The call of the wild is sometimes too strong to ignore, even for those who have been trained as doctors !

Meghna Krishnadas, our next pathbreaker, Ecological Researcher at CCMB, studies the mechanisms that maintain diversity in ecosystems and tries to understand how mechanisms of diversity change when ecological communities are subject to human influence.

Meghna talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up the master’s program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at NCBS after completing her MBBS and working as a Doctor in a rural area, which brought her close to nature.

For students, follow your calling, don’t go for the “safe” options ! As you can see from the current situation, there is nothing “safe” in this world.

Meghna, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Kolkata and Bengaluru as a typical city-dwelling kid. My mom worked as a teacher and my dad worked in the geological survey of India. I had little exposure to nature and wildlife in my childhood. Looking back though, I always enjoyed getting out of the city and loved watching TV documentaries about wildlife.

I initially studied MBBS (at Bangalore Medical College). From physician to ecologist seems like a leap. Yet, when I look back, it feels not quite so much a leap as a meandering path, like walking a winding road up a hill. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied MBBS (at Bangalore Medical College), then shifted gears and did a Master’s in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at National Centre for Biological Sciences, moving on to a PhD in Ecology from Yale University.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

As a high-schooler keen on biology, I was told that medicine was the career for me. I deferred to the sage advice of adults, the workings of the human body did have its fascinations, and it seemed like there was always a place in society for physicians. Medical school, unfortunately, was rather staid and I was disillusioned by the archaic and hierarchical system of learning. Mainly, I realized that being cooped indoors under artificial lighting for long hours, even if it was in the service of the needy, was not something I could easily reconcile to. Then one day, I traveled to a forest. I went for my first ramble in the woods, woke up to the call of jungle fowl, crossed paths with a large male Sambhar deer, saw my first scarlet minivets and golden orioles, and watched a black eagle soar. I was hooked. To the beauty of life. 

Back in Bangalore, I bought a tattered, second-hand copy of Salim Ali’s field guide to Indian birds and started doing more birdwatching. Despite my newfound passion, I thought nature could only be a hobby until I came across an opportunity to volunteer for the Center for Wildlife Studies on a project to monitor tigers and their prey in the forests of the Western Ghats. The experience was rigorous. We had to wake up at 3:30 AM and drive to our assigned locations to start sampling walks (called transects) by 6:00 AM, walk again in the evening, enter data and learn basic analysis. For a grueling week, I foundered in unknown territory, learning natural history and how to walk safely in the forest, spot wildlife, and make observations. But I was exhilarated. I had discovered that studying nature could be a systematic science. 

My early mentors were Dr. K. Ullas Karanth (Center for Wildlife Studies), D.V. Girish (conservationist from Chikkamagaluru) and Dr. Ajith Kumar (NCBS and Center for Wildlife Studies) during my Master’s time.

My friend Swapna Reddy was the one who convinced me to apply for the Master’s program at NCBS when I was unsure.

My visit to BR Hills Tiger Reserve (then wildlife sanctuary) was an important turning point in my career. 

I then got an opportunity to volunteer for Center for Wildlife Studies in their field surveys for scientific estimation of animal populations

I also worked with Nature Conservation Foundation in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh

All these events led to the start of the master’s program in Wildlife Biology and Conservation at NCBS (and my subsequent admission)

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? How did you make a transition to a new career? 

Honestly, I did not plan this at all! It was more of a meander. However, once I realized that I liked the field of ecology and conservation, I worked very hard to do internships and small, ill-paid jobs to get firsthand experience. I also read up a lot to understand conservation issues in India and wrote articles in newspapers and letters to editors. Unlike now, opportunities in this career field were limited when I was a student. For a ‘good student’, medicine or engineering were considered the safe and respectable options.

After graduation, I eschewed the traditional path of doing a medical specialization—big city hospitals held no appeal. I chose to instead work with NGOs and the government on public health issues in remote parts of India with tribal and rural people who had limited access to medical care. This also let me be close to nature and forests. Meanwhile, I continued volunteering with wildlife organizations. After two years of work, I had to make a call—continue in public health or shift to ecology. I chose ecology, perhaps because science, or the generation of new knowledge, appealed to the curious inquirer in me. I was fascinated by the idea of uncovering nature’s workings. Also, I was convinced that nature, and by extension human societies, faced an imminent crisis of sustainability. Understanding ecology, or the interactions of living beings with their environment, seemed like a germane endeavor for the times.

A new Master’s Programme in Wildlife Biology and Conservation (National Center for Biological Sciences and Wildlife Conservation Society, India), allowed me to make the transition from medicine to ecology. I received a scholarship for my MSc studies and after a brief post-MSc work stint to acquire more hands-on experience with research, I started a PhD. As I went through the long process of asking and answering a new question, I learned the philosophy and practicalities of the scientific endeavor towards approximating truth. Doing science taught me to see the natural world in all its specific factual details, but with a poet’s eye for the interconnected whole. 

I took a risk with my career, but I have made it work so far. Importantly, I have found science very fulfilling, not least in being an ‘ecological detective’ but also in engaging with society to highlight issues that often take a backseat amidst the exigencies of politics, economy, or development. Looking back, I also look forward: to share some of my knowledge and appreciation of ecology with a new generation, some of whom like me, might be curious about the beauty, complexity, and diversity of the living world around us.

I am a community ecologist and my PhD at Yale was in the realm of forest ecology. I studied how breaking up larger forests into smaller parcels changes the process of forest regeneration, i.e., the new seedlings that come up and have the potential to form the future forest.

How did you get your first break? 

Just by chance! My friend found out about volunteering opportunities with the Centre for Wildlife Studies and I applied – no looking back since.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Making the shift from medicine to ecology. It took time, I faced opposition and criticism from my family, and had to work in low-paying positions. Things are much better today and students aspiring to a career in ecology and conservation have many more opportunities.
  • Challenge 2: Being a lone woman doing fieldwork in rural areas.I have faced open and hidden sexism from colleagues, forest department staff treat you badly and field workers will sometimes not take orders from a woman.
  • Challenge 3: Finding a job in Indian academia. Too many rigid rules and hoops to jump through. Things are hopefully changing for the better. I have written about it here: 

Where do you work now? 

I am an Assistant Professor (equivalent) at the Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species, Center for Cellular and Molecular Biology.

As an ecologist, I primarily study the mechanisms that maintain diversity in ecosystems. In any ecological community made up of similar species, what processes allow species to coexist and hence maintain diversity? What prevents one or few species from out-competing the others? Also, living in a world with one species (us) so dominant, I want to understand how the mechanisms of diversity change when ecological communities are subject to human influence. The footprint of Homo sapiens today affects over 80% of the biosphere. What does that mean for species that share the planet with us? 

What skills are needed for the job? How did you acquire the skills?

Ability to read and grasp scientific literature, synthesize information and identify knowledge gaps, design experimental or observational studies in complex systems, people skills to manage teams in the field and lab, intensive data analysis and statistics, writing skills (for grants, papers and reports), scientific communication. 

Acquired over time through field experience, coursework, hands-on training, learning from mentors.

What is a typical day like?

Depends on whether I am in the field or in the office. In the field, I will rise early, prepare my task list for the day, get my team and gear ready and be out in the forest by 8 AM. Work can last anywhere between 4-8 hours, sometimes more. My usual work would involve a jeep ride and/or walk to my plots where I might be studying trees, seedlings, soil or sometimes animals. Most of the time is spent recording data for the question we have asked about the system: making systematic notes of plant size, growth, species identity, digging soil cores to collect samples for analysis, collecting leaves, fruit, seeds or wood samples for analysis. Measuring temperature, humidity etc. 

Back in the city, I am again up early and take the morning time to work for a couple of hours. Usually this is my writing time. A scientist has to write a lot, perhaps every day. That’s what I try. I will also have to enter in to excel files the data collected in the field. Then analyze it using statistical tools which involves writing code to implement statistical models and generate graphical outputs. I talk to students about their projects. Have lab meetings where we discuss scientific papers, topics of interest, present our findings etc.

What is it you love about this job? 

The joy of finding things out, being a sort of ‘ecological detective’ where you have to use a variety of tools and techniques to piece together the answers to how nature works. Going beyond the human world and seeing the earth from a much wider perspective.

How does your work benefit society? 

We live on a very human-dominated planet and we can all see the negative effect on our lifestyles today on earth’s natural systems. While some of the work I do may seem very specific, it all fits in as a part of a larger endeavor to understand how natural ecosystems work. Knowing this will help us design interventions and strategies to conserve these ecosystems, the many species they support and the important functions that they serve.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I think that I really enjoyed my fieldwork during the master’s thesis project. It was my first solo project; I spent 6 months in Silent Valley National Park, living in near-total isolation, following Lion-tailed Macaques and learning about trees. I saw so much wildlife! It felt amazing to share my life with so many different creatures. You can read a small piece about it here:

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Do what you love, follow your passion. Always keep an open mind and a keen eye. There is more to life than exams, degrees, and a well-paying job: you never know where an opportunity may come up. Be aware of the world around you. Be a good citizen of the human society and of planet earth. Question everything!

Future Plans?

I am setting up my research lab at the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in the Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species. I hope to set up a vibrant research program to carry on with my curiosity to understand the diversity and functioning of ecosystems. In particular, I will be doing research that seeks to understand how human influence, such as through deforestation and climate change, affect different ecosystems.

I want to also guide students at all levels in learning the philosophy and techniques of science and expose them to the wonderful world we live in.