How I ‘became’ a visual science communicator?

How I ‘became’ a visual science communicator?

Dr. Lipsa has a Ph.D. in respiratory immunology from CSIR-IGIB, but her interest in visual communication propelled her to pursue design and arts to engage people with Science. With this passion, she obtained a graphic design certificate from Sri Aurobindo School of Arts and Communication and is now interested in communicating science through design and typography. Currently, she is working with Lancet Commission: Governing health futures 2030 as a visual science communicator and is also a consultant to I-DAIR. Out of her interest, she works with research institutes to brand their science and express their science in visuals. She also conducts workshops for graduate students to teach them the art of communicating science visually in India.

Are you on this page to know “how I got the job” or are you interested in the career I am in?

If it’s just about the job, then I recommend – stop right here!

“Job is a short trip where you learn skills and knowledge with a focus on earning your living, but on the other hand, a career is a journey to pursue your passion and fulfill your ambition by investing time in things you love to do.”

So, I cannot help you get a job, but I can share a few pearls of wisdom that I am learning (from others, too) on my path to ‘become’ a visual science communicator (VSC). Although one should know that everyone has their own path and own set of difficulties to face on their journey, hearing other’s experiences is always an additional benefit. After all, it’s about- learning, adapting, and improvising.

Well, my story isn’t conventional, where I aspired to become a visual science communicator since childhood and worked towards it day-and-night and finally landed here. Nah. Instead, until 2018, I did not even know I could do something like that. My story is about a person who learned how to turn crisis into possibilities and believes that patience and perseverance are the keys to success. Where both the P’s help(ed) in finding the appropriate key for the suitable door.

For me, it all began with science! The only thing I loved from the beginning was science – to be precise, biology ( I absolutely struggle with physics, it still is my worst nightmare). Pursuing research and a career in academia was all I ever dreamt of, and I was determined to do it. While many I know joined in Ph.D. for a degree and to be able to get a better job, for me, those 5-6 years was a training period to become a scientist in future, training for which I prepared myself for 6 years before entering it – during my bachelor’s and master’s degree. I earned my Ph.D. (from CSIR-IGIB) after a lot of hardships, and in the end, I had skills, a degree, and wisdom (after all, it’s a doctorate in ‘philosophy’!).

With around 10 publications, 4 more in communication, and 2 prestigious Indian post-doctorate fellowships, I was hopeful to finish my training and enter academia, and finally, become a scientist! Alas, life isn’t so rosy for anyone, and if it was, where would have been the fun and thrill? My world came to a halt when I had to forgo my dreams because of some personal loss and difficulties. Some might think that it was just a hurdle and I could have overlooked them and continued on my path, but for me, it wasn’t a speed-breaker- it was a huge, tall, and impenetrable wall; I was (am) convinced that I could have never made my way through it. As everything started crumbling down, I knew I had to pick up from whatever was left in the remains and start building another path. The beauty of knowledge is that it stays forever and I was determined that I will not let go of biology. I would be lying if I told you that I was hopeful and not baffled or confused. I was no hero! However, I had a strong support system in my mentor, professors, family, and friends. My Ph.D. mentor, Dr. Anurag Agrawal, recognized my skills which always lurked in the background. While I was pursuing my Ph.D., I was so engrossed in research that I never realized my potential for communicating science through visuals. It was something that ran parallel with my intensive research and supported my work but was always curtained. During my so-called ‘break,’ Dr. Anurag brought this to light and asked me to explore this side of me.  I would say it was his belief in me that strengthened my conviction that there may be more to me.

From there, I began my journey towards science communication through visuals! The path that I wanted to take is very naive in structure. I did (do) not have many careers to look at and then decide which might be suitable for me. So, I had to build my own, which was very daunting. I had no CV. All I had was a unique background of understanding science and visual communication. I had a degree to prove my understanding of science but nothing for the visual side other than some of the work that I had created during my Ph.D. I started to write to designers and started sharing my intention and work with them. Unlike scientists, who were always mesmerized by the work I did, I got some critical feedback from these designers and professors of design. When I realized, having a formal education is the best way to understand a subject with basics, and my realizations met with disappointment when I found out that getting such an education for an ‘elder’ student was nearly impossible in India.

  However, I stumbled upon a very good college in arts and communication in Delhi, offering a 6 monthly course (offline) on design and had a promising course structure and faculties. I worked as an assistant to the communications head at CSIR-IGIB, so I had to balance my work and studies (with practical and homework), but it was the best shot I had, and I must say it was worth taking it. While I was doing the course, I started building my portfolio. I would work for free with scientists from various leading research institutes to build up my profile, learn from each project, and improvise for the next project. I would take various projects starting from branding to illustrations, to have a wide variety in my profile. Once I finished my exhibition for the design course, I was brimming with confidence that I would be taking science comm. to a different level. When I understood that design was not very different from science and it was omnipresent in our daily life, just like science, parallel to this design course, I took numerous online courses to strengthen my concepts and learn tools. I read many design textbooks to understand it in-depth, and I love associating design concepts with science. This has helped me a lot to simplify the jargon of scientific words or concepts to visuals.

For almost a year, I prepared myself by finding opportunities to build my profile and CV. Since I collaborated with many people and was also a part of Indian science communicators, I was getting recognized for my work and started sharing space with them.  Unfortunately, many times, a person’s success is measured with the experience they have had and not by a hunch that a new bee with talent can also do wonders in a suitable environment. I had a CV, a portfolio and was waiting for the right opportunity to land into space which would ultimately open more opportunities in the future and make me ‘worthy.’ I was lucky that while I was still working at IGIB, Dr. Anurag became the Co-Chair of Lancet and FT Commission: Governing health futures 2030 and the secretariat needed a person with additional skills of design and website management.

He recommended me, and my ‘interview’ overlapped with the first 3 months of my job at IGIB. It was a real-time interview based on performance, phew! Since the Commission was not all about biology but was about public health, digital health, governance, and policies, it was (still is) a bit of a struggle. Still, as it happened, I started writing apart from just visuals, and now I also support the team in building communication strategy before the launch of the Commission. I had the opportunity to widen my skills from visuals to writing and not limit myself to visual comm but become a science communicator who would have multiple expertise. The commission allowed me to work with UNICEF, which has been one of the most interesting partnerships so far. Apart from this full-time job, thanks to my never-ending love to learn and practice and Ambassador Amandeep Gill’s belief, I worked as a consultant with the International digital health and artificial intelligence research collaborative (I-DAIR) and helped (ed) them with their branding and visual comm. I also kept working with scientists to stay in touch with hardcore research and keep practicing design with science. My association with Prof Shinjini Bhatnagar at THSTI, Faridabad, introduced me to international research groups at the University of Oxford and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

For now, I might have just this much to share. Still, the essence of ‘how I got the job’ was to work on myself, which included endless learning, building my credibility, improvising, getting out of my comfort zone, and second but most importantly, to have a mentor/boss who recognizes my efforts and provides me with more opportunities to excel. Without the mix of these two, I couldn’t have reached this far, nor can I go forward from here. In the last two and half years, I have worked with several people and have had more than a dozen supervisors, and I have learned immensely from each of them and each project, both personally and professionally. I would say that these shorter trips will ultimately help me in my journey to become a (visual) science communicator. If anyone wants to become a traveler, my only advice would be to get out of my comfort zone and start learning on the job.

Also read How I Found Myself Flip-Flopping Between VC and Startups

How I ‘became’ a visual science communicator?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to top