Crafting Your Career (CYC) | 07 Informational Interview with Sarah Iqbal — Sci Comm and Outreach

Crafting your Career Episode 7

This is the third episode of the series on informational interviews”. Here IndiaBioscience chats with Sarah Iqbal, on her adventurous journey from that of being a scientist at the bench to enabling public engagement with science in India.

Transcript with Timestamp

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:01
You’re listening to IndiaBiospeaks, your one stop resource for science news and careers.

Hello and welcome everyone to our next episode on crafting your career in science. As a part of the informational interview series, I am happy to have with me here, a very interesting, multitalented and a super-fun friend Sarah Iqbal. Sarah is currently the lead for Communications and Public Engagement at the Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance. Interestingly, Sarah did her PhD from the University of Oxford and her postdoc at Scripps, Florida. She then transition to a career in science communication, outreach and public engagement with the India Alliance. Today, we will together explore her unique career story. Welcome to our show, Sarah.

Sarah Iqbal 0:48
Thank you for inviting me Lakshmi.

Lakshmi Ganesan 0:50
Sarah, so tell us when and how did you decide to switch from a science career at the bench to one that takes it beyond the bench?

Sarah Iqbal 0:59

I didn’t really have a light bulb moment Lakshmi. However, I was very clear from early on that the skills that I will gain during PhD, postdoc can very well be applied outside academic research and in other careers in science.

I didn’t really have a light bulb moment Lakshmi. However, I was very clear from early on that the skills that I will gain during PhD, postdoc can very well be applied outside academic research and in other careers in science. I actually really enjoyed my time at the bench and learned a lot of transferable skills as a researcher. Even while I was a researcher, I was passionate about making science accessible, and communicating to a large set of people. As scientists, I often felt that we were not doing this enough and who better than scientists themselves to share authentic information in a language that is accessible? So I did a lot of science outreach while in the UK and the US where I trained. Even in these countries outreach was happening to a lesser extent than one would have hoped for, and they were happening even lesser in India then. So I saw that as a necessity and an opportunity to contribute.

Lakshmi Ganesan 1:51
That sounds great, Sarah, how did you get your current position at the India Alliance?

Sarah Iqbal 1:56
So Lakshmi, while I was completing my postdoc, I looked for organizations to work for back home in India in the space of science communication and outreach. And to begin with, I did not really know if such roles even existed or what they would be titled. So I began by looking for organizations that could potentially have these roles. And it was during this process that I found the Wellcome Trust/​DBT India Alliance and identified with the work culture and values of this organization. And then on I kept watching this space for open positions. Luckily, for me, the position of a public engagement officer was advertised and I applied for it and I was fortunate to have been offered and was the first person that would take on this kind of role. I had to start from scratch as there were no precedents, which was exciting, and I saw here the opportunity to responsibly innovate and enable scientists to talk about their science, and help their research reach a very heterogeneous and diverse population as it is in our country.

Lakshmi Ganesan 2:58
Sarah I’m curious to know, in the India Alliance, as its lead for Communication and Public Engagement, what are your main roles and responsibilities?

Sarah Iqbal 3:08
My role at India Alliance goes beyond making science accessible now. My current role at India Alliance spans across communicating cutting edge science, science, policy, strategy, operations and implementation and of course, people and resource management.

Let me elaborate this a bit. I oversee external communication and public engagement strategy. And this includes our external communication with stakeholders, science outreach, science communication, facilitating training workshops etc. And based on the insights from my communication and public engagement work, I also assist the leadership in drawing organizational policies and strategy. In addition to this, I also assist the organization in developing national and international partnerships, which we hope would help strengthen the Indian biomedical research ecosystem. This includes the leadership training workshops that we organize, and the various funding models that we use to support networking, collaboration, and various other interventions. So it’s an interesting mix of a lot of thinking and doing and being out in the field and spending a good amount of time on the desk as well.

Lakshmi Ganesan 4:16
Sarah, with the wide spectrum of activities that you shoulder, I really wonder what a typical work day looks like for you?

Sarah Iqbal 4:25
Lakshmi, there’s really no typical work day, it’s an incredibly dynamic lifestyle that involves a lot of travel, meetings with a whole range of people, from scientists, artists, communicators, representatives from the government, other funding organizations. It could be a school or college principal, teachers or young children. I encounter a whole range of interactions at work. So it’s hard to envision a typical day or week at work. I could be in the field, in a college or a school or engaging with the public, or I could be at my desk communicating via emails, or typing away reports, or in a meeting with some of these stakeholders that I mentioned to you.

Lakshmi Ganesan 5:06
Sarah, I know you’re someone that’s very passionate and enthusiastic about your work and extremely driven and dynamic. Surely, from what I’ve seen of you, you’re entirely in it. So can you then tell us what is it that you like most about what you do?

Sarah Iqbal 5:21

What really keeps me going Lakshmi is the unpredictability and the dynamic nature of this work, the constant learning every single day keeps my neurons fired.

What really keeps me going Lakshmi is the unpredictability and the dynamic nature of this work, the constant learning every single day keeps my neurons fired.

There isn’t a dull moment or a boring day, I suppose the day that I do not learn something new, would be a really boring day for me. I like that I can also dip my fingers into many things, keep learning and constantly challenge myself.

Lakshmi Ganesan 5:44
Alright. Now, on the flip side, is there something that you do not like or which could be better in this space?

Sarah Iqbal 5:49
Well, I could say because of the unpredictable nature of this job at times, I wish that things weren’t as chaotic or were more systematic. I wish I had more team members. And when I have many ideas, I sometimes need to resist the temptation to do them all.

Lakshmi Ganesan 6:09
Sarah, being well-rooted in the ecosystem by now, can you throw some light on what opportunities exist for graduates that might be interested in exploring this space.

Sarah Iqbal 6:21
Times are constantly changing and the ecosystem has changed quite a bit from when I started and is now more and more favourable to transitions to careers beyond the bench. While India is not at par with countries like the UK and the US with respect to the non-academic trajectories, we certainly are moving in the right direction and will eventually get there. I’ve seen a surge in the number of PhD students, for example, who want to explore other career options, and not finding them can be frustrating. So it is our responsibility to constantly advocate for these jobs. Because there are funds, resources, and there are talented people that can implement innovative ideas and innovate by themselves. I think we need to advocate for these careers in India and who better than us that have found our niche, along with our allies, the scientists to advocate for these jobs in research management, communication, policy and various other associated paths.

Lakshmi Ganesan 7:16
I couldn’t agree more Sarah. So then what skills need one acquire for science outreach?

Sarah Iqbal 7:22
I did not consciously train, some traits are just inherent, and it is good to identify these from very early on. You don’t necessarily have to develop them, but make good use of them in any professional career that you choose. During the course of my PhD, I identified these skills and interests and saw what roles matched. So I did that analysis, not perhaps very consciously then. But when I began looking for jobs, I would do a quick introspection to see if I’m interested in the job first. I would ask myself, do I have the skills and even if I do not have all those skills, am I open to new learning? Really, nobody will have all the skills for a specific job, especially in this space which is quite new and upcoming. In addition to this, entering a new career, one needs to be open to a lot of new learning on the job. When we are trained as scientists and we move into non-research fields, we tend to carry a lot of that baggage with us. And it’s better not to carry that baggage when you enter a new field. You may have to do as much unlearning as you will have to learn anew, so be willing to unload some of that baggage as you begin to acquire new skills on the job.

Public Engagement and science communication are really broad fields in themselves. So a lot can be done depending on where your interest lies even within this field. For engaging with the public, you will really need to have people skills to begin with, you need to be empathetic, you need to be open to ideas and feedback from the public. And as for science communication, one would have to be a good communicator to begin with and a good writer, an orator, could be someone with good multimedia skills. So identifying your skills, interests and values and matching them is very important. It’s also good to stay current with the times, staying updated and constantly learning. 

Some skills from my training in the sciences like project management and record keeping, critical thinking and keeping alive a spirit of inquiry and a scientific approach to solving any problems of course, all came very handy in this role.

Some skills from my training in the sciences like project management and record keeping, critical thinking and keeping alive a spirit of inquiry and a scientific approach to solving any problems of course, all came very handy in this role.

Lakshmi Ganesan 9:23
This is great, Sarah. Can you share any instance from your job experience, where you, as you said, had to unlearn what you had learned previously, or learn something new?

Sarah Iqbal 9:35
Yeah, there has been a lot of unlearning and learning.

As a scientist, we tend to get stuck with gathering evidence as hard numbers and data, we tend to quantify the results. But I learned during public engagement that quantitative data is perhaps as important if not more, depending on the context as qualitative data and that the stories are important when we’re trying to build a case for something or drive across a point. In basic sciences, we hope to achieve results or see change right away, but in public engagement, where we aim to change behavior, attitude, you know, shift and knowledge, this takes time. And finally, what public engagement also taught me is that more than relaying information to the public, it is important to seek feedback, their participation and be in dialogue with them rather than talk down to them.

And what did I learn? At India Alliance, as you know, we work with many scientists and in helping them communicate their science better to the public. A lot of times, while communicating science to the public, we tend to struggle with understanding who is the target audience? And who am I pitching my science to? Is it a 10 year old? Is it a 60 year old? Is it someone in a city or a village. I was reading an article that came out recently in nature, that many researchers in India communicating in native and regional languages, which is great, but even there, we need to identify who we are writing for. I think in India, we’ve not really determined that. The Guardian in the UK, for example, targets any science story for 13 year old and above. But having said that, it’s also worth noting here that there isn’t as much a diversity there as there is in a country such as ours.

Communicating science to the audience in India is a herculean task, as the Indian audience is hugely diverse.

Communicating science to the audience in India is a herculean task, as the Indian audience is hugely diverse. In public engagement, while you’re in the field, you know, your target audience, you are with them, so you know how to communicate with them. But when you’re writing articles or producing multimedia, if we do explore this question of who we are communicating to, and gain a better understanding and pitch accordingly, then we can use a plethora of these available tools to help Indian science really find its own unique voice and also broaden its voice.

Lakshmi Ganesan 11:56
Sarah, that’s very well put and it’s very inspiring to see the challenges that you take on and the wonderful work that India Alliance does, in pushing the boundaries of Indian science and transforming the bio science landscape. Along these lines, are there any words of career wisdom that you would want to leave our listeners with today?

Sarah Iqbal 12:14
I’m just going to speak from experience, I think it’s important that one gets comfortable as early as possible with the idea that with a science degree, you can explore various careers and find one that truly interests you. Also, if you’re sure about pursuing a non-academic career, then start preparing for your career early on. Don’t wait until you submit your thesis and then start looking for something. That is what most grads do, and I really can’t blame them. As most of the times academics really seems like the default option for a science graduate.

Lakshmi Ganesan 12:50
Thank you, Sarah. All that you shared about your journey and the ecosystem was both interesting and very relevant too. I’m sure this knowledge will be useful for many as they navigate and craft their own career. As before, do look for links in the description section of this podcast on some of the public engagement work that India Alliance does. I’m sure you’ll find it inspiring. So do keep enjoying your science and constantly learning. See you next time with another interesting career story only on crafting your career in science.

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