Dr. Sujata Ray: Towards a sustainable earth

WIISER : Women in Science at IISER

Debdatta Banerjee and Arunita Banerjee

  Dr. Sujata Ray is an Associate Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences, IISER Kolkata. In this electronic interview she talks about her training as an environmental engineer and her current role in the Department of Earth Sciences.



  1. Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in scientific research?

  A documentary film titled ‘A Narmada Diary’ was created by Anand Patwardhan in 1995. He depicted the lives of the people inhabiting the land that was eventually drowned by the Sardar Sarovar dam on the Narmada River. He also described, with a great deal of compassion, the ecological impacts of large dams.

  I watched this film when I was an undergraduate. You have to remember that this was Calcutta of the mid 90’s. Most of us had very little connection with the outside world. Our portals consisted of our teachers, family, friends (real, not virtual) - and books. Believe it or not, there was no YouTube so we could not even watch the trailer.

  I was extraordinarily fortunate that a friend of a friend took me along. The documentary was screened in a tiny room with green wooden shutters, in a ‘club’ in South Calcutta, with a table tennis game going on in the next room. It was my first experience learning about human impacts on our landscapes and the people living on the land. For all the noise and the disturbance, I saw an open door, and it took my breath away.

  This is still the moment I identify as the start of my academic journey. For the final year thesis (I was enrolled in a four-year engineering program), I was very eager to study the environmental impacts of big dams, but had no access to the necessary material. Once again, a senior in college stepped in. He told me about a tiny library, about a half-hour walking distance from where I lived. I no longer remember its exact location or who ran it, but it was where I first learned about the great challenge of balancing the twin goals of economic growth with sustainable use of our natural resources. This is what I consider the foundation of Environmental Science and Engineering.

  Since that moment in that club and those hours in that library, I have had a series of very fortunate breaks, and I believe it is that vision that I live now.

  2. Please briefly describe your research in simple terms, highlighting its importance or impact in the present world.

  I study the impact of pesticides on the environment and on human health. I am drawn towards identifying how regional characteristics are associated with pesticide exposure. For example, my research group studied whether the exposure is greater in urban regions as compared to semi-urban ones. In urban areas, pesticides are used for vector control, whereas in semi-urban areas they are used mainly for agriculture. However, exposure is not necessarily associated with local spraying. It also occurs through consuming non-vegetarian food, in which certain types of pesticides accumulate.

  In a recent case study, we investigated whether exposure to pesticides was greater in semi-urban Nadia as compared to the urbanised metropolitan city of greater Kolkata. We used human milk as an indicator because it is considered a sensitive indicator of the general exposure of a population. We found that pesticide exposure was far greater in Kolkata than the adjoining agricultural suburb, but in both regions, it exceeded the acceptable limits.

  Pesticide use in India is evolving and this is an interesting time to study its exposure. For many years we used carcinogenic and highly persistent organochlorine pesticides, such as DDT, which were banned in most countries. In 2001 India signed international treaties at the Stockholm convention prohibiting the use of many of these compounds. However, DDT is still allowed for mosquito control to prevent malaria. The good news is that alternatives to DDT have emerged, such as a class of compounds called the pyrethroids. It was believed that the pyrethroids decayed quickly in the environment and did not accumulate in the human body. However, several investigations showed that this was incorrect, and these compounds were detected in human milk. The long-term health effects of these compounds are still largely unknown. In India pyrethroids have been in use for several decades. However, only two reports existed that identified these compounds in human milk, both in Punjab. We have reported the presence of pyrethroids in human milk in West Bengal, which provides a baseline for the detection of future trends. Our detection of the older organochlorine compounds, despite the regulations, is a matter of concern.

  Pesticides that run off from agricultural fields pollute surface and groundwater. In fact, the risk of water scarcity in many regions of India is high (1). An aspect of my research includes studying how extreme precipitation events in India are changing over time. This is particularly relevant as global precipitation patterns change in response to our warming climate.

  3. What has been the most exhilarating experience in your research or academic career till date?

  One of the challenges in my academic career has been working in an Earth Science Department when I am, by training, an Environmental Engineer. While interdisciplinarity sounds very exciting, in practice it is always a challenge, as well as an opportunity. One of my most thrilling experiences in recent years was listening to a talk by Professor Iain Stewart, a geologist at Plymouth University, UK. He described how Earth Scientists, with their knowledge of the rhythms and connections of the Earth, are uniquely poised to solve the most pressing human problems of today, be it in climate, energy or water security – the very issues that Environmental Scientists also contend with. His love for Earth Science is infectious, and his work and teachings have greatly helped me in defining my role in the Earth Science Department.

  Another exhilarating moment that I would like to mention is when my first PhD student, now Dr Niharika Anand, received her degree. This is a great moment, alike for student and advisor!

  4. Please provide some tips on managing administrative responsibilities that come within the 'job-package' of academic institutions.

  If you are a woman in STEM in academia, then the following is written from your perspective. Even more than administrative responsibilities, which rotate and get shared, your challenge will be balancing responsibilities at home. Your most luxurious time will be your PhD years, the only time of life when you hold aspects of a single problem in your head. Afterwards, you will wear many hats, probably more than what your male colleagues will wear. Ground yourself in love, for yourself and for those around you

  One of the challenges in my academic career has been working in an Earth Science Department when I am, by training, an Environmental Engineer. While interdisciplinarity sounds very exciting, in practice it is always a challenge, as well as an opportunity. One of my most thrilling experiences in recent years was listening to a talk by Professor Iain Stewart, a geologist at Plymouth University, UK. He described how Earth Scientists, with their knowledge of the rhythms and connections of the Earth, are uniquely poised to solve the most pressing human problems of today, be it in climate, energy or water security – the very issues that Environmental Scientists also contend with. His love for Earth Science is infectious, and his work and teachings have greatly helped me in defining my role in the Earth Science Department.

  Also, believe it or not, partners can clean, even if they pretend that they can’t. If you would like your partner to participate more in household chores, it is your responsibility to lovingly teach them. Don’t give up by blaming them. So many of our male colleagues are amazingly adept in the home! I see much positivity in this direction.

  I am truly grateful to my husband - not only could I not have done it without him, but he made the journey meaningful in many ways.

  5. What systemic changes would you recommend such that more girls consider building a career in science?

  I am not sure about what systemic changes would or wouldn’t work and for whom, but, of course, it is well known that the years when an academician establishes herself coincide with the years when a woman also needs to start a family (if she so desires). One very vulnerable time is when she completes her PhD. The PhD is such a long haul, yet it is not sufficient to establish a scientist. Also, it is very difficult to return to academia after a career break.

  One opportunity is the Schlumberger Foundation’s Faculty for the Future Fellowship, which funds women in science and engineering, typically from developing countries, to pursue either a PhD or post-doctoral research. The Foundation puts particular emphasis on supporting women who have had career breaks. It has also created a network for its alumni, so that the women can support each other along the way.

  I have been fortunate to have been a recipient of this fellowship and through the alumni network I have come to know the journeys of many of these amazing women. It has been a humbling experience. As I write, I can’t help thinking about the devastating news from Afghanistan, and of the uncertainty and terror our sisters there are facing. When pictures flash on the television showing female journalists still reporting from the streets of Kabul, perhaps risking their lives, they show us how inextinguishable is our spirit.

  6. In continuation, please leave some words of advice for the generation of budding scientists.

  Along the way, you may feel that others are judging you. And you may feel undeserving. Remember this – what you are experiencing is human judgement and human judgement is fallible. It’s not an eye in the sky. The scientist who played a crucial role in the research on the m-RNA vaccine was without a permanent job for decades, clinging to the fringes of academia (2). Then, along came COVID-19 and the rest is history.

  Never confuse your worth as a scientist with your worth as a human. You are the result of billions of years of evolution, grown out of the earth and the stars and you are a part of that grandeur.

Bibliography

  1. WRI Gassert, F., M. Landis, M. Luck, P. Reig, and T. Shiao. 2013. “Aqueduct Global Maps 2.0.” Working Paper. Washington, DC: World Resources Institute. Available online at https://www.wri.org/applications/aqueduct/water-risk-atlas
  2. Kati Kariko Helped Shield the World From the Coronavirus, The New York Times, April 8. 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/04/08/health/coronavirus-mrna-kariko.html

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

Debdatta Banerjee is a student of Second Year Integrated PhD programme at IISER Kolkata. She aspires to pursue a career in Computational Mineral Physics. She also likes to engage herself in many extra curricular activities.

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