Humans of Scicomm: Dr. Namrata Sengupta on Becoming a Scientist and Science Communicator

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PHOTO COURTESY OF MARIA NEMCHUK (BROAD INSTITUTE)

“I think I finally know what I want to do with my career. I want to be a science motivational speaker.”

Dr. Sengupta’s piece is part of Science and Us’s on-going publication, Humans of Scicomm. All stories and experiences are written by the respective science communicators. Links to reach out to Dr. Sengupta are located below. Thank you for your support!

In 2008, while I was studying biotechnology in Bengaluru, India, I attended a talk by a renowned scientist: Dr. Thuppil Venkatesh, the Director of the National Referral Centre for Lead Projects in India. He came to our campus to speak to students about the public health concerns associated with lead toxicity. However, Venkatesh did not just give a scientific talk. He got an auditorium packed with students interested in his research, concerned about the public health problem, and excited to learn more about the topic. I remember calling my mom after the talk ended and telling her, “I think I finally know what I want to do with my career. I want to be a science motivational speaker.” My mom replied, “Sounds like the right fit for you. I can definitely see you being one.”

That was 12 years ago. At that time, I wasn’t aware of the term “science communication,” much less that it was a possible career path. I just knew that Venkatesh’s public engagement work motivated me, and I wanted a job like that someday. Now, over a decade later, I call myself a science communicator, and I try to inspire others to take an interest in science through my writing, talks, and social media.

Back in 2008, Venkatesh’s talk encouraged me to immediately jump into public health outreach. I started going to schools and university campuses and educating students about lead toxicity, water quality problems, and municipal waste management and recycling efforts. I worked for two years with an environmental nonprofit to create public health awareness at a community level in rural and urban areas around Bengaluru. In 2011, I was accepted into the environmental toxicology doctoral program at Clemson University. My doctoral research would focus on the environmental impact of contaminants such as pesticides and pharmaceuticals. I moved to the US with big dreams of becoming a scientist like Venkatesh — someone who would inspire auditoriums packed with students about environmental and public health research.

Often, scientific doctoral programs do not have a framework for students to explore how their research translates to public health policy, how they should communicate their work to non-experts, if their research will have equitable impacts in the community, etc. If you are really passionate about making sense of your science within the broader context of your society, then you have to take it upon yourself to explore those areas in parallel with your research. During my PhD, I invested what little free time I had outside the lab in professional development and science outreach. In addition to my program’s core requirements, I took courses in environmental law, politics of science, and science communication. I looked for any opportunity to practice writing, especially for a non-expert audience: I wrote articles for science websites and started my own blog. I also found ways to engage with the community outside of the university: I managed social media for a local nonprofit and co-founded an environmental education program at a local high school.

The norm in academic research culture for a science PhD student is to focus on one thing: advancing and publishing your research. All other things are viewed as extracurriculars and not a part of your core training as a scientist. One time in grad school, a colleague made a comment in passing: “Ask Namrata. She is the outreach person in our department.” They weren’t wrong — I did care deeply about public outreach, communication, and advocacy. But it was striking to me that they viewed outreach as something that others in the department were not involved in. I always thought outreach was a critical part of being a scientist. Looking back, I think the public engagement work that I did during that time was such an important part of my development as a scientist that I should have included it as a chapter in my thesis.

After finishing my PhD in 2016, I pursued a career in science communication. I decided to choose a career path where I believed I could make the most impact based on my scientific training, skill sets, and interests. Some of my peers questioned the decision: Why did you leave academia? Why didn’t you do a postdoc? Why did you choose an alternate career path? In grad school, being a tenure-track professor at an academic institution is often presented as the default post-PhD path. Role models from outside academia are not often seen; most professionals students meet and interact with at department science seminars are tenure-track professors. However, most PhDs and postdoc trainees actually go on to work in other sectors like industry, nonprofits, consulting, or administration. According to a 2017 NSF survey, only 23% of life and health sciences PhDs held tenured or tenure-track positions[1][2]. The notion that non-professorship career paths are “alternate” is a misconception.

My favorite thing about “science communicator” as a career is that it doesn’t necessarily define you by a single role, such as a writer, video producer, educator, or social media manager (though it can include some of each of those roles). I love that aspect of my current job at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard, a biomedical research institute. I can wear many hats as a science communicator. I get to bring my whole self and many identities to work every day. At Broad, I finally feel comfortable about my identity, acknowledged as both a scientist and a science communicator. I see many other colleagues around me who are scientists working in various roles outside the lab: science communication, project management, fundraising, administrative leadership, etc.

As someone who cares about and advocates for equity in STEM, one thing that I remind myself about is how representation matters. Who does the science matters. Who communicates the science matters. As a South Asian immigrant in predominantly white spaces, I know how important it is for the next generation of aspiring science communicators to see themselves in this career path. One of my mentors once reminded me that you don’t know who is out there looking up to you or aspiring to be someone like you. You don’t see how your story can influence someone.

I have not yet spoken to an auditorium packed with students. However, I do frequently talk about science communication and STEM careers to many students in classrooms, Zoom-rooms, and on social media. That does make me a science motivational speaker. My mom passed away in 2017. She didn’t get to see me give a live talk in a big auditorium. But she knew I was on the career path I had told her about back in 2008.

References

  1. https://www.sciencemag.org/careers/2019/03/first-us-private-sector-employs-nearly-many-phds-schools-do
  2. https://ncsesdata.nsf.gov/doctoratework/2017

Namrata Sengupta is a trained scientist, science communicator, career coach, and advocate for equity in health and STEM. She currently works at the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard as a Science Communications Officer. She is also a board member of Asian Women for Health and volunteer as a career coach and mentor for early career professionals.

She holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Toxicology from Clemson University, an MS in Biotechnology from Bangalore University, and a BS in Chemistry from the University of Calcutta.

Get in touch with Namrata on her website, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram for collaborations or speaking engagements.

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