F.For almost a year now, children across India have been tuning in to Talk to a Scientist every week to learn some science and ask lots of questions. The outreach program was launched by two biologists, Karishma Kaushik and Snehal Kadam, as part of the nationwide lockdown to contain the spread of COVID-19. The interactive weekly webinar is among the first of its kind in India and aims to connect young audiences with academics.
Kaushik runs a research laboratory that studies human-relevant infection biology at the University of Pune in India. Kadam, now a PhD from Hull York Medical School in the UK, was a research fellow in Kaushik’s laboratory when they started the project.
The scientist talks to Kaushik about how they teamed up to turn adversity into opportunity.
Karishma Kaushik: I always imagined that my own research group would have an outreach department that deals with the community around us. Snehal and I had planned to go to school in Pune last summer and just talk about science. But then the pandemic happened and we were all home. I was determined to find a way to carry out my plans.
Webinars were all the rage in academia, and I noticed I was able to use the same platform. It would help us reach children across the country who are all now stuck at home. With a single text, Snehal got involved in the idea and we planned our very first meeting, which we advertised on Twitter. We talked about the novel coronavirus and children could tune in and ask questions. It was an obvious choice – the virus was literally in the air and on everyone’s lips.
We thought five people would show up. It was seventy-five! At the end of the lesson, the children asked: “When is the next session?” Snehal and I were surprised. We promised another meeting the following week. We haven’t missed a week since then. On March 30th of this year we will have our fifty-second consecutive session.
KK: The first season was a bit random -[we] treated antibiotic resistance, microbes in food, easily assignable topics that are tailored to our specialist knowledge. Then we started to structure ourselves in seasons with ten episodes that revolve around a topic. The final episode of each season is always a hands-on activity. It is something that the children can do at home with very easy-to-obtain supplies that they will have at home, like newspaper or butter or just water. The first few seasons were all biology, but now we’ve expanded beyond biology to include other STEM areas.
KK: Everything starts with planning the next season. This is done well in advance. We share ideas on topics and episodes in a common online document. Snehal plays a huge role in bringing the ideas to life. She compiles a list of visiting scholars who chair each session, making sure there are many different voices. Increasingly, scientists are also reaching out to us to say that they are interested in being guest speakers. We look forward to inviting them when they are well suited for a coming season.
When he showed a picture of himself holding the Indian flag with white snow all around the audience got goose bumps. The children wanted to know more.
Snehal designs the posters for digital announcements for new meetings. Twitter has been a great ally. A template will be sent to the speakers as a guide for creating slides. When we hold the meeting [Snehal and I] do the slides together. The presentation is not very rehearsed; we like to be spontaneous. Meetings begin with light banter. We have a lot of regulars who rarely miss meetings. Most of the action takes place in the chat window, lots of back and forth interactions.
KK: We had Avinash Sharma, an Indian microbiologist explorer who went to Antarctica. He lived in Maitri, the Indian research station there. When he showed a picture of himself holding the Indian flag with white snow all around the audience got goose bumps. The children wanted to know more. They wanted to go to Antarctica one day and do science for India too.
I also remember talking about the skin and the different skin cells. With that in mind, we’ve talked about melanocytes, skin color and diversity, and how your skin color is simply a cell in your body. In another episode we discussed administration and leadership in Indian science. This led to one of the most memorable questions: “How can I become India’s premier scientific advisor?”
KK: I can use this platform to introduce children to Indian scientists – role models with whom they can identify. You learn that all of this science is done in India. It helps them see and connect with an actual scientist. Today’s scientists don’t look like they are usually portrayed in their textbooks. We are much more diverse now. We are also funny, we keep the meetings light, there is a lot of laughter. It’s very different from a scientist’s perception of being serious or stuffy.
KK: It is very gratifying that things have come full circle in this one year. We started with the novel coronavirus. In our first anniversary meeting, virologist Gagandeep Kang will speak about vaccines and how the various COVID-19 vaccines work.
But I won’t stop there. I know I want to go on. We have secured funding that will support several future seasons.
Personally, I’ve learned that the time to build a community initiative is whenever you are ready. Not when someone recommends it at a career level, not after you’ve gotten a tenure. You should do it, though they I think the time is right because it brings a released energy and passion.
Editor’s note: The interview was edited for brevity.
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