Viveca Jönsson, is a European student who completed her science education till ‘plus two’ in India. During her recent visit to India, ‘Maghaa’ requested her to write about something, she feels to communicate with Indian science students. This write-up is in response to our request.
I wanted my first microscope when I was 10. I was reading books which talked of biology, of genetics, of science in general during my early years of high school. When my fellow classmates in high school were enrolled in exhaustive and expensive coaching classes for the board exams, I was busy reading ‘The Prey’ by Michael Crichton. The more I read, the more I became captivated about the living forms and their functioning. I am currently pursuing a masters’ programme in molecular biology. When I tell people about my programme, they take in a couple of seconds to register the name in their minds which is followed by ‘Wow…that sounds intense’. During my first year in the masters’ programme, I realized; the world of academia, research and development is not only mysterious to the general population but also prone to some hackneyed narratives. ‘Do you cut open frogs?’, ‘Are you working for the Big Pharma?’, ‘So you are going to pursue medicine after this, aren’t you?’ are some common questions asked by people around me.
If you are a science student from India, these narratives exacerbate more. You start up as a bachelor’s student in pure sciences and the narratives of ‘didn’t get into medical/IITs/NITs’ start. Professors and your peers alike assume that the students they are with right now, are going to leave at some point, join some coaching again and go into more applied fields of engineering and medicine. The ones who stay keep pondering over their only known options of teaching or research. Most of these students won’t venture into academia; not just because it is mysterious for them but also because the narrative of ‘no social life/difficult and long road ahead’ exists and dampens them further.
So, on one hand we have a generation of millennials who try to pursue what they love but are left discouraged and hopeless after a while (due to lack of information and communication) and on the other hand, we have a spike in the insurgence of fake news and pseudo-science on the world wide web. The latter is an often-overlooked issue which needs immediate attention. The insurgence of anti-vaxxers, flat-earthers, ‘chemtrailers’, climate change deniers and anti- GMO activists on the world wide web is a recent phenomenon. Apart from the utterly inaccurate information floating on the web, the number of people who believe this kind of information without fact-checking is dangerously large and includes people who are pursuing science as well.
In this bleak scenario, science communicators come into play. A quick google search reveals that science communication refers to public communication presenting science-related topics to non-experts. Often although not necessarily, scientists are involved and it has grown over the years to be a professional field of its own. So, in layman terms, these people are trying to bridge this communication gap which exists between people and scientists. Carl Sagan, Bill Nye, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Cara Santa Maria are a few notable names belonging to this field. The late Yash Pal is an Indian counterpart in this field. They are just not elucidating quantum physics to the general audience but also trying to put forth what science is: not merely a field or profession but a systematic way of thinking which takes years to develop. Scepticism, rationality, critique and curiosity shouldn’t be restricted to just scientific conferences but our thought process in general. Our education shouldn’t be exhaustive but something which enables critical thinking and asking questions.
Apart from these well-known names, a new generation of science communicators on Instagram is blooming. These communicators, who are often PhD researchers have thousands of followers who enjoy science. Samantha Yammine, a PhD researcher from the University of Toronto not just shares her love for neurobiology and science through her Instagram account but also the woes of being a scientist (stress and anxiety is a regular part of working in this field). Whether it is talking about how brains work or why do we feel sleepy after a holiday feast, Samantha offers a view of the world which is alien to the public. Who thought microscopy pictures of neurons would find a place on Instagram? With each story and post, her objective is very clear: sharing the fun and trendy side of science so that we all can embrace our inner nerd. Joining her is wildlife biologist, conservationist and snow leopard scientist: Imogene Cancellare. Imogene shares her wildlife adventures for everyone to see, whether it is using camera traps to capture wildlife or communication using body colours in the eastern collared lizard. Her followers constituting of scientific and non-scientific audience are intrigued and she answers their questions religiously.
Science communicators are needed desperately not just to make science accessible to the public but also offer a sneak peek into the labs, the scientific conferences, the woes of academic writing – things which make up this academia. Another issue which needs to be resolved is the exclusivity which the scientific community confines to. Information and general conversations about science shouldn’t be limited to just scientists. Modern educators need to address the issue of fake news: the problems it leads to and the importance of fact-checking. Apart from these measures, a critical viewpoint needs to be instilled in the public: one needs not be working actively in this field to talk about science or be a science communicator, one just needs to embrace what science is, what it represents and how as a community we can progress better together.