Science and family: performing a balancing act

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
— Dylan Thomas

We continue our conversations with women researchers and ecologists in India in this third post in Science People. I am grateful to them for taking time out to chat with me and then answer questions. In this post, I (PT) talk to a Navya (N), a field researcher, who also happens to be a dear friend.

Navya is an enthusiastic field researcher that I had the opportunity to work alongside for a brief period. Over the last few years she has worked on several projects travelling across the country. She retains her infectious enthusiasm for ecology after all these years! I caught up with her when we met last time and we chatted about her experiences as a researcher. She then answered all these questions over email. Thank you Navya for an engaging conversation and an honest account of your experiences. There is so much you can do, and we wish you the very best of everything!
~ Priya Tamma

PT: What got you interested in science/ecology/conservation?
N: I was interested in science and particularly biology since school. I loved nature and visiting natural places since I was a kid. During my college days, I watched programmes on wildlife on the national geographic and discovery channels with fascination – I think that ignited my interest to learn more about animals and their world. Only after I entered the field of ecology did I realise the importance of conservation, but I am still confused about it. In the journey of learning about how tiny cells function in our body, during college, to learning now, about how ecosystems function, I am yet to learn a lot of things in between them.

PT: A brief introduction into the many projects you have worked.
N: Since I had a background in Biotechnology, I got my first opportunity to work in a laboratory in the ecology and evolution group at NCBS, Bangalore. Here, initially I assisted on a project looking at the phylogeography of two small cats. Following that, I worked on analysing non-invasive samples collected from a small place in Maharashtra to gather data on number of individual leopards present in that area. Up until then, it was mostly lab based work. Later, I went on to work in Bandipur on human wildlife conflict, after that on a project tracking a radio collared tigress in Maharashtra, then camera trapping for leopards in Valparai, Tamil Nadu, and then on a project to understand human-leopard conflict around Mysore, Karnataka. Currently, I am involved, part time, on a project which involves camera trapping and collection of non-invasive samples of small cats in northeast India. I have mostly worked on felids till now.

PT: We all begin this journey starry eyed. What was your experience? Were there many unexpected things/scenarios that you faced that you did not associate with doing work in this field?
N: I did not have any experience; I did not have a clue about this field and the kind of work that could be done. The only idea I had in my head was to spend time in forests, studying animals. Because I had a formal education and little bit of working experience in Biotechnology, it was easier for me to work in the laboratory in NCBS. But soon I started hearing stories from friends and other people about their field work in many forests. The eagerness to experience all that started growing in me.Within a few months in NCBS, I got my first opportunity: to assist a person on her field trip to Central India, it was very thrilling, adventurous, and I loved it. I wanted to do more of it, so I started looking for more field based work, after I completed my project in NCBS. Since I did not have much experience, I volunteered for a while. Later on, when I went on to do projects on my own and with more responsibilities, it was a different ball game altogether. I had to put myself out of my comfort zone many times. Being a very shy person, little things like travelling long distances alone, staying in new places, talking to new people would take a lot of effort (I think I am better now). Slowly I started realising that what seemed exciting initially, becomes routine, boring and many times lonely when you are staying away in field for long time; not every day is exciting or thrilling in field. I also struggled horribly through data analyses, given my inexperience and weakness in maths and statistics (I do not think I am better even now). I also realised that like any other field, there is politics even in this field. I think it can be very discouraging for a young enthusiastic person who enters this field with ambitions.

As I started doing more field based work, which meant I had to stay away from home for long, I started facing resistance from my family, mostly due to other pressures. I hope everyone will understand the pressures a girl would face in India, at a particular age, once she completes her studies. The conflict of interest between me and my parents took a toll on both sides; facing stressful situations all the time, all of us were unhappy and it bothered me a lot. At that moment, it was hard for others to understand that it is not just work, but it is about something which I love to do. In all this chaos, I got very confused and lost focus. I could not take a firm decision, whenever I thought of coming out, I was drawn into that cycle again. I worked once in a while and was hesitant to take long term projects although I had the opportunity. Over a period of time, it affected my confidence levels too. Initially, I think I was fighting a lot of internal battles with myself about the situation, but I think I am better at dealing with it now. I try to travel when am not working (also depending on money, since I do not work full time): I recently visited the Himalayas. Sometimes I don’t mind just admiring nature and wildlife, if not studying them. But I am not completely satisfied with how things are, I am thinking of getting back to work more seriously, but how, when, where? I am yet to figure out and I know it is not going to be easy.

PT: What skills you wished you had before you started in this field?
N: I wish I had a bit of field experience before I started. Nowadays, there are lot of short term volunteering/intern opportunities where a person can explore their interests on various subjects or even assess if ecology is something they want to do long term. I wish I could have started exploring my interests early during my college days. On a very personal level, I also wish that I was not as shy, because I would not talk to people, I would not get any information and internet was not used very extensively then.

Camera trapping in Balpakram NP, Meghalaya.

PT: Did you think that not being associated with any institute/organization reduced your chances of working in this field? (basically, if someone has to also take a break for personal reasons – do you think that they can return to the field and if the opportunities are there).  How easy/difficult was it for you?
N: Taking a long break or not being in touch with academia would make it difficult to come back; in terms of opportunities and skills, you lose touch. With a lot of young,enthusiastic people entering this field, there is competition, I guess, like any other area of work.

PT: You have worked in many parts of India – in human-dominated areas and in remote forests. What has your field experience been? Did you face any challenges? Did the institutions/organizations/people you work with provide you any support in the face of these challenges (esp as a woman researcher). If not, any advice on what can be done to improve response to such field challenges?
N: Yes, during field work I have stayed in small towns, cities as well as in remote places. To a large extent people have been very helpful most of the times. Most of the problems are common which any person/woman travelling outside would face. Yes, the people whom I work with have involved in taking precautions or advising on safety beforehand. (I did not face any serious untoward incidence where I had to ask inst/org for help). I think keeping in touch or constantly communicating about your whereabouts to someone you trust locally (for eg: a higher authority, in case one is working with the help of forest department), the organisation one works with and family is important. Since we go to remote and small places where people have completely different cultures and way of living, just treating the locals and their ways with respect would avoid a lot of conflict I think.

PT: Do you think you were paid appropriately for the work you did in field, or do you think we should be paying more to field volunteers/researchers? (this is mostly because they pay so little in some projects; you are best suited to answer this – since you have a wide experience. I want your opinion as a person who lives off such remuneration)
N: Yes, I personally think that sometimes researchers are paid less.

PT: What are the challenges for people who might want to work as free-lance researchers? Is there some advice you would give based on your experience?
N: I don’t think I am a good person to answer this, as I was not actively looking for something, but just took opportunities that came my way. But I think it is not going to be easy, and one is always worried about what will come next. But if one has made their mark in a particular field, then it might be little easier.

PT: Are you worried about the future? Do you see yourself having enough opportunities?
N: Yes, I am worried about my future, but I am yet to explore all the options out there. I think it also becomes difficult when one’s topic of interest gets narrower.



2 thoughts on “Science and family: performing a balancing act

  1. Navya and Priya Tamma, this was such an honest conversation, coming out of the depth of your hearts. I simply loved it. I never knew somebody had a story similar to mine


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