Many of us take a break from work to de-stress from our daily grind of strategy meetings, deliverables and goals. Our next pathbreaker, Tirth Vaishnav gets to work to relieve the stress of urban living. Lets learn about his life (not a career) as a Wildlife Biologist.
Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal chats with Tirth Vaishnav, Wildlife Biologist about his career path.
Tirth, can you tell us about your background and where you grew up?
I was born and raised in Mumbai with two siblings; an elder brother and a twin sister. Growing up, they were both very artistically inclined. Both were born with a natural talent for dancing. I was always shy and introverted, but I got inspired by them and started going to dance class myself. It took me a while, but gradually I got really good at it. My parents always encouraged us to explore new avenues. I have loved reading since an early age. My mother used to take tuitions so she emphasized on using correct grammar, and broke down big words to help us learn. My father is an excellent orator and used to write elocution speeches for us and sometimes even our classmates. Because of my parents, I developed a deep love for languages that I still harbour today. In school, I was an above-average student. Not a class topper overall, except perhaps in English. I disliked Maths a lot, I just never took an interest in it. My sister and I used to study together with mom’s help. We never joined any classes or tuitions, even in the board exam years. I don’t think I had an inclination towards any particular field when I was younger. The ‘90s were simpler times. Most of my afternoons were spent watching NatGeo and Discovery Channel, but for some reason it never occurred to me that that would be my calling. Dancing was always a constant throughout my childhood, be it in school or in stage shows. And that went on until I got into junior college.
What did you study after school?
I remember that as a child, I was watching NatGeo one afternoon, and the title card under the speaker’s name read Wildlife Biologist. I told my mom, almost jokingly, that this is what I want to be when I grow up. I completely forgot about that incident until many years later when I graduated with a degree in Wildlife Biology. I passed my Grade 10 board exams in 2007 with 85%, and got into a junior college in the Science stream. Like most Indian students at the time, I could only see two possibilities in front of me – being a doctor or an engineer. Since I wasn’t a Math person, I knew that engineering was not an option. So, I started preparing for the CET to get into MBBS. I even enrolled for Brilliant Tutorials CET Prep. But during that phase of my life, I was so focused on dancing that it had started affecting my academics. I scored 62% in 12th, which is abysmal for someone who wanted a career in the sciences. In those 2 years, I decided that I wanted to go abroad to study, for a number of reasons. I had always been extremely shy and sheltered, so I felt that I needed to break out of that shell. I also wanted to give my full attention to academics and not be in the dilemma of whether I wanted to follow the footsteps of my siblings and become a professional dancer. Moreover, it was because I thought I wouldn’t be able to study what I wanted to in India.
Back then, especially in Mumbai, there were not many options to study wildlife biology. In fact, I didn’t even know what to call my area of interest, so I was looking for anything to do with animals, and veterinary was the closest option. My brother was living in Canada at the time, so I started looking at Canadian universities. University of Guelph has a very well-renowned veterinary college so I applied there. I was rejected when I submitted my 12th grades, but after some persuasion, and with the help of the extremely considerate admissions officer (who is now a dear friend), I was accepted based on my 10th grades and extra-curricular activities, and also because I was probably the first student from India to have applied for BSc Honours in Animal Biology.
How did you end up pursuing such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
The first major task at hand was to convince my parents that I was cut out for a career in dealing with animals, since it was such a novel field and I had no prior exposure to it. Their way of testing me was by taking me to the Madras Crocodile Park for one of our holidays. They were pleasantly surprised watching me handle and click pictures with pythons and crocodiles with such ease. My enthusiasm was enough to convince them that I was actually serious about it. They have been my greatest support, from taking loans to fund my education, to being a moral compass when things got tough. Against all odds, I went to Canada to study Animal Biology. In my first semester I realized that they had many different majors dealing with animal sciences, and the one that caught my eye was Wildlife Biology. So, I switched my major after first year upon carefully comparing the courses and career outcomes of all the majors. Getting used to a new education system was challenging, but it got easier with time. I graduated with Honours in 2013 and made the Dean’s List. I didn’t think I was ready to enroll in a Masters programme yet.
What was your career path after college?
Academic research is something that we are not exposed to in India at college level, so I wasn’t ready to carry out independent research. After graduation, I did a couple of internships. The first one was at a wildlife rehabilitation centre where we treated orphaned and injured wild animals and released them back into the wild when they were healthy. The second one was at a reptile zoo, where I got to work with snakes, lizards, crocodilians and turtles of all shapes and sizes. It was a dream-come-true but I knew that I wanted to get into research, and those positions were unavailable to non-residents. I had lost perspective of what to do next. So, I returned to India at the end of 2015, and started applying to Masters programmes in various countries, and even got offers in Australia and New Zealand. But due to financial issues, I was unable to accept those offers. That was when I decided to do Masters from India. It turned out to be a blessing in disguise because during my absence, the field of wildlife biology had gained momentum in India, and I ended up doing my MSc in Biodiversity, Wildlife Conservation and Management from University of Mumbai. It was great being back home after spending almost 7 years away. Through the course, I experienced the rich biodiversity of India, and travelled to some amazing locations. My research training from Canada came in handy during the MSc dissertation.
Tell us some of the challenges you faced and how did you address them?
The very first challenge was to step into a field that I had no prior knowledge of. I just had a vague idea about what I wanted to study and where I saw myself in the future. I had no idea what it meant to conduct academic research until I was thrown into it during Bachelors. This was a problem for all Indian students who were studying with me in various other fields. We were not trained in how to think critically, ask intelligent questions, how to cite primary literature, or what plagiarism means. To develop those skills from scratch was a major challenge. It made me feel inferior to my Canadian classmates since they have been encouraged to ask questions and express opinions from an early age. It took practice, trial-and-error and lots of failed assignments to finally learn the nuances of the scientific method.
The second challenge was kind of a consequence of the first one. There is no road map. Unless you are extremely sure of what research you want to pursue, you have to be patient. It took me many years to understand what kind of research I wanted to do, and there was no way I could have rushed the process. There is still a long way to go and it is taking every ounce of patience to get there. For a career in any kind of scientific research, you have to understand that it will take considerable time and experience until you can start earning.
My last project was an internship for the MSc dissertation earlier this year. I worked with a wildlife NGO in Madhya Pradesh where my duties were to help them with their ongoing projects while conducting my own research. Field work is always fun; you get on-the-job training and deal with practical problems. These include everything from sampling techniques and data analysis to learning how to fix busted car tyres, cooking, etc. The working hours are extremely long. There is often low internet and phone connectivity in the remote areas. It also involves a lot of physical duress. You must get used to simple living conditions on the base camp. The specific conditions vary according to the region. Winters in Madhya Pradesh are extremely cold, while the dry summer season can go up to 50°C. As a wildlife biologist, one has to be extremely flexible and adaptable to such conditions. You also have to deal with different kinds of people, from local villagers to forest department staff to researchers from various backgrounds. It is important to maintain your composure and have excellent communication skills, all the while making sure that you are collecting the required data and doing background research towards your topic. I completed my fieldwork and submitted my thesis a few months ago, and am currently working on publishing my first peer-reviewed paper in a scientific journal based on my dissertation work, which is when you submit an article about the findings from your research to a scientific journal where it is reviewed by experts in the field. They offer suggestions and critique on the content. Once the article is accepted, it is published in the journal and can be referred to by other scientists and students. This is a crucial step for any researcher since publications are a scientist’s currency. It is important to start publishing early on in your career as it gives the employers and professors confidence that you have endured the process and are familiar with how research is conducted from beginning to end.
As a Wildlife Biologist how does your work benefit the society?
Wildlife conservation and management in India is a multi-faceted issue. India is unique in a way that it is rapidly advancing towards urbanization, while also harbouring a vast biodiversity on a relatively small percentage of land. My MSc dissertation was conducted in a region that has a high level of human disturbance which puts a lot of stress on local wildlife. Habitats such as forests, grasslands and wetlands are destroyed and converted to agricultural and pastural lands. Villagers depend on natural resources from their surrounding forests. Destruction of these areas causes conflict between humans and wildlife. Loss of livestock and human life may occur due to increased encounters with wild species. This leads to retaliatory and accidental killings of animals who stray close to civilization, like we’re seeing every day in the news with elephants and tigers. There is a plethora of problems that can occur as the conflict increases. Scientists, State Forest Departments, NGOs and motivated individuals are working with the villagers to mitigate these conflicts so that humans and wildlife can co-exist peacefully through strategic planning and sustainable management. The work that I did as part of my internship helped catalog the diversity of wildlife in an area that has not been studied extensively. There is a social aspect to this work, where villagers are given alternate livelihood opportunities to reduce their dependence on forests, and thus, decrease their chance of conflict with wildlife. Creating awareness among villagers regarding the ecology and behaviour of wild animals helps them empathize with wildlife and not harm them out of fear and ignorance.
Tell us about some of your most memorable projects
As a student of wildlife biology, fieldwork and field trips can be extremely unpredictable, not just in terms of weather, but also sightings. When we go on excursions, we undertake early morning birding sessions, safaris, night trails, etc. During one such excursion, we went to the Anjarle Turtle Festival in the Ratnagiri district of Maharashtra to learn about their sea turtle conservation programme. On the agenda was a boat ride to a nearby island fort. Those shores are known for their dolphin and often whale sightings, but we were told that they are a matter of chance and luck. I guess luck was on our side that day, because we had an amazing dolphin sighting. It was a pod of almost 10 individuals and they were swimming around us for a good half an hour. I would never have imagined that of all the places in the world, my first dolphin sighting would be a mere four-hour drive away from home.
Your advice to students?
It is ok to carve your own path. My academic journey so far has been anything but conventional. People have advised me time and again to switch fields to something that is more ‘viable’ and stable. But if you know deep down that academic research is your calling, stand by it sincerely. It may take time and more than a little patience to get what you want. Start volunteering from an early age, it will help in narrowing down your research interests, broadening your perspective, and improving your PR skills. Look up the scientific method and understand what it means. It outlines how to think as a scientist, what kinds of questions to ask. Read journal articles, learn how to cite primary literature. Develop your written communication skills by writing essays, articles and blogs; they are a scientist’s bread-and-butter. Know that being in a wildlife career is so much more than just wildlife photography. It is about understanding the complex interactions and phenomena in nature. Above all, don’t be afraid to ask questions. This is something that I still struggle with at times. Our education system instills a fear of asking too many questions, which is a huge disadvantage on an international platform. I believe that colleges these days are starting to include research methods in their curriculum, which is a good thing. My final advice is that keep your family informed about the work that you are doing. I sat my family down and made them flip through my thesis so that when someone asks them what I’m doing, they know at least the basics rather than saying that they have no idea. This will normalize the career decision and open up people’s minds to it. Studying wildlife biology has become much more accessible and prolific in India, so it is time to take full advantage of that and take the field forward.
What are your future plans?
Along with preparing my manuscript for publication, I am in the process of applying for a PhD position in the field of wildlife-habitat relationships. I wish to eventually become a professor. I love to break down complex ideas, and to act as a mentor to students. There’s still a long way to go, but I have learnt to be patient with these things. There are many uncertainties at every step, and even more rejections. It’s all about the right timing.