Nidhi Writes Banaras’s Diarrhoea Diary
A conversation with a climate change and disease research scholar at Banaras Hindu University
WHO? Nidhi Singh
WHAT? Climate change and disease research scholar
WHERE? Institute of Environment and Sustainable Development, Varanasi
Reported by Aashima Dogra
When I first arrived at the massive Banaras Hindu University, passing through its many temple-like faculty buildings, I was handed a long list of contacts of senior female scientists pursuing research in different departments. It was Dr Rajesh Mall, a climate scientist at the university who opened the door for me to all the amazing people I met at in Varanasi.
Surprisingly, among all the people I met, those most enthused about their science, were Dr Mall’s own Ph.D. students. They are not scientists yet but are training to be. Every day the group meets at its desk to talk about a huge entangled mess of a problem: climate change. However, the term that brings doom and gloom to most minds is just a problem Nidhi Singh and her colleagues in Dr Mall’s optimistic research group are rearing to solve.
Nidhi Singh researches the impact of climate change on humans. NOT human impact on the climate but the other way round. “We know that climatic parameters like temperature and humidity play very important role in spread and transport of diseases like tuberculosis, diarrhoea, malaria, kala-azar and pneumonia. Similarly, a person having cardiac issues can get troubled in high temperatures like 48- 50 ℃. Heat stress is another problem due to loss of water and dehydration in extreme temperatures.”
Nidhi works with local climate data from the past 30 years and disease incidence data from a big local hospital in Varanasi. She was born and raised here and plans on staying here as long as BHU offers her a lectureship unless she is offered a post-doctoral fellowship abroad. When she is done with her research, she hopes that the people of Varanasi will be in a better position to make informed steps to reduce the devastating impacts of climate change on the public health of the oldest city in the country.
Nidhi is a young, charming and confident woman. She talks about her research profusely and is able to describe the work and its limitations very clearly, something not so common among people of science.
Like most climate scientists she sifts through large amounts of data every day. For the last two years, she has been working with data from Sunderlal Hospital, housed inside the BHU campus, 50 metres from her institute. Every year the hospital treats thousands of patients suffering from TB, diabetes, diarrhoea, malaria and kala-azar. The large patient data generated is invaluable for Nidhi’s work.
It’s already known that climate changes involve a rise in temperature, more extreme rainfall, and an accompanied increase in vector-borne diseases and some other diseases like diabetes and cardiac problems. If you put the number of disease incidents and the climate data across on the same plot, both graphs will flow together, as if climate change is responsible for rising number of diseases.
Nidhi wants to provide evidence for the same thing, but over a specific population – the people of Varanasi.
Sunderlal Hospital, where she has been getting her data from, is the biggest and oldest in the area. You would expect lots of reliable data, but Nidhi still finds lots of hurdles. “The hospital doesn’t have all the records of past years. We can only get data from last decade but not before that. Another problem is that they don’t provide us with all the data and we have to fight for it. We have to go through a large procedure. Large numbers of people coming to the OPD daily are not recorded; we have limited data on only the admitted patients. There are also no records of what socio-economic background these patients are coming from.”
Nidhi needs data – and lots of it. The validity of her work depends on it. Since the data she has been relying on has proved frustrating, Nidhi is now preparing a new device to fit into her research methodology.
She is currently writing a questionnaire that she will take to several local hospitals to generate her own data. She hopes to find at least 500 patients for each disease dataset.
At the conclusion of her PhD project, Nidhi will have found a relationship between the trends of the changing climate and diseases. “Local communities can then take seasonal mitigative steps like widening sewers and directing the flow of water.”
“The policies and plans the government makes are based on the data that scientists have done research on. So, unless and until we have knowledge on particular areas it would be tough to deal with problems locally.”
When I asked her about how she felt about being a woman in science in this country, she looked a bit dumbfounded and then responded: “At work, I don’t feel as if I’m a woman or a man. Here I’m just a research scholar.”
“My family praises me and they don’t pressurise me to get married. I am 28 now and I have zero pressure. Similar is the situation with most of the research scholars in this institute… so it’s very nice.”
The full interview with Nidhi Singh is below. Thanks to Juhi Pandey for transcription!
Tell us a bit about yourself, Nidhi.
I started an integrated course for MPhil and PhD in 2013. I was registered on two-semester courses in the beginning that were subjective in nature. For two years I have been working on my research project.
What do you want to do next?
I want to get a position in BHU as a lecturer. But as there is an unavailability of posts sometimes, in such a case, I want to pursue postdoctoral fellowship abroad.
Why is it that staying in India is your preference?
Whatever I have learned here and gained I want to communicate to the students here so they get to experience what I did. I want to do continue research on a regional basis. This is why I prefer working in Varanasi.
Would you say that staying in India is scientifically important or socially important?
It is scientifically as well as socially important. Once they have good research based on specific data, local communities can take seasonal mitigative steps like widening sewers and directing the flow of water.Policies and plans the government makes are based on the data that scientists have done research on. So, unless and until we have knowledge on particular areas it would be tough to deal with problems locally.
Can you describe your project to me?
Climate consists of several parameters like temperature, rainfall, relative humidity and radiation. Now, these climatic parameters have several impacts on our life. These are important for our survival, important for crops etc. It has been seen that climatic parameters like temperature and humidity play a very important role in spread and transport of diseases like tuberculosis, diarrhoea, malaria, kala-azar and pneumonia. For example, we know that pathogens get entangled in droplets. When a person who has tuberculosis sneezes, the bacteria entangled in droplets or dust particles and can affect a person up to 500-300 meters in radius. Similarly, a person having cardiac issues can get troubled in high temperatures like 48-50 ℃. Heat stress is another problem caused by dehydration in extremes of temperature. In winters when the temperature goes very low, the immune system of the body weakens and a person can easily catch a disease. Most importantly, from July to October – pre-monsoon and post-monsoon – mosquitoes breed on stagnated water bodies. During those days vector-borne diseases such as chikungunya, kala-azar and encephalitis become very frequent. So this is where I start from: climatic parameters have an influence on the diseases. What I am doing mostly is collecting data. I need climatic data on daily basis from 1971-2011 for all these parameters. Now I am collecting data particular to the diseases I mentioned. And then I correlate the numbers of patients with a particular disease and the climatic condition. So, I have two kinds of data, one is health data and other is climate data.
Can you tell us more about the health data?
I collect data from January to December throughout the year from Sir Sunderlal Hospital in BHU.
What diseases do you have data for?
We take data for pneumonia, diabetes, tuberculosis, diarrhoea, dengue, malaria, chikungunya and encephalitis. TB and Diarrhoea cause a lot of deaths in this region. Children under five are mostly affected from pneumonia and old people too. Because of increase in temperature newer vector-borne diseases are arising… one of them is dengue.
Did you find any correlations?
Yes, I did. I found that pneumonia and tuberculosis are generally found in winters. Vector-borne diseases are prevalent in monsoon and post-monsoon (July-October).
Does it have anything to do with climate change – are the number of cases increasing?
Yes, in the year 2011 the number of patients was very high for all these diseases.
But maybe this is not related to climate change…
No. These incidents are definitely affected by climate. But it is just one of the factors. Other factors are socio-economic conditions, etc. So far, we don’t have a statistical model that can factor it in.
How do you study the socio-economic aspect?
We can’t. There is no control sample for the statistics to evaluate it. I am keeping an error percentage of 5 in my study to buffer against uncontrollable factors like this. This allows me to ignore the socio-economic conditions of the patients.
Why ignore it?
Because it is very hard to incorporate.Data from the hospital does not tell us about what kind of socio-economic background the patients come from, as the hospital doesn’t keep a record of these. It is a lack of availability. We are planning to have a survey.
What correlation do you use?
It’s Pearson Correlation.
Where are you in your project right now?
I have collected data from every department now. I am going to take data from every division of the hospital, like the lungs section, diarrhoea section & TB section. Right now I have a chunk of data.
What do you do when you have the data?
I am going to find relationships in the datasets by analysing them. This will generate a generalised result. I am going to add my limitations in the results too as Sunderlal Hospital doesn’t have all the records of past years. We can only get data from last decade but not before that. Another problem is that they don’t provide us with all the data and we have to fight for it. We have to go through a long procedure. Secondly, large numbers of people coming to the OPD daily are not recorded; we are limited to data from the admitted patients. So to reduce this limit I am preparing a questionnaire and will do a survey but that will take time.
What is your sample size?
I need a large number of sample say, 300-400 yearly, only then I can go for a relation otherwise I can’t, it won’t be significant. More data, the better.
Are there other scientists doing similar research?
The literature on this topic is mostly from foreign countries. And the people we know who are working in the field are Adrin Tomkansean in Italy, H.C. Dheeman, who is working in National Vector-Borne Disease Control Programme and Shobhana Bhattacharya. They face the same problem, that is lack of data. This is a major problem and collection of data is hectic.
How does it feel working as a female researcher in this country?
It’s very good. India supports women doing PhD, they are praised. At work, I don’t feel if I’m a woman or a man. Here I’m just a research scholar.
My family praises me and they don’t pressurise me to get married. I am 28 now and I have zero pressure. Similar is the situation with most of the research scholars in this institute…so it’s very nice.
It feels so good to have worked so hard to reach this point. You go for seminars and workshops, you are publishing papers at national and international journals… it shows you have been working really hard.
What motivates you?
If you come to this field you explore many things. Some of the things I began to get very passionate for. I am in love with it.
Would you like to share any experiences, positive or negative of being a woman scientist?
Being a woman is very good over here; it is appreciated. Teachers generally want to take female candidates as they are hardworking and stick to rules.
It is always been perfect. The atmosphere in PhD is very good as far as this institute is concerned.
So do you think we can survive climate change?
We can…we will…
Any message for whoever is reading this?
I want all readers to appreciate every women working in this field as it is challenging for them. I am not facing any problem, but many do.
And a word of caution: The changing climate is giving rise to many diseases. Climate change is favorable for viruses and new diseases are coming like the Zika virus. We have to do and support research on climate change.