Tigers are probably the most elusive and fascinating species known to mankind ! So if we want to ensure their survival, there is no better way than studying them by understanding their evolution through their DNA.

Anubhab Khan, our next pathbreaker, Wildlife Population Genomicist, addresses questions about how to conserve endangered wildlife species/population.

Anubhab talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being exposed to Tiger Genetics at NCBS and subsequently taking up the study of population genomics of wild tigers.

For students, take up a career in Wildlife Genomics if you want to apply cutting edge technologies to help save your favourite animals from extinction.

Anubhab, tell us about Your background?

I was born and raised in Mumbai in Anushaktinagar. It is about the only area in Mumbai that is not a reserve forest but has well protected greenery. It is surrounded by hills on three sides on which I have trekked quite a bit. There is sea on one side and I have strolled on the jetis there. These trips always inspired a feeling of oneness with nature. My father was a technician and mother a homemaker. My father used to encourage me to think logically and ask questions. They had their own prejudice of course. 

My surroundings inspired me to take science seriously. At a very young age I wanted to become a scientist. As far as I remember it was a homework in which I was asked what I wanted to become when I grew up and I wrote “Scientist”. In 6th grade I decided to become a microbiologist, and after my 12th I studied Biotechnology. Presently I am a population geneticist.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did a 5 years integrated MSc Biotechnology and a PhD (Population Genetics) from Tata Institute of Fundamental Research.

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

During my 12th grade I participated in a science exhibition and won an award. This gave me the confidence to study science further. I did a 5 years integrated MSc in Biotechnology

I appeared for PhD interviews in Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. It was during this time that I happened to visit the NCBS (National Centre for Biological Sciences) campus. I was in awe of the beautiful surroundings and decided on the spot that I wanted to do my research there. I was fortunate enough to get a position in a neuroscience lab since I had multiple fellowships. Later I appeared for the NCBS graduate school exams and enrolled for a PhD. After rotations I decided to study wildlife population genetics.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path.

In my second year of integrated MSc, I had the opportunity to attend the NIUS camp in Homi Bhabha Centre for Science Education and later attend the Asian Science Camp. It was during this time I met several peers from across Asia and learnt about their adventures with science and the life in their country. This got me even more interested in science and wildlife of various countries. I won a silver medal for poster presentation at the Asian Science Camp and that inspired an unexpected level of confidence in me. During my integrated MSc. I interned in several labs and explored several fields including microbiology, zoology, chemical biology, biophysics, instrument design, radiation biology, molecular biology, protein biology and behavioral biology. However, I never worked in the field of wildlife or population genetics. At this point in my career I was not considering wildlife studies seriously though I was extremely fascinated by it, who isn’t? 

It was only after I got fellowships from CSIR, GATE, ICMR, DAE that I interviewed for pursing a PhD in Indian Institute of Science in three departments (Bioengineering, Molecular Biophysics Unit and Centre for Ecology Science). Even at this point I was thinking of a career in behavioral biology, neuroscience or biophysics. Then I visited NCBS campus and decided to drop plans of studying in IISc. I applied to Dr. Vatsala Thirumalai for a PhD position and she informed me that NCBS has its own PhD program and I had to join through that. However, because I had the fellowships she took me in as a junior research fellow. Next year I joined the PhD program of NCBS. Here, during the orientation, Dr. Uma Ramakrishnan presented her fascinating work on tigers that inspired me. Later I joined her lab to study the population genomics of wild tigers.

I attempted to understand how to maintain small isolated populations during my PhD. Human activities have led habitat loss and fragmentation of many wild species. This has forced them to live as small populations that are isolated from each other. Such populations are susceptible to several random environmental (for example draughts, floods, diseases), demographic (for example  some individuals failed to mate) and genetic effects (for example  an individual with a beneficial gene died). Such populations are at high risk of extinction. I first determined the problems of such populations then suggested strategies to save them by genetic rescue. I suggested a translocation approach where the spot in the DNA where “bad genes” are present can be targeted. While doing this I created the largest whole genome dataset of tigers and probably of the largest whole genome dataset for an endangered species in the world. I established that such a method can help us save endangered populations. But these can also be used to save pets, livestock and crops.

How did you get your first break?

I had to clear all the exams and interviews! So didn’t have a “break” like in other fields.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Money. I wanted to study abroad and do my PhD there. However just applying to universities in the US costs several thousand rupees in GRE fees, application fees and fees to send GRE score cards. Later I started applying to places in Europe and got an opportunity to work in IBDM, Marseilles. However, I was already very interested in the work I was doing in NCBS and decided to not pursue the idea of going abroad for PhD. I realized that India has quite a few good research labs that are world leaders in their field. As long as I do good science it doesn’t matter where I am. Later I got to travel to several countries in different continents for conferences, workshops and collaborations.

Challenge 2: My nature. I used to be an introvert (I am still to some extent). This prevented me from networking efficiently, I did not know how to approach someone for help or seek guidance from seniors. I was bullied by one of my most trusted professors and did not know how to ask for help or even realize what was done was wrong. However, I did have few very trusted friends. They have always been there for me and they pushed me to excel at many things. I also won a few medals, awards and fellowships and this made me confident enough to talk to people. Later, after I joined NCBS, the culture helped get over many of my issues. Especially useful was the culture of referring to people by their first names. I did not feel very inferior while talking to people anymore. I ask everyone to call me or anyone by name. Addressing someone by their name is not an insult (no reason for someone to be insulted by their own name) and it helps to have a conversion as an equal and allows one put their ideas across

Challenge 3: Bullying. I was bullied in school and later by a professor in my college. It’s very difficult to get over this. I think the only thing that helps is believing in one self and having some confidence. But I am still tackling this.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

Presently I work at NCBS and am a freelance genomics/ bioinformatics consultant for Penn State University.

I work in wildlife population genomics. Generally I address questions about how to manage endangered populations. I also try to understand evolution. For all these tasks I have to solve issues like small sample sizes, lack of tools and resources, lack of data and many more.

I had to gain lots of skills with computers. I work with really big biological datasets the computer skills we acquire in schools and college do not help much. However, I attended several workshops and read of lot of manuals of software.

There is also a lot of physical labor that is required for field work, so staying fit is very necessary.

What is a typical day like?

When I am in the lab, the day generally starts with looking at results of the analysis I had set up the previous night and then doing more analysis.

When I am in the field, the day starts with waking up very early and waking everyone else up for field work that starts at 6am in the morning. The field trip ends at sunset. In the base we have to maintain records, accounts and we have to get in touch with all the forest officers for next day’s field work.

What is it you love about this job? 

The satisfaction! There is no feeling as awesome as discovering something after months or years of work. I also get to travel a lot and see a lot of wildlife!

How does your work benefit society? 

I work towards conserving wildlife. This is extremely important as several species are now endangered. Protecting these species, saves the environment and provides us with all the necessities for us to persist, namely clear air, clean water, crops and protection from diseases.

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

I was able to partially construct the pedigree of tigers in Ranthambore Tiger Reserve. I interviewed a lot of experienced forest officers who have been working there for decades and have a wealth of undocumented knowledge about the forest. I tapped into a very small bit of it. They have observed tigers since they are cubs. They know very well which individuals are siblings (tiger cubs are observed in groups consisting of siblings) and who is the mother (young cubs are almost always spotted with their mother). I used a part of this pedigree to test a method of sequencing whole genomes from shed hair. The rest of pedigree construction is still underway. We have sampled shed hair from several tigers and used this to find paternal relationships.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It’s okay to not be sure about what you want to do. But always make sure to explore enough fields of what you think you might like. There will be people to bully you but stay confident and stand your ground. For this you need to be very clear about what is right and wrong. Logical thinking helps very much in this regard. 

Future Plans?

I plan to gain more expertise in population management and studying genetics from conventionally non-genetic samples.