Nature India intern Kate Telma from the Graduate Program in Science Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology reflects on a summer of reporting science in India.
As I made plans to join Nature India this summer, I was met with two questions from fellow students, professors, and friends: Will you be able to get my research into Nature?, followed closely by, Why India?
Over the course of my science writing internship at Nature India, I haven’t been able to fast-track any of my PhD-pursuing friends’ research – I warned them about this before I left Cambridge. But my answer to the second question is still evolving, and only began to crystalise when I started asking others — mostly Indian scientists — why they had chosen India.
Many Indian researchers train abroad at some point in their careers (Indigenus has a whole series interviewing Indian postdocs abroad, ‘Away from home’), and need to make a big decision at the end of their stint away. I asked myself related questions about interning overseas: did I stay in the U.S. and perfect the science writing skills I had learned during my programme, or should I venture away to see how people in other countries communicate science? How far is too far?
One of the scientists I interviewed, Arun Shukla, said the main reason he chose to return and establish his lab in Kanpur was open space. He could be the first to accomplish challenging crystallography experiments in India, but from Europe or the US, he would be only one of a crowd. In many ways, this has also been true in my experience as a science writer in India. Instead of competing with news interns and writers at myriad online science and general publications to break the news of a well-publicised study, I am often the first person to contact scientists about their recent work, even when the embargo was lifted a week ago. Many researchers seem pleasantly surprised by the attention.
This unfamiliarity with the media has played out in amusing ways. While covering one new study, I sent a manuscript version of it to another scientist in the field, requesting his comment on it for my news article. When I called him the next day, he asked what sort of journal I was hoping to publish in, and offered some advice for improving the figures — thinking, perhaps, that I was a researcher hoping for some pre-submission peer review of my original research.
Many of even the largest universities in India don’t have a formal press or communications office, making news of scientific breakthroughs less available to the public. As a reporter, it often takes more effort to find a study by Indian scientists, or to identify a local expert willing to give outside comment. The methods I learned in graduate school — cultivate relationships with press officers, check embargo sites, interview a graduate student or a postdoc, who might have more time to sit down and really explain the research — frequently don’t suffice.
In my experience, the “open space” that Shukla seeks poses another challenge: there simply aren’t scientists in the field who were not also involved with the study, at least in India. For a story about a population genetics study, I wanted to get the perspective of a genetic counsellor who might have actually interacted with the type of patients in question. When I finally located one, he told me his training programme was still so new, there were an estimated 50 licensed genetic counsellors for a country of more than a billion. His time is in high demand, but he was happy to chat.
Enthusiasm for science writing and communication is growing faster than anything I’ve observed in the U.S. While covering an event at the Department of Biotechnology, or visiting the Translational Health Science and Technology Institute in Faridabad, I was invited to give talks to scientists and other writers about “how science writing should be done,” and “how scientists can best communicate.” Protests that I am just a student, and not an authority, go unheard.
The summer has been an exciting time for science in India. In my first couple of weeks in Delhi, India became an associate member of the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility, a huge step forward for accessing cutting edge x-ray crystallography resources. In July, fifteen years of genomics data revealed that several large people groups in South Asia with populations of more than a million arose from just handfuls of ancestors, putting them at risk for population-specific genetic disorders. Clinicians and researchers are turning to both traditional turmeric and an Indian-made leprosy vaccine to fight tuberculosis infections. Resistance — both antibiotic resistance in poultry farms, and quests to track down drug resistant malaria strains — is never far from headlines. As the summer comes to a close, the community has been saddened by the deaths of several of the country’s leading scientists, in fields as far-ranging as molecular biology to space and science popularisation.
The milieu of passionate scientists waiting to share their discoveries presents a world of possibility for aspiring science writers. For me, it’s been more important than ever to write clearly for an audience who might not get news of the latest research anywhere else.