It is 5 PM on a Saturday. A group of children are glued to their screens, awaiting the host’s permission to join the week’s episode of Talk To A Scientist (TTAS).
Week after week, children from across the country have been tuning in to this webinar platform co-founded by Karishma S. Kaushik, Assistant Professor at the Savitribai Phule Pune University (SPPU), Pune, and Snehal Kadam, PhD student at Hull York Medical School, University of Hull, Hull, United Kingdom.
It started as a one-time webinar on the novel coronavirus for children amidst a lockdown on 30 March, 2020. Thanks to the participants who asked when the next session would be organised, Kaushik and Kadam decided to make it a weekly event. The program has been running successfully for over a year and a half in the form of a thematic series: each season having ten episodes, the finale being a hands-on session. Along the way, TTAS has received prestigious national and international outreach grants, including the IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant (IOG). The co-founders’ faces light up even as they describe how this ‘passion project’ started.
“If you ask a child to name a few Indian scientists, perhaps they will say names like C. V. Raman, Srinivasa Ramanujan, Homi Bhabha, Vikram Sarabhai, Janaki Ammal, Kamala Sohonie or Anandibai Joshi,” Kaushik says. “But nobody will name scientists like Manu Awasthi (a computer scientist), Avinash Sharma (who was part of an Indian expedition to Antarctica) or Bhaktee Dongaonkar (who studies memory and learning). It is important to know about contemporary scientists, living and working in India in a very different time from Raman and Ramanujan. Further, all of us scientists are funded on public money – money from Indian taxpayer families – so it is our national duty to inform and engage them with ongoing scientific pursuits in the country.” So, Kaushik and Kadam decided to fill this gap by introducing and engaging 6 – 16-year-old kids to contemporary science and scientists in India, and it has been a rewarding journey.
The stakes are really high, you can’t let kids down when they show up with eager faces asking, ‘when are we starting, ma’am?,’ ‘who’s the guest scientist, ma’am?’, and ‘what’s the next session, ma’am?’ — Karishma Kaushik
As the show runs successfully and amasses support from various quarters, it is the passion and drive of the co-founders, and the enormous work that goes on behind the scenes that ensures the show goes on. “When you think about it, it is a lot of things to be done on a weekly basis,” Kadam explains. “Every week, you need to spend several hours before the session preparing the content or going through the content of guest speakers to make it understandable and appropriate for the kids. And then, there is the management aspect: preparing posters for social media, sending out e‑mail links, responding to queries, coordinating with the guest speakers, and so on.”
While Kaushik and Kadam are proud of their platform, they also gracefully acknowledge its limitations. “Having said that (we catered to an existing gap), we don’t plug all gaps,” Kaushik says. “We are not multilingual, and we are internet-based. We recognise that we cannot communicate in Kannada, Telugu, Bhojpuri, and every language in India. We also can’t reach children and families who don’t have internet access. But I think it is important to recognise that outreach cannot have a ‘one-size-fits-all’ formula.”
Kadam adds, “Any communication form will have its limitations. If we chose to reach the children offline and visit schools, we would be limited by geography. We would then have to restrict ourselves to the schools in Pune. It was really important for us to accept that we can’t do everything, and there is always going to be a segment or situation we cannot cater to.”
Not only did the duo realise the limitations of the platform, but they also came to terms with the limitations of their scientific expertise, and the need to open up the platform to the scientific ecosystem. They had embarked on the project all by themselves, from preparing content to managing the show. However, they soon realised that they could talk to the kids only about a few topics. “Even within biology, there are specific areas that we cannot explain adequately enough,” Kadam says. “For example, I don’t think I would feel confident about explaining the nitty-gritty of neuroscience even though I have a basic understanding of the field. Having heard the kind of questions these kids were asking, within the first few sessions, we realised that the show would need expert speakers.”
The team was happy to invite like-minded experts to talk to these children. To their surprise, they received an overwhelming response from the expert community – to the point that they have to put guest speakers on a waitlist!
“I think this gave the platform a different edge,” Kadam says. “This also freed us up a bit, giving us time to plan the sessions better.” So far, TTAS has featured more than 60 guest speakers, introducing the kids to a range of topics from astrobiology, the working of the internet, plant communication to sleep in mammals.
Further, having younger role models as guest speakers (undergraduate, Master’s, and PhD students) has helped the children a lot, as Kaushik and Kadam say. The show has also hosted people who explained the science behind their work or pursuit — say, in breadmaking or pistol shooting — to the great enthusiasm of kids. This exercise has, in a sense, broadened the definition of a scientist for these kids — from the stereotype of senior academic researchers or industry experts to anyone who applies science in their study and work.
In some ways, TTAS has also helped the co-founders realise their childhood dreams. “The first time I met a scientist was when I was around 17 years old, and that was only because I decided to pursue science. Had I decided otherwise, I don’t think I would have ever met a scientist in my life,” Kadam says. “So, for these kids to meet with scientists at such a young age and know that there are these actual people that they’ve met and can approach with a question, opens up many possibilities.”
The road, however, has not always been smooth. While there have been days when the hosts are so overwhelmed by the number of participants that they have had to quickly stream on YouTube, there have also been days when few kids have shown up. But this has not deterred them because they have a different definition of growth. “While most platforms define growth in numbers, it has never been the case for TTAS,” Kaushik says. “For us, the main purpose is to inspire. So, we have focused rather on building a rapport with the kids who show up week after week and making a difference in their view of science and scientists.”
“We can see (that difference) in the kind of questions they ask now versus those they asked in the first session,” Kadam adds. “We have had scientists tell us that the questions the kids are asking are open research questions in the field.”
Drawing a close to the first IOG, and embarking on the extension grant with scale-up plans, the duo says that running an outreach program demands exceptional professionalism, almost like a ‘second full-time job’, contrary to the notion of science outreach being a ‘soft job’. TTAS has also recently received a grant from the American Geophysical Union (AGU) to publish archived content, based on edited recordings of the sessions, to expand its reach to settings with limited resources.
“The stakes are really high,” Kaushik says. “You can’t let kids down when they show up with eager faces asking, ‘when are we starting, ma’am?,’ ‘who’s the guest scientist, ma’am?’, and ‘what’s the next session, ma’am?’”