A cell biologist by training, IPSA JAIN has set out on an unusual path of taking science to people through art and illustration. A postdoctoral fellow at Bengaluru-based Institute of Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine, Jain was in Pune to conduct a workshop at IISER. She speaks to the Indian Express on the need to visually interpret science and kindle new thinking through art. Excerpts:
Science toys, models, audiovisual aids, among others, remain common tools for science communication. How is using art different as a means of communication?
Art and illustration are different vehicles of storytelling than using toys and audiovisual aids. Different people engage with different modalities and, hence, all of these together are useful for different audiences. In my experience, art can be useful beyond communication to a wider audience. We have found that it is a useful enterprise to science itself; in its ability to mediate a new line of thinking, which can, in turn, become a new line of experimenting.
Should scientific illustrations be introduced in school and college, so that students take more interest in learning science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)?
During science lessons in classrooms in school and college, students draw diagrams, schematic sketches and specimen illustrations. But these drawings aren’t treated with the importance they deserve. So, the attitude towards the drawing exercise in classrooms needs to change. A new way to observe and document science must be able to provide students with a new space to think and ask questions.
How is a scientific illustrator different from an ordinary illustrator?
Any illustrator with an interest in science can engage in science illustration. It is useful to know science and scientific language in order to engage with a particular subject matter. Illustrations here are not only creative but also scientifically accurate. A scientific illustrator does not necessarily require prior scientific training. Anybody with an aptitude for the subject and the ability to learn and distil information can be a scientific illustrator. Sometimes, being naive to the subject also allows you to ask simple questions that a similar non-trained audience can relate to.
You are a trained scientist first, and then an artist. What, according to you, is lacking in science communication in India?
India is a diverse country with people from different belief systems, socio-economic, cultural and educational backgrounds. We still don’t have an understanding of our general audience enough to know their needs and expectations from science. Nowhere in their scientific training do scientists get a space to cultivate a language that allows them to break through the technical language barrier. Most science communication material right now is mainly designed for school and college students. We do not have a platform to share and engage as much, due to limitation of resources and funding that could allow us to build a consortium.
There is a need for better structure that allows us to share ideas, learn, collaborate and create greater impact. Having said that, some of us manage to engage with each other via social media. Despite all the limitations of digital media, these interventions help us get access to information exchange. A growing number of institutions have communications officers and public outreach managers. A lot of institutes host open days for public engagement. There are many science students and research scholars who blog and talk about science.
How open are Indian students and researchers to the idea of science illustrators?
In my limited interactions, I have always found an enthusiastic response to scientific illustrations from scientists and students. Many aspiring communicators seek advice on becoming a science illustrator.