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Vivekanand Vimal Examines Whether Access to Information is a Basic Human Right

Vivekanand Vimal with Her Royal Majesty Queen Herpes I, a former lab rat, in the basement of his family's home. Wall illustrations are by Vimal. Credit: Rita Pandey

Vivekanand Vimal, a newly minted neuroscience PhD from Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, has won the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition's inaugural student digital media competition for his wide-ranging three-part podcast that considers whether access to information is a basic human right.

Vimal thinks it should be. “Human beings don't have the huge bank of instinctual knowledge” that informs many species' activities, he said. “One of our human rights has to be the ability to connect to the larger pool of knowledge that we as a species have accumulated. It is intrinsic to our human identity to be connected to it.”

Vimal received his award at the Science and Human Rights Coalition meeting on July 27, 2017, in Washington, DC. His podcast series, “Science and Human Rights,” begins with the story of Jan Srajer, who escaped Communist Czechoslovakia in 1968 to come to the United States. In Boston, Srajer founded his own construction company and eventually developed an abiding interest in the potential of so-called medicinal mushrooms. However, Srajer discovered that some data about the mushrooms resided behind paywalls, and he told Vimal he chafed at the restriction. Why should he have to pay to learn about the properties of possibly efficacious fungi?

Why indeed? Vimal asks. Various governments have provisions in place to make scientific information available to the public. For example, institutions that receive funds from the National Institutes of Health for medical research are required to make that research available through PubMed within a year of its publication. Even so, not everything makes it into the public sphere. Vimal thinks that for scientists, sharing information with the largest possible number of people should be “a devotional act.”

Two other episodes of the podcast take on the legal aspects of information, and how scientists and ordinary people alike might go about influencing policy. These segments feature Vimal interviewing neuroscientist Maria Genco; Andreas Teuber, an associate professor of philosophy at Brandeis; Nikhil Krishnaswamy, a postdoctoral researcher in computational linguistics at Brandeis; ; and Mikael Garabedian, a Brandeis PhD candidate in biology.

Scientists often are agents of discovery—that's one of Vimal's favorite things about the job, that at least for a short while, scientists often hold a piece of knowledge that no one else in the world has. The podcast explores how scientists can take a role in advocating for human rights—and whether they should.

Vimal was part of the Brandeis contingent at the March for Science last April in Washington, DC. “I do believe that, as scientists, we should have viewpoints on all of this, but I don't think we should be too quick to lobby,” he said. “We need to give people the tools to come to their own conclusions.”

Vimal himself has gone out of his way to explore the world, and various points of view. He got poor grades in high school in Lexington, Massachusetts, even though he worked very hard, he said. He spent a lot of time daydreaming, and it took him years to understand that even beloved pursuits have their tedious aspects. One experience that helped was two summers in college spent at the training camp for the Officer Candidates School of the United States Marines.

Vimal got involved in the OCS program in the first place because “I wanted the toughest, most tumultuous environment I could find,” he said. However, “I was not fit, and I was so deathly scared, I spent the entire year before camp transforming myself, preparing to go,” he said. The camp itself was “turbulent,” with “aggression in everything that happened,” and indeed, one-third of the candidates washed out, he said. Vimal was not one of them, even though he characterizes himself as “inherently gentle and easily scared.” He prevailed and was offered a commission, which he considered but ultimately turned down.

Instead, he taught high school for six years in Waltham, Massachusetts, another source of hard-won lessons that give ballast to his belief in the importance of following your passion. During those years, Vimal learned that “you can bring in a scientist who has already digested a subject, and have him regurgitate it so students can consume it—and use that to help them build their own ideas. But to become full scientists, students have to learn to do the chewing and digesting themselves.”

After years of teaching, Vimal, whose family is from eastern India, went to a different area, near Jaipur, in Rajasthan, India, to work for a nonprofit organization. He had already done some video projects in Boston. In India, he taped people he encountered and made some documentary-type films.

When he returned home, Vimal taught high school for another year while he applied to graduate schools. At Brandeis, his PhD thesis was based on “observing how people reacted when they were strapped into a specially designed device that removed gravitational cues.” He also developed a summer internship program at Brandeis to give Waltham High School science students a chance to get some solid laboratory experience.

Meanwhile, he continued his cultural investigations. He was halfway through creating a podcast with dozens of different people speaking on various topics when he heard about the AAAS student digital media competiton. He had met Srajer in a woodworking workshop; his story suggested the topic of the series Vimal entered in the contest.

He says, "Science is about taking something and rotating it until you find a glimmer of truth and beauty inside it. Media is about that, too. I find expression through media and science to be similar in nature. That's why I'm attracted to them."

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<p>Vivekanand Vimal with Her Royal Majesty Queen Herpes I, a former lab rat, in the basement of his family's home. Wall illustrations are by Vimal.&nbsp;Credit: Rita Pandey</p>
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