Collecting underwater samples, swimming with fishes, and watching the playful sea lions and dolphins isn’t a typical day in someone’s life, let alone work, unless of course you are a Marine Biologist !

Sonali Pawaskar, our next pathbreaker, Marine Biologist, works on identifying human impacts on marine biodiversity and proposing management and mitigation strategies that can aid both humans as well as the marine organisms.

Sonali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about being exposed to Oceanography and working on a project on biogenic structures (natural reefs) at CSIR-National Institute of Oceanography, Goa and deciding to extend her scientific inquiry in Marine Biology through a PhD in New Zealand, one of the best destinations for the pristine underwater world !

For students, if you really want to conserve our natural aquatic biodiversity, get trained by the world’s best and bring those practices to help India’s marine ecosystems.

Sonali, tell us about your background?

‘Everything new or uncommon raises a pleasure in the imagination, because it fills an inquiring mind with wonders, gratifies its curiosity and gives it a notion of which it was not before possessed’ – a sentence that, I feel, perfectly defines my inquisitive past, striving present and a shaping future. Since my childhood, I dreamt of being a doctor. The initial curiosities of studying living organisms and learning their functioning led me into the magnetic world of biological sciences.

I have been born and raised in Mumbai. As it is in every other Indian family, engineering, medicine, law and chartered accountancy had been deemed as prestigious occupations. I also had the pressure of society to do well in life. My mom is a homemaker, and dad, a Chartered Accountant. However, they have always been supportive of my interests, be it science, dancing or painting. From wanting to be a doctor to doing a BSc, MSc and now a PhD, my parents have always supported me. Not saying they were always confident. They questioned me at all the stages of my life. I answered them with confidence, assuring them that this is what I want and I’ll do my best. Coming from different study fields, they did their research too. They knew my interest in science and have always pushed me to achieve greater success.

I have always been a fun-loving kid. I danced, played and painted throughout my life. Whenever I was stressed, I painted or danced my heart out. I have recently adopted the Kiwi (NZ) culture of tramping/trekking on weekends which helps me get out more in nature, away from the monotonous life. My extra-curricular activities have, for sure, helped keep me sane through my rollercoaster journey.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

  • BSc Zoology – This is a straight forward bachelors degree with optional subjects of chemistry, physics, botany and zoology. I chose to graduate in Zoology as I was always interested in the functioning of life.
  • MSc Marine Sciences – I graduated with a Masters in Marine Sciences with biology as my main subject; however, I was exposed to chemistry, physics, geology, statistics and microbiology in this field. I had an opportunity to travel and assist with research on a research vessel for a month which toured in the Indian Ocean. It is one of the memorable experiences I had whilst doing this course. 
  • PhD Marine Biology – PhD has contributed to my journey of self-development as a person and a scientist. I have many experiences, ups and downs, but I could not believe that I was so strong enough to push through everything, from being in a new country to call it home now. I could not have it any other way. During my PhD, I worked on a project to identify the human impacts on marine biodiversity and suggested management strategies that can aid both humans as well as the marine organisms. Through this project, I ventured into the management and biosecurity aspect of marine sciences.

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

I am glad I was exposed to the subject ‘Oceanography’ during my bachelors, and I spoke to my professors then – if there are any opportunities for me to continue studying this subject. Talking to people about your options is necessary as it helps you consider different viewpoints and you can analyse what is suitable for you or what your interests are.

Tell us about your career path

Though I loved science, I was not ready for the competitive realm of medicine. I passed my CET. However, I couldn’t get through with the loss of a few marks. I soon realised that it’s not a scientific study field but a market.

Fortunately, thanks to my family’s support, I soon enough realised that science is not just about doing medicine. I signed myself up for Bachelors in Science in the college I did my 11th and 12th from and graduated in BSc Zoology from D.G. Ruparel College, Mumbai. During my bachelors I saw myself drawn towards this optional subject we had called ‘Oceanography.’ I worked on a project ‘Life in the Seas’ primarily aiming to document all the fauna of the intertidal zone of the Mumbai area, India. I loved all the aspects of researching, from fieldwork to data compilation and data analysis. I knew I wanted to carry on with this passion and started researching the topic and talking to my professors. That’s when I came across the ‘Masters in Marine sciences’ course at Goa University. I had a plan! Apply for the course and try to get a project in CSIR-National Institute of Oceanography (NIO), Goa which is the headquarters of the marine science field. I went head-on and gave my best in the course work and personally emailed scientists at NIO talking about my interests and how I could be of their help and work together. During my masters, I ventured into SCUBA diving, and now I am a proud certified SSI Open Water SCUBA Diver. I assisted with some work related to the identification of reef fishes in Goa. My passion for marine sciences became stronger. 

I worked on my research “Biogenic Structures as colonisers for Macrobenthos” at CSIR-NIO under the guidance of the Chief Scientist Dr Baban Ingole. My study focused on ‘biogenic structures’, i.e. natural reefs which are generally constructed by reef-building organisms, e.g. mussels or polychaetes. In my research, I primarily worked on polychaete reefs and examined how they enhanced the biodiversity along the West coast of India. I compared organisms inhabiting the biogenic reefs and algal turfs, which resulted in reefs being the better enhancers of biodiversity. This study opened up a whole new realm of using biogenic reefs along the coastline. Instead of building concrete structures along the coastline, it is advisable to use biogenic reefs which will benefit both the humans as well as coastal marine biodiversity. This research gave me insights into the life of a scientist, and I loved every bit of it.

Moreover, I acquired practical knowledge about the field and laboratory techniques to dissect and identify some marine species. I also have experience in trawlers and boats whilst researching in Goa (Mandovi and Zuari Estuary) to examine the impacts of mining activity on estuarine environments. During my masters’ studies, I held the 2nd rank in my department with Distinction in terms of scholastic aptitude, with especially outstanding performance in the courses in my speciality with an overall GPA of 8.68.

I did not stop questioning myself even when I had a Masters. I did not want to stop. My parents have always been supportive from the start with me wanting to be a doctor to me swaying back and forth. I am sure they were as confused as I was when I selected an extraordinary field. But they saw the drive in me. Everything in life is trial and error. You won’t know if you like it until you try it. They trusted my inquisitive mind and pushed me to pursue further studies abroad.

Once I completed my Masters, I started emailing professors in Australia and New Zealand with similar interests, talking to them about my previous work and what all I could offer for my next project. Australia and New Zealand have a stronghold on marine issues, and I was very much interested in their ongoing research projects.  I had no preference for where I wanted to go in the world, but having new experiences was all I wanted. I received a reply from a professor in New Zealand and talked over what research I could do as a PhD candidate. Once I sent him my research proposal, he agreed to be my supervisor for my PhD research. Lastly, taking into account my previous grades, I was offered a university-based scholarship (Victoria Doctoral Scholarship) which would cover my fees and a stipend enough to sustain my life in New Zealand. How could I pass up this opportunity? I flew to New Zealand and spent three odd years doing my PhD at Victoria University of Wellington (VUW) under the supervision of Prof. Jonathan Gardner. Now I’m a Doctor, PhD. It was a process, yes, but finally, I achieved what I dreamt.

Nobody can tell you what to do but keep your eyes, ears and mind open. Do not pass on the opportunities by overthinking if it is best for you. If you have a passion for doing it, you will succeed.

How did you get your first break?

The first break, I would say, is working at CSIR- National Institute of Oceanography. Working at a prestigious scientific research organisation helped me gain quality experiences. I connected with various scientists who have been working for years on multiple projects which inspired me to follow my path towards R&D. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Dreaming of being a doctor since childhood and that falling apart put me in a very negative space. However, moving on to the next step, and my family’s support helped me regain my positive mindset.

Challenge 2: When pursuing Marine Science as a career, I did not find many people I could turn to for advice in terms of their experiences. But I did my research online and talked to my professors about the course work to have an idea of the field.

Challenge 3: I had to face various challenges during my PhD. I was adjusting to a new country and a new working culture. I focused on my goal, and whenever I felt like I couldn’t, I reminded myself that I’ve come so far and achieved so much and this is it. It is only during your lows you think of quitting; however, once you see the light at the end of the tunnel, you want to rush towards it with all power.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am a recent graduate. It’s only been a week that I have been given my title as a Doctor, PhD. Unfortunately, 2020 hasn’t been a fruitful year for many, and the COVID-19 situation has made the job situation a bit difficult. Again, this is not going to stop me from pursuing my future. I am interested in working in an advisory role for management and biosecurity issues. I am longing for more new experiences and am in the process of applying for jobs in New Zealand.

New Zealand is overall very scenic, and I am always fascinated by the passion of New Zealand to protect the environment – land or sea, benefiting the economy and people. Studying Marine Science in New Zealand is incredibly exciting. The weather and the coastline are very different to what I’ve worked on before. From research voyages through sunny to windy wet and cold climates, collecting my samples from underwater, climbing rocks, swimming with the fishes, watching the playful sea lions and dolphins – these are just a few of the many highlights from my time at Wellington, New Zealand. 

New Zealand is very much immersed in marine activities such as boating, cruises, maritime trade, sailing, kayaking, fishing or even free diving. However, they have an immense understanding of protecting marine ecosystems against an extensive suite of anthropogenic impacts. Biosecurity and management are highly valued in New Zealand as they want to preserve their unique native plants, animals and marine biodiversity. The government sanctions numerous R&D funds annually. Through my work, I could appeal to the policymakers and the managers to have a more robust survey along Wellington Harbour as it is a very commercially used harbour. The maritime traffic and pollution through the marine vessels deteriorate the quality of the harbour. One of my other studies advised the managers not to waste funds on eradicating a species (mussels) from the coast as my research indicated that it is not harmful to other organisms in the marine environment nor it is to people. Instead, it is advisable to develop an aquaculture industry to grow these mussels which will aid the economy.

Now more than ever, the importance of research and science communication is evident, and I hope to play a role to further the understanding and protection of our oceans in the future.

How does your work benefit society? 

The problem of human sprawl is not just a land-based problem. Many artificial structures are built in the ocean, from underwater restaurants to artificial islands. These constructions have repercussions; it affects the marine organisms near the coastline, which affects the whole marine system, impacting the socio-economy of a country. Many country’s economies are dependent on maritime trade and aquaculture industries. Managing a system which will support the human activities without impacting the coastal marine community will aid the entire country and its economy.

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

I used my SCUBA diving skills to clean the bottom of the ocean and removed kilos of plastic bottles from the sea. Doing my little bit to make our world a better place to live in – is one thing I want to continue to do for my entire life.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Based on my experience, you cannot walk the path of your life alone. Family and friends have always been my rocks to keep me in the hard place and showered me with unwavering love and support.

Failures are part and parcel of life. You will not know how strong you are until you fall and have to get up again. You are stronger than you think. 

Always analyse everything but do not overthink. Be your own critic and do not care about society. People still think I am doing marine engineering and work on a cruise. No! I am a scientist. You cannot make everybody happy but can be the reason for your own happiness. When you are happy, your family and friends are!

Future Plans?

I want to apply my research and analytical skills in management and strategy to address underlying pressures on marine biodiversity. There have been considerable measures undertaken by the Australian and New Zealand government. I want to understand the gaps in the level of actions taken by these countries compared to other countries, especially in India. India has a very tropical and peninsular coastline, and most of the coastal life is dependent on fisheries. Significant measures taking into account financial resources is always a challenge. This plan cannot be achieved alone; the citizens, researchers and the government together have to put efforts. The more people discover how beautiful and essential our oceans are and understand the threats facing them, the more they will endeavour to protect them.