#4 In conversation with: Dr. Ipsa Jain

Dr. Ipsa Jain

Dr. Ipsa Jain is a scientist by training and an artist in training. She hopes to tell stories of science using drawing as a medium. You can view more of her work at www.ipsawonders.com


AB: Dr. Jain, thank you very much for agreeing to be a part of this series of conversations on science. It is my fourth interview to date and I realize that I have already made it a habit to begin by asking my interlocutors to share their ‘origin story’—the story of how they came to be interested in science. It is, of course, a way of trying to learn more about a person, but I find that it often also becomes a way of highlighting how important stories and storytelling are for nurturing interest in science in the first place!

IJ: I find it hard to pinpoint my interest in science to an exact event. I remember asking a lot of questions and being labelled ‘Socrates’ by my fifth grade teacher. I am quite sure she wasn’t comparing me to Socrates but just chiding me for disrupting the class with my inane questions. And that habit continues to date: to ask (inane!) questions.

It was in eighth grade that our class went to a local institute and we were introduced to the orange glow to EtBr [AB: Ethidium bromide] stained DNA. We peered at the agar gel through a plexiglass. The idea that you can handle THE stuff that makes life happen was intoxicating. I decided to be a scientist that day and then worked towards it systemically.

AB: You are a biologist by training, but you also describe yourself as a science communicator and, from what I can tell, you are most definitely an artist, even if you modestly call yourself an ‘artist in training.’ Could you tell us more about your education and the kind of work you have been doing to date?

IJ: I have been a hardcore science student throughout my formal education. I have studied zoology for my bachelor’s and master’s degree. Later, I pursued a doctorate in molecular biology. The scientific body of work revolved around understanding proteins that contribute to cancer relapses.

Soon after finishing my stint at the graduate lab, I started working as an illustrator for the local scientific community. During this journey, I was offered an interesting postdoctoral fellowship which involved working on visualizing proteins through drawings and visual storytelling. I explored drawing as a way of identifying new hypotheses for molecular phenomena. This was an unusual situation where I was part of a molecular biology lab but used a pencil more than a pipette.

Science postcards (Photo Dr. Ipsa Jain)

I continue to explore ideas around science through images and (some) words. This work started as an exercise in illustrating natural science phenomena, and progressed to sharing stories of science. A lot of the work in the past year has involved making zines that ask questions. I would like to use drawings/zines as a medium to ask questions about time, identities, probability, uncertainty and other such ideas.

I also want to ask how we choose topics of research as individual practitioners of science. How does our taste and hypothesis bias influence the work we do? Why is the language of science sanitised of humanity when science itself is not? How do the visual representations used change or limit access to ideas we comprehend or the questions we ask as students of science?

AB: What prompted you to become a communicator of science? Why does the world, and India in particular, need science communicators?

IJ: Why do we need science communicators? The perception of science is often that of  a system that generates facts we can live by. That it will make products that will increase the quality and duration of human life. The process of science, the scientific way of thinking as a way of life doesn’t come through. A lot of knowledge remains locked in scientific literature, inaccessible to the public.

India has a lot of cultural baggage that prevents ‘faith’ in scientific knowledge. Superstitions and other such practices lead to poor decisions. Ideas of co-relation, and cause and effect are poorly understood and accepted. I am not here to fight misinformation. I am here to scratch an itch on the curiosity nerve so that my audience is moved to look further, dwell deeper, and read/ explore/ discuss based on what they can do. My feeling is that if I give you information, you may or may not accept it. If I ask you a question, you may make a more informed choice, whatever that may be for you.

Booth during a local science festival at JNCASR, Bangalore, 2018 (Photo Dr. Ipsa Jain)

AB: Many people are used to thinking about sciences and the arts as fundamentally different pursuits, but you are on a mission, as you wonderfully put it, to ‘synthesize art from science.’ How does one find art in science? Conversely, what role does creativity play in scientific pursuits?

IJ: I am glad that you liked the phrase. It has matured well, though I am not sure I understood the phrase when I wrote it. Artistic processes allow one to run free without the constraints of feasibility or the need to be scientifically accurate. If you bring scientific knowledge to that realm, it is possible to think anew.

I was part of a beautiful movement-based performance called ‘How to be a Fig’. It was organised by my friends, Abhisheka Krishnagopal and Veena Basavarajaiah, and we danced to stories from Mike Shannon’s book Ladder to Heaven. That to me was synthesising art from science. I decided to do something like that in my own work which is limited to drawing and illustrating. The art in science space has a lot of potential, with different media. Creativity is part of both processes. In both, the processes depend on existing protocols, new work happens slowly and innovation is the constant expectation.

AB: What kind of media do you work with and why do you think it is suitable for the message you are trying to communicate? How important is working across different media in this process?

IJ: I usually work with digital media and make limited work with print media.  The output of my work is most suitable for an urban/ educated audience. Using digital media is not a limitation. I personally like the act of holding paper and going through an idea, where I can flip back a page and make connections between and across different pieces of work simultaneously. But as an independent maker, print media is more expensive to produce.

With respect to art mediums, I rely on pencil, ink and water color on paper. I have no justification for this except to say that while using these I feel like I know what I am doing. My work involves very few words, and mainly images and relationships between them. I hope that allows me to cross literacy barriers, though I am yet to seek such feedback.

AB: Who are the audiences you target in your work as a science communicator and how have they responded to it?

IJ: I have two main audiences, the young/curious urban crowd and the scientific community itself. The response has been encouraging. I particularly love the response to my zines. At events when I am able to directly share it with the audience and observe them reacting to the pages, pointing out things they figured out, or asking questions about it, it feels amazing.

Another unintended audience group have been scientists-in-training across the country. Some of them often write to share their appreciation of the work and express interest in pursuing similar endeavours. Teaching, training and engaging with these students has also become a core part of my work.

Giving feedback on student work, science illustration workshop, IISER Pune, 2019 (Photo Dr. Ipsa Jain)

AB: How important is gender in your work? I note, for example, that you are also active in The Life of Science project, which started off as a way of chronicling the experiences of Indian women in science.

IJ: My work doesn’t consciously invoke gender. But it creeps up in the way I think. For instance, after some work based on microbial communities, I came to appreciate the role of cooperation in evolution. This contrasts with the predominant (patriarchal!) idea of completion driving evolution. As a person as well, I have for a long time valued cooperation over competition. Though I am not sure if these ideas are really that rooted in gender, as I felt them to be.

AB: What is the connection between your work as a scientist and that as a communicator of science? How do you choose the topics you highlight in your latter work? How does your work as a public communicator of science influence your research? I recently saw your zine about cell memory and I thought it was a brilliant way to convey knowledge that is so relevant to our current situation.

IJ: I am no longer a practising scientist. How I choose themes and topics is also something I am trying to analyse in my own work. I can retrospectively identify what provoked me to think about something. But when and how that thought progresses to the making of a piece of work–this is a force that I don’t understand yet. I am often sharing my own curiosities and queries in my work. Those are certainly whimsical.

AB: This is a slightly cheeky question, but having looked up the Cytoskeleton Lab @inStem Bangalore, where you worked as a postdoctoral researcher, I came across a section titled ‘Lab pictures.’ I was expecting to see images of scientists at work, either in a laboratory or in the field, but they were group photographs of the members of the lab, shot outdoors. It made me think about the visual representation of scientific work and how I always have to nag my interlocutors to illustrate their conversations with images of themselves ‘in action.’ The first round of images I get are usually portraits of themselves, which in itself says a lot about how scientists are accustomed to introduce themselves to a more general public. If you had to pick one aspect of your work as a scientist or a scientific instrument that you work with and introduce it to a broader audience, what would that be and how would you introduce it?

IJ: This is an interesting question. In a lot of popular media, particularly biological sciences we see scientists in lab coats, hunching over a microscope, holding up a bacterial plate or pink coloured liquid in pipettes. All this ignores other activities scientists engage in: speaking in public, teaching students, discussion with peers, writing, and reading.

But when it comes to advertising a lab, it is often the ‘fun’ side that is exhibited. It is perhaps an attempt to humanise science or to present the lab as a place where work-life balance is encouraged. Or perhaps a reflection of how scientists view themselves, as people laughing on a bench discussing science, gossiping about something, planning the next beer session, and so on.

In response to your second question, if asked five years ago, I would have said pipette, an extension of the hand. Asked today, I would say pencil, an extension of the mind. Thinking for me comes in scribbles and squiggles on paper across time in response to various stimuli that come together at some point into half-baked or fully formed ideas. I am not sure if one would consider pencils as scientific instruments. But they are very much a part of a scientist’s life, taking notes in talks, conferences, analysing data, annotating data, structuring reports, teaching and other activities. Or maybe the right answer is hand, the instrument that holds the pipette and the pencil. It is after all an act of playing, doing, making.

AB: Finally, one last question for these particularly uncertain times: How important is it to communicate scientific uncertainty and how do you think it can be communicated effectively?

Giving a talk on science illustration to school students in Malleshwaram, Bangalore, 2020 (Photo Dr. Ipsa Jain)

IJ: I am not sure how successful I am at it, but I try not to give information and share instead curiosities and questions with my audience. I ask: How does a cell look? How does it behave? Who is an individual? What is death? How does time flow for a cell? I share some imagination, some images, some data with them, but it is often an incomplete picture with an (yet) incomplete answer,  and often end up with a question.

There is expectation for science to be ‘fact-full’. It is a system of making knowledge that changes with time as more is revealed, like a morphing jelly. We need to share that, so that the burden that science carries for being a ‘solve it all’ doesn’t hamper trust in science. During the pandemic, I have been asked by several relatives why we don’t have a vaccine yet and why does it take so long. Science is a process with systems and flaws that needs to be shared so that expectations from the public are matched. We need to say I don’t know, we don’t know, yet.

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