Being surrounded by nature is not only a diversion from work but a luxury for many of us. On the other hand, spending the entire time working outdoors and witnessing its charismatic beauty is part of the daily job for a fortunate few !
Prachi Hatkar, our next pathbreaker, works on Dugong (“Sea Cow”) conservation at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun, conducting various awareness and outreach programs about the gentle giants, the threats they are facing and also commencing research on the seagrass ecosystem for seagrass habitat assessment, seagrass extent mapping, and studying seagrass associated fauna.
Prachi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about remaining steadfast in her single minded goal of taking up an outdoor job where she could work for and with nature, inspite of facing several challenges.
For students, it is always easier to handle setbacks and obstacles in your path when you are determined to pursue something that you believe in because you will never face competition!
Prachi, tell us about Your background?
I grew up in suburban Mumbai in the 90s in a middle-class family. My parents were government employees. My parents were graduates in Arts, Law and Zoology. But no one in my family pursued research as a career.
As a child, I used to watch documentaries of Steve Irwin on the discovery channel. I used to wonder how he was spending his entire life working for and with animals. I wanted to do the same, to be with animals and to help them. Being a wildlife enthusiast, I used to collect shells, and then identify them. I wanted to save all the animals on the planet, which were getting extinct due to human interventions in the natural process.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
When I didn’t clear my Maharashtra Common Entrance Test for medical, I opted for basic life sciences (Chemistry, Botany, and Zoology) from Thakur College of Science and commerce based in Kandivali. As part of the zoology practical, we were the last batch to get hands-on experience in the dissection of vermin animals to study their body systems. I visited the Sanjay Gandhi National Park in Mumbai to seek an opportunity to work in a zoo, but they didn’t have any role at that time. Later on, I pursued my passion for wildlife, completed my post-graduation in oceanography and fishery science (Zoology specialization) from the Institute of Science, Mumbai. I will be registering for my Ph.D. on seagrass associated fauna at the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda under the supervision of a mentor Dr. Kauresh Vacchrajani Professor in university and Dr. K. Sivakumar from the Wildlife Institute of India
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
I grew up watching documentaries of Steve Irwin and David Attenborough on the discovery channel; I wanted to grow up and become a zookeeper so I could be in touch with animals to feed them and also to study them closely. I grew up in an urban city with the sea beside and visited my native place every vacation, which had the beach. My childhood hobby of collecting shells turned into my passion for conserving the ocean and preserving its beauty. I always dreamt of an outdoor job where I could work for and with nature.
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
Ocean has always been a beautiful mystery to me. The rage of exploring the blue planet started off with my post-graduation. Being born and brought up in India’s coastal state, I had a passion for collecting shells during my childhood. Later on, my love for marine wildlife started growing since terrestrial wildlife was known to all, but very few know about marine life. I chose to complete my graduation in Zoology, and then decided to take up a course in wildlife biology. But the application deadline for it was already over. Hence, I took up a course in my city, which provided me insights into basic ocean biology. I didn’t know much about the job prospects after completing my master’s degree. My college seniors were already working in the National Institute of Oceanography.
Being a wildlife enthusiast, I completed a postgraduate degree in zoology with a specialization in Oceanography and fishery science in India. I presented my 1st research in a science meet conducted in my college where I did my post-graduation. After completing my studies, I started my career as a researcher at CSIR-National Institute of Oceanography, (NIO) Mumbai. I worked in the zooplankton lab for a while, and then officially joined the National Institute of Oceanography as a project assistant where I got my first career break. I experienced being outdoors, away from home for a longer duration for surveying Intertidal fauna, Coral Reefs, Mangroves in Maharashtra and the Gujarat coastline. Marine life has always captured my heart and mind. I kept attending conferences and workshops to enhance my knowledge.
I visited so many protected or lesser-known but pristine coastal areas where tourists don’t visit or don’t have permission to do so. It was my first experience as a researcher exploring the sea, working on a boat for over 12 hours continuously, getting familiar with the seascape, the fishing community, and instruments for testing water parameters, collecting biological samples..
I participated in the Sea turtle festival in Maharashtra. I got fascinated by their life history and evolutionary journey. Knowing they are on the brink of extinction, I had the urge to work for the conservation of these ancient mariners. Meanwhile, I came to know about the sea turtle telemetry project at Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. I volunteered for a sea turtle conservation project to get field experience. I interviewed for the project, but I was rejected. Though I was selected on the second attempt, unfortunately, it didn’t start off. I came back home devastated that I won’t get chance to work on sea turtles. Then I came to know about Dahanu based NGO Wildlife Conservation and Animal Welfare Association (WCAWA) founded by Mr. Dhaval Kansara, through veterinarian Dr. Dinesh Vinherkar, who was already working with them from 2002. I also got associated with WCAWA that worked for rescue and rehabilitation of sea turtles along with Dahanu forest department. We tried to raise funds for the sea turtle transit & rescue center, which still need instruments, tanks and filtration units.
I also cleared the Mumbai University Ph.D. entrance and submitted a proposal for studying sea turtles nesting ecology along the Maharashtra coastline in 2015. My synopsis was rejected, saying it was not novel, and being a girl, I should not be taking up field-based research, and instead, opt for something that was laboratory-based . I didn’t have any funding, so I opted to switch my career path from research to a corporate job. I joined an environmental consultancy. Still, I was not satisfied with the work I was doing. Later on, I joined Terracon Ecotech Pvt. Ltd., a Mumbai based Environmental consultancy which is primarily focused on biodiversity conservation. I was involved in writing various biodiversity assessment reports, formulating action plans for endangered species. But I learned a lot from my mentor Dr. R. Suresh Kumar, and I was introduced to various wildlife techniques. I passionately pursued conservation of sea turtles in my coastal state, Maharashtra. I worked on reports for biodiversity assessment, an action plan for endangered species and developing a proposal for various ecological restoration projects along with Identifying impacts of EIA studies on biodiversity and providing mitigation measures for the same. The National Accreditation Board accredited me for Education and Training (NABET) as Functional and Biodiversity expert (FAE) for Ecology and Biodiversity in Terracon Ecotech Pvt. Ltd. I recently received a unique grant for open water dive training from the Women Divers Hall of Fame.
I joined the marine mammal project at the Wildlife Institute of India. After the interview advertisement for the project, I came to know about the existence of Dugongs in India. I will start my Ph.D. on seagrass associated fauna. My current research interests include understanding the ecology of endangered species, diversity assessment of marine life, connecting the conservation ecosystem to benefits and livelihood.
How did you get your first break?
I got my first research exposure through my seniors Atul Babar and Aditi Nair, who were already pursuing their PhDs. I presented one poster in the Annual research seminar in my post-graduation college under the guidance of Dr. Varsha Andhare in institute of Science who helped me move into the research field. Later after joining National Institute of Oceanography my mentor Dr. Shankar Gajbhiye taught me to face field challenges.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
The most significant challenge I feel in this field of wildlife research is the lack of motivation, especially being born and brought up in a middle-class family, we are taught to take up a desk job which pays you better than a risky outdoor job. These outdoor jobs don’t have much importance. We have to explore our interests and follow our passion in order to make a difference.
Another major challenge is the lack of funding since there is a lack of awareness for nature conservation. We usually don’t get funding quickly. But it always pays sooner or later If you continue working hard towards conservation.
Third and one of the biggest challenges is, even if a researcher joins any research project, finding a mentor who supports your work and helps you build a foundation is tough, due to competition. The supervisor needs to understand your struggles and should not be biased. When you work under a supervisor, you have to learn to tackle all issues one by one. Once you are determined, even if the supervisor is a little hard on you, your determination always pays off. No one can steal your achievements and talent from you. Keep going ahead.
Tell us about your current research
Dugong (Dugong dugon) also called ‘Sea Cow’ is one of the four surviving species in the Order Sirenia and it is the only existing species of herbivorous mammal that lives exclusively in the sea including in India. Dugongs are protected in India and occur in Gulf of Mannar, Palk Bay, Gulf of Kutch and Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Once abundant in Indian waters, Dugong population has now reduced to about 200 individuals and is believed to be continuously declining in its number and range. Dugong conservation is nothing but coastal conservation being a flagship species in its range.
Currently I have ventured into sea life by participation in the recovery of a charismatic marine mammal (King of the Sea)- Dugong to make a difference in marine life conservation. I am working on Dugong conservation in India at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. I conduct various awareness and outreach programs that help create awareness about the gentle giants, the threats they are facing and the need for conservation of the seagrass ecosystem. I am also involved in research objectives for seagrass habitat assessment, seagrass extent mapping, and studying seagrass associated fauna. I will start my Ph.D. on seagrass associated fauna. I joined the project to explore how this form of conservation governance is framed, practiced, and sustained on the ground. I have published research articles on sea turtles and sea snakes. My current research interests include understanding the ecology of endangered species, diversity assessment of marine life, connecting the conserving ecosystem benefits, and livelihood.
The most important skill to be a marine biologist is to be passionate about marine life. Unlike an office desk job, we have to work in the sea, stay on the boat for days, and get out of our comfort zone. If you are determined, you need to learn another essential skill that is swimming and scuba diving. Scuba diving certification is a necessary skill which is required. As a researcher, you need to question everything you see and build up your thinking process for what, why, and how.
There is no typical day in my research work, but my day starts with going out to the sea, searching coral reefs for seagrass, collecting samples, coming back, and processing them. I have the best of both worlds. Being in this field requires passion, patience, consistency, and hard work to succeed. Self-motivation is the only key that keeps me alive, which is to find out why this is needed to be studied and what impact it will cause if this animal is extinct. As part of the curriculum, various statistical, GIS applications and software are learned and practiced. Data collection, analysis, interpreting study outcomes are skills that are learned over the period.
I love being just beside and in the ocean. It’s all soothing. My job is a vacation for me; I enjoy just being with nature and witnessing the charismatic beauty.
How does your work benefit society?
I keep posting about marine biodiversity on social media; this creates a lot of awareness about marine life still surviving on this blue planet. We are in an unprecedented age of extinction. The more we respect the ocean for all the benefits we are taking from it, the more it will respect us. My work brings all this to light so people will start helping in marine biodiversity conservation.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
The most memorable field visit was my 1st field trip to Sindhudurg and Ratnagiri when I joined CSIR- National Institute of Oceanography where I worked close to the Malvan marine sanctuary. It was my most memorable trip since I came out of my comfort zone and got along with new researchers and exchanged ideas who share similar passion towards their work.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Be passionate and take a deep dive into your passion; you will never swim for competition.
I want to keep encouraging women in ocean science. I want to start my dream sea turtle conservation project.