If there is one segment of society that is often misunderstood, it is people who work in science fields. Public perception of scientists tends to lean towards lab coats, crazy hair and beakers full of chemicals, especially in the eyes of children. In reality, most scientists are just regular people who want to make the world a better place through scientific discovery. The best way to dispel the myth that scientists are boring or crazy is to get to know them; the purpose of this segment is to talk with real scientists to ask them what they love about their jobs and why they think their work is fun and important.
For our second interview, we sat down with BIA Fellow Anita Varghese. The Botany in Action Fellowship program at Phipps fosters the development of the next generation of plant-based scientists who are committed, first, to excellent research, and second, to educational outreach. The BIA program provides Fellows with funding for use towards field research in the US or abroad and a trip to Phipps, to engage in science outreach training and opportunities to share his or her research to public audiences. Anita is in her third year as a BIA Fellow, studying biodiversity in the Western Ghats.
We interviewed Anita about why curiosity is important, her favorite part of her job and her experience crossing a river on a bamboo pole.
- Describe your work: Most of the world’s remaining biodiversity occurs in human forest landscapes and its conservation requires participation of local communities. My research focuses on the Western Ghats biodiversity hotspot in India, and seeks to establish linkages between the ecology of wild harvested plants, the ecosystems where they are found, and the knowledge of indigenous gatherers. The Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve, which lies within the Western Ghats is home to more than 20 indigenous forest dependent groups who derive a part of their livelihood from collection of forest produce. These forest products range from leaves, barks, seeds, fruits, resin and animal products like honey. My research objectives are to assess the impact of resin harvest methods on the biology of Canarium strictum (Burseraceae), an evergreen forest tree also called the Black Dammer tree. I am also keen to understand the factors that shape indigenous people’s motivation to be gatherers of forest produce. Finally I want to understand what indicators do the indigenous people use to predict ecological changes either to the forest produce or to its habitat.
- Why did you become a scientist?
Nature and the love for nature is what made me an ecologist. By the time I finished my Masters in Ecology I felt I had enough of textbook knowledge and wanted to work to apply this knowledge. As I continue to work for the Keystone Foundation, an eco-development NGO, I combine my conservation action with research and I am using my PhD to work out a balance between the two.
- What is your favorite part about being a scientist?
My favorite part about being an ecologist is that I get to do my research and science outdoors.
- What is the most important quality in a scientist?
To accept that you are engaged in understanding only a part of the puzzle
- What is the coolest thing you have ever done at work?
Working in the forests in the tropics has several adventures, but I think the one that I don’t want to do again is walking on a bamboo pole across a 30m wide river in the peak of the monsoons! There were no life jackets, no harnesses not even a decent side railing to the bamboo pole which was the bridge.
- If you weren’t a scientist, what other job would you want to do?
Teach science to school children
- What are your hobbies outside of your research?
Playing the piano
- Why is science important?
Science is all around us and very much a part of our daily lives. We do need more people to do science to set right some of the wrongs that we have done to the planet.
- Why is it important for kids to learn science?
Curiosity is most alive in a child and that is the starting point for science. Some of the best science is done by asking the most basic questions. So I feel children have it in them to do science, we have made science so restricted that children are terrified of it.
Anita is someone who sees science all around her every day and wants to use her research to make the world a better place. She is also an example of someone who combines art and science together in her life. To learn more about the role that art plays in science, check out this post.
The above photo was taken by Amanda Joy.