Columns @IndiaBioscience

The untold stories: bringing to light a researcher’s scientific journey

Anusheela Chatterjee

In 2020, IndiaBioscience launched the IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant (IOG) of one-lakh rupees to encourage innovative outreach ideas. Anusheela Chatterjee and Aprotim Mazumder were among the recipients of the grants in the first cycle. Here, Chatterjee recounts her team’s experience of making a video series on the often-unnoticed stories of a researcher’s journey in a scientific inquiry.

Anusheela IOG Image 1
Collage of posters highlighting the projects created with the support of the 1st IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant. [Credits: Ipsa Jain]

Manuscript accepted.

These two words bring a well-deserved sense of achievement (and, quite a bit of relief!) to the researchers conducting a detailed scientific study. However, hidden behind these words are many stories — of struggles, uncertainties, failure and success. Those stories may not have had a place in formal scientific communication. Still, they would have been instrumental in training the researchers in their path of scientific inquiry.

I was often intrigued by how and where the researchers began when they embarked on a project months before. What was the roadmap like when they set out to solve that scientific riddle?

I wanted to bring to light these hidden stories. So, in July 2020, I was motivated to try my thought when IndiaBioscience announced the 1st IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant (IOG) for innovative outreach ideas in life sciences. I approached my colleagues P. K. Madhu and Aprotim Mazumder at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Hyderabad (TIFRH), with a rough sketch of the concept. The idea was well-received and Mazumder came on board for the project.

The IOG gave wings to our objective when we were selected as one of the awardees for the first grant cycle. The year’s theme focused on digital initiatives, which inspired us to explore a video format to bring these stories to light.

We decided to pick a study, engage with the researcher steering the work, and trace their research journey from the time they started designing the first experiment. The possibility of creating a repository of the untold stories of scientific research was exciting. 

Initial forays, tweaks and turns

Initially, we planned to convey each story through a series of 90-second videos. Also, we thought illustrations would add quality to the storytelling, so we joined forces with freelance illustrators Rutuja Chalke and Sumit Chavan. Their artwork would give a clearer picture of the research and help create compelling stories.

We wanted to highlight four stories from TIFRH. We chose research findings from Tamal Das’s lab for the first story. One fascinating ongoing investigation was about how organelles inside cells change their positions to facilitate the movement of a group of cells together, for example, when they have to seal the gap caused by a wound.

On Das’s suggestion, we showcased the factors influencing the movement of a group of epithelial cells.

Once the initial round of discussions with the researchers steering the projects was over, we gathered at the drawing board. We aimed to convey the research findings in one compact series. However, as we went into the details, we found that our line of thought was quite ambitious. It was challenging to bring out the intricate network of cell biology connections in a simple, logical, and sequential manner.

At this juncture, we attended an awardees’ meet-up organised by IndiaBioscience. This meeting enabled us to brainstorm ideas for overcoming the challenges, and we received crucial feedback to keep things simple. We realised we had overlooked a key simplifying factor.

There was a common thread between the studies: Each research took a different path to unravel the same complex molecular mechanism inside cells. Among these studies, we picked two studies at similar stages of the investigation highlighting how two organelles, lysosomes and Golgi, help regulate the collective cell movement.

While Rituraj Marwaha, a postdoctoral fellow, worked on the role of lysosomes, Purnati Khuntia, a graduate student, investigated what the Golgi was doing. We altered our story format slightly, incorporating a common introduction to the problem. Several doubts, clarifications and discussions followed. 

All the questions were useful and necessary for the project to develop naturally and be appreciated in greater detail,” remarks Khuntia. Chalke recounts benefiting from the detailed discussions before every project: From creating rough sketches to final drafts, each step challenged my creative skills, and the result was worth all the effort.”

Options galore

Though this project aimed to bring out stories from the life sciences, the interdisciplinary fabric of TIFRH allowed us to explore some more options. For example, while the earlier project was underway, the next story — Souvik Sadhukhan’s first stint in interdisciplinary research — began to take shape. Sadhukhan, a physics graduate student in Saroj K Nandi’s lab, had developed a theoretical understanding of how a densely packed cell layer exhibits dynamics similar to that of glass molecules.

At this point, we were working on three stories simultaneously. The filming process began with the series on Sadhukhan’s research. Initially, we chose to have a voice-over for the video interspersed with the researcher’s interview. However, after going through the playback of the videos, we understood that adhering to a pre-written script would be better. That way, we could tailor it for a non-expert audience and maintain continuity for an engaging storyline.

We revised the script and made the researchers read it out so that there was no scope for technical words to enter the narrative. We even resorted to jugaad: designing a makeshift prompter by scrolling PowerPoint slides with extra-large font text! The new format helped piece together a more cohesive story.

The lessons from our first attempt at filming helped shape our storytelling style for all other projects. However, by this time, we had to bid adieu to the 90-second video format as there were multiple elements in one story and breaking them every 90 seconds interrupted the flow.

Zooming into the story

While working on these three stories, we realised that the volume of information and short duration of videos did not give us much room to capture the researcher’s initial challenges. So, to provide a closer look, we zoomed in on one of the milestones of the researcher’s journey. This theme became the motivation for the fourth story in this project.

Sunayana Sarkar, a graduate student in Manish Jaiswal’s lab, had spent months, undaunted, standardising the extraction of polyphosphates from fruit flies. It was an essential step in a new research direction the lab was exploring. Her inspiring words reflect her determination: Research is not easy, we learn something new in every step, and it is all about not losing the spirit and positivity, and holding on till you get it to work.”

Basil Thurakkal, a graduate student and IOG project team member, filmed Sarkar’s story in a documentary style. He says, I was mostly involved in the video making, rather than the science part. So trying to see the work we are doing from an outsider’s point of view was an interesting exercise.” 

Once the stories were on the road to completion, Ipsa Jain, science illustrator, visually captured the essence of each project in four announcement posters.

By the end of fifteen months, we had finished working on all four stories: Two have been released: Stories from the life sciences: How do we extract polyphosphates from fruit flies? And Stories from the life sciences: What does glass and a dense layer of cells have in common? Two are awaiting a release.

However, our work does not end here. What lies ahead is the challenging task of reaching out to a wider audience and getting feedback. Their inputs will give insights into our shortcomings and equip us to tell more compelling stories.

Written By

After obtaining a Masters degree in Biology from TIFR Mumbai, Anusheela joined TIFR Hyderabad as the science writer. In addition to writing, she organises various science communication activities- both for graduate students as well as the general public. She is exploring different ways to communicate fundamental science, through illustrations and animations.