Overcoming unexpected challenges is sometimes what a PhD is about

I (PT) talk to Jayabharathy (JB) about her journey in science and the hurdles she faced during her PhD. She is now writing up her thesis. Talking to her highlighted to me the important roles that the adviser, friends and family play in helping cope with difficulties. Thanks JB for an inspiring chat and post!

PT: What got you interested in science? And why did you decide to pursue your PhD?
JB: As a kid I remember being surrounded by books. At one point my house resembled a library, thanks to my father. Also, my brother was constantly reading and quizzing. So I was exposed to science as facts and phenomenon, through children encyclopaedias and popular science books at a young age. However, I took to reading any of these books with an interest only around the time I was finishing high school. I fondly remember reading a collection of anecdotes from the physicist Feynman’s life titled, “Surely, you’re joking Mr. Feynman” from cover to cover and reflecting on it for many days on how scientists can be such cool people.

My parents always considered acing school exams of any kind as the be-all and end-all of education. Arts and outdoor pursuits weren’t encouraged and like many a financially motivated parent, mine too believed enrolling for an engineering degree would offer financial stability for the future. Thanks to my brother’s timely advice on considering my interests in biology, I enrolled for undergraduate degree in Industrial Biotechnology in one of the state government colleges in Chennai that offered excellent infrastructure and faculty as far as engineering colleges go. Within a few semesters, I found out to my utter dismay that I completely hated core engineering-related subjects (which was more than 50% of my curriculum). I really liked biology-based subjects in the curriculum and faculty who taught us, like biochemistry, bioorganic chemistry, for instance, were inspiring and nurtured our scientific temper. Also, many students in my class including myself did short term projects during summers which provided us an opportunity to understand the process of doing science through a hands-on approach.  

Besides this, I took to reading up on science a lot more through popular science essays as a means to satiate my curiosity on a diversity of topics ranging from protein science, neuroscience, genomics, and most influential of all, on evolutionary biology. Books by Richard Dawkins were a starting point but what really drew me to thinking about evolution was this book by Matt Ridley, called the Red Queen. While I was learning more about evolutionary concepts, I was also drawn to the possibility of pursuing higher studies specialising in evolutionary biology. I found out evolutionary biology and ecology were intertwined not only in space and time but as departments in many universities within the country and abroad. I wrote to scientists at Centre for Ecological Sciences (CES), National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS), etc for project positions to get a taste of research in the field. When it was time to carry out our final semester projects, thankfully, my faculty advisor and professors in college were fine with me working on a project that wasn’t really industrial or biotechnology by definition. It was still related to the life sciences, in the sense that I worked on the breeding system of an invasive weed (Lantana camara). An evolutionary ecologist based at NCBS at that time was my project guide. I am eternally grateful to him for mentoring me at a stage in my life when few people were willing to listen to my ideas on evolutionary biology and encouraging me to carry out the project in whatever ways we saw feasible. That project really gave me the space to formulate (with necessary guidance) a question and actually go out and gather data. Briefly, we asked how fruit set proportions were related to type of breeding – self-pollination, cross-pollination, etc. to help determine the breeding system of the plant. I also got a chance to visit Valparai (nestled in the western ghats of Tamilnadu) with its enchanting wet-evergreen forests, after which I decided I wanted to study living beings in natural environments. Soon after, I joined CES as a PhD student with Kavita Isvaran.

PT: We all begin science starry eyed. What was your experience? Were there many unexpected things/scenarios that you faced that you did not associate with doing science?
JB: In my opinion, the bigger picture of doing science is best understood by seasoned scientists who have done a couple of decades of independent scientific research. I am yet to submit my thesis and I can only discuss my journey so far, as a research student.

Honestly, I did not know what to expect. Getting in to the PhD program at CES was a pleasant surprise and I felt very fortunate to be able take that first step into research. PhD research is essentially a training process which prepares future scientists. Although one could carry out scientific research without first getting a PhD degree, I see pursuing PhD research as an excellent means to identifying one’s strengths and weakness in terms of preparing for a career in scientific research.

To begin with, given I had no formal training in ecology and evolution, I really benefited from the yearlong coursework at CES. Along with a broad introduction to behaviour, ecology and evolution we also gained an understanding on dealing with data and thinking quantitatively. The faculty who taught us were a mixture of old school and new age teachers. I would say the recommended readings from various courses really opened up a world of possibilities be it question/phenomenon driven science and study system based exploration.

Post coursework, I had about a year to decide on what I will be working on for my PhD and collect preliminary data to figure out the feasibility of the project. This was the first of the many challenging phases in my PhD, I realised much later. My PhD advisor encouraged me to come up with a research question based on my interests and ideas, within the theme of behavioural and evolutionary ecology (research focus of our lab). My thoughts were divided about whether a particular phenomenon seemed interesting or if I should pick a system and research deeply. I am grateful to my advisor for being my sounding board when I was trying to decide on a research question. I was like an excited kid with the world to explore and many of my ideas were not even half-baked, so to speak. It really helped that she listened to my ideas patiently, pointing out the strengths of working on a line of thought factoring in the logistics of carrying out the study. After much deliberation I decided to go and see blackbuck to figure out if developing further on ideas my advisor has researched for many years might interest me too. In some sense, I was also a lazy research student who when given an opportunity to work on any system decides to fall back on the luxury of being guided every step of the way. In retrospect, I think this was a good plan because I believe I am still here, pursuing my PhD, thanks to a lot of help, guidance and intellectual support from my advisor.

Preparing for my comprehensive exam gave me many sleepless nights. In retrospect, however, questions I faced from my exam committee turned out to be valid and constructive criticisms on the need for clarity in collection of the behavioural data required to address my thesis questions. After defending my research proposal, my first longish (about 3 months) stint doing fieldwork culminated with my advisor visiting me for a couple of days on field. Collecting behavioural data is tedious and rigorous process. I took a long time to standardise data collection protocols with a lot of feedback and inputs from my advisor. When we thought I had some kind of working plan in place, I went through a personally challenging phase when I had nervous breakdown on field. I thought I was prepared for 2-3 months of isolation from peers and the comfort of a friends circle I enjoyed in Bangalore, and even managed two seasons (that were ok but not great in terms of data and productivity). However, working all by myself in rural Rajasthan turned out to be too stressful and the end of my third field season was sudden with me ringing up friends back in Bangalore to come and get me. I am grateful they alerted my advisor of my situation and some frantic calls to family helped me get back with my sanity still intact.  

Following this, I wanted to quit PhD, well almost. I persevered mostly thanks to my advisor. We sat down and spoke about what I went through. She realised I was excited to do science but was not enjoying the process. She made me realise the importance of a sound body and mind to practice science. I also met a counsellor on her advice and got to understand a little more about myself that way. What the counsellor offered me was developmental counselling: I was still in my early to mid-twenties and with no previous experience decided to carry out research in a distant corner of the country; I was still in some sense emotionally maturing to carry out the task on hand. Having never ventured far from home until then, suddenly learning to live by myself surrounded by people who I couldn’t make small talk with really had affected my psyche. I realised even food habits matter immensely when it comes to mental health. Enforced vegetarianism (I am otherwise an omnivore) meant I had to make sure I had a balanced diet. I had lost weight during fieldwork, which I initially thought was good, transforming my chubby self but no it was not healthy at all.

Besides taking steps to ensure my physical and mental well-being, my advisor also suggested ways to continue pursuing the science I set out to do in ways I would find more enjoyable. She suggested there are more than a few ways to pursue ecological research, fieldwork being essential only for some kinds of questions. One can ask interesting questions with data that is already available, in a meta-analyses framework. Also there is a world of possibility in pursuing a theoretical approach with little or no empirical data involved. Of course one needs to have an inclination to do this work, and most importantly already possess the requisite skill and/or be a quick learner when it comes to mastering analytical techniques and such. While I had my reservations against taking a theoretical approach as I did not consider it my strong point, I also wanted to go out and give myself one more chance with field ecology before I called it quits. We also decided I would record videos to collect all the behavioural data I required to answer my research questions. While recording videos seems easy, it meant I would spent twice as much time (on field and back in the lab transcribing) to collect the data needed. But, this way I had more confidence in the data I was collecting and in some sense gives me peace of mind that I can defend what I saw as what I saw and didn’t imagine it!

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Jayabharathy records blackbuck behavior in field

When I decided to return for a fourth field season, my mother was immensely supportive and decided to join me for about 6 weeks to make sure I was going to be alright. My advisor also made sure we took on a project student who worked independently but on related aspects of blackbuck behaviour. This way I also got peer company on field. I think it is important to keep oneself sufficiently intellectually stimulated while carrying out fieldwork addressing specific goals of one’s research question. I had a very productive fourth and fifth field seasons and all the data in my thesis are from these seasons. Having endured the personally challenging fieldwork phase of my PhD, I realised I won half the battle of pursuing PhD research.

Then came the challenge of transcribing data (all my data is from videos) and analysing it statistically. This is an ongoing process and it has been few years since I finished fieldwork. Again I take a lot of help from my advisor when it comes to understanding the data and using appropriate statistical techniques. I enjoy exploring patterns and gathering insights on underlying processes. I also got an opportunity to present some of the work in an international forum where I got feedback on my work in addition to learning a lot more about behavioural ecological research up close and personal. I am continuing to work on my thesis chapters and believe the end is just around the corner (it helps that my advisor thinks so too!). I look forward to my thesis being reviewed by experts in the field and when I will finally defend it for my degree.

PT: What skills you wished you had before you started your PhD?
JB: I would say I might have benefited greatly if I had done a masters specialising in ecology including a substantial field ecology component. Although I did some amount of field work for the bachelor’s project, it was not much at all in comparison to what students who pursue NCBS wildlife master’s course, for instance, undergo. The coursework would have also been rigorous and I could have built up on that understanding later on instead of PhD coursework being my first formal introduction to ecological concepts.

PT: OK, finally science. Could you please explain your research?
JB: I study lekking behaviour in blackbuck, an Indian antelope. “Leks” are characterised by males aggregating and defending territories that are visited by females solely for the purpose of mating. Lekking is a rare mating system in general. Even among blackbuck, their mating system is flexible. In low density populations, males often defend larger, resource-based territories rather than lek territories. Typically on a lek, territories have no tangible resources (like food or water) but for the male himself. Populations where blackbuck reach high local densities are also where you see this striking behaviour of males aggregating on traditional lekking grounds.  My advisor has studied lekking in blackbuck for close to two decades and for my thesis we decided to build on some of her own research in this regard. Specifically, I address fine scale patterns in male behaviour within a lek in relation to territory location and time during the mating season. We know from previous research on another lekking population ( in Velvadar, Gujarat) that central territories are most beneficial in terms of mating success, whilst being costly to hold compared to peripheral territories and during the short window lasting a couple of weeks during the mating peak when female visits are highest. We had to establish these patterns for the population we are studying in Rajasthan before we asked if a neighbourhood in which a male finds himself can influence the time investment and decisions a male makes while engaging in energetically intensive and costly display behaviour. Finally, we also explored hormone correlates of such behaviour by estimating concentrations of metabolites (of hormones related to androgens and physiological stress) non-invasively from faeces as males mark territories by repeatedly defecating and creating large dung piles.

PT: Do you wish to continue in science?
JB: No. I don’t see myself doing ecological research in the long term.

PT: Are you worried about the future? (I will not ask you what you plan to do, unless you want to answer that). Do you think a PhD has equipped you with skills that will be useful to you in the future?
JB: I decided to finish my thesis project after the initial snag, as a way of overcoming the challenge that PhD in some sense is all about. I didn’t want to accept self-defeat when I had all the intellectual and emotional support I could ask for in an endeavour like this.

However, during the course of my PhD I have realised I am not interested in pursuing ecology in the long-term. As someone who buried her head in her textbooks until then, stepping out and exploring the world was what attracted me to test ideas of evolution and ecology by way of scientific research. I can now appreciate how those facts and knowledge we take for granted come to exist! Somebody, somewhere is rigorously testing existing ideas or formulating a new way to think about things all through scientific enquiry. This appreciation I gained by doing science during PhD has also helped me introspect on what education is all about. I have since been interested in exploring education methods and plan to pursue teaching in alternative schooling styles.

As children we are full of questions about the world around us, often this inquisitiveness is not quite nurtured as we grow older by imposed conventions on what one needs to be taught rather than learn for oneself. When I pursued scientific research I realised finding answers could be all the more rewarding when you challenge yourself to ask a good question. Also, as Carl Sagan in his essay on the burden of scepticism put it, “It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas”. This scientific temper of rationalising the world we live is valuable to me as a way of life and in my future endeavour as an educator I hope to successfully engage with students to help them realise the same.

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2 thoughts on “Overcoming unexpected challenges is sometimes what a PhD is about

  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Thank you for sharing such wonderful real stories. I wish we could’ve read more of these before choosing a field of interest in engineering. 🙂

    Like

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