Reflections from the forge: Nurturing passion and craft in science journalism

Mahima Samraik

The 11th Annual Science Journalism Workshop (2024), led by Anil Ananthaswamy, at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), was held from 19 to 30 March 2024. Mahima Samraik, a science communicator and a podcast host, and one of the participants, attests profoundly to how this workshop fostered collaboration, significantly enhancing the science writing skills of the 2024 workshop cohort.

Mahima title image
Cohort 2024- The Jeewanus: Sitting (L to R from bottom) - Mahima Samraik, Hardi Talwani, Prarabdh Shivhare, Malavika Krishnakumar,Rithika Frenandes, Anil Ananthaswamy, Shubhashree Desikan, Nishant Singh, Charudutta Navare, Karthik Vinod and Debdutta Paul. Photo credit: Hardi Talwani

It had been two weeks since I eagerly awaited the results of my application for the 11th Annual Science Journalism Workshop of 2024. As someone deeply passionate about science communication, I understood the transformative potential this workshop held for aspiring science writers in India. Previous cohorts spoke in awe of Anil Ananthaswamy, the renowned science writer who has ignited a passion for science journalism across the country. 

Glancing at the workshop flyer jogged my memory of stumbling upon his TED talk — What it takes to do extreme astrophysics’ — during my high school years. In that moment, watching an Indian with an incomparable passion for science left a lasting mark on me. Little did I anticipate that eight years later, I would be granted the extraordinary opportunity to write alongside him! So, when my inbox chimed with an acceptance into the 2024 cohort, alongside nine other remarkable science communicators, it felt like a dream come true. It was a nostalgic nod to the high school student within me, the one who aspired to tread this path.

Crafting the perfect start: Lede writing in science narratives

After savouring a delicious dinner and engaging in delightful conversations with my fellow cohort members, I found myself immersed in an atmosphere where passion for science permeated every discussion. For this introduction dinner alongside Ananthaswamy, we were joined by Uma Ramakrishnan, scientist at NCBS, whose groundbreaking work has been a source of inspiration for countless ecologists, including many of my friends and predecessors from various research colleges across the world! Anticipation surged as we were briefed on the rigorous yet fulfilling two-week schedule that lay ahead. Surrounded by such talented and humble individuals, I couldn’t help but anticipate that the next two weeks would be a profound journey of personal and professional growth. And indeed, it proved to be just that.

Each morning, strolling through the NCBS campus felt like a serene communion with nature. The daily journey to our workshop hub along these picturesque roads was a highlight of our day! Photo credit: Mahima Samraik Each morning, strolling through the NCBS campus felt like a serene communion with nature. The daily journey to our workshop hub along these picturesque roads was a highlight of our day! Photo credit: Mahima Samraik
Each morning, strolling through the NCBS campus felt like serene communion with nature. The daily journey to our workshop hub, along these picturesque roads, was a highlight of our day! Photo credit: Mahima Samraik 

Parijata, our cozy retreat, was a haven for rest. Each morning, we’d wake up to a scrumptious breakfast — courtesy of NCBS — before embarking on a nature walk to Raspuri - our workshop hub. These two weeks were a journey of development and improvement in my skills and abilities as a writer. Our first challenge? To write a lede! A lede is the opening sentence or paragraph of an article designed to grab the reader’s attention and provide the most important information. 

Crafting ledes from research papers, a task that initially stumped us all despite Ananthaswamy’s insightful presentation. But with time, we all found our stride and wrote ledes we were proud of. The live editing sessions were invaluable, offering both constructive criticism and unexpected praise. Ananthaswamy’s enthusiasm for science writing was infectious, fuelling our passion even more. We learned about the do’s and don’ts of science journalism, grappling with the temptation to overstate or understate research findings. Later, a visit to the NCBS archives with Venkat Srinivasan opened our eyes to the beauty behind science archives, emphasising their importance of storytelling in our work.

Attending Ramakrishnans mock conference during the latter part of the week, was like diving into a whirlpool of scientific discourse. Amidst the sea of ideas, I found myself interviewing speakers and diving deep into the perspectives of fellow scientists. Initially daunting, I found that starting with the lede made the task much more manageable. As Ananthaswamy wisely pointed out, 

For science news stories, the what’ and the why’ are particularly important.

Indeed, understanding the essence of a story and its significance is the key. Reflecting on the first week’s efforts, the cohort managed to produce 11 stories, supported by real-time editing sessions. This entire daunting yet fruitful process helped me identify my strengths and weaknesses as a science writer. 

Understanding the art and craft of science narratives 

The second week rushed by, yet it proved to be the most enlightening phase for my professional development. While the first week laid the foundation for understanding how to craft science narratives, it was during this week that we immersed ourselves in the versatility of writing features. We dissected the structure of features, grasped their core elements, and mastered the art of composing engaging introductions, bodies, and conclusions.

Features granted us the freedom to entice readers with vivid descriptions, thought-provoking queries, and captivating anecdotes. We realised that weaving these elements into cohesive narratives demanded both creativity and careful planning. Writing a 1500-word feature seemed like a daunting challenge, but as we delved deep into the story of Jeewanu – the works of Thutupalli and his PhD student Nayan Chakraborty – I couldn’t help but marvel at the possibilities science offers when we don’t lose hope.

As we embarked on penning features inspired by the tale of Jeewanu” – our cohort’s cherished namesake – explored by researchers Thutupalli and Mukund Thattai, we started on our individual paths to structure the features. We focused on linking paragraphs with smooth transitions and crafting endings that left a lasting impact.

Our discussions on writing and evaluating the features spanned three days, providing ample time for us to understand each other’s writing styles. It was fascinating to observe how every writer, despite working with the same material, infused their own unique flair into their narratives. This diversity of styles among my cohort members served as a constant beacon of inspiration, driving me to refine my own skills further.

Family for life 

The workshop was a rare convergence of talents united by a shared passion for writing. From seasoned science writers to creative minds managing magazine content and Instagram reels, each member brought a unique perspective, enriching the collective experience of our cohort.

What struck me most was the humility and approachability of every single cohort member. There was no air of superiority or hierarchy; instead, we sat together as friends, sharing insights and revelations about the art of science writing. Whether during coffee breaks, chaotic mess hall conversations, or the serenity of rooftop discussions, every moment was infused with a sense of camaraderie and mutual respect.

As the workshop drew to a close, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of bittersweet nostalgia. It’s strange how quickly time flies when you’re surrounded by kindred spirits. Yet, among the inevitable goodbyes, I find solace in knowing that the lessons learned and connections forged will endure far beyond those two weeks.

NCBS’s initiative in organising such a workshop deserves commendation. It’s true what I was told – this experience not only reignited my passion for writing but also bestowed me with a family for life. 

In the years to come, I have no doubt that the lessons learnt from those unforgettable weeks will continue to shape my writing journey.

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