Anusha Shankar, pursuing a Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution in New York, talks about taking the path less travelled, and how it changed her life.

Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Love for biology, travelling and nature took Anusha Shankar down a different path when she finished school. Instead of the engineering-law-medicine route, she decided to put her interests first and studied to become an ecologist. “I loved biology, despite who taught it to me,” she laughs. “And this is just where circumstances have led me, because of that.” Anusha is now studying her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution in New York, where she is studying about Hummingbirds in Ecuador. But that’s not all. She is also a National Geographic Young Explorer.

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What did you study?

While pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Advanced Zoology and Biotechnology from Stella Maris College, Chennai, Anusha interned at the Wildlife Trust of India and a couple of other places. These were important early wildlife experiences for her. “At the WTI, I was studying a Hoolock Gibbon female that was being rehabilitated, and later volunteered with the Madras Crocodile Bank for a year,” she said.

She then went on to study a master’s in Ecology and Environmental Sciences from Pondicherry University, where her thesis was on ‘Hornbill persistence in human-fragmented landscapes’. “During my master’s, I got an Indian Academy of Sciences fellowship at IISc, Bangalore. I also volunteered at the Agumbe Rainforest Research Station with their King Cobra Telemetry project and was WWF-India’s Youth tiger ambassador to the Youth Tiger Summit in Vladivostok, Russia,” she adds.

Tell us about your work at Stony Brook University (SBU)?

“At SBU, we are encouraged to apply for grants to help with our research. This has been a really good strategy, as apart from giving you confidence, it helps you plan your project early on, and you get grants on your CV while you are still studying,” she says. The Young Explorer Grant is for students below 25 years, of any nationality, unlike many other grants in the U.S. “I have always admired scientists who not only do research, but communicate it to the public and apply their work to real-world situations. This grant, which not only funds scientific research but also encourages communicating it outside the scientific community, was perfect for that. It also helps that I love photography. I was surprised and delighted to receive the award,” she adds.

To become a Young Explorer, Anusha had to apply for the grant 10 months before her research began. “Once you get it, it lasts for a year. You are asked to provide a report, photographs and any videos you are interested in sharing at the end of it,” she says.

How was the research experience

Shuttling between New York and Ecuador, she says the grant has changed her life in many ways.

“The YEG was a big part of my funding for the Summer of 2014. I also got a few more grants, and my adviser’s grants funded the rest of my very equipment-intensive project. I’ve had a great time doing this work — I’ve learned a lot about hummingbirds and Ecuador, Hummingbirds are incredible animals, with among the highest metabolic rates of all vertebrates. What strategies do they use to survive? How do they allocate their limited energy budgets to different activities? I have learned to speak Spanish, and had many experiences which have definitely strengthened and made me a more capable person with a broader world-view,” Anusha explains.

What does she plan to do after she is done with her research? “I’ll come back to India and work in a research institution. My ideal job would be teaching one or two courses at the undergraduate level (where I would encourage research), and to also head a lab which does fundamental research with conservation applications,” says Anusha.