Image credits: Aditya Ranade, Your Story
TheLifeofScience.com is sending out a google form for Indian scientific community to responsibly collect, record and report sexual harassment in Indian science. In light of #MeToo and the stream of sexual harassment cases that have been cropping up within the scientific institutes in India, we are offering a space for students and staff of institutes of science to share any sexism or sexual harassment incidents they have faced in the past or are facing today. Disclosing identities of yourself and the perpetrator are optional. Let us hope that the taboo around this topic wears off and we can head towards safer and more equitable workspace for gender minorities in science.
Please take some time to share this far and wide – to students studying engg/science in colleges, to lecturers in universities, to technicians & lab attendants, anybody who works in science in any capacity. This is a space for all of us.
The forms is available here: http://bit.ly/MeTooIndSTEM
By Jis Sebastian
I was happy to leave Assam this time, unlike before… I was excited that I would start my Ph.D. now in the Western Ghats after three wonderful years of research experience in the northeastern Himalayas. After all, the Western Ghats was home, and I had never worked there before.
Orchids are one of the most fascinating groups of plants on Earth. I have always been fascinated by plants around me, thanks to a very inspirational teacher who encouraged me to study and specialise in plants. My teachers blessed me enough to fall in love with botany and forestry, as they themselves had. I clearly remember working in Eaglenest Wildlife Sanctuary in Arunachal Pradesh back in 2012. Researching animal ecology, I was mesmerised when the mist-covered hills revealed themselves to be an orchid paradise. The branches of conspicuous trees were heavily covered in mosses and epiphytic orchids—the kind of orchids that grow on top of trees. The beautiful flowers that welcomed me at every corner of the sanctuary; I was smitten. It got me thinking: do epiphytic plants like orchids prefer particular climates? Perhaps moist and foggy ones? Around the same time, a wonderful innovative project on epiphytic orchids was starting in the Western Ghats. I was selected, and thus, I bid adieu to the northeast after three long years. I was happy to leave Assam this time…
The big challenge before me was a lack of guidance; there was a lacuna in orchid ecology in India at the time. This resulted in me spending a year in the forests testing different methods. Finally, with the help of Giby Kuriakose, assistant professor of botany at Sacred Heart College and my project investigator, an integrated method called Linear Line Transect with Selective Tree Scanning (LLTSTS) was developed to study biodiversity patterns in epiphytic orchids. A ‘line transect’ was laid after finding a host tree with at least three individuals of orchids on it. Then, the next neighbour was selected at the 10th meter point from the first individual and this repeated until data collected from ten trees from each line transect. Such transects in a linear direction were widely carried out in different units of altitude/latitudinal gradients all over the southern Western Ghats in Kerala. How did factors like the host tree, habitat, and climate influence epiphytic orchids’ diversity, distribution and community structure? This was the major question of my research.
Single Rope Technique (SRT) is what is commonly used to access canopy epiphytes all over the world. In this technique, a single rope is used to ascend and descend a tree using lock and hold mechanism. The climber wears safety gear and uses specialised devices for both descent and ascent. But it isn’t possible in all terrains or forest types. So, we had to rely on high-powered binoculars as well. Data collection was time-consuming and strenuous. My already dislocated shoulders from long travels radiated pain towards the neck with frequent upward scans for orchids. However, it was also fun to lie on my back on the wet forest floor and scan the tree canopy. I collected data on the landscape features, tree characteristics and epiphytic orchids within the canopy on every transect. This kind of work can especially feel time-consuming and very exhausting. I was never able to get rid of the bloodsucking leeches off my toes that were already messed up due to the unknown fungal diversity I had picked up in Arunachal! I lost count of the leech bites once it crossed 6,000!
The world I observed through binoculars and from the canopy was breath-taking. I found that epiphytes do show preferences for specific microclimates (climate in the immediate surrounding). These preferences could be determined by different factors at different levels. Each host tree provides zones of microenvironments i.e., microhabitats with specific microclimate in a vertical gradient. Therefore, In a young tree, the epiphytes on the lower trunk, upper trunk, lower canopy, middle canopy, and the upper canopy could all be different species. The upper canopy receives more sunlight and is exposed to temperature variations and hence orchids that prefer these microhabitats are rootlike to prevent water loss. Epiphytes within the canopy can be of varying sizes and positioned according to different factors, such as the inclination of the branch with the trunk, orientation and position of the branch, light etc. There are epiphytic ferns like Drynaria that prefer to be downwards of the lower canopy to collect all the rich humus leaching from the upper canopy.
Different forest types support orchids. Tall evergreen forests have orchids mostly in the canopy, whereas, forests with canopy gaps have orchids in the lower canopy as well as the tree trunks. We defined the habitat at different scales such as mega (landscape), macro (tree) and micro (canopy). With no disturbance, these habitat levels create more microhabitats within themselves. The more the number of microhabitats in a forest, the higher the epiphytic orchid diversity is. So, these hanging flowers become an indicator for old, rich, undisturbed and complex tropical forests. Large-sized trees sometimes harbour huge epiphyte colonies over a long time. Therefore, big, old trees are important habitats for epiphytes and orchids. This gives answers to why planting trees is not equal to good old forests!
The climate of a region is also a predictor in explaining diversity and abundance patterns of epiphytic orchids. Hilly tracts with high moisture or relative humidity favour epiphytic assemblages. If light and temperature become higher than usual, it negatively affects the orchids. The underlying mechanisms behind these patterns have to be further explored, but we know enough to deduce that climate change, specifically warming, risk affecting these amazing plants.
These hanging flowers become an indicator for old, rich, undisturbed and complex tropical forests. Large-sized trees sometimes harbour huge epiphyte colonies over a long time. Therefore, big, old trees are important habitats for epiphytes and orchids. This gives answers to why planting trees is not equal to good old forests!
In my exploration of trees, I encountered many terrestrial orchids too. These ground orchids sometimes live on decaying matter (saprophytic) or on stones (lithophytic). Orchids can lift your spirits given how rare (and endangered) and beautiful they are. Coming across the critically endangered Paphiopedilum druryi can leave one stunned and hurt at the same time. I was once very surprised to find a handful of plants of the highly critical Malabar daffodils (Ipsea malabarica) in a private coffee plantation. This species had never before been seen in the protected areas! Interestingly, these plantations also support a high epiphytic load on their native shade trees.
My research in epiphyte ecology, still a nascent field in India, is just a beginning. There are many more questions to be answered and understood to conserve these ecosystems. Based on my research, I suggest a need for large scale – temporally and spatially – research to understand the trees, epiphytes, and their community networks. Further, integration of diversity-rich private land into conservation initiatives is what we need before we plummet into irreversible changes in climate forever.
It is difficult at times to stay calm on seeing orchid diversity threatened at different levels. Dr Giby and I carried out an orchid conservation outreach programme for the upper primary school students, coffee/cardamom plantation owners and workers, the Kattunaikkars – an indigenous community and forest watchers in Wayanad, Kerala, with support from San Diego County Orchid Society, California. The stakeholders have been given training to identify orchids, rescue them if they find a fallen or displaced orchid, and restore them to a similar habitat. I’m happy to say that the programme was a hit!
‘I feel pretty safe and comfortable in the forest. Dealing with the department staff, is tough. Once that is done, I feel free as the wind… I feel more scared when I’m in the city.’ – Excerpt from a profile of Jis we did back in Season 1 of TLoS. You can read the entire feature here.
Author bio: Jis Sebastian is a doctoral candidate at Madurai Kamaraj University, Tamil Nadu. She is a WWF Prince Bernhard Nature fellow in conservation science and the 2016 Dr C Chandrasekharan Memorial Awardee. You can subscribe to her YouTube channel here to follow her journey as a ‘woman of the earth’.
Acknowledgements: All pictures have been sourced from the author.
By Sabiha Majumder
Why academia? What is its appeal? For me the answer was straightforward: I genuinely enjoyed the process of making discoveries and the luxury of working whenever and wherever I liked. This makes academia one of the best career choices for one’s personal and professional happiness, right? Well, not so fast….What may sound like a straight road to success, was paved with many setbacks – it made me question whether I am fit for research. But I am not the only one feeling this way, many findings speak of a mental health crisis in academia.
I was a really good student. I scored good grades, and was appreciated by my teachers throughout my school years and undergraduate studies. Consequently, academia seemed like the best career choice for me. I joined a PhD position with enthusiasm.
This is where it all started.
In a matter of weeks, I was doubting myself. I struggled with understanding ‘basic concepts’, while everyone else around me seemed to be excelling. All these years of doing great in academics and now I was failing along the same lines. It had a tremendous negative impact on my motivation and excitement for science; making me question whether I was smart enough to be pursuing research.
What started with confusion, quickly led to low self-esteem – paired with the pressure in academia to constantly prove oneself, I soon began to suffer from mental health issues. Falling deeper into what I perceived to be a dark pit each day.
Here comes the tricky bit: objectively, I had no reason to feel like this. I was part of a great lab, with amazing colleagues and a supportive supervisor. I felt guilty for feeling depressed. It took me a while to figure out what was going on. I ultimately decided to quit. The constant struggle with my inner self was impeding any progress, and the idea of completing my PhD project seemed impossible.
Before I could tell my supervisor that I was throwing in the towel, he approached me to talk about my struggles. In this discussion, I learnt how common this was in academia. When we involved my colleagues into this discussion, I was surprised to hear how even happy-seeming people were fighting the same issue on a daily basis. From then on, I became more open about my feelings. We started defining shorter goals in the lab. Instead of a bigger project spanning a year, I started defining small tasks for each day or week, and finishing them one by one made me more and more confident. Before I realised, I had submitted my dissertation! Thus, I struggled with and overcame impostor syndrome.
Academia is set out to train experts, but the more I learnt about a topic, the more I drew into its vastness. The feeling of not knowing enough, not being enough, arose in this manner. This is the catch 22 of being a researcher: You learn more and more, but feel like you know less and less, ultimately lead to me feeling unworthy of an expert position, being a fraud – an impostor.
After a PhD and two years of postdoc, I now work for a financial institution. While many look at this transition as quitting, it was not so for me. This career path is a development in continuation with my PhD. Apart from the skills I learnt, the most important thing is the confidence it gave me. Having survived those struggles and gaining support, I came out of it as a stronger optimist.
While I had a positive experience, I understand not everyone does. There are many resolutions needed to improve grad students’ experience. A turning point for me was being open about my feelings. I believe as scientists we must be open about our feelings of self-doubt and our struggles. It is so easy to get lost in the universe of details. Talking to colleagues and supervisors helps to stay focused and moreover, knowing that you are not alone can reduce the burden.
My two cents: It is ok to NOT know everything. This does not make you less of an expert. It is ok to still struggle from time to time. Science is not a smooth sail, it is a quest for knowledge and there are a lot of kind people around you. So, talk to your colleagues, your mentors, but most importantly, know that you are not alone in this.
Author bio: Sabiha did her PhD at IISc Bangalore and two years of postdoctoral research at ETH Zurich. She is now working for ING bank, Amsterdam as a Risk Analyst.
Note: This article first appeared on Crowther lab’s website here.
Acknowledgements: Images sourced from the author. Featured image from Flickr.
By Sapna Chhabra
In August 2014, I took a flight from Chennai to Houston, Texas, US. I was starting my PhD degree in biology at Rice University. I remember my first day on campus. Walking along a path lined with trees, I looked to the future and thought about my lab, the science, the people and the things to come my way.
I chose to work on a fundamental problem in developmental biology – How does a pattern of distinct cell types form?
In my PhD project, I set out to understand the mechanism behind gastrulation – How does a group of homogenous cells organize into the three germ layers? The prevailing view in the developmental biology field is that cells choose to become different cell types depending on the levels of a key molecular signal. Using a stem cell model of human gastrulation, we measured and modelled the activities of three signals known to be necessary for gastrulation in mammals. Our results suggest that cells adopt different germ layer cell fates based on the dynamic interactions of the three signals, and not the level of any one signal in a cell.
Our lives start as a single cell – the fertilized egg, and by the time we are born, there are over 200 different cell types in our body organized in a layered pattern. The skin cells form the outermost layer; muscle, blood and bone cells form the middle layer; and cells of the internal organs like stomach and intestines form the innermost layer. This layered arrangement of cells can be traced back to an early developmental stage – around two weeks post-fertilization, a flat disc of cells organize into a layered pattern comprising three discs arranged on top of each other. Each layer of cells constitutes a distinct cell type corresponding to one of the three germ layers – the ectoderm (outer), mesoderm (middle), endoderm (inner). As reflected in the names, ectoderm cells give rise to the outer organs like the skin, mesoderm cells to the middle organs and endoderm cells to the internal organs. Because of its literal significance in our lives, this developmental stage has a special name – gastrulation.
It took 5+ years, many failed experiments, and numerous hours of reading, writing, coding and critical thinking, to finally get one inroad into the problem. After this, it was finally time to wrap up this journey. Beginning with, defending my PhD findings.
The date was set – April 1st, 2020. We started the multi-step process with the submission of a detailed report of all the work. This is followed by a public oral presentation and a detailed Q/A with the thesis committee. The committee consists of three-to-five professors to evaluate the scientific rigour of the research. I was familiar with the recent scientific literature and confident about my findings. Defense was going to be easy.
Similar to experiments, life rarely goes as planned. Ten days before the defense was due, on 20th March, the research laboratory – my home for the past six years, closed its doors. The university shut down for an indefinite period.
COVID19 had raised alarms in the US. Busy with my defense preparations, I had not spent much time thinking about the pandemic. Now it was impossible to ignore. The biologist in me delved into a series of questions – Which cells does the virus invade? How does the infection propagate within a cell, a person, and a community? At the same time, I was worried about the unprecedented socio-economic impacts of the pandemic – shut businesses, burdened healthcare and exposed social inequalities. As the death toll increased, I, like most people, became a helpless observer of the catastrophe. For the first time in many years, something outside my research threatened to consume me.
As my thoughts slowly turned back to the defense, a host of covid-induced uncertainties struck me. Will my defense be postponed indefinitely? Or will it be held on video-conference? What if I or my thesis committee members get sick? At least four of the five committee members had to show up for defense, else I would have to reschedule. Imagining the worst but hoping for the best, I continued to prepare. A week before the defense, I sent my report to the committee members. Three committee members acknowledged the receipt. “At least three people might attend the defense”, I assured myself.
To my great relief, the university announced a detailed protocol for defense via Zoom, just a few days before my defense. After downloading the app, I acquainted myself with “best practices on Zoom meetings”. The untrustworthy Internet connection at home made me anxious. Thankfully, the university granted me access to a conference room on campus for the PhD defense. Only two people were to be in the room and at least 6 feet apart, as per the universal physical distancing guidelines. For moral and technical support, I requested my PhD advisor to be the second person in the room. He kindly agreed.
While wrapping up my preparation on the night before the defense, I entertained another doubt: What will I wear?! For sure, a mask, I thought. The default dress code for such a meeting is business formal wear. But given the COVID-19 and the virtual nature of my defense, I would be excused even if I showed up in my pyjamas. To retain some aspect of normalcy, I chose formals.
On D-Day I greeted my advisor, from a distance of course, outside the conference room. Once inside, we logged on and prepared. Committee members (all of them, thankfully = no rescheduling!), lab members, and friends tuned in from the comfort of their homes. I realised that (virtual) conditions brought some relief for someone afraid of crowds and public speaking. I didn’t have to worry about eye contact and my facial expressions. We asked the audience to keep their questions for the end, and muted them during my presentation.
The defense began. My advisor introduced me, “Sapna thinks very deeply about fundamental problems in developmental biology.” Coming from a man of few words, it was touching. I wanted to present my work well. I spoke about my work, uninterrupted, for about 40 minutes!
People clapped 👏. It was now time for a public Q/A. Strangely, no one asked anything. Or, so we thought. Then, my advisor and I got a string of private messages. We had forgotten to unmute people. We rectified it, apologised, and continued with Q/A.
After the public Q/A, we asked everyone, except the committee members, to leave the virtual meeting. They obliged. It was now time for the committee to grill me. After an extensive Q/A, the committee asked me to leave the meeting, so they may decide my fate. Because I was sitting in the same room as my advisor, I left the room, like I would, in a regular defense. A few minutes later, my advisor came out and announced, “Congratulations Dr.” My committee members echoed the same. D-Day was done! 😀
I reached for my phone to share the news with my parents in India. The moment I held my phone, news about the rising COVID-induced deaths in New York greeted me. I was no longer an excited PhD graduate. I became a helpless observer to the destruction again.
Gradually, I came to terms with my conflicting emotions and rang my parents. Their cheerful voices reminded me of the importance of that day. It was a step closer to my dream, a milestone in my science journey.
As I end this journey and look around, I feel even more sure of the fact that if there is anything that can get us out of this worrisome COVID-19 situation, it is science! And, I, as a scientist, can play an important role in it.
Author bio: Sapna Chhabra is a postdoctoral researcher in Biology at Rice University. She seeks to understand the simple principles hidden beneath the complexity of living organisms.
Acknowledgements: Images of Rice University and Sapna by Ya He, sourced from the author, featured image constructed by Hansika (TLoS).
(image caption) Some IISER-Kolkata faculty who may be covered by the #WIISER initiative in its interview series. From L-R: top row: Rumi, Anindita with her son, Sumana; centre: Koel; bottom row: Mousumi, Neelanjana and Anindita presenting.
by Arunita Banerjee
On Women’s Day this year, the Indian Institute of Science and Education and Research (IISER) Kolkata launched #WIISER – an initiative to recognise and applaud the contributions of women scientists of the institute. IISERs are premier institutions, envisioned to integrate teaching and basic science education with state-of-the-art research. However, they suffer from a prominent gender imbalance — only ~17% of the faculty are composed of women scientists, on average. At IISER Kolkata, this is even lower, at 12.8%.
#WIISER is a series of interviews that recognises scientific contributions and roadblocks of the women scientists at IISER Kolkata. Anindita Bhadra, Associate Dean of International Relations and Outreach, who was instrumental in launching this, described the initiative: “We talk of equality and equal opportunities across genders and often discuss the problems that women have to face in academia. What we also need to do is to applaud the women who have achieved something in their careers in spite of all these problems. #WIISER is an initiative that aims to applaud the women faculty of IISER Kolkata.”
She added that the series is also intended to provoke the community to raise their eyebrows at how few women there are. “Let someone look at the banner and say, ‘only 14?’ Let someone note the skews in gender balance among the departments and decide to do something to change this. Every little step counts.” And when asked what the name #WIISER meant, she said, “Women in IISER, also women are wiser. And with the women, IISER becomes wiser!”
Anindita approached Cogito – the in-house science communication magazine to be the platform for #WIISER. And an undergrad student with similar ideas immediately shouldered the responsibility! “I was fortunate enough to grow up in a very liberal, open-minded household where my parents helped me understand early on that gender disparity was deeply rooted in our society. As I read more, I grew cognisant that such disparity was widespread in STEM fields across the globe and even more so in India, but not enough people seemed to care. When I came to college I believed I was in a position to try and change that, and was lucky to have a forum to do so. That was my rationale behind starting this series. Hopefully, it’ll help open people’s eyes to the wonderful work being done in our institution by some incredible (women) scientists and will also go a small way into creating a more inclusive scientific environment in the future, not only for women, but people of all genders.” said Vedanth Sriram, a third year undergrad student at the institute, who is conducting the interview series.
As a research scholar and freelance science communicator, I (Arunita) am coordinating this interview series.
Highlighting achievements may not directly impact numbers but these scientists can serve as inspiration to younger women looking to make it in science. The women faculty at IISER Kolkata are spread across disciplines. The biology department has the maximum number, at eight. The departments of earth sciences and chemical sciences have three and two, respectively. The mathematical and physical science departments have one each, and the interdisciplinary research of these women has made them adjunct faculty of the biological sciences department too.
Rumi De studies the physics behind movement patterns, from microscopic cells to macroscopic animals, using multidisciplinary techniques. Through theoretical modelling and simulations over space and time, she aims to understand various active systems such as cell movement during the development of a fruit fly, wound healing and prey-predator interactions in animals.
Further demonstrating the interdisciplinary nature of scientific research today, Bidisha Sinha and Neelanjana Sengupta are exploring different molecular aspects of biophysics. Bidisha uses state-of-the-art microscopes and other imaging techniques to understand how cells maintain the integrity of their membranes. She studies what happens when cells are faced with internal disturbances within its structure, thereby affecting its potential to maintain its form.
Neelanjana combines microscopy and computational biology to study how molecules interact with each other when faced with perturbations in temperature and chemicals in the surrounding environment. With these studies, she hopes to get to the bottom of the structural properties of proteins and possibly predict their behaviour.
The Behaviour and Ecology Group in IISER Kolkata is an all-women team. They use ants, stray dogs and zebrafish as systems. Sumana Annagiri’s lab studies unique transportation strategies used by Diacamma indicum, a species of ants, when relocating from one nest to another. Anindita’s research delves into the daily lives of Indian free-ranging dogs, conducting long-term observational studies to understand their ecology and behaviour. She also uses task-based experiments to gauge their cognitive abilities. Anuradha Bhat’s focus is to design conservation strategies of streams and ecosystems thriving on them, based on the distribution patterns and ecology of wild zebrafish, a fresh-water fish found in tropical countries.
Moving on to more fundamental biology, Malancha Ta studies stem cells found in the umbilical cord, which have the potential to eventually form different types of specialised cells. She observed what happens to them under conditions identical to physiological stresses such as increased temperature or external chemical variations.
Rituparna Sinha Roy’s research probes into the structures of proteins using nanotechnology and biomimetics. Her lab designs novel molecules which have therapeutic potential for vaccine development and regenerative medicine, especially directed towards cancer treatment.
Jayasri Das Sarma and Koel Das delve into neurobiology, through two different approaches. Jayasri’s lab works with certain coronaviruses which are known to infect mice and cause similar symptoms as the neurodegenerative disease – multiple sclerosis. Her research aims to design therapeutic technologies which may be used to treat multiple sclerosis and other similar diseases.
[Jayasri’s interview is already published.]
Koel’s research, on the other hand, lies at the interface of mathematics and neurosciences. Her lab uses pattern recognition tools to explore neural networks within the human brain and the basis of cognitive functions, to understand how humans would perform in real-world tasks.
In earth sciences, Swastika Chatterjee studies the properties of minerals found beneath the earth surface and tries to understand the processes that might occur in them at extreme temperature and pressure conditions, through simulations. Her colleague Sujata Ray’s research is broad-spectrum, covering various aspects of environmental sustainability. For example, she modelled strategies to prevent the escape of carbon dioxide from below Earth’s surface into the atmosphere.
Mousumi Das and Susmita Roy work in the field of theoretical chemistry and biophysical chemistry respectively. While Mousumi works on molecular electronics that could pave the way towards solar cells, Susmita dives deep into the molecular interactions between nucleic acids, to understand the pathophysiology of bacterial and viral diseases.
These are merely concise versions of their research profiles that I have collected as part of my work with #WIISER. It’s important to remember that behind these professional achievements, many scientists, especially women, have had to navigate roadblocks in their personal lives. While life may have been easier for some due to proper family support and resources, some have had to go miles before they slept each night.
Author bio: Arunita Banerjee is a research scholar at IISER Kolkata. She is also a freelance science communicator and the Chief Editor of the in-house magazine Cogito.
Note: You can find the #WIISER interview series in a dedicated section of the Cogito website. You can also follow their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram handle for regular updates about #WIISER and more.
By TLoS team and illustrator Nandini Moitra
In July last year, TheLifeofScience.com helped Faridabad-based Translational Health Science and Technology Institute (THSTI) create a set of infographics to highlight some of THSTI’s biggest contributions to India’s public health.
Infection by Rotaviruses leads to the maximum cases of severe diarrhoea-related deaths in children under the age of five, across the world. A great number of these deaths occur in low-income countries like India. The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends including rotavirus vaccines in all national immunization programmes, in particular for countries in South Asia, South-East Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
This infographic, fourth in this series, introduces the development of Rotavirus vaccine – one of India’s biggest (lab) bench to bedside success stories. Find the Hindi translation of this infographic here!
Note: If the text in this comic is too small, we request you to open the image file in another tab so that zooming in is possible.
Here are the other pieces in this illustrated series
- Clinical trials made easy
- Lightening India’s IBD Burden
- Large scale collection of India’s health indicators