Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #1

It’s time to roll out the shortlist of the Nature India Photo Contest 2019.

The 6th edition of our photo contest themed “food” opened in November 2019 and has received some remarkable entries from around the world.

We invited pictures that show food beyond just an instagram-worthy plateful — pictures that demonstrate the link between food and evironment, food and health/nutrition, food security, the processes and techniques of growing food, packaging, cooking or even the politics behind food storage and supply.

Like always, entries came from a mix of amateur and professional photographers, scientists and non-scientists, mobile cameras and high-end DSLRs.

The Nature India editorial and design teams chose ten stunning finalists, that will be rolled out (in no particular order of merit) over the next few days. Nature India’s final decision to chose the winner will be partly influenced by the engagement and reception these pictures receive here at the Indigenus blog, on Twitter and on Facebook. To give all finalists a fair chance, we will consider the social media engagement each picture gets only during the first seven days of its announcement. The final results will be announced sometime in early February 2020.

So here’s finalist number one in the Nature India photo contest 2019:

Sudip Maiti, Kolkata, West Bengal, India.

Photo caption: Open air restaurant

Sudip Maiti

“A daily-wage worker cooks lunch for himself and his fellow workers in a hand-pulled cart below the famous Howrah Bridge in Kolkata, India. I was drawn to this scene because cooking is a private matter, mostly done indoors. In this man’s life, this important activity of the day happens in a busy, public space. The photo conveys the hardships such people face for their daily food, with a smile on their faces.” — Sudip Maiti.

Congratulations Sudip for making it to top 10!

Watch this space as we announce the other finalists in the coming days.

The winning pictures will get cash prizes worth $350, $250 and $200 respectively. The top 10 finalists will be featured here, on Nature India’s blog Indigenus and in our subsequent annual issue. 

These entries have been judged for novelty, creativity, quality and print worthiness. The winner and two runners-up will also receive a copy of the Nature India Annual Volume 2019 and a bag of Nature Research goodies (including Collector’s first issues of Nature and Scientific American and some other keepsakes). Winning entries stand a chance of being featured on the cover of one of our forthcoming print publications.

My science failures: All the light bulbs that did not work

Science stories are equal to success stories. Right? Wrong. In thinking of scientists as successful people, many times we often assume that their career paths are straightforward, meticulously-planned and yield positive outcomes. However, things don’t always go as planned. Behind every small success, there’s probably a string of failures — work that did not make it to the curriculum vitae, rejected papers, turned-down applications, declined grants, unsuccessful job interviews, and many closed doors.

Science blooms in these failures as much as it does in the glory of accepted manuscripts, grants, awards and patents. In this blog series “My Science Failures” we will hear some straight-from-the-heart stories of these secret milestones in the lives of scientists — and learn how they turned these events on their head (or did not). You can join the resultant online conversation with the #mysciencefailures hashtag. Let us know at indigenus@nature.com if you would want to tell us your story.

The first volunteer in this dare-to-bare series is Karishma Kaushik, an Assistant Professor and Ramalingaswami Fellow at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, Savitribai Phule Pune University. Karishma shares the ‘failure’ milestones of her career, and discovers a sense of gratitude for things that did not go her way.

Meetali Barhate (Morya Arties), IBB, SPPU

‘I haven’t failed, I’ve just found 10,000 that won’t work’ — Thomas Alva Edison on the invention of the light bulb.

While failure is an integral part of our scientific journeys, we are often too crestfallen to acknowledge and share these stories. But it is these closed doors that force us to consider alternative options and look for unexpected openings. It is, therefore, imperative to talk openly of failures at the workplace and recognize them as integral to career progression.

Taking the initiative, a few members of the academic community have published their ‘CVs of Failures’ or ‘Anti-Portfolios’, which instead of listing successes and accomplishments, chronicle rejections, failures and ‘changes of plans’.

Such open records of career failures help de-stigmatize rejections in academia, and have spurred a discussion on including a ‘failures’ section in one’s curriculum vitae. Whether one decides to publish a full-length failure resume or not, chronicling these difficult milestones for oneself is definitely an invaluable exercise and brings forth unprecedented insights as I realized first-hand.

So, this is my ‘real’ career story.

1. I almost failed my 10th standard History exam: A stellar student through my school years, I least expected to make a dismally poor grade in my 10th standard History exam. Blame it on the exam paper getting mixed up or misplaced, the fact remained that this single score brought down my average grade. This meant that to get into a reputed junior college, I couldn’t get into the exclusive Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics programme, and had to take Biology as an add on.

Little could I imagine that being ‘forced’ to take Biology would set me on a career path as a physician!

2. I never planned a career in medicine: Forced to take up as biology as an add-on, I neglected the subject for most part of junior college. Two months before the 12th standard examinations, I came across an excellent piece of human biology educational material. Those realistic illustrations of the human body fascinated me. I decided to pursue medicine and began preparing for medical college. To this day, I am convinced I must have been one of the last people to fill those medical entrance exam forms!

It has been close to 20 years in medicine and the biological sciences, and with each career milestone, I have only grown to love the subject and my work more.

3. I did not get into a government medical college: I blamed it on my last minute decision to pursue medicine, but the fact remains I did not make it to the cut-off list for a government medical college. I took up a state-subsidized seat at a relatively new private medical college.

It turned out to be a wonderful student phase, where I not only excelled academically but also through my participation in health-related public talk shows and symposiums, discovered a natural inclination for public speaking. Honing this ability to address large audiences has inevitably shaped my career decisions, particularly to seek opportunities that include teaching.

4. I did not get into my top choice of residency programmes: During medical college, I decided on two choices of specialty to potentially pursue, dermatology and pathology. Short-listed for interviews for both at a prestigious medical college in India, I did not make it to the final lists for either. Determined not to ‘lapse’ a year, I took up a residency program in clinical microbiology.

In this programme, I had the opportunity to do a notable piece of research work for my thesis for which I interfaced with basic scientists’. This led me to pursue a PhD in the US. I recently returned to India as one of the country’s few trained physician-scientists. It was ‘denial’ and not ‘design’ that set me on this career path.

5. I was rejected by graduate schools for two years: Moving to the US with my husband, my search for PhD positions coincided with the economic recession of 2008. My rounds of the Bay Area’s top graduate schools left with me with an appreciation for academic science in the US, but also with a harsh realization of the immigration and funding constraints. After two years of close to 10 applications and no success, I decided to apply outside of California, focusing on cities my husband could also relocate to. I finally accepted an offer from a well-known school in Texas. I spent the first year telling myself we would be out of Texas as soon as the PhD was done.

My ‘stint’ in Texas lasted almost a decade and marked one of the most luminous phases of my professional and personal life. I could never imagine myself saying ‘Texas is home’!

6. I did not get into the first three labs I tried in graduate school: I started the first year of my Ph.D. rotating through three laboratories, after which I was expected to find a laboratory to pursue my PhD. At the end of one year, all three rotations yielded no takers, either due to space constraints or the fact that I didn’t have a particular skill set. I petitioned the programme to allow me a fourth rotation.

That ended up being my PhD lab. That also ended up being a wonderful mentorship experience, start of a new research group, a 5 year PhD with five papers, extensive teaching experience, professional independence, and a work environment that supported my choice of motherhood and parenting. To think, I almost did not join this lab!

7. I struggled with the science for almost half the PhD: While I really liked the laboratory I finally ended up in, I found myself completely out of depth with the science. It was interdisciplinary, employed biophysical concepts and developed mathematical models – it was exactly the Ph.D. I did not anticipate. Nevertheless, I persevered at it.

Mid-way through the PhD, I discovered an interesting phenomenon, after which I focused on probing the biological aspects of it, while a talented undergraduate worked on the mathematical models. This proved to be a turning point in my PhD journey, and the gateway to a highly productive remaining stint.

8. I walked out of a prestigious post-doc laboratory: With a very productive PhD stint, landing a post-doc was not difficult. I joined a ‘pedigreed’ research group where the science was cutting edge, and advantageously, in the same city I was living in. Within a month, I noticed glaring signs of a toxic and bullying academic culture. I had seen enough of academia to read through intense-levels of micromanagement, a flurry of to-do lists on a Friday night demanding work over the weekend, and pressure to respond to emails at 4 a.m. This was not normal or acceptable. Fortunately, I had the support system and flexibility to walk out.

The silver lining in this brief stint was that I discovered, in this short span of time, that I had it in me to steer my own research. I believe that this was the best and possibly, the boldest professional decision I have ever made.

As anticipated, making my own ‘list of failures’ was an exercise in introspection. It highlighted the varied challenges I have managed to overcome in this professional journey, and underscored that while there were many things beyond my control, I was able to effectively respond and redirect my career trajectory. Most importantly, looking at these career failures, I discovered a deep sense of gratitude for all the things that did not go my way. I realized that the best-laid plans that did not work actually led me to where I am today.

Revisiting this list will serve as a reminder to embrace the entire journey, its ups and downs, closed doors and unexpected openings, crushing lows and dizzying highs. For, it’s both – the things that work and the things that do not – that shape our unique career stories.

Away from home: Fast track to research dreams

Our ‘Away from home’ interactive map features 51 bright Indian postdocs from around the world. Write to us at npgindia@nature.com to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.

Soma Ghosh is a postdoctoral fellow at the Weizmann Institute of Science (WIS) in Israel. A doctorate from the Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences, New Delhi, she works on a strategy to prevent the resistance that some lung cancers develop to immunotherapy, one of the main treatments for certain types of cancer. In this guest post, Soma talks about living far away from family and working six days a week in the lab to realise her research dream.

Soma Ghosh

Peering into cancer cells

For the past three years, I have been in Prof. Yosef Yarden’s group in the Biological Regulation Department of WIS researching a protein often overexpressed in cancer cells. This protein can make certain tumours resistant or more aggressive to anti-cancer therapies.

After a doctorate focusing on radiology and oncology, I had joined a pharmaceutical company as an oncology consultant to work on strategies for drug development and marketing. I was good at my job, but realised that it wasn’t for me. After two years in the company, I started searching for labs where I could do a postdoc. I wrote to a lot of professors working in my field of interest.

One of the professors I wrote to was Prof. Yosef (Yossi) Yarden. I had not paid attention at first to the fact that he was in Israel. He answered fairly quickly and suggested I visit his lab first. I found a great atmosphere in the lab. I met people from all over the world, including India, and the research interested me very much. Although I had been out of a lab for two years, my passion for research was alive. Yossi took a few days to discuss things with his lab members, and his answer was a ‘yes’.

I wrote a project proposal and soon got a grant through the Feinberg Graduate School. From writing the letter to finalizing the grant, everything happened fairly quickly. Three months later, I was unpacking my bags at WIS. Answers from the other places I had written arrived in drips and drabs but I had already found my calling by then.

Coming to Israel on Yom Kippur

I arrived in Israel on a Friday – the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish holy day of atonement. I was shocked to find everything closed and deathly quiet. I ate food from home, which some friends here had thankfully suggested that I bring along. The holiday ended on Saturday night and I got an email from Yossi saying we would meet on Sunday. That was strange too – I didn’t realize back then that Sunday is a workday in Israel. The reception in the lab was a warm one, and things have been great ever since. One of my lab member’s even took me to the open market in Rehovot so I could buy ingredients for the food I love to cook.

My husband’s patent-consulting job is based in New Delhi but when I told him of my plans to conduct research in Israel, he was supportive. Though the separation has had its difficulties, we manage to meet several times a year.

My father was supportive as well. As a scientist with India’s science ministry, he had worked with WIS researchers and was aware of the institute’s excellence. My mother had doubts but after visiting Israel she has fallen in love with the place.

Maximising the work week

Working with Prof. Yossi Yarden is a very special experience. He starts his workday at 7:00 and ends it at 7:00. We sometimes get emails from him at 11 in the night, always with thoughtful, constructive comments. It might seem that he asks a lot from his students, but ultimately we achieve higher, get better results and opportunities to advance our scientific careers. He creates a positive atmosphere, always speaking quietly and with reason. That doesn’t mean we don’t have fun ‒ we also laugh a lot. His research assistant Sara Lavi is always ready to lend an ear or solve a problem. My lab members are very friendly, supportive and helpful. I feel really lucky.

In my spare time, I like to cook. I also enjoy Indian music and global cinema. I am an ardent fan of Marvel characters.

In between my ongoing research and writing a paper on the results of three years of research in Yarden’s lab, I keep thinking about my return to India and reuniting with my husband and family. I also look forward to driving again when I return. Whatever else awaits me, scientific research will continue to play a central role in my life.

Making Israel your research destination

Israel is a beautiful country to work in. Drawing from my experience, here are some general tips for researchers looking for a postdoc position in Israel:

  • While applying for positions, focus on the work you are doing and be clear on why you chose those experiments and what their implications are. Everyone is well informed these days and they expect clear and direct answers.
  • Broaden your wet-lab skills and get expertise on molecular diagnostic approaches, especially the new ones such as CRISPR. I believe Indian labs nowadays provide platforms and opportunities to get hands on experience to such techniques.
  • Be transparent and honest in your resume about the techniques and knowledge that you have and do not try to write things that you haven’t done. Eventually, people find out and it can lead to a problem later.
  • In cancer research, one thing I have observed is the importance of thinking how your research or study can have clinical implications. This is a key question which every major lab/ research institute/ university would like to hear when you apply in Israel or anywhere outside.
  • Pick your lab of interest and study what they are doing or have done in the past. Align and search for labs that match your interest, don’t just select random labs where you would not be able to justify your candidature.

Nature India Essay Competition 2020 now open

SpiffyJ/Getty

Nature India in partnership with the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is launching an essay competition to provide young and experienced scientists, researchers and authors in India, a platform to share ideas on how socially-impactful science can advance and strengthen the country.

The Nature India essay competition is now open for scientists, researchers, writers or authors aged 25 to 50. The essayists will have an opportunity to draft a compelling narrative with personal anecdotes, emotion and a science-backed story that may become potentially historic in helping shape the roadmap for India’s scientific future.

We invite thoughts on the societal impact of science in India in not more than 1000 words. We are looking for essays with an aspirational tone, emotions and story-telling without too much sentimentality.  The essays should be reasoned, well-researched, forward-looking and supported by existing science. They should ideally be informative and entertaining in equal measure. Adding a personal perspective to the narration is desirable. We are not looking for academic papers, an academic writing style or science fiction.

Submitted essays will be judged by a panel of editors, scientists and science communicators.

The deadline for completed essays is midnight, India time, on 9 March 2020. The winners will have their essays published in the Nature India annual volume as well as the Nature India blog Indigenus. The top three essays will win cash prizes (Rs 40,000, Rs 30, 000 and Rs 20,000 or equivalent), a three-year subscription to Nature, trophies and certificates. We will also feature the essayists and their ideas in a Nature India podcast.

Please send your submissions to natureindia@nature.com with the subject line “Nature India Essay Competition 2020”. Please include your name, affiliation and contact details in the email. We look forward to reading your imaginative and thought-provoking essays.

For inspiration, you may want to read these essays adjudged winner and runners-up (1, 2) of the Nature essay competition 2019.

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Nature India Photo Contest 2019 now open

We are back with the annual Nature India photo contest.

This year’s theme is ‘Food’.

Say ‘food’ and everyone has a story to share. These stories could be as diverse as ‘I love pasta’ to ‘the cyclone ruined our paddy yield this year’ to ‘half my country is malnourished and the other half obese’.

These stories point to our deep-seated and lifelong relationship with food. For some food is nutrition, for some others it’s an emotion – a memory, perhaps associated with a smell, taste, place or person?

For a farmer, food may mean a farm, the seeds, the equipment, the land, the market, floods or famine or a harvest festival. For a school going child, food is the lunch box or a piping hot mid-day meal served in the classroom. For many communities, food is a social binder, intrinsically linked to the culture of their land.

For scientists, food is the metabolic, biochemical or physiological process that underlines how an organism uses its source of nutrition. For global policy makers, food is the challenge of securing nourishment for close to 10 billion people by 2050. Food is health, food is environment and many times the connection between the two.

So which face of food would you want to capture in a photograph? Which of these nuanced stories do you want to tell? For the Nature India photo competition this year, we urge you to think deeper about food, beyond just an Instagram-worthy plateful.

Think of pictures that demonstrate how food fundamentally influences or interacts with health, how food security defines the health and happiness of people or how the lack of food may result in a plethora of unwanted consequences. We would also be happy to receive entries that talk to us about the link between the food we eat and our environment, or ones that depict how balanced nutrition makes for healthy people and healthy communities.

You may also draw inspiration from scenes that portray the process and techniques of growing food, cooking it in many interesting and unique ways, of infant nutrition or the politics behind food storage and supply, or even the merits or demerits of packaging food.

The canvas is wide open.

So get set, click and send your entries by 21 December 2019!

Prizes

The top three pictures will get cash prizes worth $350, $250, $200. The top 10 finalists will be featured on Nature India’s blog Indigenus

Entries will be judged for novelty, creativity, quality and print worthiness. Winners will be chosen by a panel of Nature Research editors and photographers. The winner and two runners-up will receive a copy of the Nature India Annual Volume 2019 and a bag of Nature Research goodies (including Collector’s first issues of Nature and Scientific American and some other keepsakes). Winning entries also stand a chance of being featured on the cover of one of our forthcoming print publications.

Eligibility

The contest is open to all – any nationality, any occupation, any profession. You may use whatever camera you wish – even your cell phone – as long as the photograph you send us is unedited, original, in digital format and of printable quality. Just make sure you are not violating any copyrights. Also, no obscene, provocative, defamatory, sexually explicit, or other inappropriate content please (refer to the contest terms and conditions below).

Please send your entries in jpeg format to npgindia@nature.com with your name and contact details. Please mention “Nature India Photo Contest 2019” in the subject line of your email. The photograph must be accompanied by a brief caption (please see some photo captions here for reference) explaining the subject of the picture along with the date, time and place it was taken.

We will accept a maximum of two entries per person. The last date for submissions is midnight of December 21, 2019 Indian Standard Time. On social media, please use the hashtag #NatureIndphoto to talk about the contest or to check out our latest updates.

The theme for our inaugural photo competition in 2014 was “Science & technology in India”. Our themes have then covered “Patterns”, “Nature”, “Grand Challenges” and “Vector-borne Diseases”. We have received some breathtaking entries from across the world all these years. You might want to take a look at the winning entries of the Nature India Photo Contest 201420152016, 2017 and 2018 for some inspiration and to get an idea of what we look for while selecting winners.

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How to beat loneliness in a research career

Ramya Nandakumar, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedicine at Aarhus University in Denmark, says research stints in a foreign land can get lonely. It’s prudent to invest in good friendships to beat the depressingly long winters, she says.

Ramya Nandakumar

Inspired by Fleming

I always wanted to become a scientist. A picture in my school textbook of  of Alexander Fleming, nestled in a comfortable corner of his laboratory, looking up into his staph plate appealed deeply to an introvert, curious young me.

Years later, this fascination took me to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, New Delhi where I worked on a Masters project at the department of transplant immunology. Later, I was offered a three-month internship in Germany as part of a collaborative Indo-German project. When the calls for PhD opened, I applied and continued my research in the same lab. PhD was an extremely steep learning curve, after which I took up a postdoc at the University of Aarhus, Denmark.

Postdoc is the time to define your career trajectory

To make the best of a postdoc stint, it is advisable to think of it as a ‘stepping stone’ to your career of choice. Having a plan can help you leverage your postdoc to establish a career within or outside of academia. Easier said than done, though a broad understanding of where one intends to go after postdoc can enable supervisors to put you on a trajectory, if they are so inclined.

A good rule of thumb when investing in a research career is to look for a well-funded lab with an investigator preferably with students of several nationalities.

In my current lab I have colleagues from Spain, Germany, China, Iran, Greece and England. While some benefits of multiculturalism are obvious, in a divided world, it is reassuring to see that scientific research has a non-discriminatory way of accepting everyone regardless of where they are from.

It is also worth mentioning that when applying for positions, the cover letter is your best friend. Use it wisely to describe yourself and highlight why you have written to that specific Principal Investigator (PI).  Make it personal if applicable (…I heard you speak at the conference at …., I was inspired by the article you recently published.). This might help you stand out from the many applications the PI receives, especially from India and China.

During my research career, I have been challenged plenty, mostly by my own preconceived notions. Stepping out of one’s culture is a great way of questioning one’s very conditioning.

Tackling winter blues

Denmark is extremely expensive but as a researcher in a university you pay less tax (~32%) than the average Dane. With immigration rules getting tougher, it has become increasingly difficult to bring dependents to Denmark (except spouses and children under 18). Parents and family can get visitor visas but they don’t normally qualify as dependents. This could be a problem if you are the sole caregiver to ageing family back home.

Life in Denmark is lonely, a feeling compounded by the dark and depressingly long and rainy winters in this part of Europe. Seasonal affective disorder, commonly known as ‘winter blues’ is quite common around here.  Good bright white light and a dose of Vitamin D can do their bit, but investing in good friendships also helps immensely. Winter blues for the trailing spouse is a reality one must consider. I came to Denmark alone and did not know anyone here. Therefore, a room in an international dormitory came as a blessing.  The shared kitchen was a melting pot of a wide array of cuisines, strong political discourses and diverse viewpoints. This is where I made most of friends I have today, friends from all over the world I share interests with despite our very obvious differences.

Take rejections in your stride

What wasn’t there in that picture of Fleming was a folder thick with rejections: failed experiments, grant rejections, soul-crushing article reviews, and numerous applications that are unfortunately symbolic of today’s research. Although Fleming looked content in his corner, research today is hardly independently run from the confines of a room. The emphasis on networking, being social and collaborating with researchers from within and outside of one’s own discipline. A successful scientist today, is as much a scientist in the typical sense, as he is a collaborator, entrepreneur and writer. These skills are essential, not just desirable any more.

[Ramya Nandakumar can be reached at ramya.nandakumar@biomed.au.dk]

Becoming a parent in graduate school shaped my approach to work–life balance

Karishma Kaushikan assistant professor and Ramalingaswami Re-entry Fellow at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology, University of Pune, India thinks that learning to share details of her personal life at work has made her a better academic mentor.

The Kaushik family at the Wooden Shoe Tulip Festival in Woodburn, Oregon.

Bryan Rupp Photography

Out of breath and running late, I entered the room to discuss my latest research updates with faculty members and graduate-school colleagues. Flustered, embarrassed and more than seven months pregnant, I proceeded with the important presentation, not mentioning the false contractions I had woken up to that morning.

It was July 2011, and I was just a year into my PhD programme at the University of Texas at Austin, after graduating with a medical degree in India. At the time, I drew strict lines between my professional and personal lives. This stemmed from the fear of being perceived as ‘not serious about science’ or ‘having a life outside the laboratory’ — something I felt was part of academic culture.

However, choosing to become a parent in graduate school meant that my academic and personal lives could no longer be completely separate. Those rigid divisions between ‘work’ and ‘non-work’ weren’t as solid as they once were.

After my child was born two months later, I continued being discrete about my ‘non-work’ life, avoiding topics related to health concerns, child-care conflicts or personal upheavals.

This came from both self-imposed and institutional pressure to operate within a system that did not account for a ‘non-conventional’ graduate student, be it a young mother or an older candidate.

I defended a major research proposal a few weeks after childbirth, silently accepted curriculum plans that scheduled teaching at 8 a.m. and continued my very heavy workload of course requirements for the PhD programme.

This made an already difficult academic career phase even more challenging. I felt like I was struggling alone professionally, and I felt isolated as one of few new parents in graduate school. I rarely spoke about my child at work, and I hesitated to share insights into the happy moments of my life outside the lab — moments such as celebrating my son’s first birthday or summer plans for a family road trip.

My approach to being open about work–life balance changed through the years of my PhD. During this time, I successfully navigated several crucial milestones in my programme and my research, both of which I had previously struggled with in the early years of my PhD.

Every small accomplishment left me feeling more sure of myself as a scientist, and I gained confidence in my ability to effectively navigate work–life balance.

I realized that my previous approach of putting work above all else, or having no time for life, was farcical, superficial and dishonest to myself and those around me. It disturbed me to think that I was perpetuating the stereotype that to be committed, scientists should have no life outside of science, when in reality I was attempting to do almost the opposite: to raise, in my son, an entire life outside of science.

I resolved to share and openly prioritize parts of my life I had previously kept hidden, including both the responsibilities I shouldered outside of work and the joys of parenthood. I formally requested that my institution reschedule my teaching to a later hour, making it clear that early-morning classes were difficult for a young mother.

I politely excused myself when meetings stretched into the late evening, saying I needed to relieve the nanny, and would catch up later. Over lunch conversations with colleagues, I shared anecdotes of my son’s growth milestones and my plans to host a dinosaur-themed birthday party.

Openly prioritizing and planning my work and life around each other greatly enhanced my competency and enthusiasm at work. My teaching reviews — based on student feedback — went from average to exemplary, The quality and pace of my research output strengthened, and accolades and recognitions for research, teaching and science outreach started coming my way.

My openness also improved my professional relationships and my understanding of the scientific community. Because I was open, others were more open with me, too. While my concerns centred around childcare and managing dual career paths with my spouse (an engineer in the private sector), I discovered that my colleagues had their own hurdles to jump: mental health, immigration concerns or financial constraints.

Today, I am very open with researchers and students in my group about the day-to-day juggling of my personal and professional roles, and I encourage them to be the same. I believe that this fosters honest and respectful professional relationships and a constructive work atmosphere in which we do not hesitate to share the need to manage personal priorities. Not only does this make us more humane, empathetic and approachable individuals, but it also, in a small but powerful way, makes academic science a more inclusive and considerate place.

[This article first appeared in Nature.]

Water charity: What the drinking fountains of Mumbai tell us

The pyaavs of Mumbai aren’t just public fountains but a repository of memories, architectural history and an important lesson in water philanthropy. Swapna Joshi, a PhD Student at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune, studies them closely to find new meaning in the old.

A pyaav on Mumbai’s Mohammad Ali Road

There is something mesmerizing about the architecture of South Mumbai. As a local train commuter, whenever I step into Mumbai’s CSMT railway station (formerly Victoria Terminus), I notice, despite the hustle, intricate details of the building. Working with a Mumbai based conservation architect’s firm gave me a vantage point to look at colonial period architecture and appreciate it. That’s how I came in contact with the public drinking water fountains of Mumbai, locally known as the pyaavs.

‘Thy thirst repose to quench a handful of life’. This was the quote we chose to restore the first pyaav through a public-private initiative in Mumbai. Why this intense thought in a structural conservation? Was there a story beyond the material fabric of the pyaav? The answer is yes.

This pyaav was in the Kessovji Naik Fountain and clock tower in Bhat Bazaar of Masjid Bunder, one of the busiest markets of Mumbai. Some 100 years ago, a generous patron had decided to support the construction of the pyaav and provide water for the city, without any other motive. How fascinating is this!

Around the same time I read ‘The Water Heritage of Mumbai’ by Dr. Varsha Shirgaonkar, the Vice-Chancellor of S.N.D.T Women’s University. In this seminal work, she painstakingly documents most of the city’s pyaavs, including many whose exact location was not known. Data on about thirty pyaavs of Mumbai are available today. These pyaavs were built during the 19th and 20th century and provided drinking water in commercial zones, along tram routes, in markets, gardens and other public places.

A pyaav in the Char Nal area of Mumbai.

The concept of a pyaav is based on two important things — the generosity of a philanthropist with an intention of giving back to the city; and building a monument in the memory of a deceased relative of the patron. Armed with Dr. Shirgaonkar’s foundation-laying information and with the thought of developing and restoring these pyaavs to their former glory, a group of like-minded people, including me, came together. The group — comprising an architect, a journalist, a historian and a heritage enthusiast — formed a social media group called ‘The Mumbai Pyaav Project’. Our reach was limited because all we had were photos of pyaavs, some in utterly dilapidated condition.

In Carnac Bandar in Mumbai, for example, a pyaav has been transformed into a temple. Similarly, another pyaav nearby was on the verge of being demolished for a developmental project, but was saved because of the awareness of local people. Identifying dangers to the pyaavs would help in their conservation. The need is to look at the data but through a contemporary lens.

This pyaav in the Crawford Market area of Mumbai is modeled like a shrine.

In 2017, I received the Sahapedia Unesco Project Fellowship. It enabled me to map all the pyaavs in the city, understand their present condition, interview people associated with them and document them audio-visually. While doing the field work and photo documentation, I came across many pyaavs still in use as drinking water sources. When I saw a small child drinking from the pyaav in the King Circle garden, I was convinced of the need for their revival. I joined hands with people who shared this conviction to retrieve and share information on the pyaavs with a larger audience.

Apart from their heritage value, pyaavs reduce plastic pollution by eliminating the need for packaged drinking water. Commuters I interviewed near a pyaav in Kalachowki area, and the owner of a nearby shop, were delighted that it was being restored. The question of whether working class people were the only ones to drink water from these pyaavs was answered by visits to some modern paanpois (water storage tanks) and earthen water pots kept charitably for passers by on crossroads. Also, almost every tea stall serves water to customers before tea, which is a kind of a pyaav system in itself. The project started building up with all this and the same data now got a fresh relook.

The endeavour was to understand the basic drinking water supply system of Mumbai and functioning of the dams in the city — from when and why they were built to the quantity of water supply to the city. When we showed our audio-visual content, people admitted they passed these pyaavs every day but did not know what they were. Armed with knowledge, they expressed interest in seeing more of these.

Pyaavs are a network of history and heritage, drinking water supply and memories. As of now, three other pyaavs have been restored and many others are in the process of being revived . The re-collation of the data in the  Sahapedia project gave me the key to understand pyaavs much better.

The pyaavs have various functions but we have largely failed to admire them as spaces to pause, gather and remember. They are soothing beauties and heritage markers. As the great poet Rabindranath Tagore puts it: “For many years at great cost, I traveled through many countries, saw the high mountains and the ocean. The only things I did not see were the sparkling dewdrops in the grass…. just outside my door.”

[Photo credits: Swapna Joshi.]

SciArt scribbles: Science, history and comics

Many scientists embrace the artistic medium to infuse new ideas into their scientific works. With science-art collaborations, both artists and scientists challenge their ways of thinking as well as the process of artistic and scientific inquiry. Can art hold a mirror to science? Can it help frame and answer uncomfortable questions about science: its practice and its impact on society? Do artistic practices inform science? In short, does art aid evidence?

Nature India’s blog series ‘SciArt Scribbles’ will try to answer some of these questions through the works of some brilliant Indian scientists and artists working at this novel intersection that offers limitless possibilities. You can follow this online conversation with #SciArtscribbles.

Argha Manna, a cancer researcher-turned-science comics artist, tells us how he blended his passion for science, history and comics to carve a unique genre for himself.

Argha Manna

Seven years ago, as a PhD student in cancer biology at Bose Institute in Kolkata, I was sitting at my desk reading a research paper. The paper was about how ‘cortical actin remodeling can influence spatio-temporal organization of cell surface receptors’. Although it was not directly related to my research, I wanted to read it as one of my friends was on the author list. While the paper featured a beautiful graphical abstract and excellent schematics, I was still having trouble understanding what it was about. The moment I started to think in visual sequences, however, the story opened up for me. Unknowingly, I had created a comic narrative in my mind on the cellular events, and the paper made sense.

Making science accessible through comics is not a new concept. According to Will Eisner, considered the father of the graphic novel, and eminent comics artist and scholar, Scott McCloud, comics is a sequential art form. The practice of using sequential art to explain scientific findings was common during the early days of modern science — Galileo made a series of sunspot drawings from his own observations. After the advent of time-lapse imaging and video-micrography, sequential art has been restricted to either the discussion section of academic journals or in science-themed comic books.

Visual metaphors to tell science stories

My first encounter with such books was Larry Gonick’s The Cartoon History of the Universe series. I was amazed by the use of visual metaphors. Later, I came across several books that used comics to communicate science such as Jay Hosler’s Optical Allusions, Neurocomic by Matteo Farinella and Hana Ros, and Mysteries of the Quantum Universe by Thibault Damour and Mathieu Burniat. I also found comics in academic journals like Science (General Relativity by Adrian Cho, Science, 2015). In all of these comics, metaphors were used to explain complicated scientific concepts in an accessible manner. Jorge Cham’s PhD comics and Randal Munroe’s xkcd are great examples of this.

Reading Nick Sousanis and Richard Monastersky’s The fragile framework (Nature, 2015) was a kind of ‘aha moment’ for me. I had found my calling – communicating science through comics. I dropped out of my PhD and joined a local newspaper in culturally-rich Kolkata, the West Bengal capital. In the first few months I created a series of articles for school children on the advent of modern science. I was fascinated by the history of science, so I started researching Robert Hooke and the early days of the Royal Society. A few months later I started to convert the articles into a comic form — and my first newspaper comic was born (Image 1). It has been appearing every week in ‘The Telegraph in School’ supplement.

Image 1: A page from the comics ‘Welcome to the Hookes’ lab’

I didn’t want to restrict myself to just explaining scientific concepts, to make science truly come alive I also included elements such as socio-political context, the people behind the science, technological development, social network of scientists and micro-histories.

Such an approach is essential in communicating the full flavour of the history of science, according to Harvard-based physicist and historian Peter Galison (Ten problems in History and Philosophy of Science, ISIS, 2008). History of science practitioners — as historians, scientists, librarians, cataloguists and archivists — collect these elements in the form of oral histories, newspaper clippings, artwork, diaries and memoirs, photographs and podcasts.  A complete story can then be formed by adding these elements together — and may be more easily digested as a comic, rather than as a long form text.

As popular history of science stories tend to focus on Europe and North America, I created a free-to-access blog ‘Drawing History of Science‘ to tell stories about Indian science through illustration. At the beginning it was a lone venture. Then Sci-Illustrate, a Munich-based group, came forward as a collaborator in my journey. I found their goal – to revive the stories of women scientists from India – important. Together we have been retelling stories of Indian Women in Science (Image 2 and 3).

Image 2: Rajeswari Chatterjee (1922-2010), former professor and chairperson of the department of electro-communication engineering at the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. This and the following artwork were created in collaboration with the Sci-Illustrate group in their ‘Indian Women in Science’ series.

 

Image 3: Clockwise from top left: JANAKI AMMAL, Indian botanist and cytogeneticist, credited with putting sweetness in Indian Sugarcane varieties; ASIMA CHATTERJEE, one of the first women in India to earn a doctorate in science; IRAWATI KARVE, India’s first woman anthropologist; BIBHA CHOWDHURY, India’s first female particle physicist.

Later, ClubSciWri, the science communication platform of ‘PhD Career Support Group’ or STEMPeersTM approached me to create more comics about the history of science. In collaboration with them, I am telling stories from a global perspective, through comics and art (Image 5).

Image 5: A page from the essay ‘Waging war on the microbes’. The text of the essay was originally written by Ananya Sen for Club Sci Wri.

My future plan is to narrate natural history research in colonial India through comics and interactive art. Right now I am cataloguing the artwork (drawings, engravings etc) published in Asiatic Society journals and other media. I wish to redraw the old colonial artworks, to make them more interactive and then add the context and other elements in the form of sequential illustrations. It is still a lonely walk but I feel the future is bright.

[Argha Manna can be contacted at argha.manna@gmail.com.]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: Crowdsourcing oral history of India’s science 

SciArt scribbles:CRISPR and the smell of rain

SciArt scribbles: Bringing art and science together for greater good

SciArt scribbles: The mellifluous gene editor

SciArt scribbles: The molecule painter

SciArt scribbles: Coupling creation and analysis with collages

SciArt scribbles: Technology to aid dance

SciArt scribbles: Music to tackle PhD blues

SciArt scribbles: Playing science out

Artists on science: scientists on art

Nature India 2018 annual volume is out

The Nature India annual volume 2018 is out now.

The past couple of years have seen some interesting trends in India’s science. There has been a surge in the number of innovation-driven start-ups, and in the use of artificial intelligence in fields as diverse as health and aerospace. What has been most noteworthy, however, is the social aspect of science. More than ever before, the scientific community is standing up against pseudoscience, be it by contesting an unsubstantiated remark by a politician, calling out scientific misconduct, or helping weed out fake and predatory journals published from India.

Another positive social drift slowly gaining ground is the citizen science movement. In this annual issue, we focus attention on the tangible results of some crowd-sourced projects. For a country with more than 1.3 billion people, citizen science may turn out to be an effective tool to connect science with people, appraising them of the rigours of gathering and verifying evidence, and in turn, building a scientific mindset. Used intelligently, citizen science could help find answers to some pressing sustainable development challenges faced by India and much of south Asia.

The other big story that we looked at in 2018 was how Indian scientists have quickly embraced the use of CRISPR Cas-9, the gene splicing tool that became the reason for celebrations and controversies around the world. We report on some key Indian scientific missions that are editing genes related to diseases, especially blood anomalies, unique to the developing world.

On the other side of the disease spectrum, some new red flags were waved in the form of the first report of artemisinin-resistant malaria in India and the ‘good’ microbe bifidobacteria harbouring genes that make it resistant to anti-TB drugs.
Our 2018 photo contest took a comprehensive look at vector-borne diseases. The winning pictures that present a stinging story are featured in the photo section.

Climate is a burning issue for south Asia, quite literally. We analyze how the urban poor will suffer the most in an imminent climate crisis facing most big cities of south Asia. In a series of investigations, we reported how rice farming is impacting the climate more than ever before, why cloning hybrid seeds could benefit rice farmers, how increased dependence on nitrogen fertilizers has made India a nitrogen emission hotspot, and why crop stubble burning is national menace.

A lot has been happening around India’s holy river Ganga (also known as Ganges). Scientists are putting together a 3D map of the mighty river clogged with waste, and its fertile basin, where groundwater is depleting at an alarming rate. Part of our coverage is dedicated to the scientific solutions to these huge challenges faced by India’s largest river.

Nature India annual volumes curate research highlights, news, features, commentaries and opinion pieces published through the year. They are a thoughtful selection designed to give our readers an accessible reference to the latest in India’s science.

As always, we welcome your feedback.

You will find more on our our archival annual issues here: 201720152014 and 2007-2013.  And some more about the content and subscription of these issues here.