Karishma S Kaushik, an Assistant Professor and Ramalingaswami Fellow at the Institute of Bioinformatics and Biotechnology in Savitribai Phule Pune University turned the pandemic into an opportune time to spur children’s interest in science, including her own son’s.
My phone pinged in the middle of the session. It was a message from my almost 10-year-old son. “Spelling mistake in slide 36. Instead of 1st you wrote ist” – the message read. I chuckled. Here I was, conducting a summer science quiz for children and their families across India, and getting instant feedback from the next room in the house. This was a heart-warming moment. It effortlessly represented how in a pandemic-stricken year, science outreach bridged my worlds as a scientist and a mother.
The pandemic forced a nation-wide lockdown in India in March 2020. It was around this time that my research colleague Snehal Kadam and I co-founded Talk to a Scientist. Schools were closed and I was giving informal science lessons to my son at home. He had so many questions – What is this virus? What is a pandemic? Why do we need to wear masks? Does the virus spread through food? As our science conversations gathered steam, I saw an opportunity in this rather distressful time to get children interested in, and excited about, science. I asked my son, “Do you think other kids your age, your friends for example, would be keen to talk to a scientist about all that is going on?” He was excited, “That would be great mom, but not just COVID, other topics as well.”
The first session of our webinar series went live on March 30, 2020, befittingly on COVID-19 for kids. Snehal and I made the visual content for the session, and I ran it by my son. He made edits and suggestions, and we got ready to roll. We expected 5 children to show up, and I was counting on my son and his cousins to be three of them. Much to our surprise and excitement, we had 75 children from across India join in. On popular demand, we started a weekly webinar for young minds.
The project has grown, and my son and I have spent hours brainstorming. For a session on medicines, he asked us to change the word ‘drug’ to ‘medicine’ on the slides. ‘Kids should not think you are talking about those kinds of ‘drugs’ that make people woozy, mom!” he said. I laughed and thought, my son is growing up. When I suggested a theme for a season, he would quickly come up with names from among my colleagues to be the guest scientists. “What about that scientist who works on peafowls, you shared a room with her in the Delhi conclave?” He has been a part of my professional life through conversations and conference books I brought back home, and now he was using it all to contribute to our outreach programme!
On the momentous occasion of us winning a grant to grow the platform, he stood near me, jumping with excitement, as I called Snehal to tell her the good news. Through weekly sessions spread over one year, he has enjoyed doing small jobs for the outreach – suggesting new features in the website, ideating for hands-on sessions with home supplies (as a parent myself, I did not want families to go out shopping for supplies in the middle of a pandemic), checking for typos in the slides, and sending flyers and posters to his school friends. For him, the ownership and importance of being a part of a national outreach programme has been thrilling. I would like to think that he will grow up to remember how it all started, with a casual conversation between us at home, and the time we spent together growing it in what was otherwise a tough year.
For me, in a year filled with professional uncertainties, pressures of working from home and home-schooling, science outreach has been a beautiful amalgam of my roles as a scientist and a mother. When the world was turning to science for answers, the scientist in me wanted to contribute to science outreach and education in the country, by sharing the process of scientific discovery and its power to transform lives and livelihoods. That I could co-create this with my son made this initiative even more special. Since the time I was a pregnant PhD student, determined to balance my life and career as a scientist and mother, I have day-dreamed scenarios where my son and I would talk about scientific advances, when he would join me on conference trips, and even imagined the possibility of us working together some day. I would like to believe that ‘Talk to a Scientist’ is the beginning of this journey.
While there have been numerous fun moments, one has been extra special. In the middle of one of the sessions, I caught my son taking a snack break in the kitchen. I looked at him questioningly, “Why are you not attending the webinar?” He replied matter-of-factly, “Your slides got a little boring mom, I will help you make better ones for next week”.
In addition to correcting typos, such no-filter feedback has been part of the deal!