Civic Science Sparks With…National Geographic Society
October 31, 2023
Greetings Civic Science Community,
When Anand Varma first gathered with other members of the inaugural class of Science Fellows, at the Gates Foundation headquarters in early 2020, he remembers not being sure if he was in the right place. Anand is a science photographer, whose work for National Geographic has included vivid, moving work on topics from hummingbirds to bees to brain-controlling parasites. He leapt at the opportunity to become a Civic Science Fellow to reflect more deeply on the purpose and path of his work. But in a room of people working on topics as varied as ethical development of technology, equitable science philanthropy, and how science can partner with communities in new ways, he wasn’t immediately clear how he fit in.
Soon, though, he began to see the key role of his work in the path toward more widespread, inclusive engagement in science—creating a vital moment where curiosity is piqued, where empathy begins to stir. And as Anand worked through a new experiment with interactive visual storytelling, which resulted in the Franklin Institute exhibit Jellyfish Revealed, hehelped other Fellows find revelations for their own work. Before people are ready for action or change, storytelling can draw their attention toward science in new ways.
Today, building on insights from his work as a Fellow, and with support from core partners from the civic science community, including National Geographic and the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, Anand is forging a new career path. As a “hybrid scientist/photographer/educator/engineer,” he is creating WonderLab, a space where he can experiment with new visual storytelling techniques and inspire and train others to do the same. In this month’s Civic Science Sparks With…, Anand describes how ongoing reflection has brought him to this distinctive path, where his talent and values align with profound civic science needs.
In the spirit of supporting the distinctive journeys so many civic science leaders are shaping, we are delighted to also share a first edition of the Civic Science Career Roadmap—a collaborative effort featuring career insights and inspiration from Fellows, funders, host partners, and other civic science colleagues. Wherever you seek to engage in civic science—whether at the first spark of curiosity, through deepening engagement through research and community action, or in transforming systems and policies—we hope this resource will be an inspiration and a tool to navigate toward a future where science, technology, and innovation provide broader benefits and solutions.
With anticipation for seeing innovative leaders and work flourish, scaffolded by community,
President and Chief Executive Officer, Rita Allen Foundation
Elizabeth Christopherson: You were one of the pioneering Civic Science Fellows in 2020, and so many appreciated learning about your work as part of the program, including several special workshops you ran. For those who perhaps missed meeting you, how would you introduce yourself to the civic science network?
Anand Varma: I would describe myself as a science photographer. That has multiple meanings for me. It means I use photography to communicate science. But it also means I use a scientific approach to photographing my subjects both in terms of researching the existing literature as well as experimenting throughout my process. Finally, being a science photographer means I strive to contribute new understanding of my subjects through my photography as well.
Elizabeth: You surprised and delighted the Fellows and others by bringing them into your garage where you had jelly fish in tanks! And then you taught us about new ways to observe and engage. Would you describe a little of what you offered to Fellows and the community? Including in the Franklin Institute exhibit?
Anand: Well, I often felt like the odd man out being a photographer rather than a social scientist. But I think that meant I got to learn a lot from my fellow Fellows, and I hope that I was also able to contribute my perspective as a different kind of practitioner in this field. The final outcome of my Fellowship was a jellyfish exhibit at the Franklin Institute where I presented video of the jellyfish lifecycle in multiple formats with the goal of trying to understand how audiences engage with visual science content.
Elizabeth: For those who may want to follow in your path, what career advice would you offer?
Anand: My path has been an unexpected one for me. I never imagined myself as a photographer, much less the hybrid scientist/photographer/educator/engineer that I seem to have become. The lesson I have taken away from my journey is that while it is important to set goals and work hard towards them, it is equally important to stop and reflect on the work you are doing in this moment in order to determine if it still aligns with your core values and your core curiosity. Again and again, I have found myself veering off the path I set for myself and wondering if I was failing in my goals, only to realize upon reflection that in fact I had discovered a new and better dream that better aligned with what I cared about most. It has taken me a lot of experimentation and reflection to narrow down what it is I want to spend my life doing, and I still have to remind myself that that is allowed to change over time.
Elizabeth: And what’s the response been to your new book? Is there another book or project on the horizon? Or a book that you’d highly recommend after yours?
Anand: So far, the feedback has been very positive and rewarding. But it was a massive effort over this past year, and I think I’d like to take a break from books for a little whil
e. I’ve just now finished setting up my new WonderLab space, so my next project is to pursue my first set of science photography ideas there. One book I’m enjoying at the moment is Awe: The New Science of Everyday Wonder and How It Can Transform Your Life by Dacher Keltner.