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Interview with Mr. Prabahan Chakraborty, Science Slam winner 2018


Prabahan won last year’s Science Slam title with his scintillating live performance called: How does stress affect our brain, and how can we fight back? As the 1st prize winner, he was given a round trip to Europe to visit research institutions of his choice.

In Europe, he had the opportunity to visit Munich (Max Planck Institute of Translational Psychiatry), Turin (Neuroscience Institute of Cavalieri Ottolenghi), Lausanne, Bern (Science et. cite), Zurich (ETH, Zurich), Brussels, Leiden (University of Leiden), Utrecht (Utrecht University) and Amsterdam (Swammerdam Institute for Life Sciences).

He is about to complete his PhD in neuroscience at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Bangalore, and would like to continue his research career trying to understand how circuits within the brain mediate social behaviours, and how they govern learning and memory. 

Summary of bio-data:

I grew up in Kolkata in a family of academicians, and my parents always supported my desire to explore both science and the arts. While I was in school, I received the prestigious Balashree Presidential Honour (2004-2005) for creative scientific innovation. Simultaneously, I was also training and performing regularly under the tutelage of one of the doyens of modern Bengali theatre, Ramaprasad Banik. Since completing my undergraduate training in Zoology from erstwhile Presidency College in 2011, I have been pursuing PhD trying to understand how stress affects the brain, at National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore. Theatre has been my constant companion throughout – the last few years have not only led to the publication of two scientific manuscripts but also two anthologies of one act plays. 


What motivated you for contesting in the EURAXESS Science Slam?

Science Slam was the perfect platform to combine my love for theatre with my passion for science. For me, it was a real challenge to bring in the entertainment factor into the nitty-gritties of science, while keeping the magic of science alive. Moreover, the possibility of a research trip to Europe seemed to be an exciting opportunity at that point of time, given that I was nearing the end of my PhD and looking for future career opportunities.


How did you use your background in theatre as a way to communicate scientific research in your presentation on how ‘stress affects the brain’?

A key part of theatre is storytelling, which is also a tool the most eloquent of scientific speakers use in talks. While this provided the common backbone of the performance, my experience with theatre also allowed me to experiment with stage space, music and creative movements in my act, while using rhyme, rhythm and humor to keep my audience engaged. My academic experience with PowerPoint, on the other hand, helped me use visuals to enhance my on-stage performance.


The Science Slam helps to promote young Indian researchers in Europe. In what ways was the trip to Europe important for your career?

My trip to Europe allowed me to visit a total of ten laboratories, in four different countries. This one of a kind opportunity not only provided me with an exposure to leading research institutions, but also to discuss future career possibilities with each individual scientist. These avenues will certainly help me transition into the next phase of my journey in academia. I can also say with conviction that many people opened their doors and cordially invited me in simply because I was a Science Slam winner – something which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise, and speaks volumes about the international impact of this competition.


What did you learn about European research environments, in particular during your guest visit at the Max Planck Institute in Munich?

Across all institutes, research environments were really congenial and welcoming. In the seminars I gave or the one-on-one discussions I had, I really felt an encouraging, supportive and positively-critical environment. My guest visit at Prof. Carsten Worjak’s laboratory at MPI, Munich, was particularly excellent – fuelled by exciting discussions with both him as well as a new bunch of peers, and culminating in a departmental research trip to Burghausen as the perfect finish!   


Will you continue with research with or in Europe?

Yes, absolutely! With all the positive interactions I have had during my trip, I really look forward to that possibility.


What motivates you as a researcher?

As a researcher, I am intrigued by interesting questions and puzzles, which are often simple curiosities at heart. Specifically, pursuing scientific questions which may benefit the society in some little way motivates me to do science. Often providing answers to even the simplest of queries we might have (for instance, is depression an actual disease, or can we ‘get over it’?) feeds a lot into the social thinking-box. Deep down, I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller, so I’m constantly on the search for stories to tell– sometimes of successful adventures, other times of interesting defeats!


Which research path do you envision for your future career?

I plan to continue my journey in academia with a focus on trying to solve the elegant mystery of how brain dictates behavior. For instance, how do social behaviors develop? How are they orchestrated by the brain? Also, how do we learn and remember something, and how is it regulated by the brain? This apart, I also want to engage more in science communication, particularly using theatre as a tool to communicate science more effectively. Stories of discovery, challenges that scientists face, environmental concerns of the hour as well as cutting edge scientific research needs to be put forth to the common man. What best than to make it an entertaining experience at the same time?


The Science Slam promotes creative means for communicating research to larger audiences. How helpful was the training you received from EURAXESS before your successful performance?

The training by Prof. Arnab Bhattacharya had been really helpful in bringing into focus the different nuances of communicating science. In particular, I got a detailed insight into how to structure a talk, and how to use PowerPoint more effectively as a tool – both of which then helped me fine-tune various aspects of my final performance.


Could you kindly share some tip to this year’s EURAXESS Science Slam participants?

Be creative, be entertaining, and keep it simple. There is a fine balance between ‘putting too many details’ and ‘including too less science’ into your talk - keep that in mind. While preparing, try out your act in front of your friends and family and see if they understand the science, or if it’s too science-y for them. Don’t experiment too much (if you can’t sing, don’t sing) and exploit your strengths to the maximum (if you can sing, please sing!). And lastly, have fun – because if you don’t have fun doing this, no one else will find it enjoyable! So put your best face on, go out there, and break a leg!

Thank You Prabahan!