Farah Gives Us a Bird’s Eye View

A avian disease researcher decides to crack the puzzle of malaria in birds.
By | Published on May 24, 2018
WHO? Farah Ishtiaq, 45
WHAT? Ecologist and avian disease researcher
WHERE? Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru

We’ve all heard of malaria. In school, we wrote answers about the female Anopheles mosquito when we were barely old enough to understand the concept of an epidemic. This mosquito’s bite spreads the disease we associate with heat, sickness, and tropical climate. It killed over four lakh people in 2015.

Interestingly, malaria isn’t unique to humans. It affects non-human primates, mammals, reptiles and even birds. Each of these species is infected by a specific species of mosquito that acts as a carrier for a single-celled parasite called Plasmodium. There are over 200 species of Plasmodium, and it’s quite common for them to cause the disease in birds. Avian malaria is a subject of study all over the world.

Not so much in India though.

“I wanted to study the spread of malaria in birds because there is not a single scientist doing it in India,” stated Farah Ishtiaq, who has been working as a research fellow at the Center for Ecological Sciences (CES) in IISc, Bangalore, for the past four years.

Malaria in the Himalayas

Nearly all birds we see, such as house sparrows, parrots and mynahs, are susceptible to malaria. Though there has been definitive evidence of this for a while, until recently, the disease wasn’t really being tracked and studied.

Farah wants to find out how malaria is introduced and if it spreads the same way in birds as it spreads in humans — rampantly in tropical climates. To figure this out, she needs to go somewhere geographically close to these climates, but in a region quite different in terms of temperature – somewhere like the Himalayas. “Mosquitoes and cold don’t go together. So I wondered if it is possible that birds that live in higher altitudes like the Himalayas evolved without the parasites,” she explained.

She established seven sites across the Himalayas, from Dehradun which is at about 600m above sea level to Kedarnath Wildlife Sanctuary which lies at 3,400m. Farah’s team travels to these sites to “sample” birds – i.e. take their blood sample – during the breeding season. Meanwhile, her ground personnel sample mosquitoes all year-round. “This is to understand how the parasite is transmitted,” explained Farah.

A year in Farah’s shoes

Same site in good and bad weather

This means that Farah spends four months every year hiking up the mountains setting up traps for mating birds. The rest of the year, she works from her Bangalore office. On a typical day in the Himalayas, she hikes up from the campsite at 3 am, sets up traps at a low height, and waits. These bird traps are nets propped up by poles. Made of black silk coir, the nets are difficult to spot against the background and invariably, birds fly into them. The birds that her team studies are small enough to pick up, quickly draw blood from, and release. Sometimes, they tie a marker ring around the bird’s legs to make sure there are no repeats.

Her days in her Bangalore lab start at around 10 am. Now it’s time to analyse the information they have collected from the field. The team works together to crunch data on the thousands of birds they have sampled.

“There are birds that live their whole lives in the Himalayas, and there are some species that migrate down to the south in winter, to the warmer climates,” Farah said. Warmer climates are also where malaria-spreading mosquitoes flourish. She has recorded birds that were healthy in the mountains, but flew down to the warmer Dehradun in the winter and got infected there. These migratory birds then fly back to the mountains during the breeding season in April-May. While breeding, birds’ immune systems are easily compromised – so it is likely that this is when the disease would spread.

Farah ringing birds in high elevation site

Farah wonders if malaria is non-existent in the mountains or if there are birds there that are immune to it. “It’s like a three-piece jigsaw puzzle — there is the parasite, the bird, and the mosquito. How do they all fit together?” It’s a long-term study and Farah doesn’t have enough data to figure it out just yet.

Getting a taste of ornithology

Farah did her schooling in Delhi, and then her undergraduate degree in zoology at the Aligarh Muslim University. As the child of two doctors, she admits that her mother was not always happy with her choice of career. Her father, on the other hand, was incredibly supportive. “He had also encouraged my mother to focus on getting her degree in gynaecology.” After her master’s degree, she went on to obtained her PhD in Avian Ecology and Behaviour from the Centre for Wildlife Science at AMU in 1999.

Post her PhD, Farah was offered a small but intensive project: to work with the famed ornithologist Pamela Rasmussen on a bird species that was recently discovered to not be extinct. The small and fluffy Forest Spotted Owlet had not been seen after 1884 for a very, very long time. It had been declared extinct until American ornithologist Rasmussen came along from the Smithsonian Institution at Washington DC. During the course of her research for a book on birds in the Indian subcontinent, she looked for the bird until she found it in 1997. This species of owl is endemic to the dry, deciduous forests of the Central Highlands in India (from Gujarat to Orissa).

The bird whisperer

Blyth’s reed warbler European migrant in India

Studying small birds is difficult as they’re hard to spot. Scientists need to know where and when to look, so they need details about the birds’ habits – the time of the day (or night) they prefer to be active, the kind of trees they like to perch on, the food they eat, their calls, etc. Considering that the owlet hadn’t been seen in over a century, nearly nothing was known about it. “Rasmussen didn’t know what she was looking for and where she should go,” reminisced Farah. “But after she re-discovered it, I studied it with her the next year.”

After experiments and searches for a whole year, Farah became an expert in this owl species. She could interpret the different calls of males, females, and the chicks of the species. “What is interesting about this owl is that unlike most other species, it is not nocturnal. And since 1884, people had been searching for it at the wrong time, never finding it!” Furthermore, the Forest Spotted Owlet is actually quite similar in appearance to another species called the Spotted Owlet. The latter has more spots on its back and has a white front, while the former has fewer spots and a brown front. The Spotted Owlet is also active during the day. “So even when they did spot a Forest Spotted Owlet, they assumed it’s the Spotted Owlet!”

Tracking small birds and doing the kind of field work Farah did in Central India is not easy on ecologists. “The rocky terrain and extreme heat were particularly challenging,” she remembered. “But the progress I had made after four months was tremendous, so I received more funding and worked for a year.”

The story is fascinating, but when I ask Farah what made her pick this particular project of studying the owlet, she replied that it wasn’t fully intentional. “In ecology or conservation in India, beggars can’t be choosers. The Bombay Natural History Society had funding for four months, and I accepted it.” She then moved on to three years of non-academic work where she was instrumental in creating a network of ornithologists and birdwatchers around India called Indian Bird Conservation Network.

A fascination for diseases

However, her passion lay elsewhere. “I always wanted to study diseases in birds, especially malaria,” says Farah. But as an ecologist, she did not have the knowledge to study diseases. Disease study needed an understanding of bloodwork, which meant a lot of analysis under the microscope. “I knew what DNA was, and that’s all,” she laughed. “I’d never had a job in a lab before!”

She got an opportunity to do her postdoctoral research at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC where she studied the birds of Hawaii for two years. Her research focussed on the spread of malaria in the birds endemic to Hawaii. Malaria came to Hawaii through birds introduced to the islands in the late nineteenth century. Each group of colonists brought fowl from their own country that carried the malarial parasite. As the endemic birds had never encountered this parasite before, their immune systems were not prepared for it and the disease rapidly spread, wiping out over 90% of native birds.

Studying avian diseases is a well-established field in the US and Farah built up her toolkit. She learned how to use molecular biology and genetic markers to study and track diseases. Farah then went on to Oxford University for her second postdoc: understanding how parasites colonise islands. Islands are isolated and therefore are prime ground for testing hypothesis about how a disease spreads.

Working for over five years with these unique birds at exotic locations was not only a colourful experience for Farah but also moulded her into an able evolutionary biologist. She could now return to India, fully prepared to work with the birds here. “It was life-changing,” she affirmed.

Farah says she is in this field of research in India at exactly the right time. There is a lot of interest in diseases spreading in other species due to H1N1 and Zika epidemic. “I am lucky to have fantastic funding that also allows me to make my own decisions in my research. I do more field work and don’t face restrictions on how I utilise the grant. This is a really big deal considering these restrictions on funding are what I anticipated would be the biggest hurdle I would face.” Farah is one of the few to receive the Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance grant in the field of ecology; most other awardees are molecular and cell biologists.

Ageist policies widen the gender gap

None of this is to say that her work has been free of difficulties. Indian jungles where she studied birds are both physically challenging to navigate as well as politically tough to work in. While Farah was driving through Naxalite areas in Bastar, the government vehicle behind her was blown up because of a landmine. There were instances where being a woman prevented her from befriending forest staff in interior India. “If I had sat and had coffee with those men, they would have started saying that I have a loose character, whereas male ecologists could easily sit with them and learn more things.”

But Farah’s biggest challenge is stability in academia. She is doing groundbreaking research in her field today but believes she has no job prospects in India. “I am over 35 years old, and despite the fact that I am working on something new, unique, and important, I won’t be able to find a job outside of this lab.”

Thirty-five years is the upper age limit for prospective candidates for assistant professor posts in India as preferred by academic institutions. While the age restriction is counter-productive to everyone in general (students complete their PhD in ecology on an average at age 34), it is especially detrimental to women since this is also the time most women want to have children. Thus ageist academic policies manifest themselves as sexist, too. Farah has written about this in much depth here.

These rigid academic policies affect women disproportionately, and there are immense scope and necessity for change. Farah is sure that unless these changes come about, women will have no choice but to drop out. “Who knows if even I will be around in two years!”

This is part of a series of  profiles of Indian women scientists whose research has been funded by Wellcome Trust/DBT India Alliance. This article was first published on Firstpost. We are thankful for a grant from India Alliance towards this series that has allowed us to invite voices of fellow science writers on this project.

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