Columns Stories from Scientists

10 Women, 10 Questions: Lipsa Panda

Ankita Rathore

Lipsa Panda, Communications Manager, STM Journals, Elsevier, highlights Inclusion and Diversity initiatives in health and research, and shares insights into her transition from the lab bench to visual art and communication management. Lipsa emphasises science communication as a powerful skill, encouraging continual learning for aspiring researchers in Indian science.

Lipsa Panda titleimage
10 Women, 10 Questions: Lipsa Panda

1) I heard your talk at the NPDS 2023 at Ashoka University, Sonepat. Can you tell me more about what you do? 

    My role at Elsevier is communications manager for STM Journals. My role focuses on developing and executing our author communications strategies. It involves understanding their needs, developing learning modules, informing them about our publishing support, and much more about our work towards building a better future. I also manage communications for Atlas Awards.

    At NPDS 2023, I highlighted the vital role of Inclusion and Diversity (I and D) in health and research and some of the initiatives Elsevier is spearheading. It was intended to motivate young researchers to incorporate I and D approaches into their research and institutes.

    2) Can you tell us more about your career trajectory from research to visual art and communication management? And how did you navigate the same?

      I did my PhD at the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology (CSIR-IGIB), Delhi, under the guidance of Anurag Agrawal and two other mentors, Balaram Ghosh, and Mabalirajan. I studied the mechanism of steroid-resistant asthma and thoroughly enjoyed my research journey despite the hardships. With 10+ publications, I was determined to pursue research as a career. I joined Rakesh Mishra’s lab at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CSIR-CCMB), Hyderabad, with the Nehru Science Postdoctoral Fellowship. After 3 months, due to personal obligations, I decided to return to Delhi and take a break from active research. 

      In this recess, I wanted to make use of my time honing new skills. I enrolled myself in the Sri Aurobindo Centre of Arts and Communications (SACAC) for six months to learn graphic design. Once my viva and exhibition were over, I applied what I learned to scientific projects, such as poster designs, logos, and science branding. I enjoyed visualisation, and today I can’t point out when this intermission’ turned into a full movie. Although I started as visual science communicator, my role as a communications officer at the Lancet and Financial Times Commission Governing Health Futures 2030: Growing up in a digital world allowed me to branch out into written communication along with website management. 

      I ventured into social media and global report launch communications and engagements. That’s when it dawned on me that a combination of visual art and communication is what I am most interested in. At Elsevier, I continue to design communication materials for internal and external use. This skill comes very handy and helps me to generate an end-to-end product – create content and apt visuals. 

      Knowledge is never wasted, and the most gratifying part is that I can apply all that I have learned in the past 15 years in my current role from science to design. 

      3) What does your typical workday look like?

        The most exciting thing about my work is that it doesn’t look the same every day, just like my PhD days. Simply put, most of the time I create social media messages and visuals and analyse their effectiveness. Since my role involves collaboration with internal and external stakeholders, there are many meetings for brainstorming strategy, reflecting, decision-making, and arriving at action points which is exciting.

        My favourite activity among all is designing learning modules for Research Academy. I have constructed webinars on creating graphical abstracts and choosing the right plot for visualising data, and I am working on expanding the visual modules. Also, I work almost every day on Atlas Awards, which selects the best articles that support the Sustainable Development Goals. Reading the papers and communicating with authors from diverse fields is a very satisfying experience for me. 

        4) What inspired your transition from a background of PhD in the field of respiratory immunology to a career in communications?

          In all honesty, it wasn’t an inspiration. I moved away from academia because of a personal crisis. I wanted to make the best of what I had. Incidentally, it happened so that I picked up an innate skill and merged it with my passion (science). If I must refer to it as inspirational, I would say that it was Anurag Agrawal who inspired me to realise my potential beyond research. Even during my PhD days, he would always say that my Ikigai was creating graphical abstracts and art around science. Along with the state-of-the-art instruments of our lab, he would proudly show the mini art exhibition on my desk to any visiting scientist. It meant the world to me when he said I would make a good scientist and he would be proud if I pursued it! When I decided to take a break, he provided the most conducive environment for me to thrive.

          Science visualisation lecture class for PhD course work at CSIR IGIB, 2019. Picture Credit: Prashant Bajpai.
          Science visualisation lecture class for PhD course work at CSIR IGIB, 2019. Picture Credit: Prashant Bajpai.

          I also feel grateful to Rakesh Mishra for supporting me. When he first saw my graphical abstracts, he said, I should pursue Science Communication, and I grinned I want to become a scientist”. But the day, I told him I wanted to discontinue my Postdoc, he provided me with all the confidence and support I needed. 

          In a nutshell, I was inspired by Anurag, Rakesh, Mitali Mukerji, and SK Brahmachari’s faith in my natural ability for science communication.

          5) What advice would you give to aspiring scientists or researchers who are interested in incorporating visual communication into their work but might not have a background in design?

            Unlike art, which is about expression and freedom, design is more scientific and methodical. It involves theories, principles, and a research-like approach to problem-solving. When it comes to learning or mastering a skill, there is NO shortcut!

            While one can continue to learn on the job, it is mandatory to understand the basics so that you can build on them eventually. Unfortunately, in India, you cannot go back to graduation after a certain age but thanks to the internet there are many online courses (Coursera and Udemy) and some offline as well (SACAC). In addition, one can read textbooks and follow good work and trends. Creating fonts, understanding colour, and mastering design thinking develops creativity. It becomes easier to blend science and visual communication when you understand the fundamentals of each.

            6) During this entire journey, what do you consider your biggest successes? What have these taught you?

              I consider my greatest achievement to be overcoming my personal crisis without succumbing to it. Instead, I remained focused on my goals and pursued my passion for science and research with slighter tweaks. The fact that I could turn challenges into opportunities and problems into possibilities transformed me. I have learnt multitudinous valuable lessons. I had the opportunity to push the boundaries and go out of my comfort zone. I ventured into new fields such as graphic design, policy, and ethics, and identified topics that inspire me, like Inclusion and Diversity and supporting young people. I feel content that I learnt by doing and falling over. And a book that particularly inspires me to stay positive and motivated is Mind full to Mindful by Om Swami. I highly recommend this book to early career researchers.

              7) How has your background in science academia informed or influenced your approach to communicating scientific information, particularly in engaging with authors and researchers?

                Even though I do not use my lab skills, animal handling or cell culture abilities anymore but the skills that I learned such as asking questions, experiment designing, analysing results, time management, collaboration, and troubleshooting, come in handy in any role. 

                The customer experience approach recommends that we put ourselves in the customer’s shoes to better understand their needs. Lucky for me, I never take off my research shoes and in fact I even wear a matching hat. Hence, I feel proud to inform our internal collaborators about what researchers need or think. For instance, what early career researchers need to know about the publishing journey, what kind of capacity can we build, what is most relevant to authors when they publish their work, etc. Now that I wear the publisher’s hat, I also understand what it takes to publish a paper, a lot of arduous work by publishers. I believe that I serve as an effective link connecting publishers and researchers.

                8) What message do you want to leave as a science communicator?

                  Science communication is nothing less than a superpower. To be able to explain your research to scientists and general public is immensely critical and fulfilling. There is absolutely no place for miscommunication or wrong communication. COVID-19 has taught us how important it is to state the facts in simplest language. 

                  One of my favourite adages for anyone in science and research is with great power comes great responsibility.’

                  I would say that science communicators must learn all the skills they need to make their communication effective. I find having knowledge about visual communications, social media, website management, public engagement, coding, policies, and ethics helps in developing concrete strategies. I would say, do not shy away from learning!

                  Exhibition at SACAC: With my selected design projects at the end of my certificate course in graphic design. The board on the right has patterns from cellular spaces. 2020. Picture Credit: Rintu Kutum.
                  Exhibition at SACAC: With my selected design projects at the end of my certificate course in graphic design. The board on the right has patterns from cellular spaces. 2020. Picture Credit: Rintu Kutum.

                  9) What is the best and the worst advice you have received?

                    A friend once said, Your PhD is a doctorate in Philosophy and not a doctorate in immunology.” I understood that the wheel must keep rolling, and I must pass the baton on. This was very liberating because most Ph.D. students chase their one last experiment’ before publishing or submitting. There is no such thing as one last experiment.

                    My better half always says, there are no what-ifs, there is only what’s next, when I contemplate a strategy or execution turned wrong. I live by it!

                    I will not mention the negative advice, but what I learned from it; some advice for young Indian women researchers who contemplate shaping their careers around social norms. Only you should decide what and how should your career look like. It’s important to follow your heart and respect your own dreams. Only when you prioritise your own aspirations will those around you value them. Always remember that if you have come this far, you have the potential to achieve great things. 

                    10) Do you have a favourite visual art/​communication work you are most proud of?

                      No favourites but I like a few for their conceptualisation. Litchi disaster, Diaries of digital childhood, Scientist’s stamps, Mutation typography, and Mitochondria in Van Gogh.