity and Environment by

“We have come to this world to accept it, not merely to know it. We may become powerful by knowledge, but we attain fullness by sympathy. The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. ” Tagore, 1917

A Multipotentialite

When I met Abhisheka the first time, it was those sparks in her eyes and a very characteristic short spurts of laughter that caught my attention.  Abhisheka K Gopal is a painter, a dancer, a veena player, nature educator, wildlife rehabilitator and an ecology researcher. Yes, talk about multipotentialite, she defines it.  Today I will share her story which is mostly her journey to the foray of science communication.

Like Aarthy (link), Abhisheka studied science in pre-university. She says “I was not the brightest student and I knew back then hat marks did not add up to knowledge.”  She realized that though she loved science, especially biology, science education at the college was killing her curiosity, and eventually decided against pursuing science post pre-university. The ‘fractured’ education does seem to put off quite a few good science students in the class. The culture of memorization in our education with little stress on rational thinking drives many like Abhisheka away from pure science.

“This education of sympathy is not only systematically ignored in schools, but it is severely repressed. From our very childhood habits are formed, and knowledge is imparted in such a manner that our life is weaned away from nature and our mind and the world are set in opposition from the beginning of our days. Thus the greatest of educations for which we came prepared is neglected, and we are made to lose our world to find a bagful of information instead.” Tagore, 1917

Dabbling with creative art:

After school she joined the bachelor of fine arts course at the College of Fine Arts, Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore. While she enjoyed art, she disapproved of the way art was taught. She found that there was no freedom to express her artistic creativity under strict syllabus of the college. That art was mostly governed by the imagination and style of the teachers at the college. Being part of the urban wildlife rehabilitation group, she was deeply concerned with the way humans upturned the balance of nature by destroying the animal and plant ecosystem. She wanted to explore the idea of “conflict between concrete civilization and green civilization”, in her canvas only to realize that the apart from a couple of teachers, the others at the fine arts college would approve only human-centric and abstract art. The act that destruction of nature by man could be captured on the canvas was incomprehensible to them. As a student, she disapproved of the emphasis on abstract art. Her view was while abstract art does satisfy the creative spirit; it fails to engage the society in a meaningful way since the common man fails to understand what is depicted in that work of art. According to her “It caters to a very small section of the society.” Realizing that her creative expression was getting choked by the academic discipline of the school she drifted away from arts as well after completing her graduation.

“We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar. His hunger is for the Epic, but he is supplied with Chronicles of facts and dates…Child-nature protests against such calamity with all its power of suffering, subdued at last into silence by punishment.” Tagore, 1917

Because of her interactions with the Chief Wildlife Rehabilitator Mr.Saleem Hameed at the wildlife rehabilitation center and other wildlife experts in Bangalore, she soon realized her calling in ecology, biodiversity and conservation sciences.  When she read up about Environmental art which was quite popular abroad she realized that artists in the process of creating nature-based art were destroying the natural habitat of native flora and fauna. She recollects an example of such art installation where artists covered Surrounding Islands with a pink plastic sheet for a week (http://christojeanneclaude.net/projects/surrounded-islands). Realizing that such project would have caused havoc on the biota of that island at the shores, she decided that artists working in the field should have a primary education of ecology to understand the catastrophe they were creating during their creative process.

The struggle to pursue Ecology:

It was then she decided to pursue ecology only to find that most colleges in India require strict criteria of having a minimum level of science education. She soon came to know that she was not ‘qualified’ to do a postgraduate level course in ecology. Very quickly she noticed that the strict curricular requirement does not allow one to learn what one aspires for, something that Gaurav Goyal also mentioned in his conversation with CSG (insert link).

Determined, she eventually found a distance learning course from Manipal University that allowed her to learn the concepts and science of ecology and conservation. The subject knowledge of the process in combination to her work with animal rehabilitation in urban spaces, made her realize that education is fun when it is interactive.

“Thus the greatest of educations for which we came prepared is neglected, and we are made to lose our world to find a bagful of information instead. We rob the child of his earth to teach him geography, of language to teach him grammar.” Tagore,1917

Canvassing ecology:

For her MSc project, she went to ATREE Bangalore where a senior scientist spotted her talent for field work and employed her as a researcher. There she worked on a project which involved studying water use in agriculture and its impact on bird diversity and local migration patterns. She says that she is grateful that she found a supervisor like Dr. T. Ganesh who was willing to work with her despite her lack of formal science education and “that is a rare event.” “As long as you can work in the field and think and analyze its good” was what her mentor expected. She is also grateful to her teammates in ATREE who taught her wildlife monitoring techniques and basic statistics and never once treated her indifferently.

Sketches of flora and fauna

After few years of working with ATREE she worked with Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) where she studied bird migration patterns. Every winter she would spend time at the Chilka Lake in Odisha and Point Calime in Tamilnadu and in Pong Dam in Himachal Pradesh. The work involved tagging birds and learning about their migratory patterns.  While being part of these research she won scholarships to do short courses in institutes like Smithsonian school of conservation USA, Wageningen CDI, Netherlands and so on which made her realize how much she enjoyed science.

Apart from her research, she worked as an educator at ATREE. She coordinated a program where they interacted with rural as well as urban school students in an attempt to encourage them to adopt and spread sustainable practices. As part of the program, students are trained to monitor biodiversity in and around the schools eventually turning those schools “green”. She realized that being an educator can touch so many lives. During those years, she had interacted with students, few of whom now are pursuing studies in the field of ecology and environment, working with Greenpeace, conducting nature awareness programs, etc. She says “It is a gratifying feeling to be able to touch and change the lives of impressionable minds for the welfare of not just the mankind, but the whole ecosystem.”

Students sketching animals at a pond.

It was then, based on the encouragements from both her mentors Mr.Saleem and Dr.Ganesh that she started dabbling with her passion for art again for the purpose of audience engagement and science communication. “I finally began to enjoy the art.” She worked on nature illustrations that involved a lot of audiences and also used them for developing nature education material.

Though as a student she felt she may not be able to reach out to the common man with abstract art or installation art, she now wants to try her hand at using these forms of creative expression to see if  environmental awareness could be achieved amongst non-artists without sticking to just realistic art works.  Experience also has taught her not to stick to a particular style or medium but to work according to the requirement of the target audience. 

The dancer within:

After her stint at ATREE, she took a stab at the contemporary (movement based) dance forms. She was trained in Bharatnatyam since childhood. With the help of her dancer-choreographer friend Veena Basavarajiah, she realized her potential as a dancer lies in engaging her audience with a story. Being part of a dance-theatre piece titled ‘Mooki’ (means mute) that invoked questions on gender-based issues, changed her conception about the art form. She loved that experience so much that she now wants to communicate the story of diverse flora and fauna through dance. She hopes that ‘someday’ she will be able to realize her dreams.

Performing ‘mooki’

Painting the wall: Foray into science communication

While Abhisheka has led few community art projects, the one she values the most is the wall mural done for ‘Punarchith’, a collective started by social anthropologist Dr. A. R. Vasavi to work with village youth to empower them and develop sustainable agricultural practices. She painted the different millet varieties on the walls with Soliga youth an ethnic group living on the foothills of Biligiri Rangaswamy hills and Malai Mahadeshwara Hills near Mysore. The idea behind the wall mural at Punarchith was to encourage the revival of traditional millet farming in Nagavalli village and surrounding areas as the farmers there have switched over from dry agricultural practices to water intensive sugarcane and banana cultivation in the recent years. Since the region falls under the rain shadow area, it is largely a belt suitable for dry grain production and was once well-known for producing millets and pulses. However, recent trends have led to bore wells being dug in large numbers, and the extensive use of water has led to the decrease in ground water level.

During the process of painting the mural on the public wall with the help of two young boys, she realized that potential of visual art as a strong medium of science (agriculture in this case) communication to involve the society which could have a tremendous impact on the sustainable development of rural India. A lot of locals became enthusiastic about the paintings, and she started using the opportunity to talk about sustainable agriculture practices. “I hope to pursue and engage at the interface of science and arts, considering that I now understand both….it is an incredibly powerful educational tool.”

Sustainable living:

Today she lives on the outskirts of Bangalore, away from the hustle-bustle of the city. She stays in a small gated community of artists, scientists, and educators. She uses public transport for travel. She engages with local students in remote villages and exposes them to natural history, arts, and painting. She continues to experiment with science, arts and education. She firmly believes that alternative education systems allow students to learn more efficiently. Such education systems also create sensitivity about diverse issues and teach sustainable development a topic of grave importance in our world today.

While we may not be able to give up our city lives and comfort living, we can for sure adopt some practices that help save diversity and conserve the environment. I know, I will tag along next time she is painting a wall in the village or taking art workshop with school kids talking about these issues, and contribute my tiny bit.

 

Authors:

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

Ananda is a Technology Marketing Associate at Office of Industrial Liaison, NYU, NY, USA and is a co-founder of ClubSciWri. He loves adda (casual chat) and music.

 

Cotton Stainer Bugs: Living life the weird way

in Biodiversity and Environment by

Cotton Stainer Bugs – Living life the weird way

How often do we stop and admire the nature around us? Almost never. But if we ever decide to take out a little time just to explore our surroundings, we will know the vast number of surprises nature hides in its beauty. But where is nature? We all now live in places which is far from the image of ‘nature’ that comes to our mind.

I expect many of you to agree to this last statement but I beg to differ. The truth is that humans are a part of the nature as well and in whichever way we are shaping our surroundings, it is as natural as a bird building a nest on the tree. I came up with this view recently when we were given an assignment by our Professor Dr. Maria Thaker of CES department, IISc to make a documentary on any creature found in the institute. So, this documentary was made not in the Jubilee Gardens or the forested patches of IISc, but on the streets and drains of IISc.

If you have spent some time in the institute you might have noticed some red and black bugs with their posteriors attached to each other. An awkward position to be found in but this is what attracted us to make a documentary on them. These bugs are called ‘Cotton Stainer Bugs.’ Its scientific name is Odontopus varicornis and it belongs to the family of Pyrrhocoridae. It spends almost ninety percent of its life in this awkward position called ‘copula’ and that is why they are commonly found in this position. Some interesting points we were able to show in our documentary included this mating position and the bug’s strange relationship with the dead bodies of its fellow beings.  They mate on them, lay eggs on them and sometimes even eat them. For all we know these bugs might be mating on the dead bodies of their past lovers. Gross! Over and above this, they are also cannibalistic. Well, that always has a sense of weirdness attached to it. Icing on the cake?

The video was made as part of an assignment given by Dr. Maria Thaker. We would like to thank her for giving us this opportunity.

Alishan Sahu

Alishan is a third year UG at IISc majoring in Biology. She is an active member of the Rangmanch club of IISc. She is interested in Microbiology, although she admits she has no idea where her life is headed towards.

Sajini Patel

Sajini is a third year UG at IISc majoring in Biology. She is a curious person and keeps looking for new things to work on. She is growing as a person in IISc, socially as well as academically and is thinking of doing some serious work in microbiology.

Abhijeet krishna

Abhijeet is a third year UG at IISc majoring in Biology. His research interests lie in Theoretical Biology, Synthetic Biology and Neuroscience. Apart from finishing assignments JUST before the deadline, he is interested in the art of science communications. 

 

Cover image Courtesy: https://www.flickr.com/photos/zimbart/5803779740 under Creative Commons License.

CSG LinkedIN Discussions

in That Makes Sense by

In an initiative to alert and engage members of the forum, the Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs had started an awareness campaign in August (2016) to improve their networking, presence and appearance on LinkedIN. We thank our members who have contributed for various suggestions and posts. Here is a briefing of all that was shared.

Are you new to LinkedIN? Want to know how to organize the profile and get the competitive advantage. We list a 15 points which will be helpful in creating and maintaining a competitive LinkedIN profile.

  1. Profile Picture: Don’t use profile pictures wearing shades, no full-size profile picture, use your single portrait image for the profile, not with your pets or friends. More info at https://business.linkedin.com/talent-solutions/blog/2014/12/5-tips-for-picking-the-right-linkedin-profile-picture
  2. Name: Include your full name, followed by degree or your specialization. Make sure your name appears when your name types on google, at least along with the specialization.
  3. Profile (include education, experience, honors, awards): Keep an up to date profile-avoid being unscrupulous. http://www.hongkiat.com/blog/professional-linkedin-profile/ Under each section of your degree, summarize what were the major achievements. Year gaps are unavoidable at times, but be honest. If you are anticipating a gap in near future, enroll for a course or internship – create an impression that you are engaged and targeted towards your goal. https://www.themuse.com/advice/17-musthaves-for-your-linkedin-profile
  4. Courses, volunteering and other interests: List all the courses and volunteering you have done at undergraduate, graduate and at any level. Everyone must have done some volunteering at any level, make sure to include.
  5. Skills: Add all the skills you have. Move the best skills to the top. Request people to endorse you for the skills which would help attracting the recruiters. Write a formal mail or short message or post on social media. Don’t forget sending a ‘thank you’ note for people who endorsed you.
  6. Recommendations: Ask your peers, mentors, colleagues or your mentees to recommend you on LinkedIN. Write to them asking you to recommend, in turn you can recommend them. Be honest in recommending, unlike a regular quid pro quo. http://blog.hubspot.com/marketing/write-linkedin-recommendation#sm.001fla1vzp6gd1e11i612u5bfnwxs
  7. Connections: Connect with colleagues, peers, mentors and mentees. Try to connect with people who are in your area of interest; send them a formal request rather than just sending a request as friend.
  8. Sharing and following on LinkedIN: LinkedIn is not Facebook; please don’t share unnecessary things. If you “like” some post on LinkedIn, it would be visible on the wall of your connections. So think before you like. Follow peers, companies and organizations of your interest.
  9. Premium account: More job postings are visible/available on premium account. What if you don’t want to buy premium and still want to take advantage? Premium account is free for a month; you can apply as many jobs as possible by using this facility in that month.
  10. Keep your momentum going: Keep in mind if you “like” some post at LinkedIn that would be visible on the wall of your connections. So think before you like. Same for making a comment which is also visible to your connections, think before you write a comment.
  11. Keep “who viewed your profile” option on, if you visit someone’s profile they should know you have visited and vice versa. Hiding the profile and stalking someone is not recommended.
  12. Send invitation requests, but if not accepted do not send repeated request.
  13. Read 10-20 minutes on topic of your choice on LinkedIN
  14. Try to learn at least one new thing in a week. In interviews it is not an uncommon question.
  15. Reach out to at least one connection per week

 

About the Author:

srinvas

Srinivas Aluri is postdoc at Albert Einstein College, NY. He is a fitness enthusiast, exercise and diet expert. He is also an international sports science association certified fitness trainer as well as American Heart Association’s CPR/AED certified professional.

Edited by Abhinav Dey

Photo source: Wikipedia

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

 

 

Transitioning to a faculty position in Australia: Face to Face with Ranjay Chakraborty

in Face à Face by

The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs has brought you stories of career transitions from United States, Europe and India. This time around we go ‘down-under’ and have tete-a-tete with Dr Ranjay Chakraborty (RC). Ranjay is transitioning from a postdoctoral position at Emory University (Atlanta, USA) to academic faculty position at Flinders University (Adelaide, Australia). In his Face-t0-Face interview with Abhinav Dey (AD) he talks about his aspirations, his efforts and his future plans in Australian academia.

AD: How did you know it was time to move on from your postdoctoral fellowship to your first professional position?

RC: After completing my PhD at the Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane (Australia) in 2013, I was excited to join my first postdoctoral position at Emory. In addition to geographical and cultural changes, I was looking forward to my transition from human visual optics research to visual neuroscience research in animal models. I feel, 3.5 years of postdoctoral experience at Emory provided me optimal exposure to the world of academia, and helped me better understand the bigger picture of being an academic. Of course, with time, I matured as a scientist, and started feeling more confident about looking for academic positions. By third year, I made some good publications from the current lab, and was working on an Early Research Career Development award. At that point, I started looking for academic positions (mostly outside the USA due to visa restrictions), and was lucky to get one.

AD: What was your motivation towards an academic career?

RC: I enjoyed doing vision science research during my PhD and postdoctoral fellowship. I have invested so many years in research that I was absolutely sure of continuing it, wherever I go. Although I didn’t get to do a lot, I loved teaching visual optics in India, and during my graduate studies in Australia. I was looking for a platform, where I could bring both research and teaching together. This was my strongest motivation for an academic career. In Australia, my position would also allow me to see patients in the clinic as an optometrist; something that I totally enjoyed in the past.

AD: How do you foresee the academic research environment in Australia?

RC: Similar to the US, establishing a research career in Australia is challenging. From my previous experience, I know that NIH equivalent, National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) and Australian Research Council fundings are extremely competitive. I am looking to develop collaborations within and outside the Vision Science dept. for making competitive grant applications. I will also be looking for industrial funding.

flinders-university

Image courtesy: Ranjay Chakraborty

AD: How did your postdoc training make you competitive for an academic position?

RC: My postdoc training at Emory has been truly instrumental in preparing me for this academic position. It helped me to develop a range of analytical and research skills that were crucial for this position. In addition to basic science research, I learned about academic writing, mentorship, journal and data review, data presentation, collaborative research and many other things that helped me to develop as more mature and confident professional. It has been a magnificent journey from my grad school to the end of this postdoctoral position. I am really thankful to my postdoctoral mentors Drs. Machelle T. Pardue and P. Michael Iuvone for this precious postdoctoral training opportunity at Emory.

AD: What advice do you have for postdocs to make best use of their time?

RC: This is my first position, and I am too young to advice anything in particular. Postdocs are generally very disciplined and assiduous, and they exactly know that it’s time for either “publish or perish”. One small advice – try not to restrain yourself to just “lab and experiments”. Every once in a while traveling and time with family and friends help becoming more productive and focused at work.

AD: Can you briefly describe your plans about the size and mentorship style of your laboratory?

RC: Australian academic positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. In the 1st year, my primary focus would be preparing the lectures, and set up the lab. I am going to take it easy, and keep my lab small at the beginning. I plan to hire a research technician to get started with my projects. I would extend my research group in the future depending on projects and funding situation. I intend to hire people who are deferential, good team players, and inherently motivated to do good research. I would design robust policies in the lab for running experiments, ordering materials, lab meetings with individual lab members/groups, data management and storage, authorships, attending meetings and developing collaborations. I would want my group to be transparent, and feel free about discussing their issues with me and each other.

AD: Do you have teaching responsibilities?

RC: As I mentioned previously, Australian faculty positions have a lot more teaching load compared to the positions in the US. I do not have a lot of teaching experience, and I look forward to this new role in Australia.

AD: Were there any specific resources such as the Office of Postdoctoral Education that you utilized to help you transition into an independent position?

RC: Yes, a number of courses/workshops from Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education have been really helpful in introducing me to several critical aspects of academic positions in the US. I was particularly benefited from K award grant writing course, laboratory management course, and responsible conduct of research ethics course offered by the Emory Office of Postdoctoral Education. I also attended workshops for “how to prepare teaching and research statements”, “how to look and apply for academic positions”, and “preparing CV and NIH statement”. These courses helped me to evaluate whether or not I really wanted to pursue academia.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs about grant writing and successfully obtaining funding?

RC: I do not have any major funding to myself, so I am not the best person to advice on that. But, from my postdoctoral experience at Emory, I have learned that early grant applications based on solid pilot data are imperative to applying for successful academic positions. Early applications within the first two years of postdoc (such as departmental grants) do not have to be too extensive, but they set you up for the habit of grant writing. Of course, publications are equally important. As we all know, first 4 years of postdoc are critical for several early career grants in the US.

AD: Do you have any advice for postdocs making the transition to an independent career?

RC: As I mentioned earlier, the key is to decide whether or not you really want to pursue an independent career. If you do, it doesn’t harm to start applying sooner. With a clear and well-structured research aim, decent publications, adequate skill sets, and strong references you could have a decent chance to get a tenure-track position, perhaps stronger than you might think!

Ranjay Chakraborty was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri

(https://www.linkedin.com/in/abhinavdey)

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

Featured image source: Pixabay

 

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.

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

The myths about networking

in That Makes Sense by

During a recent talk  I gave on transitioning to tech transfer from academia at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Bronx, NY, USA), I was asked quite an interesting set of questions. In this write up I want to focus on two issues which I find many of the young academicians struggle as they plan their next career move.
A young aspiring postdoc asked me from the crowd “ When I see all the alternative career choices I get totally lost. I wonder what is the best fit for me?” I have been trained to think about the experiment and publish and enjoy the academic, intellectual rigor and I feel totally lost as soon as I see the list of alternative careers and wonder where should I start?”
Those who have transitioned to alternative careers have found that what helps most is talking to people who have made the leap. One can either reach out to alumni from your institutes or now with the availability of LinkedIn and Facebook you can reach out to people beyond your alumni and ask for an informational interview. From what I have seen people are always willing to help if you are earnest in your approach. During such interactions, you can ask them about the job roles and responsibilities and also how their academic training gets utilized in their new role outside academia.
An another approach to test whether you will be suitable for such a career would be to do internships/ online or regular courses which can give you the flavor of the job. In my case, an internship with technology transfer offices at Cornell CTL and Columbia CTV were of immense help. I had known beyond any doubt that this is exactly what I want to do. Of course, I had great mentors in tech transfer, and that always helps.

There is also a misconception that whether alternative careers can be intellectually stimulating given one of the things which drive most of us in academia is the intellectual aspect of the profession and of course the creativity. From what I have seen from my experience and from others who have transitioned more or less with me, one would be surprised to see the kind of smart people who runs the world outside academia. In fact, they many times brings more meaning to academic science as the science steps out of the lab. More than once during my interaction with my colleagues I have often wondered how much science would have benefited had they continued academia. Apart from academics, many are fluent from Beethoven to Shakespeare to Charlie Parker to Ravishankar…and often flawless in their assessment.

So my suggestion would be to talk to people, get to know about what excites them about their work and what doesn’t. When you meet people, you can also gauge from their personality that whether such a job will suit your personality or not. Even if nothing substantial comes out of the meeting, at least you will make an attempt to make a new friend outside academia, and that is a good start.

The another question that I got asked was “When should one start to network? Also, everyone will know that he or she is desperate for a job which will defeat the entire purpose of networking.”

Networking is not to seek a job. That is perhaps the biggest misunderstanding. No one asks for a job in networking. It is to find common ground. However, one should mention at a suitable time that you are ready for a new opportunity or challenge in your career. Moreover, networking events are the best places to find your mentors or sponsors and just like academia it always help to have them by your side.

I remember in one of the career development events at NYAS, New York a speaker said: “You should start networking from yesterday.” One should do networking throughout the year, whether you are in a job or looking for a job or planning to make a leap to a new field. I have known professionals who got great introductions from the people they met in jazz bars or from soccer matches they played together. So make sure you have a life outside lab to talk to people about your hobbies and interest. You will be surprised how hobbies can be a game changer.

One needs to learn the art of talking to professionals in networking events, and that once can develop with time. One of the best ways is to practice your introductory pitch, and that itself can take months. Remember the first impression always counts. We have seen many during networking events slips in his/her resume and that according to many is an absolute no. Everyone in networking events is in general aware that people who are attending the session have either came to learn about new opportunities, job description or are looking for new challenges, so don’t be shy. Keep a smile and reach out, show your strengths your passion and commitment to try new opportunities.

In a world we live in there are now other forms of networking. LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook are all great platforms to network and meet interesting people. There are several career support groups. Join them, engage in stimulating and useful conversations. You will be surprised you will have friends sooner than you thought and who will vouch for you during your job search phase. Therefore, learn the tricks of social networking sites and use them to your advantage. Also, networking is not only about asking, but it is also about sharing and many comfortable forgets that part, unfortunately.

To conclude, meet new people with an open mind, help them if you can, all the person in front of you wants to know is how interesting are you professionally.

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Ananda

Enjoys good friends, music and adda.

Tweet@Andz79

Others who contributed substantially to the ideas expressed in the write-up are Roshni, Satarupa, Gaurav, Sutirtha, and Madhurima.

Image Courtesy: https://pixabay.com/en/truss-historically-stolberg-resin-1731118/

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From cloning genes to directing X-rays: Face to Face with Nishant Kumar Varshney

in Face à Face by

Dr Nishant Kumar Varshney is working as a Beamline Scientist on an Indo-Italian Macromolecular Crystallography beamline XRD2 at Elettra Sincrotrone, Trieste, Italy, which will be open to Users in start of the 2017. The Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs caught up with him about his career and experience while working in an unconventional postdoctoral career of a Beamline Scientist after a PhD in Structural Biology.

He did his bachelors in Chemistry from DU and Masters in Marine Biotechnology from Goa University in 2005. Completed his PhD in 2013 from Biochemical Sciences Division, CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory, Pune, India on structure-function relationship of three enzymes that has industrial and therapeutic applications. During his PhD, he received Commonwealth Split-Site Scholarship to work for an year in York Structural Biology Laboratory, University of York, UK, where he developed his interest in the field of Structure Based Drug Discovery field.

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In Nishant’s (NKV) words, “First, I would like to thank Abhinav Dey (AD) for adding me to CSG group and now giving me this opportunity to share my thoughts about new Indo-Italian joint venture at Elettra Synchrotron, Trieste, Italy which we Inaugurated last month.”

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(XRD2 Beamline; Picture source: NKV)

AD: During your graduate school, when did you realize you wanted to try a different research-based career than conventional postdoc?

NKV: Actually the thought and the opportunity came after the PhD, when I was working as Research Associate (RA) in National Center for Cell Science (NCCS), Pune. During my PhD, I was working both at the bench (cloning, expressing, purifying and setting up protein for crystallization) as well as collecting data at our home source for my proteins and sometimes helping other collaborators. Like most of the graduate students, I dreamt of getting a conventional post doc position abroad and coming back after few years for some decent permanent position in India. It was during RA-ship, that I saw the ad for a Beamline Scientist position at the new Indian beamline at Elettra. I thought of it as a good opportunity to not only learn about the working of beamlines but also having plenty of time to play and learn with data collection strategies to get best out of your protein crystals. Moreover, the idea of helping different users with different projects and, if possible, making some worthy contribution to their projects excited me too.

AD: What is your typical work day like?

NKV: Most often our day starts with a black filter coffee at 9 🙂 and ends around 6pm. Currently, we are at the final stages of commissioning the beamline and implementing an automated instrument on the experimental table. Since working at the beamline is a first time for me, my work schedule usually revolves around my local supervisor and Head of our group, Maurizio. We help our supervisors with the work and learn out of it. Everyday there is something new to learn. We set small targets with deadlines and sometimes we work till late to meet those deadlines. Also being an industry, there are many other usual administrative/non administrative appointments also to be taken care of.

AD: Do you think having a PhD was an advantage for you in the current job?

NKV: Yes. Experience and a degree in structural biology were the essential educational qualifications for this job. I was brought into the field of X-ray diffraction, protein crystallization, three-dimensional structures etc. in practice during my PhD only. Having hands-on experience with these techniques and a visit to a Beamline in Diamond, UK during my Commonwealth Scholarship tenure gave me experience and confidence to apply for this job. Some technical terms and what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch was totally new to me in the beginning but I think I am getting better day-by-day.

AD: How was the transition from a bench to a synchrotron?

NKV: I would say transition was not that easy. Coming from enjoying a mostly wet lab, handling buffers/proteins and transitioning to the technical aspects of a synchrotron where I was expected to understand as well as install beamline components, alignments, installing vacuum etc. was initially too much technical for me. Mathematics has not been my strongest subject so I am still trying to get better with the numbers.

AD: What would you recommend as first steps for students/postdocs interested in pursuing a fellowship in handling this kind of job?

NKV: If one is coming to synchrotron as a user, I would say, apart from having familiarity with data processing programs and knowing your proteins, you need not to worried about what’s behind the walls of Experimental Hutch. Beamline staff should teach you how things work at the Experimental table and how to collect data. But if someone wants to be a Beamline Scientist or a Beamline Postdoc, first step is to develop your love for the technical aspects of a beamlines. Brushing up your Physics or say Biophysics will also help you to understand your work. It is also important to keep in mind that it is not a 9-5 job and you should be ready to devote long days sometimes.

AD: Having gone through interviews as an applicant yourself, what are a couple of things that could help a PhD standout from the crowd?

NKV: Especially for a job at the Beamlines, working knowledge of the beamline, however little it may be, through regular visits to the synchrotron for data collection and processing the data on your own will make you stand out. Familiarity with different programs for data collection to structure deposition will help you for the job. Apart from that, one should enjoy working with the users and be ready to help them to sort out the technical as well as practical problems outside the normal office hours.

AD: Was there anything (positive or negative) that you were surprised about this job/profession that you didn’t expect until you were in it?

NKV: As a matter of personal opinion, anyone who starts the unconventional career, will wish to have a sense of stability in his/her tenure. As I am working in an Italian Industry, as a visiting Scientist on an India-funded project, there is always an insecurity regarding the length and timing of the next extension. Moreover, the absence of funds available for in-house research and for attending/presenting work in the conferences was not what I expected.

AD: Please tell us about the new Indo-Italian venture and what do you foresee of this collaboration for the development of science in India?

NKV: Till the date, India is either renting beamtimes for macromolecular crystallography e.g. BM14 beamline in ESRF or funding visits to other beamlines of the world. This is the first time when India is a partner right from the design, construction, commissioning and maintenance of two beamlines at synchrotron. The XRD2 and Xpress beamlines are a part of a scientific partnership between India and Italy under a project administered through the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) at Bangalore with financial support from Department of Science and Technology (DST), Govt. of India and Elettra Sincrotrone,Trieste. The Xpress experimental station has been constructed to study the structure of materials under high- pressure using the technique of X-ray diffraction of samples subjected to the action of two diamonds that can exert higher pressures to 50 GPa. In this way the researchers will be able to access the possibility of synthesizing new superconducting materials, harder and more resistant. This beamline will also be applied in other areas, such as mineralogy and geophysics. XRD2 is a dedicated beamline to determine three-dimensional structures of proteins and biological macromolecules with application in biology, medicine, pharmaceuticals and biotechnology. XRD2 is an highly automated and tunable beamline with state of the art instruments which will allow to collect faster X-ray diffraction data from protein crystals in highly automated way better than collected using home source. With 50% share in the project, now Indian crystallographers and High Pressure diffraction groups will have plenty of beamtime accessible to them. Once the proposal has been accepted, DST will provide the travel and daily cost funds.

AD: What are the career possibilities after being trained at the cutting edge of your field?

NKV: The field of macromolecular crystallography is still in a developing stage. There is lot to explore and develop in the field right from the data collection step to relate the structure to its function. With the experience at the synchrotron, prospects of developing your own research in the field are always open. Working in Pharmaceuticals Industries mainly involved in Structure based Drug Discovery is another option. With all the knowledge of the structural biology, a career in academics is also a possibility. Moreover, with the advent of Free-Electron lasers and new developments in alternative techniques, three-dimensional structure determination of macromolecules using serial crystallography and Cryo-Electron Microscopy and Cryo-Imaging techniques are the new open fields where experience in structural biology is a desirable qualification.
I hope, these facilities will be very beneficial to our Indian researchers.

 

 

Nishant Kumar Varshney was interviewed by Abhinav Dey. Abhinav is a postdoctoral fellow at Emory University and a Young Investigator Awardee from Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation for Childhood Cancer. He is also the co-founder of PhD Career Support Group (CSG) for STEM PhDs and ClubSciWri

(https://www.linkedin.com/in/abhinavdey)

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Avoiding anxiety attacks in today’s contract based academic training-10 commandments

in That Makes Sense by

“It brings a persistent low-grade anxiety that lingers around my heart, sometimes traveling up to constrict my throat as the time remaining on my contract dwindles. Rinse, and repeat. For years. I don’t know what impact this lifestyle is having on my health, but it can’t be good.” The Guardian about contract based positions in academia. https://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/2016/dec/02/short-term-contracts-university-academia-family?CMP=share_btn_tw

How to circumvent the situation?

As long as you are in Ph.D., things are fine, there is a stability for at least 5-6 yrs where a continuous source of scholarship is promised on paper, however, the situation changes once you are a scholar and now want to move onto the next obvious training in academia which is postdoc and which is unfortunately, CONTRACTUAL. The training is a must to pursue an academic career and rightly so.

But how to avoid getting trapped by the feeling described aptly above?

Here are 10 points which I feel might help:

  1.  Do not put all your eggs in one basket.
  2. Be aware of the employability scenario.
  3. Network and meet people, talk to people, use social networking sites.
  4. Develop SKILLS beyond the bench, Ph.D. is a long time to DISCOVER yourself- what you are good at and what you are not made for.
  5. Be truthful to your potentials- Most of us are not truthful to ourselves. We will ignore all the signs which tell us that this might not be the right thing for us, till we fall into the trap.
  6. Do proper due diligence on the Postdoc lab.
  7. Choose mentors not the university.
  8. Think ahead-Plan the career, does not mean you should not relax and enjoy your life outside the lab hours.
  9. Have alternative BACKUP plans.
  10. Have a financial plan from day one of Ph.D. – It will help in the times of despair.

 

13876192_10153622641800047_7637481486705765851_n

Ananda

Enjoys good friends, music and adda.

Tweet@Andz79

Image Courtesy:

Copyright “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham
www.phdcomics.com

 

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