Is it difficult to be a female scientist in this country?
Natasha: Based on my experiences in this male-dominated society, I feel it is a bit difficult.
Husnara: That feeling is there for me too. People make you realise that they are much more capable than ladies and they themselves can work more than them. They don’t interrupt us but they create a feeling. This happens in the lab also. However, I think in reality, in the lab, women are more laborious (hardworking). They give more time and energy. But there is a notion that males are better in science.
Natasha: I haven’t faced many problems like this. It has been fine. When you take things positively, everything will come positively. So I have never thought like that.
Why do you think there so few women in science in the country?
Natasha: Most of the time girls are not allowed for higher education – that is the reason. Especially in remote regions, women are asked to stop their education after some point. Their parents insist they get married.
Husnara: After marriage, their families suppress them. They don’t let them go out and work. They ask them to sit at home and work for the family.
So the reason boils down to the same social and family patterns that all women in the country face and it has nothing to do with the science world?
Natasha: Yes. It is the same.
What are your personal stories? What brought you to science and research?
Natasha: To be very honest, after my class 12, I wanted to get into the medical stream. Since I didn’t get through, my second option was nursing, which my parents didn’t want me to do; the third option that brought me here was agriculture.
Husnara: This is the story of most people who want to study biology after class 12. It is mine too.
Do you have any comments on the state of scientific research in India?
Husnara: I think it is progressing slowly. Not many people are going for research. Most students want to pursue engineering degrees, or MBA and going to corporates and serving there. Good minds are not in research. There should be more people so that they can bring more ideas and we can all work towards them.
Please tell us about this institute.
Natasha: This center is a dedicated to plant viruses. And we have different divisions out here and I am a horticulturist. Our main area is to identify superior planting material. After identifying superior genotypes in the area we will multiply it through tissue culture and then distribute it to farmers and certify the varieties. And other plant pathologists here perform identification of viruses affecting Darjeeling Mandarin. And there is also Dr. Surjit, who is the extension scientist; he is the one who demonstrates technologies that we develop to the farmers.
Husnara: He is the connecting link between the farmers and the institute. He does important work.
What kind of research has been going on at this institute?
Natasha: Before I came here, the plant pathologists were transferred to Delhi. Husnara worked with them.
Husnara: The previous pathologists identified the problematic areas. And then they tested the material and notified the farmers whose material was infected. And then the institute explained to the affected farmers, what they can do to stop the spread of the virus. If the plant is infected by the virus, it will be transferred to another plant. So there are some preventive steps that they can take, like taking out the infected plant and burning it so that it doesn’t spread in the area.
Along with the previous team, we checked the plants and informed farmers that in their orchard, this part is infected. And we told them what they can do to maintain it because farmers cannot pull out all the plants and destroy their orchard. We helped them with prevention methods too.
Natasha: There is a simple technology known as virus indexing which is very helpful to farmers for identifying an infection. They don’t need to have complicated technologies like the ELISA reader.
Citrus plants are a major crop around here. We have acid lime, mosambi, sweet orange, mandarin and many other species that come under the citrus family. So what we do is, if the planting material is infected we go for grafting in acid lime. We take a scion and graft it on acid lime. If it is infected with a virus, it will show symptoms like vein clearing and stem pitting.
How do you feel about your work?
Natasha: We feel satisfied. Obviously when you are doing interesting research…you are doing something you are interested in, it is always satisfying. The work is still in the initial stages, it will go on and we will see.
Husnara: Sometimes in research it becomes very tough and you feel that you are stuck in something and cannot move forward. That happens. But we have to carry on this project. So that we can go to a place where we can help the farmers. They are the ones who are helping all of us, so we should think about them also.
Is it frustrating to work in science?
Natasha: I don’t think so. When you don’t have any work, any research or any project, it is frustrating, because you just have to sit and do nothing. But when you start your own work and also when you get results, and you keep on carrying on your work at your own pace and no one is there to disturb you, then it is not frustrating at all.
When I was in the initial stages of training we had to work till 7 ‘o clock, that time I felt frustrated. I wondered why we have to do extra work. But when we started doing the real work then it got more interesting. I started to think ‘Ok! Let the work go on till 9 ‘o clock, there is no problem’.
Did you choose this project yourself?
Natasha: No. According to what I have done in my PhD programme and the subject I have more knowledge in, my Principal Investigator has given me the project responsibilities.
Right now, I am in the initial stages of being a scientist. So I haven’t yet proposed any project. My future endeavours are to propose my own project, which will help the farmers of the Darjeeling area and uplift hill horticulture.
My PI is in the institute headquarters in Delhi. Dr. S. K. Singh is a genetic specialist. In Delhi there are 16 scientists.
I’m not married yet; I don’t have any kids of my own. But I know it is difficult to take care of your kids and also do well in work. I salute Husnara for having a kid and managing work so well. Sometimes my nephews and nieces come to my house here from Sikkim. Even when I’m in office, I’m thinking about them, wondering what they must be doing, worrying if they have done some mischief. And Husnara is so relaxed. She is with Aman all the time. And does so well in work.
Do you have any future plans for your research?
Natasha: Yes. There are some questions that I have written down about what I’ll be doing. There are some schemes that I will apply to including DST Inspire. For us to pursue a project, there needs do be some support from a funding agency. I have to propose soon. This is peak season (January-Feb) for harvesting of Darjeeling Mandarin, so I’m a bit busy. I will have some free time to propose a new project after the surveys that I’m doing now are complete. For proposing a project, we have to go through lots of preparation, prepare the research papers etc.
Is it very competitive to get this funding?
Natasha: To work in this area there is no competition. In Delhi, there is quite a lot of competition. But here there are so many things you can do. I want to work here, so it’s fine.
Can you tell us a little about your proposals?
Natasha: Sure. There is lot of post-harvest wastage of the peel because of very little post-harvest aspects. So I’ve been thinking of peel-utilisation of citrus from the wastage (the fruits that are rejected for selling) and the production of citrus oil. This is one aspect. The wastage that farmers produce, they can use for value addition. I would also like to go for molecular characterisation and genetic diversity analysis of all the citrus cultivars that are grown in the Darjeeling and Sikkim.
We can also go for shoot tip tissue culture. Growing the seeds of superior genotype in tissue culture, growing them in the field and then again carrying out virus identification with ELISA reader. This will be an extension of what we are doing now.
Husnara: Patches of the area have been covered. Doing all of the area is a larger project since this is a large hilly area. During the survey we cannot go to every field. Also, what we can find in the laboratory differs from season to season. In different seasons we have to collect the samples and check how it is going.
Would you say you are overloaded with work?
Both: No. Not much.
Husnara: In Delhi it is very very hectic but here it is fine. We can work and we are happy with work.
Are you worried about the economy of this region?
Natasha: Yes. You see post harvest losses are much here…around 30 percent. The quality of the Darjeeling Mandarins is deteriorating. Many plantations are producing smaller fruits. In this state, if we can find ways of peel utilisation and go further to find medicinal properties of the peel, it will be very helpful for the agrarian economy.
What other crops are the farmers growing?
Natasha: Area under Darjeeling Mandarin is reducing. More and more farmers are choosing to grow Large Cardamom because it is very easy to grow, not much work. The problem with growing mandarin is it involves lots of management, right from the seedling stage. When you plant it in a nursery till the harvest, you have to take care of it. Darjeeling Mandarin is also prone to insect attack. The farmers find it difficult. When you plant the seedling, it takes five years before it starts producing good fruit. So it is time-consuming also. Large Cardamom plantations can start giving good product in just one year.
For one kg of Large Cardamom, they get Rs. 1,300, which is much more than mandarins.
If a farmer grows 1,600 plants in one acre , he can easily earn more than a lakh. So farmers take more initiative towards Large Cardamom. Today we had a training day with farmers. not many turned up and they told us that if the training included Large Cardamom aspects, there would be more attendance.
Husnara: Large Cardamom is also an important crop of this area, as it grows nowhere else, just in this part of India and in Nepal.
Natasha: Another problem with Darjeeling Mandarin is that once a plant gets infected with virus, it starts spreading to all the orchards. Then the yield is declined. And the farmers don’t get much money in the market. They are not getting good quality.
Why can’t we just let the Mandarins go?
Natasha: It is like this: people hear about the famous Darjeeling Mandarin, Nagpur Mandarin, Khaasi Mandarin, Coorg Mandarin etc. The fruits are part of the legacy of this place.
Husnara: We should not let it go. Many people are quite dependent on citrus fruits for their livelihood. All their orchards are used for growing only citrus plants. When it is damaged, they have to face severe losses. So whatever we can do to save them from this, we are doing.
Do you get sufficient funding for your research work?
Natasha: There is institutional funding from the headquarters (ICAR) in Delhi. If we propose a project, it can be externally funded also. That is better in terms of funding.
More funding is always better. More people could come here for this research. We could do with some more women here. It is good for our work too. We can understand each other better and support each other during problems. Cooperation with female scientists works better than with male scientist.