By Meghna Badami
Ever wonder what it’s like to work in a lab? How about what it’s like to curate educational materials and reach out to students everyday? How different are these two aspects of STEM? In this interview we talk to Dr. Sathya Srinivasachari, who has taken up both these roles throughout her career:
1. Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Sathya, a Science Educator at Poorna Learning Centre, Bengaluru and a Content Creator for Chaabee. I graduated with a Ph.D in Chemistry from the University of Cincinnati, USA and moved back to India with my family. I worked as a DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance Early Career fellow at The Institute for Stem Cell Science and Regenerative Medicine (InStem), Bengaluru in the interdisciplinary area of Chemistry and Biology under Dr. Ramaswamy S for almost a decade. I am also a Royal Society of Chemistry Teacher-Developer and CK-12 certified educator.
2. Tell us a little about your work
I currently work as a Science Educator where I teach chemistry and biology to high school students. Poorna is a child-centric community learning school and the casual school setting gives me maximum flexibility to try new teaching techniques. I integrate my skills as a researcher to design new teaching methodologies, helping students relate science topics to everything around us! My main mantra for students is to help them explore the science of everyday life and not view it as just another subject at school.
For example, I designed the “Kitchen Science Series” featuring simple experiments that can be performed at home with materials easily found in every kitchen. I also try to give students a flavor of application-based learning, which allows them to appreciate science better.
3. What are some of your interests and hobbies?
I enjoy developing creative content and tools to connect science with the broader community. Currently, I am developing Grade 10 chemistry and biology content for Chaabee, an organization that helps learners prepare for open schooling certification through a multilingual, simple, interactive learning platform. I am passionate about science outreach and as a science communicator, I was part of a voluntary group of scientists called the IndSciCov (https://indscicov.in/) where we created and distributed COVID-19 related content for the general public. My other hobbies include singing, listening to music, and art.
4. Did you always know you wanted to work in science? What inspired you to choose this field?
I have always wanted to be in science. I believe that the subject helps me connect with nature and everyday life. I was initially more inclined towards physics but ended up majoring in chemistry for my undergraduate degree. Chemistry was not my primary interest until I met Prof. K.K. Balasubramanian at Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Chennai while pursuing my Master of Science (Msc) in chemistry. His enthusiasm and teaching style inspired me to pursue a Doctorate in chemistry, with a specialization in organic chemistry and carbohydrates.
5. You recently started working in Science Education after working in the lab for some time. What inspired this shift?
I was always passionate about a career in science as it would allow me to constantly learn. During my postdoctoral fellowship at InStem, I was part of a lecture series conducted for undergraduate students. I recently mentored a student pursuing M.Sc chemistry, through the CSIR-STRP 2020 (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research- Summer Training Research Program). Through my teaching and mentoring pursuits with high school students and undergraduates, I realized that creating awareness about the conceptual knowledge of science and the plethora of available opportunities in a science career will motivate students and help them build a passion for the field. I also believe that it is important to transfer the curiosity and love for science to the next generation.
6. You conduct workshops and programs for school children, teaching them science through activities and experiments. What do you enjoy most about this?
It gives me immense joy just to kindle the curiosity and enthusiasm in young, creative minds. Using hands-on activities and experiments to teach complex concepts is always enjoyable as it gives me an opportunity to be completely involved with students. I was part of the DBT/Wellcome Trust India-Alliance initiated workshop “Superheroes against Superbugs (SAS)”, which gave me an opportunity to conduct interactive sessions, engage with high school kids and teach them the importance of antimicrobial resistance.
7. What are some of the key things to be kept in mind while teaching science and interacting with children?
Encouraging students to develop a sense of curiosity, conceptual understanding, problem-solving and decision-making skills with the right scientific context are the key things that I focus on while teaching science and interacting with children.
8. How important do you think it is to introduce school children to important science topics early on (For example, one of your workshops was on antimicrobial resistance)?
Exposing school children to science topics early on will help them to get a better understanding of complex and abstract concepts. It will also create a scientific temper and encourage them to pursue science as a career. It is also about creating opportunities for them to view science with examples from daily life, instead of just reading about it from a textbook. The SAS workshop is one such example: connecting the basic knowledge of microorganisms that is studied in schools to a broader (and very important topic) of antibiotic resistance.
9. In your opinion, what is the importance of science education and communication especially to the people outside of science.
Improving the scientific literacy of the general public is crucial to help them make informed choices. This is highly relevant and important with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, where science educators and communicators play an important role to educate the public and alleviate the fear that arises due to misinformation. As a part of the COVID-19 outreach initiative, I was involved in developing content and infographics for three different organizations: IndSciCov (https://indscicov.in/), DBT/Wellcome Trust India Alliance (https://www.indiaalliance.org/) and Indiabioscience (https://indiabioscience.org/). The aim was to spread awareness about different aspects of the pandemic like hand hygiene, mental health and even mask-making in an easy-to-understand language for public consumption.
10. Did you have any mentors over the course of your career? If yes, how much of an influence have they had in your career as a scientist?
I’ve been very privileged to have many wonderful mentors over the course of my career. However, my Ph.D mentor Prof. Theresa Reineke and my Postdoctoral mentor Prof. Ramaswamy. S deserve a special mention here as they helped me hone my technical and interpersonal skills. Both of them have strong and unique personalities, and I have benefited greatly from the different values and skills that I have acquired over my long association with them.
11. What are some failures you faced in your career, and do you have any advice for students who may face similar failures in their lives?
“Failures are the stepping stones to success” is a quote I’ve stood by throughout my career. During my Phd and Postdoctoral training, I chose challenging topics, and there were times when I wasn’t able to get the experiments to work! But I stayed focused and continued to work hard. My mentors and my family were always a constant source of inspiration and helped me overcome such setbacks. “Never give up and always stay focused” would be my advice to students.
12. As a woman in science, what advice would you give to young girls who are interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?
According to UIS (UNESCO Institute of Statistics) data, only less than 30% of worldwide researchers are women. UNESCO data (2013-2014) suggests only 30% of female students select STEM-related fields in their higher education. Long-standing biases and gender gaps are the prime reason for this. However, today there are a lot of women in different fields who are breaking such barriers. The best example would be this year’s Nobel Prize winners: two women who were awarded the Nobel in Chemistry (First time in the history of the Nobel prize!) and one for Physics. It is inspiring for younger generations to see women that are proving their worth and being given due recognition for their work.
13. Any advice for students interested in careers in science education? What are some of the opportunities they can pursue?
I would encourage students interested in teaching, pedagogy, education policies, and communication to pursue a career in science education. There are a variety of opportunities in schools, healthcare facilities, labs, universities and policy-making that offer unique ways to deliver science. Science illustrators and museum curators are interesting choices for students with a passion for both the arts and science.
14. In your opinion, how can we improve the conventional methods of teaching science in schools?
The teaching methodology should be inquiry-based and involve active learning tools that help students understand complex and abstract concepts easily. We should also try an interdisciplinary approach, where students can try to relate concepts across subjects, perhaps via simple projects. Students should have a lot of hands-on learning and the freedom to explore these topics on their own too.