11 December 2008

"Me, a scientist?" Ha!

For the last week I have been visiting an Asha project in Kanakapura and evaluating them. I spent a lot of time talking to children, teachers and project staff. Here I would like to record one of my incidents with the children.

My usual game plan is to enter a class (I wish I could let out a dozen white doves upon entry) and greet the children with an effusive "Hi". Yeah, it's a bit lame, I wish I had the foresight to say something far more zippy. Preliminaries concluded the game of sizing up begins. As soon as I say a few sweet words in Kannada its clear to the kids that I am some sort of urban delite with bad language skills. While speaking to a Kannada audience I tend to get my grammar, vocabulary and tense quite nicely mixed up and so, not only do the kids have to answer my questions but they also have to understand what exactly I meant. There are lots of pauses along the way and I finally stumble (with prompting on the sidelines by the mentor and teacher) on the right set of words to convey my idea. Usually this was a math question that I was unable to articulate correctly and at the end everyone is happy because in the time it took me to figure out the words the kids solve the question. After a few back and forth rounds of math challenges and banter about what the kids want to do in their future I throw the floor open to them. I figure since I have simply waltzed into their lives asking questions they should be allowed to do the same. In some classes, they take this challenge seriously so after the mere formalities - name? father's and mother's name? native place? etc., they move on to profession. "Scientist" I announce, looking furtively at my prompters for the Kannada translation when a kid says, "vigjnanika".

The buck doesn't stop there, now they want to know what kind - did I help send chandrayaan to the moon? No. I help solve mysteries in biology (jaivik shastra). "What mysteries?" scream the kids. Hmm... this was not on my anticipated list of answers. I have worked in the field of membrane biology and infectious disease. The world of lipid rafts, the subject I did my thesis in, continues to remain a hotly debated subj and one I certainly could not find the words to explain in two-line English let alone Kannada. Even though lipids are far far more dear to my heart with cowardice, I decided to talk about my work in infectious diseases. Now Salmonella pathogenesis isn't the type of subject to populate my Kannada vocabulary so I started to scratch my head on how to explain it.

First, had the kids heard of Bacteria? Yes. What do they do? Give us Disease, cause us to fall ill. Right ho, we were on the same page. Had they heard of a cell? The unit of functionality in our bodies? Yes. There was a chart in the room with a mammalian cell so that solved another point. As I wanted to make it proactive I told the kids to think of a bacteria as a robber, trying to break into a house (cell). How many ways can a robber enter a home? Door, window, break lock, roof, tunnel (this needed a bit of convincing because tunnels are only dug by jailbirds according to the kids!). Then I asked them similarly to guess how a bacteria might enter a cell. A stunned silence broken by a few giggles. Ok, I thought, maybe I'll prod them along. So I drew a big fuzzy cell and a tiny bug next to it. Visualize this my champs and you can figure it out, I thought. The bacteria breaks the lock of the cell shouts one child. Yes, and it uses a needle to do that (for the geeks: Type III secretion ). We played around this way and came up with some more ways for the bug to enter the cell. An absolutely delightful time.

While traveling on the bus after this incident I was thinking about the situation. I believe that as a scientist I should be able to successfully communicate my work to any type of audience. It seems my major drawback is that I can only do so in English (or so I think!) and in either Hindi or Kannada I find this an uphill task. I really feel bad that I couldn't talk about lipids. But on the other hand, I was patting myself on the back for coming up with the robber analogy and was blown away with how fast the kids picked it up. Now I have set myself a new standard, I should be able to explain to a 6th standard kid what it is that I do and then only, will I really know my job! Oh, also I intend to practice in English, Hindi and Kannada. :)

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