Editor’s note: Nibedita Mukherjee has certainly left us all a striking take-home message. Human decision-making governs everything, be it science policies, economics, and businesses or mere participation in ecological conservation on humanitarian grounds. These are in need of urgent attention. Only when they go hand-in-hand, knitted together, do we see the progression towards resilience. – Deepthi Mahishi
As the mighty oceans rise and the scorching sun gets hotter, as we surpass days counting dead sharks on seashores and visually comprehend the tips of icebergs dislodged from their molten bodies. The scientific community is struggling to gets its voice heard by the powers that be. As the situation gets increasingly onerous, I had a promising conversation with Dr. Nibedita Mukherjee.
Nibedita is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Exeter, UK. She is actively working on the project “Ecosystem services and businesses” as a NERC postdoctoral fellow. We would be taking a peek into her journey, which began at the roots of mangroves and has now progressed to decision-making and policy effectiveness in biological conservation.
FORAY INTO THE FIELD OF BIODIVERSITY CONSERVATION
(illustrator: Geetha Ramaswami)
It was during my field trip to the Dandeli Wildlife Sanctuary in Karnataka, India that I had the first glimpse of nature in a protected area in India. It was a very humbling experience and subsequently, I was fortunate to have been selected for the Masters in Wildlife Biology and Conservation course run by Wildlife Conservation Society and National Centre for Biological Sciences, India.
As part of the course, we had the rare fortune of traveling from Binsar in the Himalayas (Uttarakhand) to Munnar in the south (Kerala). Everything textual learned till then about nature and culture (and all things in between) seemed tiny in comparison to the wealth of knowledge gained on the road. I was 21, naïve and very impressionable. Nature filled my heart with all its beauty, and for the last decade or so, I have been smitten.
(inset image source: Pixabay)
While large charismatic creatures are easy to fall in love with (and get funding for!). I felt it would be more rational to focus on ecosystems which are highly threatened yet often ignored. “Underdogs” as one of the class-mates (Chaitanya Krishna) used to call them. One of these ecosystems that drew my attention was mangroves.
In fact, a decade ago a paper in the journal Science mentioned that mangroves were disappearing faster than rainforests and could be gone by the end of the century. I had thereby decided to work on mangroves for my Ph.D. at the Université Libré de Bruxelles and Vrijé Universiteit Brussel, Belgium and was lucky to get the Inlaks scholarship for the same.
The Indian Ocean tsunami and a series of natural disasters thereafter have brought public attention and gradually turned the tide in favor of mangrove conservation globally.
CURRENT RESEARCH: AN INTERDISCIPLINARY PERSPECTIVE
(inset image source: Pixabay)
During my Ph.D. I realized that conservation problems are multi-faceted and the fate of a species is largely dependent on human decisions. Therefore, it became quite imperative to understand the social and psychological process underpinning human decision-making. For examples are groups better at making decisions than individuals? Soon I realized that decision making had been investigated in several other disciplines.
I looked into literature, across all disciplines in the last 20 years, that have compared human decision making as groups or as individuals. This led me to my first postdoctoral project funded by the Foundation Wiener Anspach fellowship at the University of Cambridge. It helped me think through some of the biases that affect everyday decision making.
I was unaware of the short forms of British names for a very long time (Ted for Edward, Dick for Richard, William being called as Bill etc.). Once during a conference in London in 2013, I happened to meet a rather nice gentleman whom everyone was calling Bill. Unlike his peer group of senior male academics, who tended to stick to each other, he seemed very friendly to all early career researchers.
We talked a lot during the three days of the conference and he was very kind to give me some comments on a draft of the Delphi technique. It was a jaw-dropping moment for me when I realized that Bill was, in fact, Prof. William Sutherland when he got up to give the plenary lecture as the President of the British Ecological Society that year. Surprisingly enough, he even mentioned the Delphi technique in his plenary talk! His humble and down-to-earth nature, despite all the popularity, was a big learning experience for me.
STANDING OUT A MILE IN GLOBAL SCIENCE
In an arena dominated mainly by alpha white males and females, it is often a challenge being an academic as a South Asian woman. It is easy to be considered as an intern or a Masters student. In such a scenario, I think it is quite challenging to establish fruitful academic relationships and to gain the confidence of peers. There is a constant need to prove yourself, be it in Brussels, UK or in any global academic setup.
(inset image: Pixabay)
Beware of the box! People are very eager to put you quickly into a box. This makes it a challenge to reinvent yourself. For instance, if you perform well in say, Task A, there is seldom a chance to try your hand at Task B. Crossing disciplinary silos thereby becomes hard. There seems to be a lack of healthy criticism and humility when it comes to sharing ideas in science in some spheres. However, I have been fortunate to have excellent supervisors both in India and elsewhere, minimizing my exposure to such issues.
SAILING THROUGH ROUGH TIDES
I draw my inspiration from the mangroves themselves – may it be a storm surge, a rise in sea level or high salinity, they stand rooted and take in whatever comes their way. When it comes to juggling family and academia, my partner has been very supportive. His infective optimism and encouragement has helped me greatly in sailing through all the moments of insecurity and nervousness in life.
About the author
Abhisheka Krishna Gopal is a multi-talented ecologist, artist, educator, co-founder of Artecology Initiative. She wants to spread consciousness and sensitivity towards the environment. She was earlier featured herself in Sciwri here.
Artist behind the scene
Geetha Ramaswami is an ecologist by training. She is most interested in how plants lead their fascinating and devious lives, how they interact with each other and with other creatures. She is the one behind the cover image of this article. Follow her work and learn more about her work on ”Invasive species and dispersal networks”
1st Editor: Deepthi Mahishi is a budding researcher, with a masters’ degree in Biochemistry, currently working in the field of immunology and inflammation. Also, worked as a Research assistant at IISc. Her love for scientific writing and editing has branched from reading habits, glazed with a rational and skeptical mindset. Being an audacious and thoughtful person, she works towards promoting evidence-based understanding and a science-friendly atmosphere in general. Outside her science bubble, she is a trained classical musician, a culinary chemist, craves adventure travel, hikes and cuddles her puppy.
2nd Editor: Rituparna Chakrabarti is the editor in chief of Club SciWri. She pursued her Ph.D. in Neuroscience from Georg-August University (Göttingen, Germany) and is currently a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Biostructural Imaging of Neurodegeneration (BIN), Göttingen. For her, the interface of Science and art is THE PLACE to be! To unwind herself she plays mandolin and eagerly looks for a corner at a coffee house to slide herself in with a good read or company.
Blog design: Rituparna Chakrabarti
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