An email buzzed my phone: Volunteer Meeting at 4 pm. I smiled. It was that time of the year again. The silent maze of aisles wrapping our labs will come alive with bustling curiosity, eyes glazed in awe of the grandness of all the shiny things around, heads and hearts absorbing everything the ears get to hear. "Soon," I said to myself. "Hey, Google, set a reminder to go to the auditorium at 3:50 pm". I smiled throughout the entire day. Memories. Ideas. More memories.
Planning and Creating
Just a few months into my PhD program, I was introduced to Open Day - a day when a research institute, university, or any place usually beyond the access of the general public throws its doors open for engagement. One of our faculty members organizes our Open Day each year with fresh PhD students at the helm. 2015 was our turn. She briefed us about the various workshops, exhibits, tours, and activities that are undertaken this day and how it is done. Participation was voluntary. Yet many among us jumped in.
Preparations began days before the actual event. Responsibilities were effectively delegated. Creativity was on full throttle. Volunteers designed attractive posters and handled emails and social accounts, spreading color far and wide. People who would manage coordination on the floor created detailed route maps for the shepherds, allocated time slots for each activity, and checked-in on others' progress. The many volunteers who would run the show were busy building exhibits and models, gathering material for workshops. The zeal that steeped the usual academic air became more palpable as the event drew closer for volunteers and non-volunteers alike.
Even though the general public is welcome, open days are primarily attended by school students, escorted by their schoolteachers in groups of 20-40. They are split into groups, each group assigned to a shepherd volunteer to take them on an intellectual joyride. Footfall came by the hundreds and filled the entire institute. If one were just to walk around, the variety would amuse them.
Visitors can ask many questions, and observe science they may have never seen previously. Volunteers explain how machines work. There is a stall where participants can take home their own DNA as a souvenir. And visitors can view a model demonstrating how neurons send messages or an exhibition of how movement of objects can be triggered by light. Open Day is like a huge science fair with a mix of kids and adults. Younger participants' playful curiosity is contagious.
That year, a few other batch mates and I aimed to carry forward a popular workshop from last year – Tod-Phod-Jod (Break-Burst-Join!), an activity that familiarizes kids with computer parts. A bunch of bioinformatician fellows handed out non-functional laptops and peripherals like a mouse (generously donated by colleagues and staff) to disassemble and reassemble, getting to know the various parts as they went along. We inherited some leftover machines from 2014, but they wouldn't suffice for hundreds of children. Our calls for more defunct machines met no end. We had to improvise. But none of us were bioinformaticians. Any idea we came up with did not connect well with the previous theme.
With time slipping out of our hands, we thought it better to 'break' the mold. Learning a few science tricks off the internet, a range of demonstrations were planned. We were given 45 minutes to conduct the workshop per group. Our sole purpose was to engross the attendees and generate sustained interest in all-things-science. We wanted them to exit the workshop wonderstruck. Twenty minutes of disassembly & demonstration of a gadget. Fifteen minutes of tricks based in viscosity, energy transformation, and fluid dynamics. Ten minutes of Q&A. And lastly, a 4-minute video on sixth sense technology. That ought to do it. "Each stall will see a minimum of three to four hundred students," the faculty's words rang in my ears. Would we be able to deliver? Anticipating a full house, we entered that dawn with our fingers crossed.
Early on the event day, we spent time debating whether the children should be allowed to disassemble the gadgets at first. Most of us gave in to the conviction of the teammate in charge of the demonstration. Wary if we would manage to reassemble the laptops before other groups entered, we ruled in favor. The first two rounds went as planned. But the crowd swelled soon after early-bird hours, and there was no buffer time to reassemble the components back into a computer. Before we knew it, we were catering to two groups at once! Anyone would have expected the demo to derail. Eventually, each team member got busy playing their part. Were we losing it as a team? Was the workshop going to be a mess of disjointed tasks?
Adrenaline. Rushing through. All senses on high alert. I noticed the computer guy had changed his narrative. Now, he was just showing the parts to the students and where they fit in the computer and what they did, asking them to guess what the piece was! The kids scrambled to answer first. "Me! Me!" each shouted. And it continued. Once through, he asked them to guess the next section of the workshop, keeping them intrigued.
Science or Magic?
One after the other, they watched the tricks. Some gasped in amazement, some exclaimed. No one was uninterested. We would ask them, "How do you think this is happening?" and skim their guesses for accuracy. As if by a divine intervention, just once, my teammate doing the trick responded, "No, all your guesses are wrong. I am doing magic!". That left the students dumbfounded for a moment. I intervened with "Magic is nothing. There must be a reason! There's science behind everything", coaxing them to examine the setup of the trick. Within moments, some students came up with the answers:
"This water is hot, and the other is cold!"
"What's this liquid? It's not water. It's very sticky."
Temperature affects density. Sugar increases viscosity. Round after round, each group of students called out the magic hoax. Our magic was done. The video on sixth sense technology showed them how science could, in its own time, make 'things of fiction' real. All the students promised to go back and explore more of science in everyday life
Having catered to at least 12-15 such rounds in that one day, interacting with 300 students, we were exhausted and bedazzled. We made it - Tod-Phod-Jod was a popular workshop in later years, too.
Since that first experience, I participated every year. Open day became my sole doorway to the public domain where I can bust myths, ignite curiosity, and educate others about the ways of science and research in a direct and engaging manner.
Science, a way of life.
It was that time of the year again. 2019.
"Which scientist do you want to name your group after?" she asked me.
"Rosalind Franklin," I answered.
I'll tell them the story of Rosalind Franklin, give them a taste of 1950s Europe, and then stress the role of evidence in the quest for truth. By sharing true stories, I'll convince them to look for proof. Always. In everything. Science is, after all, a way of life. And I'll tell that to anyone and everyone I can — a few, or many, at a time.
In public arguments about controversial topics, one often hears the somewhat pugnaciously offered challenge: "Do you have a reference for that?" Meaning: Do you have a peer-reviewed confirmation of what you are saying, published in a reputable scientific journal? Providing such a confirmation usually lowers the temperature of the discussion somewhat.
Now, factual statements should certainly be backed by convincing factual evidence – that is the whole point of the empirical scientific approach. But apart from ignoring the difficulty that factual evidence means something rather different in, say, particle physics than in psychology, simplistic efforts to "have science on one's side" degrade science in the public eye to a caricature of itself, a stodgy guardian of indisputable facts, a records clerk. It is worth reminding ourselves that science is no such thing.
Far from being a boring fact-monger, scientific inquiry owes a profound debt to imagination. After all, the very idea of investigation is an exercise in speculative thinking, since someone must first wonder what is there to see in the depths of the sky before a telescope is actually trained at the stars. And beyond that indispensable moment of "What if?" which goes before any investigation, significant and far-reaching discoveries have often been a result of thinking in an adventurous direction. Let me recall a few from the history of my favorite science, physics.
In the face of the failure of all known physics to account for the radiation spectrum of a glowing furnace (the proverbial "black body"), Max Planck made the seemingly wild conjecture that perhaps the radiated energy comes in discrete packets, quanta. Planck had no "reference" for that, and nothing in the observed radiation spectrum cried out for that particular conjecture. But when he applied it, it described the spectrum perfectly, and of course, Planck's conjecture went on to be the central insight of all of quantum mechanics.
Similarly, Albert Einstein grappled with the thorny problem of reconciling the venerable discipline of Newtonian mechanics with the younger but very convincing theory of the electromagnetic field. These two theories differ in their mathematical structure and physical implications, and they could not both be correct. Einstein is said to have contemplated at length what it would be like to ride on a beam of light (an electromagnetic wave), as one would ride in a plane or a spaceship. To make the story short, it turns out that we, being massive objects, could never attain that speed. Moreover, on the beam of light there are no distances in time: to the light everything happens at once. The intuitive and well-established mechanics of Newton proved to be unsuitable close to light speed, and Einstein's improved description of the world is now known as special relativity.
Another notable contemplation of Einstein's was, "Why do things have only one mass?" The mass of an object manifests itself in two ways: as inertia in free motion, and as weight, the gravitational attraction. On the face of it, these two phenomena have little in common, yet the forces, accelerations etc. all speak of one and the same mass. Why should that be? Why are things that weigh heavy on the scale also sluggish to speed up? This counter-intuitive question led to the insight that gravitational pull is "free motion" in the space that is itself bent by gravity, the core insight of general relativity.
(Many introductions to the theories of relativity have been written; one of the more approachable and lucid ones can be found in this charming book.)
Vortices in thin air
There is, however, a difficulty with brilliant imagination: it does not in itself mean that you are right. In the waning days of pre-modern physics, the prevalent opinion held that the light, the electromagnetic wave, propagates by means of an invisible, tenuous, frictionless, non-viscous fluid called luminiferous aether. Every other kind of wave was known to need some material stuff to propagate through, so the aether hypothesis was a plausible but not very insightful reasoning by analogy – with one possible exception.
Vortices in an ideal fluid are eternal, and their lines of swirl cannot be broken. A "smoke ring" in aether remains a ring forever; a knotted vortex loop can never be untied, and so on. Physicist William Thomson (Lord Kelvin) hypothesized that there might exist primordial vortices in the all-pervading sea of aether: there would be various types of them, differing in their properties according to the topology of the knots they formed, eternal and immutable. They would be the atoms of matter.
In reality, ever more extravagant properties had to be attributed to the luminiferous aether in order to explain how it could carry the electromagnetic wave, and the aether finally evaporated in the historic Michelson-Morley experiment. Thomson's hypothesis of atomic vortices evaporated with it, and in any case, the actual atom turned out to be something quite different from a knotted vortex. All the same, one cannot but admire certain daring cleverness of this idea, bringing together the subtleties of fluid mechanics and topology in an attempt to account for something seemingly unrelated: the existence and varied properties of atoms. It would have been remarkable had it turned out to be true.
Of course, the correct theory of the atom, the quantum mechanics, more than compensates for this "loss" with its own remarkable subtlety. But we can hear the echoes of the vortex theory in the speculative ideas of our own time: such as the string theory, which posits that the ultimate building blocks of the universe are not dot-like but line-like; or the idea of the space-time as a "quantum foam" teeming with the fluctuations of the quantum uncertainty principle. These are attempts to stretch our current understanding of physics beyond what we can observe at present, in order to explain things we still don't understand, chiefly how gravity and quantum mechanics fit together. Only future experiments will decide whether these conjectures describe something real, or are they merely clever flights of fancy, like Thomson's vortices.
Imagination in a straitjacket
This brings us to a remark by the physicist Richard Feynman, who once gave a memorably succinct description of the scientific process: he called it "imagination in a straitjacket." What Feynman meant is that, as scientists, we accept that all insights, however flighty or clever, must eventually be subjected to the straitjacket of the experiment, of empirical verification, for that is the great strength of science.
But on the other hand, we also know that imagination withers in a straitjacket: overly constrained insight loses courage and gradually gives way to low-risk squabbles over evidentiary minutiae. In contrast, it is the inevitable fate of any far-reaching understanding that it skates on thin ice of evidence, because the methods of observation have yet to catch up with it; the right straitjacket has yet to be devised. As another historical example, irrefutable evidence of evolution was not available to Charles Darwin in his lifetime, nor was molecular genetics, nor computational modeling of evolutionary processes; still, his elegant insight into the dynamics of living things has withstood the test of time.
So perhaps we should refine Feynman's dictum. The jacket is beneficial and necessary because it protects empirical truth from error, deliberate falsehoods and outright quackery. Moreover, when experiments that would answer crucial questions are beyond practical reach – when an adequate jacket cannot be devised, as is currently the case in much of the fundamental physics – extravagant speculative theories begin to proliferate freely, as they once did in the days of the luminiferous aether.
But the very accumulation of knowledge inexorably tightens the straitjacket: as a scientific field matures, progress becomes constrained by what is known, and runs the risk of becoming risk-averse and timid. In this light, we should uphold the importance of imagination and creativity, and defend their legitimate place in the ongoing dance of conjecture and verification that is the scientific enterprise. Not every age is conducive to mind's grand adventure, and not every daring idea is true. But should we all be content merely to safely reference each other's impeccable results? Without answering the seductive call of the unknown and the adventurous, where would new knowledge come from?
Accessibility tends to be a major topic in regards to science communication (sci-comm). However, most of the time, people only refer to making the content accessible to the general public, neglecting to take into account those with disabilities. Considering the audience is essential, but your considerations need to extend beyond using plain language and no jargon. It's also necessary to commit to the idea that science should be accessed and understood by everyone. This is not a new issue; however, it has become more apparent due to the increase in sci-comm demand during the Covid-19 pandemic.
In this piece, I will go through the formats that are commonly used for sci-comm and highlight the most important accessibility points. I will also assess different social media platforms that can be used if applicable to the format. Hopefully, the information shared here can be incorporated into your own work to make your sci-comm accessible to all.
Videos are a popular method of virtual sci-comm as they make information more interactive. This may be obvious, but adding captions or closed captions to your videos and/or providing a text transcript is a great help to the hearing impaired and those with learning disabilities. What's the difference between closed captions and captions? Closed captions include subtitles and a description of anything you hear in the video. Captions refer just to the subtitles, which assume that the audience does not have hearing impairments.
A simple method to achieve this is to use YouTube, which automatically generates captioning of the video that you can edit to correct mistakes and add descriptions as needed. You can even add commonly used words (i.e.) chemicals, reactions, names, etc., to your channel settings to minimize errors. The video with captions can then be shared to other platforms.
Another video sharing platform, Vimeo, requires closed captions to be uploaded as a separate file (e.g.) SRT file, in the settings. Facebook and LinkedIn have similar formats to this.
There are also closed captions or caption apps like Caption This, InShot, and Clipomatic. However, the reviews of these apps are mixed, so do your own research. Another option is to add captions manually using online or downloadable media tools such as Subtitle-Horse or Camtasia Studio.
2. Live Streams
Live streams can be used across several different social media platforms, and similar to videos, they need closed captioning. If enabled, YouTube provides automatic captions for live streams. Again, if you add your commonly used words to the settings, then it can be reasonably accurate. Zoom has an option for someone to type subtitles as the conversation is happening, but can also facilitate a third-party caption service if the conversation will be too fast for someone to type.
Facebook Live can facilitate close captioning, but only with the use of a third-party caption service or an external automatic caption generator. Similarly, Twitter can also facilitate an outside automatic caption generator for live streaming.
While researching for this piece, I discovered that you can now live-stream from LinkedIn! However, there is no option to provide captions. Similarly, Instagram does not have any facility for live closed captioning.
3. Blogging and Presentations
Blogging via a website is another popular sci-comm method. The layout is essential here. It is recommended to avoid multiple columns on a webpage, as screen readers can get confused. Screen readers are an assistive technology for the visually impaired that converts content (text, alt text, transcriptions) into speech or braille. If you are using a blogging platform, it's important to use the 'Heading' options when formatting. Screen readers do not understand that people just make the font one size bigger or tab in once to mean a new section.
For the rest of this section, the points apply to presentations and blogging as the issues can be similar. Poor color contrast between backgrounds and text can be a huge problem. Be extremely cautious about using background images, especially busy photos. Using color contrast tools to assess your webpage can help you avoid this issue (e.g.) Webaim Contrast Checker, and ACART's Contrast checker. You can also create color palettes for general use on coolors.co.
Fonts are also a critical choice for accessibility. There is a font that has been designed for dyslexics called Open Dyslexic that you can download. Although research has found that there is no significant difference between this font and some Sans Serif fonts in terms of readability for dyslexics, so it's not essential. The Sans Serif fonts recommended are Comic Sans, Open Sans, Arial, Verdana, Tahoma, Century Gothic, and Calibri.
The British Dyslexia Association recommends font size 12-14 and 1.5 line spacing for optimum readability of websites. I have never seen an official guide for presentations, but my own rule of thumb is at least font size 20 and 1.5 line spacing.
Finally, if using images, graphics, graphs, or related, always provide a caption or description for them. It is also necessary to describe all visuals when giving a verbal presentation, something many people forget.
4. Graphics, Infographic, and Posters
Many people like to make their own graphics, posters, or infographics to get their message across; they are great but unfortunately are not very accessible. All graphics need to follow many of the same rules for webpages and presentations in regards to color contrast, fonts and spacing, and captions to maximize readability.
It was pointed out to me recently that screen readers cannot interact with infographics posted on social media or a webpage. This absolutely makes sense as they are graphics, but this is easily overlooked. Please always provide a detailed transcript of all information and graphics on an infographic to make them fully accessible.
5. Social Media Posts
Your content, itself, is now accessible, but what do you need to know about posting on social media in an accessible manner? What do you need to change to expand your reach and maximize your impact?
As I have already mentioned, it's essential to provide a description for any visual material. This can be done on Twitter and Facebook by clicking 'edit' on the uploaded image and filling in the 'alt text'. Facebook autogenerates descriptions if this is not filled in, but twitter does not. Instagram also autogenerates descriptions that you can edit by pressing 'Advanced Settings' before you post. However, autogenerated graphic descriptions are not recommended as they tend to be basic. It is also much easier to understand if you include the format the image is in (i.e.) [Gif], [Photo], [Graphic]. This is also relevant for links and hyperlinks. If you are using links, specify where they will lead (e.g.) [Website], [video], etc..
Finally, Hashtags – yes, hashtags. You need to capitalise the first letter of every word in a hashtag, or else a screen reader will read it out letter by letter. Imagine how annoying that can be! It's something straightforward that makes a big difference. Just post #ScienceForAll instead of #scienceforall.
In general, try to be considerate and include the general public with disabilities in your sci-comm. Also, this piece is not exhaustive, there are many other ways to make your sci-comm accessible. Accessibility should be built into the design, not an afterthought or a last-minute addition. You don’t have to be perfect from the get-go, you will improve with time. The most important thing is to try and take feedback.
After weeks of quarantine, universities are ramping up research, allowing scientists to continue their fieldwork and benchwork. For many of us, returning to the lab brings mixed feelings. Personally, I want to continue my research. But on the other hand, I haven’t missed the sensation of messing up an experiment or the agony of waiting for results.
Weeks of isolation have allowed me to think about what I want from my career. And many of my colleagues are pondering the same. As the scientists return to the bench this Summer and Fall, they are bringing a new attitude and perspective with them.
Flexibility in the workweek
The pandemic proved that when research is stalled, the world continues to spin. A truth that might seem obvious to an outsider, it was none-the-less a revelation to me. A setback in experimentation is common, an expectation more than an exception. But still, the slow creeping pace of science instills guilt in many graduate students and post-docs. To compensate for failed experiments and confusing results, we scramble to fit as much work into a week as possible, often working on weekends when we arbitrarily feel like we are falling behind. The long nights, weekend work, and obligation to hold a 9-5 schedule add up to a long workweek, which might, in fact, be less productive than we perceive.
Working more than 40 hours a week is correlated with poor performance and health issues. And although numerous companies have experimented with <40-hour workweeks and experienced beneficial results, many still believe the traditional workweek + overtime is the standard for a “hard worker.”
I regrettably have no studies to cite about the productivity of laboratory scientists vs. hours worked. But I do have less-substantiated anecdotal evidence. Since returning to the lab, I have not worked a 9-5. Instead, I let my experiments dictate when I come into the lab, and I set a reasonable expectation of the amount of reading and writing I should accomplish in the week. As a result, I take detailed notes in my lab notebook, I have time to address setbacks, and I have less failed experiments.
Prioritizing career development
Contrary to some academic’s beliefs, there is more to a CV than publications and conference presentations. To be a desirable candidate upon graduation or completion of your post-doc, one must pursue opportunities in your anticipated field actively. To the dismay of some of our PI’s expectations, that might take time away from our work responsibilities.
Although my experience may differ from many, I rocked at career development during the quarantine. I am playing towards my strengths and passions and am pursuing a career in either science writing or science policy. For both career paths, honing my writing skills is imperative. When working from home, it was easy to dedicate time to writing and editing. But continuing my writing ventures and returning to work will be a challenge.
Challenge accepted. Career development, whether it be learning to code, taking business classes, or teaching, is imperative to your education. Therefore, as a pre or post-doctoral trainee, continue to schedule in career development time to ensure you have a competitive resume when your training is complete. This may require you to jeopardize time at the bench, but as I mentioned in the previous section, time does not equate to productivity.
Mental health care
We all struggled with mental health in isolation. The uncertainty brought about anxiety, lack of socializing led to depression, and boredom cultivated alcohol abuse. Unfortunately, returning to work does not guarantee an instant bounce back for our mental health. As we return to the bench, we must safeguard our well-being.
Working a flex schedule and seeking quality over quantity, as mentioned above, is one avenue to nurturing our mental health. Additionally, working from home does not mean you cannot take time off this year. Quarantine was not a vacation. Spending time away from your home and work can help give you the energy and positive outlook you need to perform well in the laboratory.
Training as a scientist is certainly a journey. Choosing to fixate on the end-goal — the publication, the graduation, the defense — is a breeding ground for disappointment. Timelines in the laboratory are ambiguous and often out of our hands. This has only been exasperated by Covid-19. Your goals will likely not be met when you want them to, so it's important to shoot for results you have control over.
Focus on the small goals — learning a new technique, working on one chapter of your thesis, optimizing an experiment. Plan for the future, but don't live in it. Enjoy where you are now.
In this post, I’ve shared my perspective on how lockdown has changed my career mind-set. But I am aware that many other scientists’ experiences vary. The lockdown was welcomed by some, an opportunity to slow down and take a break from a sometimes-toxic workplace. Others resented being barred from the lab. In an earlier Bolded Science post, we learned how some scientists couldn’t bear being away from their treasured workplace and found creative ways to conduct science at home.
Scientists will have various feelings about research ramp-up as well. Some co-workers might need time to acclimate to a new routine; others are anxious to make up for the lost time. Be mindful of our differences. As we reopen, let’s practice thoughtfulness and kindness at work. When Covid-19’s prevalence lessens, the impact is here to stay.