Research, science communication and everything in between: International Women’s Day

International Women’s Day takes place on 8 March every year and is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural, and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating women’s equality. 

At NBIC, we work to inspire the next generation of scientists and encourage more young people to consider science as a profession. We asked our academic partner, Snehal Kadam from Hull York Medical School, to share her story of how she fell in love with science and to tell us about her biggest achievements and experiences of being a #WomaninScience. Read on to hear about her journey through research, science communication and everything in between!

I don’t know if I could pick a single moment when I fell in love with science. Was it when I read the adventures of Ms. Frizzle and her class in ‘The Magic School Bus’? Was it my first science project for school? Was it my first successful cloning experiment? Or was it that moment when I finally got that amazing image of a biofilm under the microscope (something I had been trying for a year)? It’s probably a medley of all these moments, and more that have led me on this journey in science.

For as long as I can remember, I have been amazed by science and particularly biology. I have my elementary school in Bloomington, Illinois, USA to thank for instilling the love of science in me. Though I was in that school only till I was eight years old, it gave me some of my most memorable learning moments. I remember learning about larval development not through textbook images, but by actually rearing caterpillars in the classroom and watching them turn into butterflies. We documented observations about our caterpillars and their characteristics. For those few weeks, irrespective of the on-going class, as soon as a butterfly was ready to emerge from its chrysalis, the whole class would stop whatever they were doing to observe. Now that I look back, this was probably my first ever science experiment.

When I moved back to India at the age of 9, I carried this amazement of biology back with me and this has stayed with me ever since. While I knew of my interests for biology throughout school, I was not sure of what to do with it as a career. When I was 17, I visited the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Pune with a family member and met with a professor from the institute. This was the first time I had seen a research institute and a research laboratory and met a scientist in real life, and I was inspired!

I eventually joined the BS-MS dual degree program at IISER Pune in 2013. In the first two years at IISER Pune, I studied chemistry, physics, biology, mathematics, humanities and earth sciences. In the next two years, I elected a majority of biology courses and worked in the areas of synthetic biology and microbiology for my various research projects throughout the semesters. I also had the opportunity to represent IISER Pune at the international Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition in Boston in 2015 under the guidance of Dr. Chaitanya Athale. The curriculum at IISER Pune allowed me to get a hands-on education as I carried out short research projects in the research labs while also taking my courses. I went on to pursue my master’s thesis at the National University of Singapore. When I was not caught up in classes, assignments or in the lab, I was contributing to numerous cultural and extra-curricular activities on the IISER Pune campus. Whether it was the faculty, research projects or student-run activities, my five years at IISER Pune have played an immense role in the person I am today both professionally and personally.

After I graduated from IISER Pune in 2018, I was unsure if I wanted to commit to a PhD immediately. While I was looking for the right opportunity, I met Dr. Karishma Kaushik. She had just returned from the USA and was looking to establish her own research group in India. In our first meeting, we talked about her ideas for the group and my research interests. Just in that one conversation I knew, that this was an opportunity I had to seize – it was a match at first meet!

I worked with Karishma for more than two years, and finished my stint in her lab in December 2020. This has been a journey that should have its own book (and knowing Karishma and me, well, we might even write it). Our work focused on biofilms, wound infections and developing human-relevant infection platforms. While working on and leading projects in the group, I not only learnt new experimental techniques, but also the different aspects of a running a project (including writing grants, managing funds, designing experiments, framing a scientific manuscript). I also had the chance to contribute to the wider scientific community in India, via conducting academic webinars and writing outreach and communication articles, and helping set up India Biofilms Society with Karishma and others. In these two years, I have seen the efforts it takes to set up your own research group and the kind of grit and passion it takes to make something of yourself despite the hardships. I will be ever thankful to Karishma for letting me be a part of this journey.

Science Outreach

One of my favourite book series as a kid was ‘The Magic School Bus’ series by Joanne Cole. In retrospect, it was probably what taught me that science can be fun and has led me to be passionate about science communication. I think as scientists, it is very important for us to contribute to take science out of the laboratory and into the community. As an effort towards this, Karishma and I co-founded ‘Talk To A Scientist’. Just as we entered the COVID-19 lockdown in India in March 2020, Karishma and I realized how hard this must have been on children – not being able to go to school, play with friends or visit their grandparents. This is when we decide to start ‘Talk To A Scientist’, a weekly virtual outreach platform for children to interact with real scientists online! On 30 March 2020, we had our first session, where young minds got to ‘Talk To A Scientist About the Novel Coronavirus’. 

Since then, we have showed up every week with a new scientific topic and Talk To A Scientist will soon celebrate its first anniversary! In this one-year journey, we obtained funding from IndiaBioscience for our program and got featured on various platforms including The Better India! But what has really kept us going has been our passion to share science with the amazingly curious and smart young minds we have met through our sessions. Our vision is for Talk To A Scientist to become India’s premiere science outreach platform, to convey that science is fun, and build modern day science role models for young minds. On a personal front, these sessions have been the stress busters I need. No matter how my week goes, this one hour with young minds is like a refresh button. With my friend and mentor Karishma, this platform has given us the opportunity to meet and interact with a range of scientists across India as guest speakers in our sessions. Along with the young minds, we tend to learn something new each week too!

My move to the United Kingdom

Having spent significant time after my Master’s degree working as a research assistant, establishing my science outreach and communication efforts and enhancing my skill set as a researcher, I was finally ready to apply for a PhD. The time I spent working with Karishma had really helped me identify what I was looking for. I found projects that sparked an interest in me, and I took the plunge to apply, hit that submit button and waited to hear back! I eventually interviewed for some of the applications. The potential learning curve I saw for myself made me accept the offer from the Hull York Medical School in the United Kingdom with Dr. Angela Oates! All this happened while we were dealing with a pandemic, and I really had no idea how this would play out in the months to come (I remember those Zoom calls with Angela just trying to figure out what the best way forward would be). While I was excited to leave the nest and fly, the world, quite literally, put a ban on flying due to the pandemic and I had to postpone my arrival in the UK. Starting a PhD is in itself an overwhelming experience, and the pandemic has made it a rollercoaster ride. Despite all the stressful moments, the last-minute flight delays and more, I have finally made it to the UK and am looking forward to what the next few years have in store for me here! Outside the laboratory, I hope to get involved with the science communication community in the UK as well.

Being a #WomanInScience

On my science journey so far, I have met and interacted with many #WomenInScience, and their stories have provided me strength on this journey. I have a T-shirt that says ‘Tired of hearing our stories? We’re tired of living them’. I have seen how uncomfortable it makes certain people when women are unapologetic about being themselves and when women share their stories and struggles. While, I too have been at the receiving end of unnecessary and unprofessional comments in a professional environment, you really have to pick your battles and each day, I choose to focus on the positives.

I consider myself lucky to have found a great support system, inside and outside academia. This has played such an important role in being able to deal with the hardships and struggles. In a session on ‘Science in Popular Media’ for Talk To A Scientist, a female young mind, a regular participant of our sessions, said ‘I don’t only like fairytales, I like science fiction too’! We ended that session saying ‘Who needs to be a princess when you can be a scientist, right’? I am so fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with amazing women scientists, and run an outreach platform with a woman co-founder. I am proud of the fact that with every day in science, I am contributing towards advancing the image and work of women in science. While I did not have many #WomenInScience around me growing up, I do now (thanks to their presence on Twitter), and they have been such a great source of inspiration. I think the first step in dealing with barriers to #WomenInScience is to start having open and honest conversations about it. So, to all the women sharing your struggles, achievements, or just even memes (honestly, we all need them), thank you, and never stop.

While #WomenInScience and #WomenInSTEM cross our feeds every day, these are more than just hashtags or trends. These are our journeys, our stories. And as we share these stories, we #ChooseToChallenge the world around us every day.

Snehal Kadam, PhD Student at Hull York Medical School (HYMS)

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