My science failures: Get up fast after each fall

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.

Divya P. Kumar, is an Assistant Professor and DBT-Ramalingaswami Fellow at the Department of Biochemistry in J S S Medical College, Mysuru, Karnataka. As a young investigator, it took courage for her to talk about failures. But her belief to ‘do what’s right, not what’s easy’ saw her through this exercise in soul searching.

Divya P. Kumar

“Success is a public affair but failure is a private funeral.”

Failure is an integral part of any career path, but the irony is that one doesn’t dare to speak of it in public. We admire reading or watching stories of successful people who have failed at some point in their lives but are reluctant in accepting and overcoming our own failures. Fortunately things are changing and the world has started appreciating that it’s okay to fail rather than not trying, or quitting.

In the scientific world, we are more acquainted with failures than success – be it in experiments, grant proposals, job interviews, manuscripts or lab management. It is therefore important that we discuss failures, appreciate the attempt made and importantly, support each other to iron them out. Accepting failure is an integral part of career development.

My work is still in progress in terms of building a career path as a scientist. This blog piece is my humble effort to say out aloud to every research scholar, postdoctoral fellow or young investigator who has failed:  “You are not alone”. All scientific failure stories appear alike whereas success stories differ in their own way. I say this because while reading someone’s scientific failures, we often relate to them.

Science just happened

I never dreamt of becoming a scientist. Growing up in the southern India city of Mysore in Karnataka, the professions of choice were engineering or medicine (thankfully, it has changed now). Though I was interested in engineering, I did not make the cut in the entrance exams. I chose to study biotechnology.

During the great economic recession of 2009, I moved to the United States with my husband. My application to a graduate school got rejected. It made me realise how competitive the scene was. It also made me appreciate the importance of participation in summer research programmes, workshops, conferences, publications and extracurricular activities that count along with the regular academic requirements of the graduate programme.

Not losing hope of a PhD, I started volunteering in the lab and soon took up the job of a project assistant. The hard work paid off and I had a first-author publication and then got enrolled into a graduate programme.

All this happened while I was working in two different labs, the first one being a bitter experience because of micro-management by a rather insecure leader.

The PhD roller coaster

I decided to opt for a different lab for PhD. However, having one published paper, one co-authored manuscript in press and another first-author manuscript in the works, it was a tough call to leave the lab and start all over again. It was a structural biology lab and I had realized within one year that it was not my cup of tea. Setting up crystal trays needed a lot of patience and stamina (and I admire those in the field for that). I also had limitations with my knowledge of physics. It would perhaps have been easy for me if I put in some effort to get familiar with the work, the people and the ambience but I listened to my heart and got ready for the next challenge.

PhD was challenging. The research work demanded key expertise in islet isolation from mice as also working with mice and human islets in vitro. This expertise was not available in the lab. So I had the great opportunity to collaborate with scientists from a different University. Earlier, my first publication had been accepted within 3-4 days of submission in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, something I realised was a rarity. I got to taste the reality of PhD, struggling with the new expertise I had to master for nearly half a year. This was the best period of my PhD as I learnt how important mentors and their support are. I also learnt the life skills of troubleshooting, perseverance and patience and of loving one’s work despite uncertainties.

Managing a lab

Setting up a research lab and a team marks the beginning of an exciting phase in the career of all young investigators. It is challenging and does require management skills to build and run the lab effectively. Having realised this, I set up a new research team with academic values and good lab culture. As everything was falling in place, the two research scholars quit – one was selected for a government job and the other for her personal reasons. I had heard similar stories, but your heart breaks when it happens to you.

The time and effort invested at this initial stage of establishing your career seem to have gone to waste. However, I did appreciate the interest of the research scholars and their personal journeys.

I got back to the drawing board with renewed energy and inducted new research scholars in the lab. The exercise was humbling and taught me that ‘sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together for the best to happen’. We are just a couple of months into the new set up and it seems promising so far.

Being a young investigator, listing these failures in my scientific career took some courage. This introspection gives me a sense of pride for not letting failures break my self-trust. I have learnt from from them to go with the flow, re-envision my goals and seek inspiration from others. In the end, I have always believed in doing ‘what is right than what is easy’.

More in the series:

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

SciArt scribbles: Drawing to coax new scientific questions

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.

Late into her PhD, biologist Ipsa Jain realised that she did not want to spend her life in a lab. Was it okay then to change her mind and embrace visual arts — something which never failed to make her happy?

Ipsa Jain

During the fag end of Phd, I was convinced that the life of a lab rat was not for me. I was having a tough time figuring out a path different from what had been my single minded pursuit since high school. Around that time, I came across a blog by Bulgarian writer Maria Popova (Brain Pickings), which convinced me that it was okay to change my mind. I asked myself what I’d be happy doing. Art was an easy answer.

I went back to doodling and drawing after ten years. I drew things I knew, I drew biology. I started taking online art and design courses and posted some natural history inspired drawings along with tit-bits about the specimen. People started approbating the work and the information.

Mice eating and excreting.

Ipsa Jain

In a student festival at the Indian Institute of Science Bangalore, an undergrad student Abhijit Krishna asked me if I would want to exhibit my work. I did and to my surprise people liked and bought my work. I realised that this could make for a living as well, and not just remain a temporary side gig.

Wildlife art

I interviewed a lot of wildlife artists around the country including Abhisheka KrishnaGopal, Sangeetha Kadur, Rohan Chakraborty and Pooja Gupta. Conversations with them made me realise the impact of their work. It is through joy and beauty that they were able to spark conversations around the subject. I also realised that it was this very joy and beauty that had allowed me to connect with my audience through my early work.

Soon after, two of my friends Abhisheka KrishnaGopal and Veena Basavarajaiah invited me to be part of a dance project called ‘how to be a fig’. In this performance, a group of homemakers, engineers, dancers and scientists danced to the ecology of figs based on the book Ladders to Heaven by Mike Shanahan. We were the tempest one minute, a fighting monkey the other, and a growing branch another. The response from the audience was so strong and emotional that I realised the real power of art. It transforms the performer and the observer. It is a beautiful medium of exchange of ideas. That experience still defines my understanding of what it means to be an artist.

This understanding of art as a force evokes and provokes a lot of my work.

A water colour depiction of ‘calcium signalling’ — how calcium ions communicate and drive intercellar processes.

Ipsa Jain

 

Life vs. hydra: This water colour painting is a take on Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt’s ‘Life and Death’. Here, death meets ‘immortal’ hydra.

Ipsa Jain

Understanding science visualisation

In one of my first illustration gigs, I created graphics for the web page of Dr. Arjun Guha at Instem, Bengaluru. As we discussed his work, I began thinking with the physicality of anatomy in mind. Drawing can force you to think differently. I got to read about the beautiful work of other science visualisers, including David Goodsell, Drew Berry and Graham Johnson. They incorporate a lot of science in making images. The end product often throws up new scientific questions and hypothesis.

I once attended a talk by Italian science visualiser Monica Zoppè. She said something extremely profound and I paraphrase it here. When we think like scientists, we think within the pragmatic constraints of resources and techniques. When we visualise our science, we are forced to think without these constraints. And if we come up with new ideas and questions, we are forced to push the boundaries of our techniques to answer these questions.

I got to experience these ideas first hand as a postdoctoral fellow in the lab of Minhaj Sirajuddin at InStem. Collaboratively, I worked on drawing a molecular motor with French digital animator Renaud Chabrier and biologist Carsten Janke at the Insititut Curie in Orsay, France. While summarising data into a pencil drawing, I found that the existing information on molecular motion didn’t match reports from structural data. I asked these questions to leading researchers in the field (unpublished data).

Renaud Chabrier exposed me to more ideas on how to incorporate science into a drawing. He taught me that while portraying information that is still under study or has an element of doubt, use faint strokes, and for established data use solid lines. I still use this trick all the time!

Pencil drawing trying to understand the form of a molecular motor.

Ipsa Jain

I also got exposed to the work of Gemma Anderson, a drawing practitioner who works with scientists and organises drawing labs for science students. Her work doesn’t rely on conventional iconography but recreates these forms and asks newer questions in the process. She coaxes scientists to contextualise their work in a space and time matrix. My dream would be to do similar work with Indian labs, where we use drawing exercises to think about our subjects differently.

Practising science communication

As my ideas grew from joy to information-driven image making, I found myself asking what “sciart” means. Where and how does it overlap with science communication and with science visualization?

Luckily my postdoc project allowed me to ask this very question on a daily basis. We are making a book for young adults on colouration in animals and how quickly these colours change. The idea is to discuss behaviour, anatomy, physiology and molecular processes in one book. The research is based on science and the images (particularly microscopic) are direct interpretation of available data. But I often have to balance clarity with accuracy to highlight the story. While the images are informed by science, they do not incorporate all details. This experience has taught me that the content and images we need to tell a story also depend on the intent and the audience.

A water colour painting of a melanocyte with pigment aggregated at the centre.

Ipsa Jain

In a project last year, I asked what a cell is. I realised that the textbook definition is incomplete in so many ways. In trying to find a more nuanced answer, I interacted with college students from fields other than science. From my drawings, some of them interpreted the distribution of internal structures differently — they felt that organelles are different at different depths, and the shape of the cell changes from top to bottom. Some figured out the polarity of the cell. Some were even able to identify and predict relationships between organelles. For example, they noticed how mitochondria (the energy making organelles) were closely related to the periphery of the cell where cilia, the structures that drive the motion of the cell, are located.

Mixed media depiction compares the form and interior of an orange with Tetrahymena, a unicellular organism.

Ipsa Jain

I am a great believer in sharing what I learn without waiting to acquire expertise in it. I have been conducting workshops on science illustration and graphic design for scientists. I also use art classes as an excuse to talk about some scientific concepts.

At a students’ course called ‘Art of Being’ in St. Joseph’s College, Bengaluru, we have been discussing how observation-based drawing can be used to learn about a subject. The course, attended by both science and economics students challenges me to think about my own ideas, and the students to think of the science (and other subjects) differently. How does an illustrator choose to represent certain information, and hide some? How does that affect the perception we create about the subject? How do we know about time while looking at schematic art or a drawing? How does our inherent bias affect the collection of data? These are some of the questions we ask.

At a science illustration workshop, students copied an artwork by American biologist-artist David Goodsell. Each chose to highlight different aspects of the drawing reflecting that science visualisers could choose to see or show different things.

Ipsa Jain

I am hoping to engage with science and design students on observation and documentation, which remain the essence of the scientific process. I hope to bring them together to ask newer questions and seek newer answers. As a freelancer, I hope to collaborate with more scientists and visualise their science.

[Ipsa Jain can be reached at ipsajain.31@gmail.com. Some of her work is at www.ipsawonders.com.]

Suggested reading:

SciArt scribbles: Science, history and comics

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

Announcing winners of NI Photo Contest 2019

The winners of the Nature India photo contest 2019 have now been chosen after a week of unprecedented activity on the Indigenus blog and our social media channels (Facebook and Twitter ). A global jury, comprising members of the Nature Research editorial and design teams as well as an independent scientist, has given their verdict.

The photographs have been judged for their adherence to this year’s theme ‘Food’, for their creative thinking, quality and print worthiness.

The winner of the Nature India photo contest 2019 is:

Partha Pratim Sahafrom Kolkata, West Bengal, India

for his strong image ‘Dry day catch’, which focuses on the relationship between climate and food and emphasises the importance of water bodies as sources of nutrition.

Partha Pratim Saha

In Partha Pratim’s words: “Shilabati is a rain fed river in Eastern India. Many fishermen depend on this river for their catch in the rainy season. But in summers, the river dries up. Fishermen are then unable to use their boats in the shallow water. In these dry seasons, they go down to the level of the river bed and use hand nets for fishing the traditional way.”

The second winner is:

Avijit Ghosh from Kolkata, West Bengal, India

with his picture ‘Empowering meal’, which puts into warm-hearted focus the vital relationship between nutrition and healthy development.

Avijit Ghosh

Avijit says, “In many parts of rural India, school students are given mid-day meals. These free lunches for children in primary and upper primary classes are an innovative scheme to help children get nutrition while also incentivising their school attendance. This scheme exemplifies how food can be used as a means of empowering communities – both through nutrition and education.

The third prize winner is:

Owais Rashid Hakiem, New Delhi, India.

for his image ‘Fishy business’, which highlights the important issue of quality control in raw food products.

Owais Rashid Hakiem

Owais Rashid says, “During the festive season, consumers pay little attention to the quality or freshness of food products as markets are flooded with a variety of options. Just like vegetable buyers, fish and meat eaters can judge the quality of their raw food with some tell-tale signs. This photograph was captured near the Chittaranjan Park fish market in Delhi during the Durga Puja festival.

Many congratulations to the winners!

The winners of the Nature India photo contest 2019 will get a cash awards ($350, $250 and $200 respectively). They will receive a copy of the Nature India Annual Volume 2018 and a bag of goodies (including Collector’s first issues of Nature and Scientific American and some other keepsakes) from the Nature Research. One of the winning entries also stands a chance of being featured on the cover of a forthcoming print publication.

Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #10

And here’s presenting the last finalist in the Nature India Photo Contest 2019:

Sudip Maiti, Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
Photo caption: Annapurna

Sudip Maiti

“A farm woman works in her field of cabbage in rural West Bengal. Annapurna is the goddess of food in Indian mythology. This woman represents the millions of farm women who silently work in India’s farmlands to grow fresh produce. They work doubly hard – in the fields and at home tending to their families. Their hard work should teach us never to take the food on our plates for granted.” — Sudip Maiti

Congratulations Sudip for getting your second picture into the top 10 shortlist!

That brings us to the final picture in the 2019 Nature India Photo Contest shortlist. Watch this space for the announcement of the winners in the coming week.

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.

Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #9

And now we bring you finalist number nine in the Nature India Photo Contest 2019:

Barun Kumar Thakur, Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
Photo caption: Small pleasures

“A little girl shares with her brother an ice-cream she got from a generous passer-by at a handicraft fair in Kolkata. Human beings’ emotional connect to food is very strong. We seem to remember and recall foods or meals that come attached with some sort of emotion. ” — Barun Kumar Thakur

Welcome to the top 10 shortlist, Barun!

Watch this space as we announce our last finalist soon.

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.

Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #8

Rolling out the finalist number eight in the Nature India Photo Contest 2019:

Yudhajit Bhattacharjee, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India.
Photo caption: Carnival of food

Yudhajit Bhattacharjee

“This is a Bengali festival thaali (platter) served during Durga Puja. Festivals are times when people reinvent their relationship with food. Festival food repertoires are designed to be rich and much. They reflect the human need for happiness and merry making and use food, among other things, to satisfy that need.” — Yudhajit Bhattacharjee

Congratulations for getting into the top 10 shortlist, Yudhajit!

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.

Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #7

Here is the finalist number seven in the Nature India Photo Contest 2019:

Sandeep Nema, Madhya Pradesh, India.
Photo caption: Square meal

Aadi Kumar

“An Indian village woman cooks a basic meal for her family on a makeshift wood-fired chulha . As the poor cannot afford expensive raw material or means of cooking, they cook and consume whatever is available for survival, without much care for nutrition or hygiene. These meals mostly consist of a source of carbohydrate, typically rice. On a lucky day, the platter may have some lentils or a smattering of vegetables. This picture was taken in suburban Jabalpur, Madhya Pradesh.” — Sandeep Nema

Welcome to the top 10 shortlist, Sandeep!

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.

Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #6

Time to announce the finalist number six in the Nature India Photo Contest 2019:

Partha Pratim Saha, Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
Photo caption: Dry day catch

“Shilabati is a rain fed river in Eastern India. Many fishermen depend on this river for their catch in the rainy season. But in summers, the river dries up. Fishermen are then unable to use their boats in the shallow water. In these dry seasons, they go down to the level of the river bed and use hand nets for fishing the traditional way.” — Partha Pratim Saha.

Congratulations for entering the top 10 shortlist, Partha Pratim!

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.

Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #5

And here’s finalist number five in the Nature India Photo Contest 2019:

Avijit Ghosh, Kolkata, West Bengal, India.
Photo caption: Empowering meal

Avijit Ghosh

“In many parts of rural India, school students are given mid-day meals. These free lunches for children in primary and upper primary classes are an innovative scheme to help children get nutrition while also incentivising their school attendance. This scheme exemplifies how food can be used as a means of empowering communities – both through nutrition and education.” — Avijit Ghosh

Welcome to the top 10 shortlist, Avijit!

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.

Nature India Photo Contest 2019: Finalist #4

It’s time now to unveil the finalist number four in the Nature India Photo Contest 2019:

Owais Rashid Hakiem, National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi, India.
Photo caption: Fishy business

Owais Rashid Hakiem

“During the festive season, consumers pay little attention to the quality or freshness of food products as markets are flooded with a variety of options. Just like vegetable buyers, fish and meat eaters can judge the quality of their raw food with some tell-tale signs. This photograph was captured near the Chittaranjan Park fish market in Delhi during the Durga Puja festival.” — Owais Rashid Hakiem

Congratulations Owais for being selected in the top 10 shortlist!

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.