Be a scientist for a day, 2023

On January 7, 2023, we hosted over a hundred school students and members from the public to ‘Be a scientist for a day’ and take a closer look at the process of science. Along with members of the public, the following schools participated in the programme: Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya (JNV) Karimnagar, JNV Yanam, JNV Vizianagaram, JNV Medak and JNV Rangareddy. This one-day event was a prelude to the fourth edition of the India Science Fest held at Hyderabad Public School, Begumpet from January 20 to 22, 2023.

The participants were divided into small groups and assigned mentors from TIFR Hyderabad (TIFRH).

Within their assigned groups the participants spent the day with the researchers learning a novel concept,

to then design and perform experiments and finally analyse the results of their day’s work.

Researchers from ten labs across physics, chemistry and biology enthusiastically volunteered to engage the participants into well rounded research activities and discussions for the day. 

  1. The students watched in fascination as members of Ullas Kolthur’s lab showed them how to visualize DNA and protein by running them on an electrophoresis gel. From reading about these elusive molecules in their textbooks where they are often depicted as highly detailed cartoons, they finally had a chance to look at them the way scientists see them every day in the lab – as bands on a gel.

2. In Aneesh Tazhe Veetil’s lab, the participants learnt about the use and versatility of fluorescent dyes in modern day imaging experiments. They saw phagocytosis in action, observing how fluorescent particles were gulped by macrophages.

3. Prashant K. Singh introduced his mentees to the fascinating properties of sound and electromagnetic waves. They were further encouraged to understand the concepts for themselves by walking around a table with two distinct light or sound sources where they could observe different patches of brightness and darkness or loudness and softness respectively.

4. Pranav R. Shirhatti and his group showed how to build a spectrometer from scratch. Light when passed through a prism or a transmission grating can be broken up into its constituents to form patterns called spectra. Using a piece of glass with 1000 vertical metal lines per millimeter (this is a small transmission grating), and a laser source, the students could observe spectra. They also replicated this experiment with different light sources. This helped them obtain a better understanding of diffraction.

5. Manish Jaiswal’s lab introduced the participants to the humble fruit fly, Drosophila. They performed a range of activities from observing the fruit fly under the microscope to performing PCR and two different behavioural assays on the flies: (1) an olfactory experiment, where fly larvae responded to different odorants, revealing their decision-making abilities, and (2) a climbing assay, where they monitored fly movement in young and old flies. These hands-on experiences offered a glimpse into the intricate world of genetic research.

6. Anand Vaidya’s lab showed participants how to prepare and run a Sodium Dodecyl Sulphate Polyacrylamide Gel Electrophoresis (SDS PAGE) to visualise and separate proteins based on their sizes. Participants learnt how to purify proteins using size exclusion chromatography. They further learnt how to analyse and interpret the generated chromatograms after running some standard proteins of known sizes through the column.

7. In T.N. Narayanan’s lab, the students learnt about lithium-ion batteries. They were also introduced to the wonders of 2D materials- materials that are so thin that they are almost two dimensional. The thinness and hardness of these materials are both properties that can be exploited in making, for example, helmets, that can be extremely hard and yet circulate heat more efficiently than thicker materials so that they do not heat up.

8. Kalyaneswar Mandal’s group introduced the participants to the basics of protein chemistry- how to build chains of peptides from amino acids using a peptide synthesiser. They further went on to understand the concepts of Liquid Chromatography Mass Spectrometry (LC MS) by characterising the mass of the peptide. Looking at red blood cells infected with malarial parasites on stained slides under the microscope remained the highlight of the day for these participants. 

9. Concepts in a high school chemistry book came to life in Anukul Jana’s lab. The participants learnt unique properties of different elements like manganese and nickel through colourful experiments. They made ‘artificial snow’ adding water to the superabsorbent sodium polyacrylate. Their faces lit up as they performed these reactions and understood by themselves the exact mechanisms and workings beyond dry textbook formulae. 

Students left with a new perspective towards science, a broad smile on their faces and feedback that was overwhelmingly positive.

Article: Shravasti Misra (Edited by Srushti Chipde and Anusheela Chatterjee)
Photographs: Sourankur Chakrabarti