Ankita Arora is a Postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus and avid op-ed writer.
Ankita at Yosemite National Park
Can you explain your research? To understand my research better let’s take an analogy of a warehouse that stores commodities at a nearby locality depending on the demand at the specific location. Similarly, cells store RNA molecules at close proximity to locations that need to produce proteins depending on the stimulus, a process called RNA localization. My research focuses on the role of RNA localization in brain cells. It’s important because disruption in RNA localization, often leads to degenerative brain disorders.
What got you interested in Science and Science Policy? One of my cousins has cerebral palsy, an incurable neurodevelopmental disorder. I saw him suffer each day while taking the drugs that only relieved symptoms. This drove me to science and research in particular. One of the primary motivations behind science was to serve society by problem solving - science for society. However, recent developments and technological advancements have widened the gap between science and society. Controversies surrounding gene editing, stem cell research, personalised medicine, and vaccines have become widespread. Instead of addressing the concern through evidence and data, these issues are getting increasingly politicized and polarized. An increased need to bridge the gap between science, society and policy-makers got me interested in science policy.
What motivated you to write an op-ed as part of the 2020 Election Initiative accelerator program and what was the topic? I strongly believe that for science to serve the community, scientists have to step outside their labs and communicate with larger audiences. This urge got me interested in writing op-eds, as they are one of the most efficient ways to disseminate information to the masses. However, I was struggling to get over the fear of the unknown - what the 2020 Election Initiative accelerator program did for me was to provide the initial push which drove the intimidation away. The op-ed call was focused on COVID-19 and me having a healthcare background [fit] - I centered my piece on the lack of diagnostic testing and why it is important in our path to recovery.
What was the most challenging part of the writing and publishing process? I will admit that it was a very steep learning curve. The way we as scientists are trained to write follows different rules than op-eds. While in scientific writing you start from background and end at conclusions, the op-ed works through an inverted process. It’s difficult to adapt to the new structure especially when it means that you have to unlearn years of scientific writing training. I am extremely grateful to the NSPN editors, who had the patience to walk me through the process for the first time. Secondly, the thought of pitching to editors with no prior experience was daunting. If you keep the pitch sweet and small it can do wonders. Lastly, learning that no response or refusals is part of the publishing process was hard.
What was something positive or rewarding that you gained from this experience? Writing op-eds has made me a better thinker, and forced me to learn the art of concise, succinct writing. It has helped me to communicate with clarity and precision.
Have you received any follow up questions or responses to your op-eds from the community or lawmakers? I have received lots of positive responses from my family, peers and colleagues. More often than not, my pieces have led to discussion amongst my cohort, and brought awareness, perspective to many around me. I remember peers sharing their personal stories about telemedicine and how that was a positive, stress-free alternative to in-patient visits after reading my second op-ed on technology and healthcare during the pandemic.
Do you have any advice for anyone not experienced with op-eds who wants to give it a try? Don't be scared to take the leap of faith and be persistent. I was in your shoes a few months ago, I sailed through the storm and came through in flying colors. SO CAN YOU. Also, don’t feel shy - reach out for help. You’ll be surprised to see how many of your peers would stand by-your-side and help you out. The best op-eds are ones where you have a personal story, but that’s not the end. Try to diversify your reach by interviewing an expert in the field, it shows you have given time and input which speaks volume.
What do you enjoy out of your work? I have been in Colorado for almost 2.5 years - and as a true Coloradoan I'm a big outdoor[s] fan and a bigger national park geek. Once, while hiking in Yellowstone, my husband and I encountered a black bear within 6 feet of us. We were completely unprepared, alone on the trailhead, and with no bear spray. We were dumbfounded, scared, yet excited. Thankfully, the bear was busy eating the grass and hardly noticed us but seeing a natural wonder in its [natural] surroundings was a humbling experience.
How do you see and feel the impacts of the recent order from ICE about the deportation of F1 visa students who are not taking in-person classes? What does it mean now that the order has been rescinded? What can other NSPN members and students be doing to support international scientists? I’m already in the U.S. on a J-1 research scholar visa, so neither the executive order nor the student ban directly impacts me professionally. But personally, the freedom to visit my family back in India seems to be limited as I risk my entry back to the US. I can see the impacts all around; some of my friends and family are directly affected and are dealing with increased anxiety and uncertainty which bring a great mental toll with it. The message that these orders give is that despite being experts and skilled in our fields, we’re not welcomed here. They make us feel as outsiders and that’s disheartening to witness. By rescinding the student ban, we have won one of many battles to overhaul the current immigration system. However, now that people have started paying attention to immigration issues, it is time to talk about other loopholes in the immigration system. It’s important to realize that immigration has always been a challenge, not just now. Being empathetic to your immigrant colleagues, reaching out to show support and increasing awareness of the hardships they face go a long way.
You can read Ankita’s three recently published op-eds through the links below. She shares that there is a fourth in the works. In addition to this work Ankita is actively involved with the NSPN Science Diplomacy Committee.
The path to COVID-19 economic recovery lies in large scale testing (The Colorado Independent)
How technology is shaping the brave new world of health care in the coronavirus era (The Coloardo Sun)
Beyond the tears and protests: let's stand up, act and spark change (The Colorado Independent)