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.

SciArt scribbles: Crowdsourcing oral history of India’s science

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.

Are memories of the generation that transformed India’s science in the 20th century fast fading away? Do India’s contributions get lost in the predominantly western storytelling of science? Jahnavi Phalkey, historian of science and the founding director of Science Gallery Bengaluru, says a new public repository is all set to correct this by documenting the oral history of India’s science.

Jahnavi Phalkey

Science Gallery Bengaluru

The concept of a well-documented ‘intergenerational conversation’ – where one generation passes on their expertise, anecdotes and experiences to the next – is grossly missing in India’s science. While transformative ideas revolutionised the country’s science and engineering in the 20th century, not many in the present generation of scientists might recollect the people behind those sparks.

To preserve these nuggets from history, my team and I at the Science Gallery Bengaluru are putting together a public archive of India’s science. Called Re:Collect, this crowd-sourced online repository will house recordings of conversations with free India’s first generation of scientists, engineers, and laboratory technicians about their life and times, giving us a peek into an era gone by. In short, we will document memories of science in action.

The repository is India’s first attempt to draw on the public’s curiosity, especially of the young, to unearth, document, and appreciate India’s rich science and technology history. Our inspiration came from two highly successful volunteer driven public digital archives – P Sainath’s People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) and Guneeta Singh Bhalla’s 1947 Partition Archive.

What Sainath  says about the need for a people’s archive is equally true for the history of science in India, “Without any systematic record, visual or oral, to educate us – let alone motivate us – to save this incredible diversity, we are losing worlds and voices … of which future generations will know little or nothing.”

We will plug into a network of institutional archives willing to accept documents and objects we discover. Our first institutional chapter will be hosted at the Archives and Publication Cell, Indian Institute of Science (IISc), shortly to be followed by another chapter at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras (IITM).

Positioning India in the global science narrative

The story of science is mostly told as a story of Europe and North America. Stories and contributions from India and other parts of the world are lost in this narrative. We thought about how we might be able to change that skew.

While it was heartening to see new institutional archives opening their wares up, we found very few oral histories and no significant collection of personal papers of scientists and engineers. Such material is essential to write the history of scientific practice, credible biographies and thought-provoking prosopographies such as Gary Wersky’s The Visible College: The Collective Biography of British Scientific Socialists of the 1930s (1978), Marwa Elshakry’s Reading Darwin in Arabic, 1850-1930 (2013) and Michael Boulter’s more recent Bloomsbury Scientists: Science and Art in the Wake of Darwin (2017).

Not too long ago, at the Science Museum London, I worked on what was dubbed as a blockbuster exhibition on India for which I was looking for interesting objects and stories behind them. Given my research in history of science, I knew it would be difficult, though I did not then appreciate just how much! King’s College London, where I was employed at the time, came to the rescue with seed funding for research on the exhibition and this is how Re:Collect was born. 

The process of archiving

Through the initial seed fund from King’s, I created a list of over 1,000 senior scientists and engineers born before India’s Independence in 1947, organised by their current city of domicile. Based on our learning from comparable projects, science communicator Shaun O’Boyle, designer Madhushree Kamak and I developed handbooks to generate material for the project. We have an established protocol for audio and audio-visual recording of interviews in laboratories, for creating their audio-summaries and transcripts, and for documenting objects and instruments of historical interest.

Re:Collect India will be driven by the young and not-so-young volunteers  ̶  they could be students, scientists, historians, artists or anyone interested in the history of science and technology in India. These volunteers will interview the first generation of free India’s scientists, engineers, and technicians preferably in their laboratories or field-site. They may even video record the interview as long as it adheres to the standards specified by the protocol. We want to encourage the need to listen to and capture the stories that these interviewees want to tell.

Field experiments are tricky and often throw up hilarious moments. Re:Collect will capture the joy of doing experimental research. In this photo, meteorologist Anna Mani works with a colleague on a radiosonde, a balloon-borne weather-measuring equipment.

World Meteorological Organization

The conversations will essentially capture the enthusiasm, challenges, setback, struggles of teaching, conducting research, establishing disciplines, institutions, and building equipment in India after Independence. We will encourage the documentation of objects in teaching and research. The resulting conversations about scientific practice will become an oral history archive, and also generate an object inventory.

India’s voices in science

As India comes under the spotlight in what promises to be the Asian century, general recognition of India’s struggles and accomplishments in science remains woefully inadequate both at home and abroad. This global lack of awareness is untenable especially when India is being seen as an engineering powerhouse with huge potential in scientific research.

Our archive, therefore, will have three strands – a digital public archive of people in science, an inventory of historical objects in teaching and research, and an open access exhibition website with stories of science in action. In due course, we would like to add full text official and credible reports related to science and engineering in India. As a bonus, we hope the process will help generate donations of personal papers and objects to institutional archives.

The Re:Collect experience and our online orientation workshops will help volunteers develop useful new skills. Our citizen archivists may want to become storytellers and vice versa. We would, of course, respect the interviewees’ intellectual ownership of their story, and always acknowledge the volunteer’s contributions.

Re.Collect will capture the collective energy and camaraderie that builds and pushes the pursuit of science. Rajeshvari Chatterjee (centre), the first woman engineer from Indian Institute of Science, works with colleagues at the Department of Electrical Communication Engineering.) 

APC, IISc

Institutions of science and their archives, especially in India, are seldom accessible to the layperson. Moreover, written documents fail to capture the excitement, the tragedy and the occasional triumph of everyday science. Video and spoken-word recordings of conversations, accompanying historical and contemporary photographs, and supporting documents are, therefore, more appropriate as public resources.

Besides the collaborations with IISc and IITM, we are exploring partnerships with universities in India and abroad to host the website and the digital repository. We will also be actively seeking collaborations with people who can use materials from the repository for research, writing, filmmaking, and pedagogy.

As people across generations meet and talk to each other, the young will meet the experienced. The stories shared will shed light on institution building and leadership in science, on the trials and travails of doing experimental research in India  ̶  all immensely useful learning for an early career scientist or an engineer. Moreover, the material itself will lay the foundations for future history writing; and more generally, the project will help create a historical sensibility around science in India.

[Jahnavi Phalkey is the author of Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth Century India, and director-producer of the film Cyclotron.]

Suggested reading:

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 the India Science Media Fellows 2019

Nature India and the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance (India Alliance) have chosen the first batch of India Science Media Fellows (2019), who will receive a fellowship of INR one lakh each over the next six months to publish or broadcast media stories on life sciences, biomedicine, application-based or basic biological research, and health.

Here is the first batch of ISMF Fellows, chosen through a highly competitive process that invited applications from across India:

 

Aditya Bidwai

Aditya Bidwai

Aditya Bidwai, Chief Sub Editor and Web presenter at Aajtak.in with the India Today Group in New Delhi. Aditya has been covering global environment issues, politics, medicine, and government policies for over seven years now.

Archana Jyoti

 

Archana Jyoti, Special Correspondent, The Pioneer newspaper, New Delhi. Archana has been covering the health, science, environment, and social welfare beats for media houses such as Press Trust of India, Asian Age and The Pioneer for more than 15 years.

Muhammad Sulhaf K

 

Muhammed Sulhaf K is a Sub Editor with Madhyamam Daily in Calicut, Kerala. He has over a decade of experience in communicating science in the regional Malayalam language media houses.

Paramananda Barman

Paramananda Barman

Paramananda Barman, Resident Editor, Research Matters, Gubbi Labs, New Delhi. Paramananda also manages their Assamese language section. He writes on life sciences and covers diverse areas such as health, medicine, ecology and environment and applied biology.

Rabia Noor

Rabia Noor

Rabia Noor, freelance journalist at Greater Kashmir and Assistant Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at the Islamic University of Science and Technology, Kashmir. Rabia has also worked with the Zee News Srinagar Bureau, Kashmir Speaks and Kashmir Affairs.

Congratulations to the ISMF 2019 fellows!

The India Science Media Fellowships (ISMF) were launched on the eve of India’s National Science Day 2019. The fellowships aim to boost the coverage of science in the Indian media, and consequently enrich the public understanding of and engagement with science and related policy issues. The fellowship is designed to support Indian journalists to build a body of science-based journalistic work.

The fellowship will also provide a platform for the Fellows to connect with science and communication experts, to receive mentorship on the nuances of science journalism and the dynamics of impactful science reportage.

A professional doctorate for a career beyond academics

In today’s guest post, Anushika Bose, an alumna of the University of Delhi, shares her journey as a researcher in the area of renewable energy, and her unusual choice of  a ‘professional doctorate’.

Anushika did a PhD from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany, while being associated as a visiting scholar at the Humboldt University of Berlin. What prompted her choice, what does such an association mean and how is it different from a doctorate in an academic University? Read on.

Anushika Bose

Science was not my first love

Frankly, I wasn’t interested in science or medicine to begin with. I wanted to study law and work as a corporate lawyer. But for my Bengali parents, the definition of education was simply “science”. They steered me into science but left me to get as creative as I could with the subject. I prepared to sit in the medical entrance examinations in India but got through dental sciences only. As I was aware of my pathetic practical hand, clubbed with the fear of not performing well (and keeping in mind the general well-being of humanity), I chose not to go ahead with it.

Despite the decision, the fascination of having the initial “Dr.” prefixed to my name lurked at the back of my mind.

I enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in science from the University of Delhi, where studying about the environment and its ordeals fascinated me. After a master’s in environment management, I got a scholarship from the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD) to do a PhD in Germany. I was 23. I knew it was too early, but I could not miss the chance. I felt a bit awkward amidst my fellow scholarship awardees, all of whom had previous research experience and publications in international journals.

Studying smart, eco-friendly energy

As a research scholar at Humboldt University in Berlin, I worked on environmentally smart and safe deployment of wind energy infrastructure across landscapes, specifically minimising the direct collision of birds with turbines, thereby keeping green energy as green as possible.

Well aware of the urgent utility of my research, I applied for recognition from the United Nations for a visiting PhD and simultaneously worked as a scientist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, Germany.

It worked for me because of an existing system of cooperation between universities and research organisations in Germany. Scholars who join a research organisation for a PhD get associated to a professor (with a similar research background or interest) in a University. In such cases we serve the organisation and its projects. The scientific publication generated from these projects (authored by the scholars), published mostly in international peer-reviewed journals, is also compiled later to form a thesis. The scholar then defends his/her research by means of this thesis in the University and gets a doctoral degree from the University. The best part of such an association is that the years you spend doing research are counted as both work experience and academic record.

I came back to India to head the geospatial analytics wing of a renewable energy research and analytics firm based in Gurgaon, Haryana. We address the various technical, strategic and commercial challenges that the renewables industry faces, with a particular emphasis on risks and uncertainties at each stage of the value chain. We envision helping economies integrate renewable energy into their energy mix using our analytical platforms for a cleaner, sustainable and better tomorrow.

The German experience

At UFZ, I focused on environmentally safe and smart spatial planning of renewable energy infrastructures across the German landscape. My objective was to see how both the environment and people could benefit from sustainable use of wind energy.

UFZ’s approach of working with a global focus suited my career portfolio. Their research was through integration and synthesis of results on-ground, which was helpful when I later tried replicating the strategies in India. UFZ  gives young environmental science researchers ample freedom and insight into integrative research, alongside preparing them for political and managerial careers.

I also liked the flexible, no-fuss, punctuality-driven work environment. I loved the ‘work hard, party harder’ culture, where weekend planning begins by 2 p. m. on Fridays. The segregation of private and work life – no calls, no emails on the weekends, no last minute hassles, nothing ad-hoc – is priceless.

The cultural learning was enriching too – from waiting at traffic lights patiently to sorting trash, from making grocery shopping lists to reading every line in an agreement document before signing. I was amazed at how much the Germans love Indian culture and traditions – they participate in Indian festivals held in major cities there, wearing the Indian attire, relishing our “spicy” food.

The language barrier was never an issue because DAAD made sure we were trained in Deutsch before pursuing research. As far as racism goes, I did hear cases against fellow Indians from time to time though personally I did not face any. Many people confused me as being from the Middle East. Middle Eastern women often came up to me to ask why I haven’t covered my head. There is a substantial Middle Eastern community in Berlin and Leipzig, which maybe the reason I never faced discrimination.

The one challenge I did face was being homesick — especially I lived with my parents all my life. I missed family, food and friends, strictly in that order, during my time outside the country.

Academic vs. professional doctorate

Another challenge was pursuing a professional doctorate from a research organisation instead of a university. In general, a doctorate prepares one for an academic career, while a professional doctorate is geared more towards a professional career. While professional doctorates may hold an adjunct or even regular faculty position at Universities, the reverse is not true. This was my primary motivation behind opting for professional doctorate. All doctoral programmes, however, require coursework and an individual research project. The one at the University requires comprehensive exams and may include residencies, which is mostly not the case at research organisations.

The primary difference between these two types of doctorates is the type of research. University doctorates have a guided set up with assistance from professors, postdocs and fellow PhDs. Professional doctorate students, on the other hand, are expected to expand and apply existing knowledge and research to existing problems in their professional fields, often not with much guidance. A professional doctorate is counted under both work experience and educational experience. It benefits both ways but comes with an enormous pressure to perform and publish just as fellow experienced scientist colleagues.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue any of these types of doctorates should be based on assessing one’s career goals and how one plans to use the degree to meet these goals.

A postdoc is an individual choice. My focus had always been more towards a professional career instead of purely academics. Though scholarships and positions for postdocs exist in Germany, they expect a brilliant publication record and an equally good PhD research experience. This is mostly possible if you have worked in the same lab or institution and under the same project, preferably under the same supervisor/professor. Therefore, it is a common practice to absorb a graduating PhD from a lab as a postdoc in the same lab.

I would suggest aspiring Indian students to look for collaborations with their institutes/organisations here and the desired organisations in Germany. India’s Department of Science and Technology and the German government promote such joint research initiatives, allowing institutes and collaborators to connect.

Back Home

Back home now, my research is majorly into renewable energy development projects, primarily to guide India towards a renewable energy transition. The easy availability of technicalities from countries like Germany could facilitate India’s rapid energy transition into a future CO2 neutral economy in India.

Joint research initiatives could allow German institutes and collaborators to connect and utilise their expertise gathered over decades, monitor the results on a different soil, and gain international experience through collaborations with India.

My pursuit remains to stay well connected and incorporated with my work in both the countries.

[Anushika Bose can be contacted at bose.anushka21@gmail.com]

SciArt scribbles: CRISPR and the smell of rain

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 .

Mukund Thattai, a physicist practicing biology at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), talks to us about bio-art and how some bio-artists from Bangalore are challenging scientists’ new-found power to edit life.

Mukund Thattai

Genetically enhanced humans have long been a staple of science fiction. He Jiankui’s announcement in November 2018 of the birth the world’s first genome-edited babies drew flak for flouting ethical norms governing the use of genome editing technologies. This wasn’t the first time scientists had used the DNA cutting-and-pasting tool known as CRISPR to modify genes in embryos. It was, however, the first time such embryos had been implanted and brought to term in their mothers’ womb. The modifications introduced into the twins’ genomes confer no medical benefit, and may even cause harm. It is an irreversible human tragedy: the baby girls, who never asked for this, will spend the rest of their lives as scientific specimens.

Nevertheless, genome editing is here to stay. Will we learn how to use this technology responsibly?

This is the central question that animates iGEM, the International Genetically Engineered Machines Competition. Inspired by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) robotics competitions, iGEM looks at a future in which engineering and biology are indistinguishable. What would happen if we could build new types of cells?

I was at MIT in the early 2000s when iGEM was founded. Though I was doing a PhD in the physics department, I’d grown fascinated with biology. Across campus in the computer science department, Tom Knight and Drew Endy were thinking about how to bring notions of abstraction and design to biological engineering. In 2003, they threw out an inspiring challenge to MIT undergrads: could they engineer bacteria that would blink like Christmas lights? The very next year, undergrads from five US universities tried their hand at engineering cells. In 2005, 13 undergrad teams from the US, Canada, the UK, and Switzerland participated in the first international iGEM at MIT, in what has now become an annual jamboree of creations for student teams from around the world.

Science with a dose of fantasy

iGEMmers think of cells as computers, running an operating system that provides basic functions such as the ability to replicate DNA, translate genes into proteins, and convert nutrients into energy. Designer genes are like applications running on top of the operating system. iGEM teams remix components known as BioBricks, an enormous collection of DNA-based “standard biological parts” that give cells new chemical and physical abilities. Over the years iGEM has featured applications that allow cells to keep time, store a digital bit of information, sense toxic chemicals, and carry out basic computations.

The ethos of iGEM, and indeed of the entire synthetic biology community, has always included a culture of openness, sharing, and excitement for science, coupled with rigorous engineering and ethical practice. In the early 2000s, iGEM embodied a bracing and idealistic vision of our biological future, with a dose of fantasy. At the time our actual ability to manipulate genomes was rather limited. With the advent of CRISPR, this has now changed.

From 2012 to 2014 He Jiankui was the leader of the Southern University of Science and Technology (SUSTC) iGEM team. In December 2018, the iGEM Foundation released this statement: “We are stunned and disappointed by Dr. He’s actions, particularly as a former iGEM team leader. Conducting human genome engineering – and further, doing so without proper research or backing from the broader scientific community – is a clear violation of iGEM’s standards as well as those of the scientific community at large. Had this project been proposed within the iGEM competition, it would have been disqualified for violating iGEM’s policies.”

The power of genome editing is rapidly outpacing our ability to predict its effects or regulate its practice. To deal with this monumental challenge, biologists will need to go far beyond the routine laboratory spaces in which they operate. They will need to partner with historians, social scientists, ethicists and artists. An energetic collective of bio-artists is leading the charge.

Making bacteria that evoke petrichor

In 2009, a group of art students from Bangalore stood before the iGEM judging panel describing an unusual summer project: to construct bacteria that would synthesise geosmin, the substance responsible for the evocative smell of the first monsoon rains. The team’s presentation documented their journey of discovery, as they learned the language and techniques of the life sciences and explored its cultural, ethical, and aesthetic implications. As one of their team leaders, I sat nervously in the back row. My nervousness evaporated when we received thunderous applause from a packed hall. One of the iGEM judges declared: “This changes the way I think about synthetic biology.”

Here’s a little back story to this extraordinary scene.

In 2004, I relocated from MIT to India to set up a synthetic biology lab at the NCBS in Bangalore. Reshma Shetty, an MIT graduate student working with Drew Endy, and I discussed how to put together an iGEM team from India. In the summer of 2006 I ran an open workshop called “A crash course in designer biological networks” to overwhelming response. We assembled an NCBS student team that brainstormed on the kinds of “genetic circuits” that could be built. We zeroed in on one old classic idea: teaching cells to blink. But then we confronted the messiness of biology: all the circuits we built expressed the right proteins and seemed to be correctly assembled, but did not do what they were supposed to.

The team went to MIT as the first from India, and competed with 31 others, only to report three negative results. These were later published in a paper which (to my great surprise) has actually been cited! (In 2012 Navneet Rai, a student guided by K.V. Venkatesh at IIT Bombay and me, finally succeeded in making blinking cells as part of his PhD research).

The iGEM atmosphere was electric, and each one of us came away with a lifelong memory of being present at the start of something big.

Next year, with help from a summer research fellows programme at Indian Academy of Sciences, I assembled a team of six undergraduate students from six Indian institutions. Our project was a proof of principle: “How to build and test a genetically engineered machine in six weeks”. 2008 saw a group of IIT Madras students mentored by their professor Guhan Jayaraman, raise funds with institute alumnus and biotech entrepreneur Shrikumar Suryanarayanan. The team was judged as having the “Best Foundational Advance” at iGEM 2008, and got a special prize for the “Best Engineered BioBrick device”. Many members of this team went on to co-found, with Suryanarayanan, the biotech company Sea6 Energy.

Later IIT Madras iGEM teams have also had great success: the 2011 team was awarded the “Best New BioBrick Part” for a light-induced pump, and in 2013 it received the award for “Best Human Practices”. Since iGEM 2009, which involved 100 teams from 25 countries, multiple teams from India have made consistent appearances each year. Credit for this goes to iGEM mentors across the country, and also to India’s Department of Biotechnology, which encourages and supports the teams through the Indian Biological Engineering Competition (iBEC).

Breaking boundaries

At iGEM 2009, we broke many boundaries.

I had just started working with Yashas Shetty from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore. Yashas combines art and technology, pushing the boundaries of synthesis and sensation. He wondered whether a living piece of art would be an appropriate iGEM project, something that could provoke and inspire people to think about biology. He then narrowed down the problem, asking: “Could we make a biological device that can influence human emotions?” Out of this was born the “Smell of Rain” project. Yashas and his students landed up in my lab, where they learned molecular biology under Navneet’s experienced stewardship, and formally signed up as iGEM contenders. Describing themselves as “outsiders” in a competition dominated by engineers and scientists, the very existence of the team was a unique experiment in art-science collaboration.

It marked the beginning of an unusual and fruitful collaboration between NCBS and Srishti, under the provocative name ArtScienceBangalore. Building on their “Smell of Rain” success, in 2010 the students imagined a “post-natural ecology” exploring the interactions of genetically-engineered bacteria and worms on a petri-dish, in collaboration with Sandhya Koushika and her student Sunaina Surana at NCBS.

In 2011 the team went even further with their project “Searching for the ubiquitous genetically engineered machine”. They imagined a far future in which bioengineered cells from iGEM covered the planet. How could we tell what was natural and what was artificial then, if we did not establish a baseline today? The students sampled ecosystems across the state of Karnataka, including urban, rural, and forest areas, and used a sensitive method called PCR to search for any evidence of BioBricks in the environment. They did not find any, implying that any future BioBricks in the wild must come from human activity. This foundational effort was awarded the “Best Human Practices Advance”, with the judges particularly praising the role of art-science engagement.

These ArtScienceBangalore projects have gone on to win honourable mentions at the prestigious Prix Ars Electronica prizes, and are currently displayed at the Science Gallery in Dublin.

Does science belong just to scientists?

The idea that artists should be taught molecular biology strikes some scientists as frivolous, and appears to others as dangerous. Is it a worthy use of genetic engineering to make bacteria that can evoke the smell of rain? Why should non-scientists – “outsiders” – be trusted with these hard-won powers? But by the same token, it is reasonable to ask why scientists should be trusted with these very powers.

Scientists and inventors have used genetic engineering to probe the inner workings of cells, as well as to create new medicines, cure diseases and improve crops. The combined benefit of these activities to humanity has been tremendous. In this backdop, cases like He Jiankui’s are an aberration. Nevertheless, the genome-edited baby controversy is a critical opportunity to move the conversation forward.

It is the responsibility of the scientific community to continually earn society’s trust. In this ongoing process, artists have a unique role as observers of the human condition. Bio-artists push the limits of what can be done using the tools of science. They do this to provoke, to make us uncomfortable, to make us think. They do this now, today, so we are forced to imagine and prepare for what might happen in the future.

[Mukund Thattai is at the Simons Centre for the Study of Living Machines, National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. He can be contacted at thattai@ncbs.res.in.]

Suggested reading:

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

India Science Media Fellowships 2019

Nature India and the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance jointly launched the India Science Media Fellowships 2019 on 27 February 2018, the eve of India’s National Science Day, to encourage the coverage of science in the Indian media (press release  here).

The 2019 fellowships are open to Indian journalists interested in reporting on life sciences, specifically biomedicine, application-based or basic biological research and health. The fellowship will provide a grant of INR 100,000 to five grantees selected through a nation-wide call for applications.

Selected fellows will have the opportunity to create a strong body of work in science journalism by publishing or broadcasting stories in their respective media outlets. The larger objective is to enable and enrich public understanding of science and related policy issues through these stories.

Five selected fellows will be invited for a two-day orientation workshop in New Delhi in April 2019. They will have the opportunity to connect with science and communication experts and mentors to discussed nuanced science writing and communication as well as the means and methods of impactful reportage.

Fellowship: The Fellowship is meant to cover expenses incurred for field travel, research and writing/broadcasting. This will be paid in two instalments; one at the beginning of the fellowship and the other on completion of publishing the required number of stories.

Fellowship Themes: Applicants can choose to focus on life sciences, biomedicine, application-based or basic biological research, and health. Media fellows can look at ongoing research in laboratories and centres of higher learning, scientific conferences or peer reviewed science and elsewhere for their story ideas during the fellowship. Possible story sources and mentors will be discussed during the workshop.

Eligibility: Professional journalists, including freelancers, in print, broadcast or new media in English or any Indian regional language, with at least three years of demonstrated experience in writing on science or related issues. Fellows who choose to write in a regional language should be proficient in written English too.

Duration of Fellowship: Six months, during which fellows must complete their submissions.

Fellowship Criteria: Fellows must produce at least five stories (each 1000 words or more) on the selected topic. Two short news items (500 words each) will constitute one story, and if a fellow opts to produce only news stories then ten stories will be required for completion of the fellowship. Similar guidelines will be in place for selected radio, television or multimedia journalists.

Application Deadline: 28 March 2019. Selected applicants will be notified within 15 days.

To apply for the Fellowship, please complete the online application form here: www.bit.do/ISMF2019. Please use only Google Chrome to submit this form.

For enquiries, please write to ISMfellows@gmail.com

Why ‘hike fellowship’ is a recurrent war cry for India’s researchers

Microbiologist Yogesh Chawla was part of the team that led the protests demanding hike in research fellowships in India during 2014-15. He rues in this guest post that not much seems to have changed in the country’s treatment of its research scholars since.

Yogesh Chawla

Following months of agitation by young scientists across India, the Indian government announced a hike in fellowships for research scholars earlier this month (February 2019). The stipends for junior research fellows (JRFs) were raised from a monthly Rs 25,000 to Rs 31,000, and that for senior research fellows (SRFs) from Rs 28,000 to Rs 35,000.

The research scholars have been protesting every few years to bring to light the abysmal pay parity, delayed and irregular disbursal of stipends, semester fee charges, and scarcity of fund allocated to science. The protests typically last for a few months reaching a crescendo on social media, and finally end with the science administration promising and then delivering a hike. India’s current government has enhanced their fellowship twice, almost doubling it from Rs 16,000 in 2014 to Rs. 31,000. It is a step, albeit small, in the right direction to bridge the gap in pay disparity of researchers.

However, the challenges facing India’s research scholar are far from over.

History of protests

During the fellowship hike movement of 2014-15, five of us scholars represented the protesting researchers in negotiations with the institutional authorities and government representatives. Several issues were discussed at length then, and still remain unresolved. Policy changes that were mooted then to streamline the system are still pending. A hike is not the only thing to fulfill the vision of better scientific rigour or improvement in the quality of Indian science. One of the objectives of such fellowship hikes is to attract talent to science disciplines by providing economic emoluments parity, laurels, awards and recognition.

The need of the hour is to have a multi-pronged approach to bring Indian science at par with world standards, to make Indian research relevant to the country’s needs, to transform India into a torch bearer of scientific excellence, technological advancements and innovations. These are important but imposing challenges for India and the country’s science policy is a key tool to overcome them.

Researchers gherao Indian science administrators during a protest to demand hike in fellowships in July 2014.

Rewarding merit

How do we bring rigour into India’s science? Can we have measures to reward scholars – the backbone of our scientific quest – who work tirelessly beyond stipulated office hours? Will rewarding the first author for publishing quality research be a game changer?  Publishing in high impact journals may not be the ultimate or accurate parameter of judging the quality of science but it is a practical parameter. A thorough scientific study in a reputed journal does suggest a work of excellence. Impact factors, citations or the impact of research on problems specific to India can be taken as criteria to judge merit. The overarching idea is to reward hard work, judged and scrutinised for scientific quality and rigour by independent peers. This way, we would be able to bring equity to the hard and diligent work. Any scientific misconduct or falsification of data should be made punishable.

Currently, Indian authors publish around 100,000 articles every year but their average citation impact is around 0.8, which is nearly half of the citation impact of articles published from USA or UK (~1.6)1. Rewards for and equity to good quality work would boost the overall scientific rigour. It wouldn’t cost much to the government exchequer but would certainly impact the morale and enthusiasm of researchers favourably. It could be a robust way to kick start ideas, innovations and excellence. Likewise, universities, departments and institutions should be rewarded for their scientific excellence.

However, when impact factors of publications become the criteria for a reward, they potentially exclude scholars and scientists looking at grass root problems (that may not be very popular research areas but are high on social benefits) or high impact work in a scientific journal. Scholars of such fields should be recognised through other laurels and awards.

Another policy change that may ensure a respectable life for senior researchers wanting to continue research in India is to enhance the fold increase of the fellowships between JRF to SRF and SRF to the postdoctoral level (say, around 1.4 to 1.5-fold of their previous level). SRF and postdoctoral researchers are generally in their late 20s or early 30s, a time they typically start or support a family.

Scholars who earn their PhDs in Indian institutions should be rewarded since many JRFs leave Indian PhD programmes to pursue PhDs in foreign labs or institutes. JRF fellowship shouldn’t be a stop-gap arrangement for aspiring graduates of foreign universities. A JRF scholar who continues research in India and gets promoted to SRF should be rewarded with a healthy raise in stipend to pursue research in India. The same logic applies to postdoctoral fellows.

The long-debated issue of brain drain could have a solution in a good postdoctoral fellowship with independent grants. The Chinese initiatives “Thousand Talents Plan” and “Thousand Youth Talents Plan”2are great examples of how to attract scholars to postdoctoral positions through government grants and fellowships and to pursue them to return and serve home institutions. This way, trained and qualified PhD scientists could fuel the nation’s economic and scientific growth and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cry of “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisaan, Jai Vigyaan and Jai Anusandhaan” would sound real.

  1. India by the numbers
  2. China’s plan to recruit talented researchers

(Yogesh Chawla is a PhD from the National Institute of Immunology, New Delhi and currently a postdoctoral fellow at the Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. He can be contacted at yogi1chawla@gmail.com.)

Announcing winners of NI Photo Contest 2018

The winners of the fifth edition of Nature India photo contest have now been chosen after a week of unprecedented activity on the Indigenus blog and our social media channels (Facebook and Twitter ), and brainstorming by a global jury comprising members of the Nature Research editorial and design teams as well as an independent vector-borne diseases scientist.

The photographs have been judged for their adherence to this year’s theme ‘Vector-borne diseases’, for their creative thinking, quality and print worthiness. They were also rated in part on the engagement they received on social media.

The winner of the Nature India photo contest 2018 is:

Sudip Maitifrom Kolkata, India

for his striking image titled ‘Safe from dengue’, a simple yet powerful message around prevention of vector-borne diseases.

Sudip Maiti

Sudip says this about his image:

Sudip Maiti

This two-year-old boy plays safely inside a mosquito net in Kolkata,West Bengal, India. Over 13,000 people were affected by the vector-borne disease in the State of west Bengal alone in the year 2017, while the official death count reached 30.

As a simple preventive measure, the use of mosquito net is widespread among the residents of this eastern metropolis.

In second position is:

Aditya Kanwal from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Mohali, Punjab, India

with his picture titled ‘The pretty side of mosquitoes‘ that beautifully brings out a not so known facet of the deadly vector. 

Aditya Kanwal

Aditya says:

Aditya Kanwal

Mosquitoes are one of the deadliest animals on Earth. They kill more humans than any other organism does. However, of around 3500 mosquito species, only a few are disease carriers. And only the females bite humans. Most mosquitoes don’t bother humans, and actually play a very important role in our ecosystem. Mosquito adults as well as larvae are important source of food for birds, amphibians and fishes. This means, eradicating them completely may drastically impact the food chain. Mosquitoes are also essential pollinators for many plant species and provide nutrition to some of them such as the pitcher plants.

Therefore, complete removal of mosquitoes may also have detrimental effects on several plant species. Some people argue that it won’t be long before other species occupy the niche. But it takes millions of years for organisms to co-evolve. So in case mosquitoes go extinct, it may take some more sacrifices and a long time for the ecosystem to stabilise.

What the world needs is smarter, targeted strategies to control only the disease-causing species of mosquitoes. Initial trials with genetically modified male mosquitoes, that are unable to carry a vector or produce lethal offspring when they mate, are showing promise. With all the funding that’s going into mosquito research, we may soon have a sane solution to tackle our biggest enemy with minimum collateral damage.

The third prize goes to:

Nitin Gupta, Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India

for his image ‘Mosquito: an accidental killer‘ where he bravely clicked a mosquito feasting on a blood meal on his hand.

Nitin Gupta

Nitin says:

Female mosquitoes bite us because they need blood to nourish their eggs. The bite itself is not harmful: the tiny belly of a mosquito, seen in the photograph, can take no more than a few microliters of blood at a time, while the human body produces 10 times more every minute. What makes the bite dangerous occasionally is what the mosquito leaves behind, which could be a deadly parasite.

The photograph shows a female Culex mosquito gorging on my left hand, which I captured using a camera held in the right hand.

Congratulations to the winners!

The jury also wants to make special mention of the entries by finalists Preethi Krishnamoorthy, Kairamkonda Subhash and K. S. Praveen Kumar, all of whom gave tough competition to the winners.

The winner of the Nature India photo contest 2018 will get a cash award of $350, the second prize is worth $250 and the third $200. The winner and two runners-up will receive a copy of the Nature India Annual Volume 2017 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 a forthcoming print publication.

These winning photos and those of 7 other finalists will be featured in a roving exhibition at four venues in India, details of which we will announce as we firm up these events.