This PhD Café article explores the science communication journey of Devanshi Gupta, a PhD student at the Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics (CDFD), Hyderabad. Devanshi highlights the importance of effective science communication, the challenges she faced, and the rewarding experiences that fuelled her passion for sharing science with broad audiences.
Since childhood, I have loved pondering new ideas and exploring them through science. I wondered why garbage smells or why we feel thirsty despite our bodies being mostly composed of water. I rarely found people who could answer my questions; most of them could only appreciate the quench for knowledge.
It’s disheartening to see that our traditional education system doesn’t place enough emphasis on questioning, critical thinking, and research. Instead, we’re constantly pushed to memorise information to regurgitate it during exams. I never enjoyed the task of memorising the names of cranial nerves in the human body. But what truly fascinated me was understanding how the human brain functions and witnessing its lightning-fast responses to various stimuli.
While diving deep into advanced science, I took up the challenge of explaining its mind-blowing concepts to my mom. Whether it was understanding the process of milk curdling or exploring the science of floating on water, I made sure to share the science behind everyday phenomena with her. And you know what? It struck me that curiosity is like a spark that sets off a chain reaction of more curiosity.
How did it start?
My journey in science communication began during my PhD when I participated in journal clubs. I found most presentations dull and unengaging, lacking storytelling; they simply bombarded western blots and bar graphs on the audiences.
When my turn to present at journal club arrived, I aimed to make my work understandable to everyone. Since my research involves studying the regulation of multi-protein complex assemblies in the cell, I started my presentation with a quote by John Donne, emphasising that just as no man is an island, proteins cannot function alone. I glanced at my PhD supervisor and noticed a smile on his face — that was my green flag.
Over the years, I have given numerous presentations within the lab, at other institutes, and at conferences. I constantly experiment with storytelling angles and humour, striving to make my research engaging and memorable for the audience.
The stepping stone in science communication
I attended a short course on ‘Freelancing in science communication’ by Ipsa Jain, organised by SciRio.
During the course, I mustered up the courage to ask a seemingly foolish question: “Can you please clarify what exactly science communication is? There are so many different definitions, and I’m confused about which one is the real deal”.
They say that it’s worth risking foolishness for greatness. Surprisingly, the place where I voiced my confusion became the very place where my journey in science communication began.
When I joined SciRio, I had little knowledge about the science communication space in India and abroad. I was unfamiliar with the relevant people, media platforms, content types, target audiences, and the tools involved. All I knew was I am willing to learn whatever comes my way.
I remember organising a capacity-building workshop at SciRio, specifically designed for beginners in science communication. We aimed to provide a comprehensive overview of the science communication landscape by inviting accomplished professionals such as writers, editors, podcasters, and science artists. They generously shared their career journeys and provided valuable insights. The workshop was a transformative experience for me, as the constructive feedback from these experts greatly improved my writing skills. In fact, one of my writing pieces was selected as one of the best popular science stories in the DST-AWSAR 2021 competition. This achievement served as a significant milestone in my journey and solidified my passion for communicating science in interactive and engaging ways.
While acquiring a skill and utilising it to the fullest is truly rewarding, sharing that skill with others for their growth is an extraordinary feeling. When I came across a call for mentors in science writing for a science outreach project ‘The Mind Gala,’ I knew I had to seize the opportunity. I volunteered to mentor eight participants in crafting popular science stories focused on neuroscience. Together, we compiled our articles into a captivating science book titled “Tales of Neuroscience,” which was recently launched. The mentorship experience turned out to be a two-way road, and I truly believe in the adage that says, “We Rise by Lifting Others.” I learned just as much from my mentees as they did from me, fostering a sense of mutual growth and achievement.
Taking science outside the lab
To expand my horizons in science communication, I took on the responsibility of managing social media and curating content for SciRio. This allowed me to observe people, ask relevant questions, and experiment with different formats, constantly trying out new approaches.
One of the most exciting experiences was participating in the Euraxess India Science Slam Competition 2022. Here, I presented my research as a story, without relying on data or results, in an entertaining way. When I was shortlisted for the live finals, I was overjoyed. On the day of the finale, the sheer happiness and satisfaction I derived from sharing my research with strangers who may not have a science background and making them giggle, laugh, and marvel at the same time, was hugely rewarding.
In addition to my science communication endeavours, I was fortunate to secure an internship with India Science Festival 2023. Here, I had the opportunity to delve into diverseroles such as content writing, speaker engagement, and emceeing. Connecting with people and getting a glimpse into their career paths at the festival proved to be an incredibly enriching experience.
In India, many scientists are working on ground breaking technologies, but only a few can effectively communicate their work to wider audiences. While some academic institutions support science outreach initiatives, not all do. However, even when our institute may not provide support, we have the power to support our institute. As an eLife Community Ambassador, I proudly represented my institute at international events, realising that science should not be confined to the lab, but must reach a broader audience.
Navigating science engagement while doing a PhD
As a PhD student, I embrace the dual role of being a scientist by day and a creator by night. The skills I’ve gained through my research journey, such as observation, hypothesis testing, and resilience, prove invaluable beyond academia. While my days are primarily dedicated to lab work and experiments, I seize any spare moments between tasks to immerse myself in the world of science communication.
Driven by an insatiable curiosity, researchers like me constantly seek out new discoveries and innovative ideas. This same drive led me to explore the realm of science communication. I delved into job descriptions of science communicators, read about notable figures in the field, subscribed to newsletters, and immersed myself in relevant books. By keenly observing successful science communicators, I learned different communication styles. Though challenging initially, each small victory boosted my confidence and motivated me to strive for improvement.
A PhD not only deepens our expertise in specific research areas but also offers personal growth opportunities. It equips us with valuable skills like effective communication, storytelling, strategic thinking, mentoring, self-belief, and perseverance. These skills are not only crucial for a career in science communication but also valuable in various other aspects of professional life.