Smitha Hegde and Her Indomitable Ferns

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WHO? Smitha Hegde
WHAT? Pteridologist (one who studies ferns)
WHERE? St. Aloysius College, Mangalore

Reported by Nandita Jayaraj

Because its grace delicacy and beauty, concealed in the shadowed glens of the forest, can be seen only by the honest searcher, the fern symbolizes solitary humility, frankness and sincerity. – George Ferguson on ferns in Signs & Symbols in Christian Art (1954)

Fresh from a bout of rainfall, St. Aloysius College was bustling with youthful energy.  Groups of students scattered around chatting animatedly in Malayalam, Tulu, Kannada and Konkani, as I asked my way around to the Loyola Centre for Research and Innovation (LCRI). The monsoons in Mangalore seemed to bring out the best of the 35-acre campus that since its conception in 1880 has come to include everything from primary school to research programmes, not to mention a chapel visited by thousands every year for its unique Baroque art.

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The LCRI was inaugurated almost exactly a year ago. At the basement of this building is where I was lucky to meet Dr. Smitha Hegde who, I’d learnt just the previous day, has been doing some quality work in the field of pteridology, the study of ferns.

Even at the outset, it was evident that Smitha has a lot going on. As she warmly ushered me into her office, she was simultaneously wrapping up a discussion with an architect about an ongoing daily tree mapping programme. After the mosquito trouble the mappers faced yesterday, she’d remembered to bring a tube of Odomos (mosquito repellent) for the students.

“I have a dream project, you know,” she began, with no warning. My ears perked up immediately as I scrambled for my recorder – I wasn’t prepared to get to the meat of my interview so soon. “No, no. This is not important. I’ll tell you when I start to tell you the important stuff.”

Her dream project is a documentary focusing on Indian science. We’d barely finished chatting about how we never hear anything about modern Indian science in mainstream media when someone knocked, reminding her about a meeting. “I’ll be there in five minutes,” she said, probably not hearing the thud of my disappointment as I heard those words. “Ma’am, I can wait for you to return, I’d really like to have at least half-an-hour with you,” I said, trying not to sound as needy as I actually was. Smitha had intrigued me just enough for this piece to already start writing itself in my head and this was my last day in Mangalore.

“Oh!” she sounded surprised. “In that case, why don’t you look around my lab till I return.” She introduced me to two of her Ph.D. students Ramya and Roshni who were examining petriplates in the culture room. “I can tell you all about myself in five minutes,” she laughed, as she left.

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Gardening without soil

Ramya and Roshni seemed quiet and shy at first but livened up when they talked about their research. Both are from Kerala, one of them is returning to academia after a break following marriage and a child. Ramya is working on hydroponics, a method of growing plants without soil. The nutrients instead come from mineral water solutions that their roots are immersed in. This strategy has a lot of promise for household and balcony gardens mainly because of its fast growth rate (the roots don’t have to search for food in the soil) and because it needs lesser water.

Smitha’s hydroponics team has devised a technique ideal for local households that allows reuse of water. The mineral-laced water flows through a U-shaped tube and the mineral-depleted water is returned to a container for reuse. Roshni, on the other hand, is working on the fern plant, the science of which her mentor Smitha Hegde is most renowned for. When Smitha returned shortly after her meeting, she told me what all the fuss about the fern is about.

Ferns and forest fires

Ferns comprise one of the first plants to ever grow on land. We’re talking 350 million years ago! They continue to exist and thrive in all kinds of habitats on Earth today, all 13,600 species of them. The Himalayas and the Ghats are one of the hotspots for these plants, which vary in form but are biologically similar in that they have stems, roots and leaves, lack seeds, flowers and fruits, and reproduce via spores. Nevertheless, it was recently discovered that ferns continue to possess flowering genes. What use they have for these genes is what Roshni is currently exploring.

Smitha, in her twenty years or so of studying them, specializes in the ferns of the Western Ghats. The fact that ferns have outlived hundreds of millions of years of environmental and habitat changes automatically makes them of evolutionary interest to biologists like Smitha. Ancient tree ferns, she informs, are responsible for the petrol we have today.

The plants’ hardiness is of contemporary relevance. “Ferns are adapting very rapidly to urban conditions.” This can be a problem because they end up taking over more ecologically important vegetation. Take for example, the case of Kudremukh National Park in Karnataka which has been grappling with several forest fire incidents. These fires are a threat to the wildlife in the area, notably including the endangered lion-tailed macaque.

Moreover, the fire ravaged areas are being overpopulated by a type of fern Pteridium aquilinium which is able to thrive better than other plants in this undesirable environment. However, being nutritionally insignificant and toxic, the takeover of these ferns reduces the amount of grazing land available for medium-sized animals such as deer, which are the primary prey for the tigers of the park.

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Kudremukh National Park

The Kudremukh Wildlife Division have enlisted the help of Smitha to study this problem and use her expertise to devise a strategy to manage the fires and control the spread of these ‘superweeds’. The field studies have already begun, and using GIS mapping and satellite imaging, Smitha is directing the effort while also offering students to participate and experience such research first-hand.

Simply no funding

Smitha’s enthusiasm to take up projects like this one also comes out of a grimmer context. It’s a coping mechanism for her to raise funds in a severely financially hit research environment. “With this new government, achhe din nahin aa rahe hain (‘Good days are not coming’ – referring to the BJP slogan ‘Good days are coming’),” she laments. “Funds are not coming in science. Lots go into IITs and central universities but very little to teacher researchers. So teachers’ research is slowing down very drastically.”

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An example of a letter of rejection of funding from CSIR

So toxic is this situation that Smitha admits that they are not even able to afford to pay fellowship money to the PhD students. “I am hopeful that after Smrithi Irani now things will change. She was very tough on universities,” she says wearily. “I’ve written a letter to her also regarding status of funds for teaching…” This letter was about the pay discrepancy between teachers in private colleges and government ones; the former are paid only one-third as much despite being equally qualified.

Smitha admits that she went through phases where the situation looked even more bleak. But instead of ‘sitting and crying’ she chose to reinvent herself and be as resourceful as possible. The one lakh she will receive for the Kudremukh project is one way she is keeping her lab running.

Apart from that she has some money left from her last projects and has requested that the college give her a cut of her students’ fees to be able to buy the most essential chemicals. No more can she afford to perform relatively expensive techniques like DNA barcoding and fingerprinting. “So I will do distribution mapping,” she says shrugging her shoulders. “I told you, we have to reinvent, adapt, or we will go.”

Employing married women

Smitha’s lab is run by a majority of females. This is not surprising, she says – “You think a boy would survive for three years without fellowship, especially if he was married?” According to Smitha there is a fundamental difference in approach to a PhD between males and females. “Ramya and Roshni are very focused. They want a PhD and are willing to do it at their cost. On the other hand, the stress on male students to find employment and receive stipend in research is very high. For women, the value of a degree is a bigger factor.”

The side-effect of this is that women end up being viewed as cheap labour and substitutes. “I have observed that ladies are paid lesser than men. A man with Ph.D. will not be willing to work for less than 30 -35 (thousand). But you take a lady, her husband is working, so she is willing.”

“I get lots of female students. Many are married. By the time they finish here, they leave with a Ph.D. and a baby!” she jokes. Isn’t that a concern, I asked her. “Not really,” she replied. “I’ve had a very good experience with pregnant women – they have a deadline and so they plan well and execute it beautifully. I think after having children ladies are much more determined, aggressive. That’s been my experience.”

Instances of women dropping out after PhDs do not deter Smitha from employing women. “Sometimes they do it just to say I have a Ph.D and I don’t hold that against them. I don’t look at it as a wasted degree. One woman will affect the whole family, the whole generation. When the right opportunity comes, maybe after 10 years., she can perhaps take up teaching.”

This sentiment is not echoed by many others. Smitha herself has overheard people say ‘averige en use maneyalli koothukolikke PhD beka?’ (‘To sit inside the home why does she need a PhD?’). “But people don’t understand that money is not the only drive in life. Many do a PhD just to feel good about themselves. If they are willing to do it at their cost, what’s my problem? I should just give them the right environment.”

The possible hazard of chemicals

However, Smitha has experienced the dark side of research for women. Though she successfully balanced research and family life during her early years of marriage and her first baby, Smitha had a lot of problems before her second child was born. She had five miscarriages and one stillbirth. “I’m talking about it now, but there were times when I couldn’t. It was a terrible emotional rollercoaster ride. It’s the worst thing for a woman to give birth to a dead baby.”

The reason Smitha feels her experience is relevant to share is because she suspects that the chemicals she was exposed to may have played a role in this series of mishaps. “Ten years back when I conceived again, I said I’m not coming to the lab. After sitting at home for six months, I had a normal baby.”

Scarred, Smitha today is very careful about the kind of work she allows her female students to perform. She advises them to pursue projects that are less risky if they plan to have babies soon. “Exposure to chemicals like organic solvents during the reproductive phase is a risk that is often ignored. I would like somebody to pay attention to it.”

By now, Smitha was starting to get calls informing her it was time to start the afternoon’s tree mapping session. Before she left, I asked her if she ever thinks about moving to a less challenging atmosphere like a research institution where funds can be procured more readily. “I do locally relevant work which does not have (the so-called) impact factor, a metric reflecting how many times articles from a journal was cited, often used as a measure of the value of the work published. Besides, I’m 47 now, too old for most of these institutions.”

“If you ask me, I’d say watch out for women over 40, they really get haughty, not naughty,” she laughed, as she collected her things to leave. “I think society and regulations write them off. Nobody wants to invest in old people.”

“There is discrimination, baba…”  

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