With the 2nd IndiaBioscience Outreach Grants, select scientists step out of their labs to connect with communities beyond academia. In this piece, Hansika looks at the initiatives being funded by IndiaBioscience in the current edition.
The extended lockdown of 2020 saw a surge in the Indian scientific community dipping their toes in science communication. Given the surge of misinformation and lack of resources in regional languages, some scientists took to social media, creating videos of themselves describing the biology of the coronavirus, the rationale behind precautions and advocating for science as much as possible.
The same year, the 1st IndiaBioscience Outreach Grants (IOG) were announced to add momentum to the wave of scientists taking up outreach. “From our interactions with the scientific community, we found that many were keen to take up outreach but were lacking the final nudge — either in terms of monetary support or a framework. At the same time we were very cognizant of the absolutely talented and growing community of science communicators, illustrators, artists and journalists who have been striving to make science more accessible”, shares Shantala Hari Dass, Associate Director, IndiaBioscience.
The winning projects of 1st IOG inspired collaborations to create curiosity and glee in their audiences. “With the projects funded under the 1st IOG, we saw that the outreach activities helped inculcate belief, awareness, excitement and hope in science in the broader society as we as individuals and a country grappled through the second wave of COVID-19”, opines Zill-e-Anam, Program Coordinator, Outreach at IndiaBioscience. Following the success of the first edition, IndiaBioscience launched a call for the 2nd IndiaBioscience Outreach Grants (2nd IOG) in September 2021. The grant invited applications from young scientists in India for science outreach, in collaboration with students, science communicators, educators and independent organizations. This time, the call was open under two categories — First-time grants and extension grants (to previous IOG awardees) to young investigators across India, for 1 lakh and 1.5 lakh respectively to support outreach initiatives for over a year. We take a look at the awardees for 2nd IOG here.
Talk to A Scientist (TTAS)
TTAS is a second time winner of the IOG. Karishma Kaushik (Assistant Professor, Savitribai Phule Pune University) and Snehal Kadam, (PhD student, Hull York Medical School, UK) started the project in March, 2020, soon after the first lockdown was announced. They organized webinars for students aged 6 ‑16 about a range of topics. Since then, 90 sessions have been conducted with scientists and communicators as hosts.
With the 2nd IOG extension grant of 1.5 lakhs, the team hopes to create a repository of their content and increase it’s reach. “We look forward to leveraging this opportunity for the scale up and sustainability of TTAS. For this, we will be hiring new team members and expanding the scope and reach of the program through archived video content”, they describe. With the 2nd IOG, the team also plans to focus on reaching new audiences with limited internet access and connectivity. For this, collaborations with schools for in-person sessions and archived content will be key steps.
The other five winning proposals were the first time-winners of IOG. They were selected among 62 applications- a doubling in number of applications received last year. Choosing five projects was a tough call. The applications were scrutinized for uniqueness, clarity and rigor of approach, nature of the audience and interaction, awareness about similar pre-existing ventures and the applicants’ experience in science outreach. “We had so many outstanding candidates that we ended up debating about 30% of the applications for many hours”, shares Rashna Bhandari (Lead scientist, Centre for DNA Fingerprinting and Diagnostics, board member of IndiaBisocience and review committee member of 2nd IOG). “Projects reflecting the passion & enthusiasm of the group tended to be harder to dismiss”, Chitra Ravi (Faculty at Azim Premji University and a review committee member of 2nd IOG) said.
“A majority of the outreach caters to 8th standard and above students. It takes a lot more effort to work with younger kids or older citizens”, continued Bhandari. “We looked for diversity and inclusion in approach and target audiences. Audiences outside of urban students with internet access who are already engaging in online learning and have access to informal learning”, she adds.
Project RAKSHA (Reach and Advocacy for Autistic Kids’ Sexual Health & Safety Attitudes)
Project RAKSHA hopes to address an important gap in outreach on reproductive and sexual health. The highlight of this project is the inclusivity in approach and audience. Dr Reuben Varghese, scientist and Pradyuma Murali, speech pathologist at All India Institute of Speech and Hearing (AIISH), Mysuru will lead the creation of a resource booklet that guides parents and caregivers in communicating about reproductive and sexual health and safety to children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).
The team has Pradyumna Murali and Mansi Karnad, who are speech pathologists at AIISH, Ridha Farmeen and Hema Nair, budding speech-pathologists, responsible for storytelling and digital design, and Manali Naik, an illustrator. Naik has experience illustrating therapy resources for children with developmental disabilities, making her a good fit for the project.
The team took note of the need to make a resource booklet engaging for children. “Most autistic individuals are reported to be visual learners. Illustrations allow us to present the information in a form most suited to the needs of individuals with ASD. Additionally, children perusing illustrations can be a shared experience (with an adult), normalising having a conversation about sexual health and safety. Illustrations can guide an adult on how to put forth information in an effective manner, while allowing space for customization according to social rules and maintaining interaction throughout the activity”, Varghese explains.
The review committee also looked closely at collaborating partners and similarity of pre-existing initiatives. “Sustainability of the project was one of the key metrics for evaluation. I was also looking for their openness and willingness to connect with similar groups as they should mutually supplement and complement each other in the long run”, Shanthi Krishnamoorthy (CDO, TNQ Technologies and a review committee member of 2nd IOG), reflected.
Seeing the Unseen
Seeing the Unseen takes a grassroots-level approach. Neha Jain (Assistant professor, IIT Jodhpur) and co-applicant Shaheen Hasan (Project Manager at ‘I Love Jaisalmer’) will introduce 6th — 10th grade students to microbial diversity. “Through our workshops we plan to address various issues related to health and hygiene. We want to show that most microbes are beneficial in general, but some may cause infections. Cholera, malaria and dengue will be discussed because of the lack of clean drinking water in some of these regions”, Jain describes.
The team will be visiting schools in rural Jaipur, Jodhpur, Bikaner, Nagaur and Jaisalmer. Hasan’s work at I Love Jaisalmer, a community-centric organization with education, entrepreneurship, conservation as its focus areas, would be instrumental in making a connection with the local schools and students.
The Science Stage
Formulated by a team of theater enthusiasts and performers, The Science Stage will write and perform stage plays and street plays on themes like misinformation, vaccine hesitancy and journey of a scientist. Sonia Sen (Senior Scientist, Tata Institute for Genetics and Society (TIGS) and Aditya Vijaykumar (PhD student, International Centre for Theoretical Sciences (ICTS) — TIFR) co-applied for the 2nd IOG.
“I’m a fan of theater and using it because it can be class and language agnostic. Currently, the most common form of science communication is written, which has limited accessibility. Theater at its core is about entertainment value! It can be a wonderful solution to communicate science, due to its core appeal”, Sen shares.
The team also includes Manal Shakeel and Rohit Dey (PhD students at National Centre for Biological Sciences — TIFR), Chandrakant Redican (Project Manager at Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms) and a science communicator) and Ann Vinod (Communications Coordinator at TIGS).
The team is excited to practice science communication and outreach at this scale. “We’ve certainly wanted to do scicomm, some of us have in the past, but we’ve never got paid to do it. With the support of this grant, we can take the production outside of our host institutes”, shares Vijaykumar, co-grantee.
Zill-e-Anam emphasized the importance of experience, “if an applicant shows within their application that they have performed a pilot project or a sample of the activities they wish to carry out if awarded, it makes the application stronger.”
The other parameters for selection included novelty and market-needs, a measure of relevance to a particular audience segment. The following two teams impressed the review committee with their selection of topic and approach.
Mind Gala is a collaboration between a young student-led initiative, Project Encephalon, and Poonam Thakur (Assistant Professor, IISER-Thiruvananthapuram), that will be communicating neuroscience.
The Mind Gala team has planned on having a variety of activities — webinar series, a science communication workshop, virtual lab tours and a resource booklet for beginners. The webinar talks will be by science communicators and neuroscientists in a jargon free manner. “Most of the scientific resources for Neuroscience are full of technical jargon and are difficult for beginners. We intend to make it completely beginner friendly. For this, we will discuss neuroscience topics relevant in our daily lives such as vision, dreams, emotions, etc”, explains Thakur.
They also plan on having a science writing workshop for undergraduate and postgraduate science students. The audience for each of these formats – the webinars, the workshop and the booklet will be distinct. “The webinars are designed to bring out the enticing aspects of neuroscience hidden in plain sight. The workshop, on the other hand, will explore and nurture the research skills of the participants with some scientific background. The outcomes of the entire initiative will be collated in the booklet wherein the neuroscience snippets written by the workshop participants, along with the take-home points of the webinars will be published”, Thakur explains.
IndiaAsksWhy: A science podcast
IndiaAsksWhy podcast hopes to connect with teenagers 12 – 17 years old. The project is a brainchild of Shweata N Hegde (student, Regional Institute of Education, Mysuru) and Ruchi Malgunia (Doctoral researcher, University of Zurich), under the mentorship of Megha Kumar (DST-INSPIRE scientist (CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology) and IndiaBioscience.
The team is collaborating with different scientists who are keen on science communication and outreach. In the season trailer, Utsuka and Jigyaasa, two fictional characters, ask interesting questions that are answered by various scientists. “We ask scientific questions, out of the regular science textbooks, often about the environment, surroundings and everyday life. The podcast is meant to encourage students to ask questions, be curious and seek answers. The hope is to not limit education and science to textbooks and exams”, shares Kumar. The first two episodes are out!
The review committee also had some special mentions for the applications that came very close to winning.
Nobody Thought — A neuroscience learning venture by Mallika Chatterjee and Rachna Mehta, (Assistant Professors, Amity University, Noida)
Tales of co-existence: Motivations for conserving urban biodiversity by Bishwarup Paul (Research Associate, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata) and Kushankur Bhattacharyya (PhD student, IISER Kolkata)
The Urban Naturalist Project: Reconnecting with the Naturalist inside Citizens, through Participatory Storytelling by Pankaj Koparde (Assistant Professor, MIT World Peace University, Pune) and Debangini Roy (False Trail, Guwahati)
Joining hands to Inspire: Taking Scientists from Lab to Schools by Rajalakshmi Srinivasan (DST-INSPIRE Faculty Scientist, Institute of Bioinformatics and Applied Biotechnology) and Brawin Kumar (N‑PDF Fellow at IISER, Tirupati)
Closing up the 2nd IOG call
What’s next for the India Outreach Grants? The IOG team hopes to announce the call for 3rd IOG awards in September 2022. On being asked if subsequent calls will have a theme, Hari Dass, said, “One of the aspects of IOG that we hold close to our hearts is that it has a ‘non ring fenced’/ restrictive approach wherein we don’t specify themes or types of outreach to be done. The sky’s the limit!” In the past two editions, IOG awards have supported projects across mediums and concepts.
Since its conceptual inception in 2020, IOG has witnessed increasing enthusiasm and interest in the community for these grants. The motivation for these grants is to encourage more researchers to take up outreach and catalyze collaborations between science communication practitioners and scientists. A possible long term impact is also to inspire more science outreach grants.
This push for outreach reflects the essence of scientific social responsibility. There is a wave of community-wide awakening about the need for science communication. The IOG is proof that the community is eager to collaborate and share subject knowledge and research findings in their fields, in accessible and creative ways- graphical abstracts, Twitter threads, short videos and even comix!
IndiaBioscience is an active platform for the life science community for researchers, communicators, artists, educators and other professionals. Binding them is the newfound responsibility of breaking out of institutional silos. With the IOG awards’ push towards science communication and public engagement, this responsibility can be addressed by a few researchers and relished by hopefully many participants across initiatives.