How Mohit Kumar Jolly communicates science

Bioengineering Ph.D. alumnus shared his methods, experiences with Rice students.

Mohit Kumar Jolly

Early in his research of interdisciplinary cancer research with colleagues at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, Mohit Kumar Jolly, who earned his Ph.D. from Rice University in 2016, noticed a disconnect in some of his conversations. 

“My Rice advisors were theoretical (bio)physicists and I frequently talked with other physicists. But when I uttered the same words to biologists, I’d get blank faces,” Jolly said.

“As I reflected on the times when I did not communicate my ideas as clearly as I liked, I began to realize better communication would be key to the success of interdisciplinary research. And interdisciplinary research is necessary for investigating complex systems like cancer, which has created havoc in so many lives across the globe.”

After identifying the problem, Jolly sought out ways to improve how he explained complex topics. In his second year of grad school, Jolly won the People’s Choice Award for his 90-second research pitch in the university’s SCREECH competition. One of his SCREECH talk examples — how cancer cells spread through the body by speeding along its freeways of blood vessels and lymph vessels - still resonates with his audiences today.

“There is no better way to learn something than to teach it,” said Jolly. “So I started conducting workshops for other grad students who wanted to improve their own science and engineering communication. And I attended more science communication workshops because learning and teaching go hand in hand. Discovering how to talk about science to non-experts like the general public helped me better communicate within my interdisciplinary research groups where the other scientists and researchers have deep expertise, but not in my area.”

After winning the People’s Choice Award, Jolly approached Jennifer Wilson in Rice’s Program in Writing and Communication (PWC). He expressed his interest in sharing his methods and his previous experience with other Rice students and asked about opportunities within the PWC.

“After my interview with Jen Wilson and her team, I was offered a role as a communication consultant. In every consultation session, I’d be faced with a different challenge than I’d been exposed to previously — abstracts, conference talks, videos. Oh, I had no experience with videos back then! But each scenario required the speaker or writer to come quickly to their point and communicate their idea clearly within a certain time frame or word count, and that is where I could help them improve,” said Jolly.

He spent almost two years as a communication consultant with the PWC, then two new opportunities arose for Jolly who was also rapidly approaching his September 2016 dissertation defense. That May, he headed to San Francisco for intense speaker training; the prize for a handful of winners in the iBiology Young Scientist Series was learning to apply improv techniques to technical talks.

Jolly said, “During iBiology YSS 2016, I trained with faculty members from the Alan Alda Center at Stonybrook where I (together with three other winners) learned about improvisation for four days. That experience culminated in the four winners giving a talk about their research which was then published on the website as an example of speaking science to non-technical audiences."

The following month, Jolly attended ComSciCon — Communicating Science Conference — at Harvard University. The flagship event, begun four years earlier by graduate students for graduate students, had been held annually in Boston. In 2016, the organizers offered opportunities for participants to launch similar events in their own areas. Jolly volunteered to initiate the Houston chapter and ended up co-chairing the first ComSciCon Houston conference in 2017.

“Thanks to huge support from Jen Wilson and the PWC, the 2017 ComSciCon-Houston was a great success and went on to become a local annual event,” said Jolly.

Co-chairing the 2017 ComSciCon-Houston coincided with his postdoctoral research as a Computational Cancer Biology Fellow in the Gulf Coast Consortia (GCC). The GCC is an interdisciplinary organization of Houston and Galveston research and medical institutions, where Jolly’s workshops on communicating science using improv techniques continued to generate interest. Now an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Jolly has been invited to conduct similar workshops at IISc and other institutes, and as part of several conferences.

But it was his research into cancer metastasis and therapy resistance that resulted in Jolly being named an InfoSys Young Investigator in the Division of Interdisciplinary Research. He is enthusiastic about the work his lab is doing, as well as the opportunities for both graduate and undergraduate students.

Jolly said, “For me, the most rewarding aspect of working at IISc as a research group leader is the progress that students make in both their academic and professional development. The interdisciplinary nature of students in our lab means they are coming in with backgrounds in physics, chemistry, biology, mathematics, humanities, and other fields of study. Their diverse training prompts all kinds of questions about cancer metastasis and how cancer reacts to drugs given to patients in the clinic. Studying the cancer ecosystem cannot be restricted to one discipline; looking at it from multiple perspectives is how we will solve the critical problem.”

He explained that although IISc has been leading excellent research for over 100 years, the institute has only recently begun expanding its curriculum to undergraduate students. Jolly believes that IISc’s reputation allowed the school to attract the “best of the best students in each of our disciplines.

“Tapping into that rich diversity of backgrounds, I tell the students in my courses and in my lab to accept their identity crisis. I say, ‘Speak to the problem from your experience as a physicist, a chemist, a mathematician, a biologist, and appreciate the view coming from the lens someone else is using — that’s what improv does. Identity crisis is your identity, and that’s how interdisciplinary research progresses.’ 

"My interfaces with experimental cancer biologists, as we worked to understand the data coming in from the clinic, utilized the lens of physics to investigate the dynamics of cancer metastasis. Cancer is still around and we still require diverse lenses focused on the problem.”

As much as he loves teaching and research, Jolly advises current graduate students to take time to consider all the different skills they are acquiring. He said it is easy to get caught up in the technical challenges, collecting and analyzing data, and writing manuscripts during the journey, but the soft skills are equally important.

“The skills you gain during a Ph.D., a postdoc, or even as an undergraduate are very translational in nature. As a student, you are guaranteed opportunities to become a better communicator, to act as a project manager, to learn how teams work together. 

“Don’t take any of those soft skills for granted. My advice is to sharpen those skills while you can because they will be useful in any career, including academia. Don’t bypass any opportunity you have to improve upon them.”

This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.