For almost a year now, children across India have been tuning in to “Talk to a Scientist” every week to learn some science and ask a lot of questions. The outreach program was launched by two biologists, Karishma Kaushik and Snehal Kadam, in the wake of the nationwide lockdown enforced to curb the spread of COVID-19. The interactive weekly webinar is among the first of its kind in India, designed to connect young audiences to scientists.
Kaushik runs a research lab that studies human-relevant infection biology at the University of Pune in India. Kadam, now pursuing a PhD at Hull York Medical School in the UK, was a research assistant in Kaushik’s lab when they launched the project.
The Scientist speaks with Kaushik about how they teamed up to turn adversity into opportunity.
The Scientist: What prompted you to launch “Talk to a Scientist?”
Karishma Kaushik: I have always envisioned that when I have my own research group, it will have an outreach division that will engage with the community around us. Snehal and I had planned to go to schools in Pune and just talk science last summer. But then the pandemic happened and we were all at home. I was determined to find a way to go ahead with my plans.
Webinars became all the rage in academia, and it struck me that I could use the very same platform. It would help us reach children anywhere in the country, all of whom were now stuck at home. With a single text, Snehal was on board with the idea and we planned our very first session, which we advertised on Twitter. We would talk about the novel coronavirus and kids could tune in and ask questions. It was an obvious choice—the virus was literally in the air and on everyone’s minds.
We thought five people will show up. There were seventy-five! At the end of the hour, the kids asked, ‘When is the next session?’ Snehal and I were taken aback. We promised another session the following week. We haven’t missed a week since. On March 30 this year, we’ll host our fifty-second consecutive session.
TS: How did you choose your topics as you went forward?
KK: The first season was somewhat random—[we] covered antibiotic resistance, microbes in food, easily relatable topics aligned to our expertise. Then we started structuring into ten-episode seasons that are built around a theme. The final episode in each season is always a hands-on activity. It’s something that the kids can do at home with very easy-to-get materials that they will have around the home, like newspapers or butter or just water. The first few seasons were all biology but now we have expanded beyond biology to include other STEM fields as well.
TS: Can you take me behind the scenes? Who does what in the lead up to a session?
KK: It all starts with planning the next season. This happens way in advance. We share ideas about themes and episodes in a shared online document. Snehal plays a huge part in bringing the ideas to life. She puts together a list of guest scientists who will drive each session, making sure there are a lot of diverse voices. Increasingly, we also have scientists reach out to us to say that they are interested in being a guest speaker. We’re happy to invite them if they are a good fit for an upcoming season.
When he showed a picture of himself holding the Indian flag with white snow all around, the audience got goosebumps. The kids clamored to know more.
Snehal designs the posters for digital announcements for new sessions. Twitter has been a great ally. Speakers are sent a template as a guide for making slides. If we’re hosting the session, [Snehal and I] make the slides together. The presentation is not very rehearsed; we like to be spontaneous. Sessions start with light banter. We have many regulars who seldom miss sessions. The chat window is where a lot of the action takes place, a lot of back-and-forth interactions.
TS: Was there a speaker or topic that was a particular favorite with the audience?
KK: We had Avinash Sharma, who’s an Indian microbiologist-explorer who went to Antarctica. He stayed at Maitri, which is India’s research station there. When he showed a picture of himself holding the Indian flag with white snow all around, the audience got goosebumps. The kids clamored to know more. They wanted to go to Antarctica and do science for India someday too.
I also remember talking about the skin and the different cells of the skin. In this context, we discussed melanocytes, skin color, and diversity, and how your skin color is simply a cell in your body. In another episode, we talked about administration and leadership in Indian science. That produced one of the most memorable questions: ‘How can I become India’s Principal Scientific Advisor?’
TS: What is the impact you hope to create through this platform?
KK: Through this platform, I get to introduce kids to Indian scientists—role models they can relate to and identify with. They get to learn that all of this science is being done in India. It helps them see and connect with an actual scientist. Today’s scientists don’t look like the ones they typically see illustrated in their textbooks. We are much more diverse now. Also, we are funny, we keep the sessions light, there’s a lot of laughter. It’s very different from the perception of a scientist as serious or stuffy.
TS: You’ve kept going for a year now. What has been your biggest takeaway?
KK: It’s very gratifying that we have come a full circle in this one year. We kicked things off with the novel coronavirus. For our first anniversary session, virologist Gagandeep Kang will talk about vaccines and how the different COVID-19 vaccines work.
But I won’t stop here. I know I want to keep going. We secured funding that will support several future seasons.
Personally, I have learned that the time to build a community initiative is whenever you are ready. Not when somebody recommends it in a career stage, not after you get tenure. You should do it when you think the time is right because it brings an unleashed energy and passion.
Editor’s note: The interview was edited for brevity.