Dr. Devapriya Chattopadhyay: Integrating stories from the field, into a life of science

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Rahul Subbaraman and Arunita Banerjee

  Dr. Devapriya Chattopadhyay is an Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Earth and Climate Science, at IISER Pune. She served nine years in IISER Kolkata as a faculty member in the Department of Earth Sciences before moving to IISER Pune. In this electronic interview she shares her journey in paleobiology research and how experiences from the field are much more than just exciting stories.

  1. What lessons would an enthusiastic middle-school kid, with very introductory exposure to science, take from your field of research, the work in your lab, and its impact?

  It is crucial to get the long-term perspective of natural systems to understand the mechanism and predict the future. Unfortunately, we cannot do that in the conventional experimental models where you generally change the setting and try to observe the change in the outcome. The response of the outcome to the changed environment helps you to understand the mechanism. In Earth Science, it isn't easy to follow this model because:

 (i) The natural experiment has already taken place.
 (ii) The enormity of the scale (both space and time) makes it impossible to replicate the experiment in the laboratory.
 (iii) The interdependence of various processes operating on the Earth is difficult to account for in an isolated experimental setting.

As Earth scientists, we start from the outcome and try to work our way back to establish possible development paths. Let's take the example of the present climate variation and ask the following question: How would it impact the marine groups? Which groups are more likely to be affected? How does the decline of one group affect others in the long term? To answer these questions, we need to understand processes that often take more than centuries to operate. Moreover, observing them in small regions does not give us the complete picture. One way to answer the questions is to dive back into the fossil records. Fossil records capture the outcome of the natural experiments that happened millions of years ago. By reconstructing the past environmental variables (temperature, salinity, etc.), we can isolate the groups that strongly respond to them. I try to understand how marine organisms respond to their physical and biological environment in short (ecological) and long (evolutionary) time scales. I use shelled molluscs (such as snails and clams) as a model system because of their impressive fossil record and dominant presence in the recent ecosystem. They are also fascinating because their hard carbonate shells preserve the chemical signature of the environment where they lived.

  2. The ‘field-work component’ of pursuing scientific research in Earth Science or Geology attracts many students. Please share with us any particularly exciting or challenging field experiences you have faced in your research career so far.

  All field experiences are memorable. Every time we go to the field, it is an experience of a lifetime for the discoveries we make and the ideas that do not work (hence we learn the lessons). It is a great feeling when you finally arrive at a place and then locate a fossil. I still get excited because of the sheer marvel of the natural process and the possibility of all the information it may bring with it. Apart from all that, it helps me to understand our society better. One of the places I visit regularly is Kutch in Gujarat for its fantastic marine fossil assemblages. Let me share two incidents that gave me a glimpse into true India.

It was probably our field trip in 2014. After a long day of field work, my students and I returned to the guesthouse at Narayan Sarovar, a place in the westernmost part of India. The guesthouse was in the middle of nowhere; an army base was a kilometer away, and the nearest village was 10 kms away. We were a group of five, staying in two rooms. We woke up with a loud knock on our door in the middle of the night. Three strangers came into our room and said something in Kutchi which I could not understand very well. They were agitated and vigorously searched the room. We sat there petrified. I was only thinking about the safety of my students. After they left, we went to meet the hotel staff for some explanation. The manager helplessly informed us that the men were from the local Panchayat and were searching for an eloped couple. I only felt fortunate to be alive when I thought about the fate of that couple. The next day we lodged an official complaint. We still go there, and now it is run by Gujarat Tourism. I want to believe this is an isolated incident and not the true image of society that we live in. Unfortunately, I am yet to be convinced.

On another field trip, we were searching for a potential fossil site in an abandoned river canal. Because there was no paved road nearby, we had to leave the car and walk a few miles before locating the place. Apart from carrying our bottles of water, we did not take any food. It is always a tough choice that we make. If we hit a prolific fossil locality, we want to carry as much as possible on our way back. So traveling light is the mantra. On our way, we had to take a few detours because the canal was blocked, and in doing so, we lost our way a few times. When we finally reached the spot after three hours, it was already mid-day. The site was one of the most amazing localities with fossilized corals, clams, snails, and sea urchins. We started our documentation, collection and soon began to feel the exhaustion. We saw two local kids observing us from a distance with curiosity and vanished after an hour. After a few hours, we found ourselves famished and with over 20 kg of collected fossils. The thought of walking back to the car carrying them seemed impossible, and the prospect of leaving them behind was unacceptable. We desperately needed some food and rest. We huddled up under a lone tree in sight to save ourselves from the scorching sun. All of us probably dozed off when we saw the two kids reappearing with a large bowl of shelled peanuts. I did not wait for any formal invitation to dive in. Once we finished, we realized that their village is nearby and their mom insisted that they ought to carry some food for us when they told her about us. When we asked how far is their home, their quick reply was "very close, takes about an hour to go there". A mother felt that it is her duty, and the kids, each well below ten years, agreed to it and walked for two hours in scorching heat - all to feed a bunch of strangers whom they have never talked to. I hope this is the society that we all should aspire to become a part of one day.

  3. After completing your PhD in the US, what motivated you to return to India and begin your career as a scientist? How has the experience been so far? In continuation, what advice would you give to the confused souls out there deliberating about returning to India to start a career?

  I always wanted to start my own research group to pursue the questions that interest me and to train next generations of researchers in paleontology. IISER Kolkata was the first one to give me the opportunity and I grabbed it. To be part of a new institute and to contribute in building something new fascinated me. The inner gardener in me feels satisfied to watch something grow. Apart from a more metaphorical sense of watching my students mature, it is also true in its literal sense. I was involved in making the IISER Kolkata campus green in its early stage. I felt so satisfied when I visited IISER Kolkata in 2020 to see the young trees; it brought back memories of numerous plantation events, getting into arguments about funds and choices of plants. Although many of the experiences were quite bitter, it all feels good when I look at the trees. The academic experience is not very different.
I was trained to address the paleobiological question that requires an extensive collection of fossilized specimens. Unlike many countries in the west, India does not have a research museum (recently, a forum of Indian paleontologists started an initiative to build such a National Earth Museum). Such museums preserve collected fossils over centuries and aid researchers in addressing scientific questions by letting them access the appropriate collection. Without such a facility, I had to start from the ground up and build my collection of fossils.
It is always challenging for young researchers to set up everything for the first time. It forces you to venture out of the shielded academic environment and interact in the real world. I got one of the best lessons of scientific communications from a person who made most of my laboratory furniture; he used to ask me why it is vital to make these things. Convincing him was often harder than convincing the experts. Building a research group is essential for the development of laboratory and research progress. Half the battle is over if one finds motivated students; I was blessed with many in the initial phase where they took the lead to tackle logistic and scientific challenges.
In summary, I would say dive in if you have an adventurous streak in you and if you enjoy challenges.

  4. There is a popular notion that a career in science in India is seldom rewarding. Many science graduates across the country shy away from academia. What are your thoughts on this?

  The concept of reward is very personal. A new idea nurtured in mind, eventually tested, and communicated provides immense satisfaction to some people, including myself. It is like cleaning a dusty image. With every stroke of the brush, part of the image appears, and you keep imagining the rest of it. Sometimes you find that the actual picture does not match your prediction, yet it fits some other times. With the final stroke, all the dust is blown away, and the image emerges with its full glory. That satisfaction is unparalleled.

  5. While the Chemistry and Biology departments of several central Institutes in our country have many female faculty, Earth Science departments don't fare equally. What are your thoughts on this?

  I think the ratio is similar to many fields of science after you normalize them by the size of the community for that particular discipline. Interestingly, I always found an impressive number of young students of all genders and don’t find the exact representation among the established academicians in Earth Sciences. This drop-in diversity higher up is probably because of the “leaky pipeline” that many are concerned about.
There is indeed a resistance against the field-intensive work for female faculty members. I have experienced some gender stereotyping. Sometimes they are in the disguise of patronizing comments and chivalrous gestures. I also received outright caustic remarks undermining my ability or willful negligence to perform official duty simply because a "woman" asked. I often came across people in the early days of my career who were terribly concerned about my safety in the field. A hotel owner once denied renting me a room because it was too much for him to take my “responsibility.” When I travel with my students now, the male students are often assumed to be the in-charge. Thankfully my students represent all genders and I found them to be both sensitive and bold. They braved these troubling situations, often better than me. I still learn from them. Things got even more complicated after I became a mother. Field trips meant more planning to ensure that someone looks after the baby (especially because my husband was on the other coast of India for the first few years of our parenthood) I often received comments like “how can you leave your kid to someone else”? I wonder if my male colleagues ever came across such questions!I am enormously indebted to the group of working women who helped me in this phase, taking care of my child in the IISER Kolkata daycare and home. Many of my colleagues were incredible in their support and without them I would not have come this far. I draw inspiration from these working women who are always trying their best to survive in a discriminating society, thrive through their honest work, and strike a balance between professional and personal life (and often criticized because they have empathy!). It is essential to share our own stories and be vocal about the discrimination. Young aspirants need to recognize that they are not alone, and it is possible (even if not easy) to chase one’s dreams in the face of hardship.

This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Rahul Subbaraman and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito137.

Rahul Subbaraman is a 5th Year Earth Science student who loves to work on the chemistry of rocks and melts. He harbours a child-like curiosity and is full of questions about the things around him. When he isn’t binge-watching a show or a movie, or reading a book, you can find him sharing his thoughts and his latest culinary exploits on his blog, ‘Carte Blanche’.

Related Articles

please subscribe to our newsletter

signup with your email to get the latest articles instantly


Thank you for subscribing!

Please wait for a few moments while we add you to our mailing list...