Environmental challenges have their roots in social and ecological issues rather than technical issues, which require looking at this issue from an inter-disciplinary perspective at the global and regional scales. 

Manan Bhan, our next pathbreaker, Researcher at the Institute of Social Ecology (Vienna), tries to understand what human societies do with land, how they change landscapes by using them and how these changes can be better characterised so that adequate policies can be made to tackle them.

Manan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being fascinated by geography and always wanting to pursue something in college that allowed him to be outdoors.

For students, if you want to explore the world in space, not only while sitting in a classroom but also outside through various field trips, take up a career in ecology!

Manan, tell us about your background?

Hi! I am Manan. I was born and brought up in New Delhi. My father was a professor of English at the University of Delhi and my mother was an HR professional (both now retired). My elder sister is a public health researcher. From a young age, geography fascinated me. I always wanted to pursue something in college that would allow me to be outdoors; something I could see, feel and touch. So, I chose to study Geology at Hansraj College (University of Delhi) as it allowed me to explore the world in space and time, not only while sitting in a classroom but also outside during the various field trips we undertook. 

In college in Delhi, I spent time participating in quizzes all over the country, as it further allowed me to know more about the world around me. I combined this with playing, watching and writing about football, something I continue to this day. I consider myself to be extremely fortunate: I grew up in a home where higher education was treasured as well as encouraged (my father and sister are both PhDs). I was free to explore my own interests and take my own time, a luxury in our country.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

My undergraduate education was in Geology at the University of Delhi. It was a three-year degree programme which introduced me to the evolution of life, climate and landscapes in the world. I developed an interest in exploring climate science further, and did my Masters at the University of Oxford (MSc Environmental Change and Management) with the help of an extremely generous scholarship. The MSc helped me understand the social and scientific aspects of environmental changes that we are seeing in the world today. After some years of working in Delhi (first as a researcher and then as a teaching assistant), I started my PhD in social ecology in Vienna. I have now completed 2 years of my PhD, where I try to understand what human societies do with land (grow crops, graze their cattle, maintain as forests etc.) across the world, and what it means for the carbon stored in these landscapes as well as for our climate action goals.

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

My parents allowed me to explore different ideas and paths and were open to me pursuing unconventional paths after school, so that I could find my own way. They have always encouraged me to study, take my own time and take my own decisions, something which I no doubt consider a privilege. My sister has been a key mentor in my life, supporting my academic and career choices and helping me with talking to the right people or getting the right kind of advice. 

Apart from my family, I have been lucky to have interacted with, and be surrounded by, several different people (for example, my professors at university) who have been extremely supportive of my career choices. 

I cannot pinpoint specific events which have led me to where I am. Instead, my career choices have been dynamic, and have developed organically from the initiatives that I have been a part of. However, each initiative (degrees or jobs) has opened my eyes to new things and new paths which I have then tried to explore and take forward. One thing has been clear for me ever since I went to college – I would always like to be working on environmental change, environmental policy and sustainability, since that is something I feel passionately about and can make a difference in. I can (and do!) practice sustainable behaviour myself and contribute towards promoting systemic changes in society through my research and actions.

Tell us about your career path.

Let me take you in on a secret: I have never had a defined path in my career. I do not know many people who do. My Bachelors evolved out a keen interest in the subject, and the freedom to pursue it without thinking too much about conventions or what my peers were doing. I won two fellowships to pursue research in the summer break in my 2nd and 3rd years of college at DU to premier research institutes in India (IISER Mohali and IISER Trivandrum). These opened my eyes to the rigour and dedication required to pursue scientific research, as well as the intellectual freedom and satisfaction it can provide.

For these summer research fellowships, one just needs to have a decent academic record, and be currently in an undergraduate programme at a university in India. One can choose potential supervisors at the institution of choice in the application, and the authorities try to match you with those hosts. It is sometimes helpful to establish contact with them before-hand so that the process can be made a bit smoother.

At IISER Trivandrum, I undertook a short project looking at species evolution patterns, extending my interests in bio-geographic evolution patterns (how species have dispersed geographically over millions of years) during my Bachelors programme.

Oxford was a completely different academic and cultural experience, again which helped me understand my own personality and my own research interests. For my thesis, I came back to India, and researched on the relationship between water availability and tree growth in the tropical forests of the Western Ghats. I performed fieldwork in some of the most beautiful forests in India!

After my Masters, I worked at an NGO as a researcher and was a part of forest conservation projects across the country. This allowed me to see more closely the policy making and policy implementation context in a country like India, where multiple interests coincide and often clash.

As a teaching assistant at Ashoka University, I learnt the opportunities, challenges and thrill of the classroom, this time from the other side of the table. All these have been extremely valuable experiences!

I am now continuing my journey as a researcher and working towards my PhD.

How did you get your first break?

My first job as a researcher after my Masters at Oxford evolved out of me trying to reach out to people who were working in the same space (ecological research and action in India). I emailed several people and interviewed at a couple of organizations. One contact led to another and eventually I had a job at an NGO in Delhi! This process took 3-4 months, so I do advise patience. Eventually I figured out a PhD might be the next logical step in my career, so I worked towards trying to make that happen. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

A key challenge in each of my ventures has been getting used to its culture of studying or working – what are the expectations, what is required, what is encouraged, what is the context. My Bachelors degree was unlike most at the university: it encouraged a research perspective from the start, and large parts of the teaching was derived from the professors’ own research. That, I feel, is a rarity in a university as large as Delhi University. The Master’s was a whole different academic culture, with its own challenges. The structures at Oxford meant that a few things are to be done a certain way – writing an essay, for example. Those took time to get used to. Further challenges have followed along similar lines – an adjustment to what is the existing culture, and the time taken to get used to it. Another key challenge for me is one that all Indian students attempting to study abroad have faced: the uncertainty and the time taken for administrative issues to get sorted! Many countries (like Austria) have their own unique bureaucratic challenges. None of these are challenges that cannot be overcome; they just need time. All through this time, I have been lucky to have been surrounded by supportive people, who have eased this transition.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

It might well be the case here that the PhD chose me! Based on my previous experiences, I was interested to study more on land use, or how humans utilize land for their own purposes. The PhD project gave me a direction to channel my interests into looking at this issue from an inter-disciplinary perspective at the global and regional scales. 

I have often heard this debate between choosing between a ‘better’ university and supervisor when preparing for a PhD. This is often a false choice. In a PhD, I feel a nice project and a supportive supervisor is foremost. Therefore, I found myself in Vienna!

Here, I am supported by a scholarship from the projects that my supervisors lead.

I am currently doing a PhD in social ecology in Vienna. It is a highly inter-disciplinary degree, where I try to combine several different scientific disciplines. I try to understand what human societies do with land – how they change landscapes by using them and how these changes can be better characterized so that adequate policies can be made to tackle them. My research is socially relevant, as some of the questions I try to answer are, ‘What are the impacts of consuming coffee in Region X, which has been produced by clearing forests in Region Y’, or, ‘What did the world look like 70 years ago, and how much carbon emissions have happened in these past years?’

These are the problems I try to solve, where I develop and utilize technical skills in mapping and statistical analyses, and analytical skills in several different theories and frameworks.  

A typical day in my PhD usually involves a mix of reading, writing some code on statistical software, analyzing data and writing some text to develop into a research paper. I juggle these activities inter-changeably during a typical week, so the amount of time I spend on these activities differs.

The fact that my research is scientifically important and socially relevant excites me a lot and keeps me motivated. I am trying to solve some of the key questions in my field and contribute to knowing more about the human use of landscapes in the recent past. 

How does your work benefit the society? 

My research has the potential to be included in the reports led by the UN and by the IPCC (the main scientific body focused on global climate change), and thus help contribute to developing policies and initiatives that can help us tackle the climate crisis that is upon us. ‘The past is a key to the future’, is something I believe in, and a focus on the recent past can tell us a lot about where we are going as a society. This is a journey that I am hoping to contribute to!

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

I think the first research project I undertook at IISER Mohali, as part of a summer research fellowship, is extremely close to me. I wrote a paper on the characteristics of dust storms in and around Mohali (Punjab). It was my first experience with rigorous scientific research in an amazing environment. I combined three months of campus life in a new place (with all its perks!) with some interesting research. At the end of the three months, I was quite proud of what I had achieved as the output, and which, I believe, was fundamental to my admission to Oxford for my Masters.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I can only say that one should be fearless to pursue opportunities which might be outside of one’s comfort zone, unconventional or unlike what your peers are doing. Be shameless in asking people for help – you might often find that they are extremely happy and willing to help, but do not know how to communicate that to you. Also, shamelessly apply for opportunities in which you think you even have the remotest chance – you might be surprised at what works out! 

Future Plans?

I enjoy research and teaching a lot, and plan to continue on that path at a university in India. I generally enjoy being in the education space, so if not teaching, then one could find me doing something else within this space!