Seven early-career scientists awarded the IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant

Navodita Jain

Seven teams of scientists will take science outside labs to students with the goal of facilitating scientific temper and curiosity. With funding support and mentoring by the third IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant, these initiatives are poised to create engaging scientific content — comics, videos, virtual labs, and much more.

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The global impact of science awareness has shown that active collaboration between science professionals, students, and the general population is key to sustaining scientific temper. This is the reason that IndiaBioscience Outreach Grant (IOG) found overwhelming support in its third edition. 

The 3rd IOG, partially supported by TNQ Technologies and the Department of Biotechnology, tapped into this collaborative potential to award initiatives that promote scientific aptitude and informed decision-making in the community. The grant this year rewarded initiatives that blended the skill of communicators and the expertise of practicing researchers to reach a young audience within the country’s pockets. The researcher applicants were encouraged to team up with one (or more) professional science communicators to enable an environment of mutual learning and create an impactful and sustainable project.

Grants like IOG are both a monetary push and an encouraging nod to bootstrap science communication efforts. The IOG offers a monetary reward of 1 lakh to the grantees and guides them in the development of the initiative. IndiaBioscience and its community of students, faculty, scientists, communicators, funders, and institutes have provided much-needed visibility to these efforts. Shantala Hari Dass, Executive Director, IndiaBioscience and part of the screening committee says, IOG activities and materials are shared on the IndiaBioscience website/​grantees network and through traditional media sources such as newspapers, adding to the popularity and reach of IOG.” 

The popularity could be the reason why with each annual edition of the grant, there is an exponential rise in the number of applicants. The committee screened 98 applications this year. Shanti Kalipatnapu, Principal Technical Officer — Research Communication, IISER Pune, screening committee member says, We assessed proposals based on their goals and feasibility within the promised time and funding.” 

IndiaBioscience team considers this large number of applications a success not only for the program but also an impact of the work of the previous grantees. The work from previous grants has been a source of inspiration for the applicants. Manjula Harikrishna, Project Coordinator (Community Building), IndiaBioscience, screening committee member says, It is wonderful to see many enthusiastic life scientists taking deliberate measures to communicate science to the society at large.”

To ensure parity in accessibility, the evaluation committee ensured the work of winners spanned geographical and linguistic boundaries. The dissemination material would be produced in English, Marathi, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu among other regional languages. 

The winners include five First-time and two Extension grants (details below).

The First-time Grant Winners

Bittu K Rajaraman (top), Hansika Chhabra (middle), and Manisha Sinha

Bittu K Rajaraman (Ashoka University)

Collaborator(s)/ Co-applicant: Hansika Chhabra (Ashoka University), and Manisha Sinha (Neuromatch Academy)

Project: Discover Learning — scientific ways of learning and critical thinking

This platform will explain how the brain shapes who we are and how we think and feel. The initiative originated from an onboard discussion that Hansika and Bittu had on a flight to Delhi; Bittu’s expertise and online classes in psychology inspired Manisha to commit just over a phone call!

Their online workshops will host videos and activities to convey how the neural system influences learning, memory, and behavior. They hope to spark scientific inquiry by introducing the basics of decision-making. The objectives include training participants to ask questions, think critically, and discern facts from misinformation; much like the scientific method.

Rajaraman says, Through this effort, we will focus on neuroscience-backed interventions for critical thinking. This can empower students to engage meaningfully in any discourse — even beyond the sciences — as students and citizens.”

Chandana Basu (Centre for Genetic Disorders, Banaras Hindu University)

Collaborator(s)/ Co-applicant: Garima Jain (Centre for Genetic Disorders, Banaras Hindu University), and Nandini Chilkam (Learn with Comics)

Project: Genetiks4U

    Chandana Basu, (top) Garima Jain (middle), and Nandini Chilkam 

    The team plans to create awareness about genetic testing through comics, illustrations, animation, and storytelling. Students enrolled in grade 9 and above will experience the concepts of genetics and the science of biological inheritance. 

    Basu and Jain, both trained scientists in the field of genetics, teamed up with Nandini Chilkam (co-founder of Learn with Comics) to present fun reading materials. They have chosen government schools in urban and rural Varanasi to organize events. This will help them reach about 1500 school students in the first leg of their initiative. 

    Dissemination will also include the release of comic books in English, Hindi, Tamil, and Telugu. Although the idea was simmering, Basu, the lead applicant, felt challenged by the illustrator’s fee. The Learn with Comics team offered relief, She (Nandini) was inspired only to make learning fun and engaging, she took our fee worries away and bingo we teamed up!” says Basu. 

    Our resource material will be freely available on the website so that more students can be benefitted,” adds Jain.

    Ishwariya Venkatesh (CSIR – Centre For Cellular And Molecular Biology)

    Ishwariya Venkatesh (top), Sriram Varahan (middle), and Vatsal Mehra 

    Collaborator(s)/ Co-applicant:Sriram Varahan (CSIR – Centre For Cellular And Molecular Biology), and Vatsal Mehra (indx​.ai)

    Project: Let’s Talk Life — An integrated online platform to drive up student engagement in Life Sciences in India

    We were at the Open day at CCMB where we interacted with a stream of curious, interested students wanting to learn about our research,” says Venkatesh. This inspired her and Varahan to create multilingual content of 10 videos focused on the biological mechanism(s) common to all life forms. 

    She hopes the video series will catalyze an online community of graduate students and young school children sharing an interest in biology. Their platform also offers a chance for students to meet CCMB scientists and see biological research in action. 

    Additionally, they hope to see active participation in science writing exercises. We expect to steer school children at an impressionable age towards sustained interest in life sciences,” says Varahan. 

    Mayuri Rege (top), Mugdha Belwalkar (middle), and Sachin Rajagopalan

      Mayuri Rege (Ramnarain Ruia Autonomous College)

      Collaborator(s)/ Co-applicant: Sachin Rajagopalan, and Mugdha Belwalkar (all from Ramnarain Ruia Autonomous College)

      Project: Aamchi Prayogshaala

      Aamchi Prayogshaala will bring students into the laboratories of the Ramanarain Ruia college for interactions with scientists and a tangible experience of a science laboratory. They hope to fill the gap in accessibility and deal with language barriers. This would ensure early exposure to careers in science and teaching. 

      Rege says, Aamchi Prayogshaala is excited to embody the Sanskrit proverb स्वस्मै स्वल्पं समाजाय सर्वस्वं। (A morsel for me; a feast for society) and do our bit towards eradicating scientific illiteracy in India.” 

      Tuli Dey (Savitribai Phule Pune University)

      Tuli Dey (top) and Surat Parvatam

      Collaborator(s)/ Co-applicant: Surat Parvatam, Anushka Banerjee, Kadambari Patil, and Kasturi Mahadik (All from Centre for Predictive Human Model Systems, Atal Incubation Centre-CCMB)

      Project: Back to the Future! — A glimpse into emerging technologies in biological research

        Tuli Dey and the team will take young scientists for a day in a virtual lab. The team will deliver the excitement of cutting-edge research to school and college students. They will tour the tools that scientists use to answer advanced questions in biology. Dey opines, Nobody who looks at a live movie of a developing embryo can not be fascinated by biology. Lack of lab facilities and the pandemic has affected the enthusiasm of students, we aim to make the beauty of new technologies accessible to them.”

        The tour will take the audience through organs growing on a chip and functioning organs in three dimensions. The lab session is replete with interactive quizzes and an incentive for a one-day visit to a close-by lab.

        Parvatam’s previous collaboration with Dey on the Centre for Predictive Human Model Systems’ outreach activities molded her to channel students’ enthusiasm into a concerted initiative. She adds, For our target audience, we are planning an interactive multi-pronged approach which includes interesting videos, open discussion platforms, quizzes, and in-person visits to labs.”

        Extension Grants

        Last year IndiaBioscience introduced the Extension grants as the second round of funding of INR 1.5 L to excellent IOG projects that have already received the First- time grants. The First-time grant is a time for scientists to pilot their outreach project and the Extension grant is a chance for excellent IOG projects to become sustainable. We didn’t want good projects to fizzle out after one year of funding” Hari Dass explains. Every year up to 2 Extension grants are awarded.

        Neha Jain (top), Harshita Agarwal (middle), and Shaheen Hasan (I love Jaisalmer)

        Neha Jain (Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur)

        Collaborator(s)/ Co-applicant: Harshita Agarwal (Indian Institute of Technology Jodhpur), and Shaheen Hasan (I love Jaisalmer)

        Project: Engaging Youth to Fight Against Antimicrobial Resistance

        Jain’s efforts from last year’s Seeing the Unseen award go the next step to sensitize youth towards understanding the concept of antimicrobials, their judicious use, and factors that lead to antimicrobial resistance among the rural population of Rajasthan.

        Jain says, Rajasthan has a low literacy rate with many issues that need attention. We will generate awareness about the proper use of antibiotics and the deleterious effects of misuse of antimicrobials.” She and her team found their reward in the amazement on the student’s faces when they saw microorganisms through Foldscope (portable microscope).

        Jain says about her experience of working with Shaheen, Through her, we could reach remote areas of Rajasthan and inspire young kids.” 

          Megha Kumar (​CSIR – Centre For Cellular And Molecular Biology)

          Megha Kumar (top), Ruchi Malgunia (middle) and Shweata N. Hegde

          Collaborator(s)/ Co-applicant:Shweata N. Hegde (Regional Institute of Education), and Ruchi Malgunia (University of Zurich, Switzerland)

          Project: IndiaAsksWhy: A Science Podcast

          The team was successful in generating buzz about their curiosity-based podcast in their first season. The podcast features two fictional characters taking the audience on a journey and asking questions about the world. The team’s plan this year is to produce more seasons and translate the existing one into regional languages. 

          Along with the podcast, a close engagement with high school students and teachers is on the cards. Kumar says, Students ask curious questions, but they go unanswered. That’s why we want to have a dialogue with students and teachers in-person and work together to improve the scientific temperament in youth.”

          The team is passionate about science and collaborates well despite having never met in person! They view science as a dynamic entity outside textbooks, continuously evolving. Thus, they want to encourage the audience to ask questions about the life and environment around us. 

          Honorable mentions

          Hari Dass says. Every year we receive many excellent applications- more than we can fund. With increasing applications- it gets harder to narrow down to the top 5.” Here are some excellent applications that were given a shoutout: 

          1. CROSSTALK: A Conversation on Collaborations by Mohit Kumar Jolly (Indian Institute of Science) and Sounak Sahu (National Cancer Institute)

          2. A Burst of Science: a mini-podcast series in Hindi and Kannada by Shweta Ramdas and Divya Uma (Azim Premji University)

          3. An informal, safe and supportive outreach approach to bridge the Mental Health Gap in India by Reeteka Sud (Nimhans), Anant Bhan (Sangath Bhopal), Ankush Chakraborty (Project Encephalon), Vijay Nallawala (Bipolar India)

          4. VIKAS (Visual Infographics, Knowledge, Awareness and workSheets) Project for Understanding Dementia by Thomas Gregor Issac, Abhishek Mensegere, Rajitha Narayanasamy, Meghana R, Meenakshi Menon (Centre for Brain Research, Indian Institute of Science)

          Wrapping up the call for IOG 3

          On the winners this year, Ratneshwar Thakur, Technical Officer (Science Communications), NIPGR, screening committee member says, Majority of the outreach proposals are student-oriented. I believe this would encourage the students to consider pursuing a career in STEM, especially in the biological sciences.”

          Hari Dass envisions, IOG was launched as we felt a dearth of schemes that facilitate researchers to take science out of the lab. In the future, we hope that bigger agencies/​private sector will see this avenue as a meaningful way of engaging with the research community in India.

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