Dr. Anuradha Bhat: The exciting life of a field biologist

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Aditya Dwarkesh and Arunita Banerjee

Dr. Anuradha Bhat (second row, extreme right) with the members of the Fish Ecology and Behaviour Lab. (Source: Fish Ecology and Behaviour Lab facebook page, 2017).

  Dr. Anuradha Bhat is an Associate Professor at the Department of Biological Sciences, IISER Kolkata. Her research encompasses zoology, stream ecology and behavioural biology. In this interview, she talks about her early days as a field biologist and how she has witnessed the changes in the academic environment of our country, throughout her journey so far.

  1. How would you describe your research activity to an interested 10-year-old?

  We are all fascinated from childhood with nature and its multitude of interacting species. If you look into a small pond you see so many living creatures within a small habitat. I study these aquatic environments and ask how different fish species live in their natural habitat, how they interact with one another and with their surroundings. Human beings have used and exploited these water bodies for their needs for thousands of years, but only recently this has lead to irreversible damage. This is because of uncontrolled destruction of many water resources (think of dams, pollution into rivers, and coastal regions), we are causing immense damage to these species that live and thrive in aquatic habitats.

  I study how fish species have coped with changes in their surroundings and how these changes affect the living conditions of species. Moreover, I also use some of these species to observe their detailed behaviours. Just like humans and several larger animals, fish species too have personalities! There are bold and shy ones, aggressive and non-aggressive ones. How do these individuals interact under different conditions around them? Does it help to have a specific kind of personality to live in a habitat that also has predators in it? My students and I perform simple laboratory and field-based studies to test behavioural responses in fish to understand what drives personality traits in them. We often collect our data in the field by observing them directly in nature, or bring these tiny creatures to our lab to study them in tanks.

  2. It is often stereotyped that life science is a discipline which women tend to pursue more so than other disciplines. What is your opinion on this stereotype?

  I do not agree with this and this is indeed a stereotype we need to strive to dispel. Science is a way of thinking that involves a systematic study of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. This cannot and should not be put into boxes separately based on gender. Indeed, I see a healthy mix of both men and women pursuing life sciences around me. The ratio of girls and boys doing PhD in our department should give an idea of this.

  As is true of many other disciplines, however, the number of women pursuing higher education starts to decline even for life sciences. This has to do with social pressures that drive many women from pursuing careers of their natural interest. This is seen to be much more acute in some branches of sciences such as physical sciences. As a collective, we all need to address this and strive to change prejudices if we see them in people around us.

  3. In what ways (the good and the bad)—with reference to the women’s position in it—has the landscape of academia changed?

  We have come a long way from the time of Marie Curie when women pursuing science were an exception. In India too, there has been a wave of change over the past decades. The number of women in academia has also increased, as compared to my school or college days. The working environment has also been changing gradually over these years. A better understanding of the situation is required in order to encourage more participation from women, to remain in academia. Several funding agencies have also brought up schemes that allow for funding projects from women scientists after gaps in their research work.

  At the same time, it has also brought about open discussions on lesser talked topics such as workplace discrimination, harassment, etc. Organizations are now more sensitive to these issues and steps are being taken in the right direction to ensure a better working environment for women in academia. We have a long way to go to bring things to their ideal conditions, but we are working towards these positively.

  4. What was the most exciting or memorable moment you remember experiencing in your research/academic career?

  The life of a research scholar during the Ph.D. is by far the more exciting time, in my opinion! As a field biologist, my most memorable moment was when I started my studies collecting data on fish communities in the hill streams of the Western Ghats in 1998. My fieldwork team comprised of my field assistant, two local fishermen, and our field jeep driver. We conducted some extremely exciting fieldwork over 2 years across all seasons, in the day as well as midnight! The experiences of finding a new species ( we described a new species from the river Sharavati in the central Western Ghats), or planning/conducting sample collections in some tricky water habitats (such as near gushing waterfalls such as Jog falls) cannot be forgotten in my lifetime!

  In more recent times, as a supervisor, it is again exciting to see the same enthusiasm among my students as they pursue their research. Making a new observation in the field and lab are equally exhilarating!

  5. What are some mistakes you feel you have made as you pursued scientific research as a student, which you can now, with the aid of your experience, caution students against?

  We all make mistakes and I think it is important to make them. Of course, it may not be pleasant when we are making these mistakes, but they teach us, in ways no other methods of teaching would. For example, I now do realise the importance of maintaining discipline with regard to time management, something I did not think much about during my student days. Even as we start our research project, we need to understand that we have to be watchful of the progress of our work. Keeping a sort of personal timeline might be helpful here.

  This is also the time to equip ourselves with as many skills as possible. These would all be very handy for us in our future careers. A student's life is the best time to acquire these skills. Make the most of your time as a student - learn and learn more!

This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Aditya Dwarkesh and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito137.

Aditya Dwarkesh is a second-year undergraduate student pursuing the integrated BS-MS degree at IISER Kolkata and an editor of Cogito137. He has a long-standing interest in literature, philosophy and physics.

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