From the Florey Institute in Melbourne to Angel, London, we welcome journalist and ex-chemist Dr Akshat Rathi (@AkshatRathi) to Real Scientists. Dr Rathi is Science and Technology Editor at The Conversation UK, a branch of the successful The Conversation initiated in Australia. Akshat “grew up a nerd after being born in 1987 in Nashik, India.” He studied chemical engineering in Mumbai because maths and chemistry made sense to him. He took up organic chemistry for a PhD at Oxford University. The routine of lab and the fear of becoming too specialised got to him, and he ended up “wiggling” [sic] his way in to science journalism. Dr Rathi is now science and technology editor at The Conversation (UK) and his work has appeared in Nature, The Economist, Ars Technica and The Hindu, among others.
We asked Akshat our usual round of questions to find out more:
I liked science in school. Excellent teachers made me good at it. There is little more an Indian kid needs to do to make his parents proud. Before university, chemistry was my favourite subject. I liked maths a lot too. So a compromise was to study chemical engineering, which I did in Mumbai.Sadly, it turned out engineering maths was a lot less exciting than calculus and trigonometry. So I ended up spending lots of time swirling chemicals in a flask. And because I didn’t feel like I had enough time in university, I decided to go for a PhD in organic chemistry. This I was fortunate enough to pursue at Oxford University.
Chemistry lab proved to be exhilarating and exhausting, which is what I wanted. But I left because I couldn’t hole myself into working on one tiny area of chemistry for too many years. Science writing was far too much fun and I couldn’t get enough of it. And it also happens to be equally exhilarating and exhausting.
Things that make me think twice. A lot of science is incremental progress, but every so often there is a story about a leap. It happens because the researchers weren’t quite expecting the results or because they’ve been at it for a lot of time. I love capturing those stories.
What we have today is really exciting. Lots of people, including many scientists, using many different channels to get the science across. There isn’t a day when I feel it’s been a boring day for science. The UK, in particular, is a hub of some of the best science communicators in the world, and they have learned to adapt to the digital age quite well. I learn from them everyday.
I’m biased, but I think that what The Conversation UK does is unique. Some academics are excellent communicators, there are many who like communicating but could do with help. We work with them to shape articles to be more accessible. In that way, The Conversation does a great job of helping a wider audience to tap into the knowledge held in our universities (and too often sadly behind journal paywalls).In that sense, I believe The Conversation is one of the best advocates of open access. Where it’s not about putting out jargon-heavy scientific papers into the public, but about translating them into words that are easy to understand and hopefully apply.
There is a side of science writing that is usually criticised, but not enough. There are still too many publications exaggerating scientific claims to nonsensical levels. The shake up in journalism because of the digital revolution has caused an upheaval, which has left many good publications to cut specialist reporting and turn into click-baiters. The internet has accelerated the spread of bad science writing.While new outlets like The Conversation and Nautilus and multimedia projects like Radio Lab, Brain Scoop and Veritasium have done much to fill up the gap, but we still have a long way to go before science is usually understood correctly by most readers. It’s a challenge which keeps me going.