Dr. Nisha N. Kannan: Synchronizing work, life and science with time

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Ashwathi Prithviraj and Arunita Banerjee

  Dr. Nisha with her lab members at an APDRC meeting

  Dr. Nisha K. Kannan, Assistant Professor, studies ‘Chronobiology’ in fruit flies, at IISER Thiruvananthapuram. She spoke to Cogito137 over an email interview, where she talks about her tryst with science from an early age to a career in research and how life and society influenced it.

  1. At what point of your life did you decide that you wanted a career in science, and what has the journey been like so far?

  My fascination about science began with a passion towards art and photography by watching the diverse facets of nature. I took up teaching after completing my Master's degree but soon found that to entice my students into science I need to explore the subject more, to provide them additional information beyond what is given in textbooks. This prompted me to carry out research, initially by developing short-term projects and addressing simple how and why questions in science. This experience nurtured novel ideas to probe deeper and gradually my passion towards science grew and I decided to pursue a career in science.

However, the initial years of setting up a lab was challenging, but with time I learned to organize and manage life better along with following the passion for science. Every day brings new experiences that prompted me to consider science as a way of life.

  2. How would you describe your area of research to a layman, and what spurred your interest in Chronobiology?

  A biological clock in living organisms times the behavior, physiology and metabolism with a 24-hour rhythm. It is believed that this biological timekeeping system evolved as an adaptation to the 24-hour environmental light and dark cycle associated with earth’s rotation. Biological clocks schedule sleep, activity, foraging, food intake, digestion and almost all the physiological functions of an organism at the most suitable time of the day to enhance fitness. Biological clock located in the brain perceives the light and it relays the time of the day information to the rest of the peripheral clocks in the body tissues via neuroendocrine signals. Thus multitude of clocks are ticking in harmony to achieve synchrony between behavior and physiology of an organism. Studies showed that perturbing the clock function by shifting work, increases the risk of sleep disorders, obesity and metabolic diseases.

I was intrigued to find out why biological clocks evolved in nature and the importance of built-in clock mechanisms in living organisms. And, how does the clock communicate and synchronize the tissues and organs in the body. Fruit fly Drosophila is used as a model organism to explore these questions and to achieve a comprehensive understanding of the functioning of biological clocks.

  3. Do you come from an academic family? How do they regard your career choice?

  No, I was not born in an academic family. But there are in fact several people who encouraged me to build a science career. The most unwavering support was obviously from my parents. Striking a good balance of professional and personal life was challenging for me, after my marriage, but my mother was supportive. She reminded me that achieving success in a professional career is equally important as personal life.

My husband, a researcher on environment conservation, absolutely understands how demanding a research career is and he has set an example of how a husband can support his wife to build a career in science through encouragement.

  4. As a woman scientist, have you ever faced any institutional bias throughout your career? Additionally, do you think gender plays a role in the kind of administrative duties given to the faculty in research institutes?

  I did my PhD in a lab where, I was the only woman working with a team of men for most of the years and I made a substantial progress in research with out facing much gender discrimination. However, when I started my career, working in an Institution where women scientists were a minority, it was a bit challenging and lonely at times. One challenge that I encountered was to get heard and recognized especially in meetings where women were under-represented. But as I progressed in my career, it gradually reduced as I learnt how to stand up for myself. I realized that being a minority could be challenging but that experience helped me to improve. I believe that, in future, more women will patiently go through this uncomfortable gender discrimination to prove their excellence in science and occupy decision-making positions in India.

  5. Many graduate students turn away from a career in research, as there is a notion that science is seldom rewarding. What are your thoughts on this? In continuation, what changes within research institutes and at a societal level would help better the prospects and encourage students to continue in science?

  Nowadays, a larger proportion of students consider a career in research as much more challenging than careers in other fields and less remunerative in spite of the long time devoted to earning a degree. And, opportunities are plenty in other areas, which are also highly paid. So, only those who are really interested in research take it up as a career. Moreover, graduate students are unaware of the scope of a research career. Some of them land up there by chance and continue. Unfortunately, there is nothing much in our school and college curriculum to tell what scientific research is all about though we study about great scientists and their contributions.

A project failure or negative results discourages some students to switch fields. I think an integrated education and research approach should make students capable enough to confidently troubleshoot the challenging failure in science and move forward to success. Students interested in science/research may be identified at a young age (say at high school level) and groomed for a research career. In this context, the attempt by IISERs to integrate education and research at the undergraduate level is commendable.

This electronic interview was coordinated and conducted by Ashwathi Prithviraj and Arunita Banerjee for Cogito, IISER Kolkata.

Ashwathi recently completed the BS-MS programme (although an official degree conferral and a convocation seem unlikely in the near future) at IISER Thiruvananthapuram. She did her master's project in Dr Kannan's lab and worked on establishing a neuropeptide link between the circadian system and metabolism in Drosophila melanogaster. She intends to study behavioural neurogenetics and chronobiology in the future as well.

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