Dr. Anindita Bhadra: Of flawed humans and cultured dogs

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Subhayu Bagchi and Arunita Banerjee

Dr. Bhadra with the Behaviour and Ecology group, during the Understanding Behaviour Conference 2019, which she convened.

  They say, ‘Dogs are a man’s best friend.’ Dr. Bhadra is here to tell us that we, as humans, could learn a thing or two from our friends.

  Dr. Anindita Bhadra is an Associate Professor and the Associate Dean of International Relations and Outreach, at IISER Kolkata. She was the founding chairperson of the Indian National Young Academy of Science (INYAS) and is presently co-chair of the Global Young Academy (GYA). Alongside her research, she is well-known in academia for excelling in multiple roles as a teacher, scientist, mentor, leader, outreach enthusiast and a thespian among other roles. #WIISER is also a brainchild of Dr. Bhadra.

  1. Every scientist has a story to tell when it comes to their journey into science. What is the story behind your foray into science? What is your earliest memory of wonder?

  My earliest memory of wonder is difficult to pinpoint. But when I look back and think of my journey, I see many people who have contributed to my becoming a scientist, starting from our science teacher in Class III, Mrs. Mandira Basu, who made us do the first science experiment of my life. We had to put gram seeds on some cotton wool on a plate, soak the cotton and keep this by a window and watch the set up until we saw the seeds sprouting. We had to take this to school and note the changes we saw. This was a lot of fun and I still remember the amazement of learning how plants happen. I was lucky to study in a school which had a lot of amazing teachers. In class VI, when we were introduced to Physics, Chemistry and Biology as separate subjects, our Physics teacher, Mrs. Suvra Duttagupta, brought a micrometer screw gauge and a Vernier callipers to the class. We spent a happy class measuring erasers and pencils and learning about the concept of least count. We were taken to the top floor of the building to visit the Biology lab, where we saw models and charts and stared in awe at the real human skeleton in its glass cabinet. We were thrilled, when one of our teachers opened up the cabinet and allowed us to touch the skeleton – some of us took turns to shake hands with it. We used to participate in the science fair at BITM, which was a serious affair. The participants had special permission to stay back and work in the library after school hours. We worked as teams on our charts and models and enjoyed ourselves immensely. We poured over books in the library and did a lot of learning over those weeks of preparation. In a way, my school primed me for science education. Then came my teachers in college – Prof. Aniruddha Mukherjee and Prof. Silanjan Bhattacharyya, who opened up the vista of Biology to me as a young student. Prof. Bhattacharyya had done his PhD with Prof. Madhav Gadgil, and he took us to visit CES, in IISc, during our second year UG field trip. That trip was an experience of a lifetime that taught me a lot. The experience of fieldwork, trekking in the forests, dipping into a river to catch fish and drying out in the sun while observing insects and birds, collecting dead sea creatures from a trawler catch and stinking for the next three days, were all experiences that remain deeply etched in my mind. But the most vivid memory is perhaps of listening to Prof. Raghavendra Gadagkar talk on social insects and visiting the vespiary to see Ropalidia marginata (a type of paper wasp) colonies. I was thoroughly fascinated by the talk and I had fallen in love with the IISc campus. I wanted to go back to do a PhD with Prof. Gadagkar.

  2. Tell us a little about your research. In particular, what inspired you to take up the unique model system you specialise in and how does it set your research apart in the field of ecology?

  I worked on the politics of a wasp society for my PhD. I submitted my thesis on my son’s first birthday. For obvious reasons, I was undecided about going abroad for a postdoc. Prof. Gadagkar suggested that I should consider applying to the IISERs - nly two existed at that time (Kolkata and Pune). I started thinking of what I would like to work on, as an independent researcher. I was excited by social insects, but mostly wasps. There were several interesting species around, but I realized that I would be drawn to repeating things that Prof. Gadagkar had done with one species, as it all made sense. But I wanted to do something on my own. That’s how I came up with the idea of working on dogs. I had been reading a lot of papers on dogs, coming out of labs in the West, and I had also visited one of these labs in Budapest. I had realized that everyone was trying to understand the evolution of the dog-human relationship by using pet dogs, that are mostly products of artificial selection, bred and raised by humans. So, they cannot give the true picture of what really are “dogs”. But we had dogs on streets that are independent animals, leading socially active lives and undergoing struggle for survival like any other species in nature. They can be the perfect model system for understanding how dogs interact with humans without having prior experience or training. I prepared a short proposal and had a chat with Prof. Gadagkar. He asked me the same question, “why dogs”? I gave him the same answer. In fact, I told him that living in India, if I wanted to work on wasps, I would always be known as his student, my lab would be considered an extension of his lab. I respect him and admire him, but I want to make my own niche. Many supervisors would have stopped talking to such a student after this. My supervisor beamed at me and told me that I was going to give him true academic fitness, as I would be starting a line of work on my own. Till date, he has remained my mentor, and I still turn to him for advice and help, at all times.

  I think my research is not so different from my other ecologist friends. But I have the advantage of having my model system everywhere and I don’t need to spend weeks away from teaching due to fieldwork. I don’t need to struggle for permits to do my observations either. Even during the pandemic, we could do some work, observing dogs from our windows.

  3. The glass ceiling for female academics in India still remains rather inflexible, and you have spoken about your own experiences in this regard. What role do you think established career scientists, regardless of gender, play in changing this in three roles: undergrad instructor, research advisor, professional colleague?

  This is a very important question to ponder on. I think much depends on the mindset of people. Unfortunately, we live and are brought up in a very, patriarchal and feudal society, where we still need to talk about concepts like gender balance, sexual orientation, mental health as “issues”. When a girl is raped, people blame her sense of dressing, even today. This is the mindset which needs to change, at every level. Scientists are a part of the society we live in, and they bring their own prejudices to the system. This is why we have institutions giving special awards to the best performing girl student, without realizing that this is an insult, both to the student and the teachers. Girls don’t need special prizes, they need to be treated at par. Faculty need to be wrapped on their knuckles by people in authority when they say that they don’t want to take girl students for whatever reasons. When a girl talks of harassment, either mental or physical, people need to sit up and pay attention and take action. Years of not doing anything, ignoring the voices of women, brushing things under the carpet leads to girls not coming forth to complain any more. They lose faith in the system. Established scientists can change this. They can mentor undergrads to let them know their rights. They can, as research advisors, treat their students with respect and dignity, mentor them, give them moral and emotional support and applaud them for their small achievements. As colleagues, they need to be aware of and empathetic towards other colleagues’ problems and needs and treat each other with dignity. There should be healthy competition and camaraderie for a group to work together and do well. Especially when it comes to the question of female academics, people need to respect their family needs while scheduling meetings, institutions need to provide support through day care facilities, career breaks due to family should not be considered in a negative light. These are points that have been much discussed in multiple platforms. I feel it is important for us to nurture our students, early in their lives even while they are in school, to give them the confidence that they are less than none, and they can achieve any goal that they set for themselves, irrespective of gender.

  4. How do you attempt to monitor the environment in your lab to maintain a balance between research productivity and overall well-being of a lab member? What are some mistakes you know to avoid from personal experience of being a former graduate student?

  I don’t really monitor my lab, my students are the ones who are in charge. When it comes to individuals, I try to interfere less and provide support. I myself engage in multiple activities, and I encourage my students to do the same. This improves creative thinking. I am always available to my students, inside and outside the lab. They can drop in or call me whenever they need to talk. They can come home and stay with me to work if they like. They can wake me up in the middle of the night if they are in trouble. I always share my contact details with them. When I travel, I always tell them where I am going and why. I believe in transparency. I don’t think I can answer the second question. During my PhD years, I have done theatre, worked for the Students’ Council, done counselling, run the students’ magazine, organized events and had a family. A lot of people thought these were mistakes, but neither I nor my supervisor did. I tried and failed at experiments and learned from them. I never rushed to finish, and I did quite well. What I learned from my PhD life is this – one needs to keep the focus and enjoy one’s PhD. I try to tell the same to my students. What’s the point in spending five years of your life doing a PhD, if you don’t get to enjoy it?

  5. With the furore created by the #MeToo movement in India, the scientific academia largely seemed to remain untouched. What role do you feel institutional committees play in this, to what extent are they effective and how if at all, the system can be improved?

  I think I have addressed this question a little earlier. In order to improve the system, we need a set of motivated people, who will be ready to do things in spite of odds. Unfortunately, we have a lot of rules and rules always provide some loopholes. One or two people can’t change the system, but a dozen motivated people can push it back. Institutional committees can choose to be flexible about rules and stringent about people’s rights and emotions, or they can choose to just play by the rules and do what is apparently right, but not necessarily fair. Having said that, we need to keep in mind that when it comes to the #MeToo, people who write about their experiences in social media do so often after a long time, and do not lodge a formal complaint. Institutional committees cannot work on hearsay, they need a formal complaint to start with. This is where the community needs to be proactive, mentor people, provide them the emotional support to come out and file a complaint.

This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Subhayu Bagchi and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito137.

Subhayu Bagchi is an alumnus of IISER Kolkata. He is currently a grad physics researcher at Ole Miss; and a games and puzzles aficionado. He also dabbles in freelancing, music and scicomm. Never perfect.

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