We basically have 2 choices in life – continue cribbing about disappearing forests, dwindling wildlife and loss of our pristine environment, or do something about it !

Priyamvada Bagaria (PhD), our next pathbreaker, provides RS&GIS (Remote Sensing & GeoInformatics) support to ecological projects through landscape mapping, habitat suitability assessment, land use modelling, and climate change impact assessment. 

Priyamvada talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being filled with awe while doing her masters at the plush campus of the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun which made her not only environmentally conscious but also spurred her onto a career in Landscape Impact Assessment.

For students, we don’t realise the destruction we have caused to our natural surroundings until we see satellite images of our planet. Never forget those images, as well as the fact that only you can do something about it !

Priyamvada, where are you from?

I come from a Marwari background. Marwari folks are primarily business oriented and academics is a rare career path in Marwari families. My (late) father who was an Orthopedic surgeon, had to live with the wrath of my grandfather for not joining the family business. My mother too, quite boldly for her time, showed the courage to keep marriage away until she finished her graduation. I believe it is the story of my own parents that inspired me all this way into academics.

Environment and Ecology as subjects became interesting to me when I studied them as part of 12th std. CBSE Biology curriculum. As a biology student, I had also attempted the medical entrance exams, like every other biology student. Having not made it through those entrance exams, I knew what my next move was, for the sheer interest in ecology. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

Back in 2005-06, there weren’t many colleges offering ecology at the graduate level. I took a bachelor’s course in Biochemistry from Ethiraj College and while in college in Chennai, I connected with a few NGOs (Nizhal, Student’s Network for Conservation of Turtles) that worked on the environment. In 2006-09, it was not common to have laptops and the internet, and I was no different. Many NGOs also didn’t have their websites and it was difficult to find information about them. I used to write handwritten postal letters to several NGOs for a volunteering opportunity with them, so that I could gain experience in the field. I also received postal replies from some of them, which I cherish until today. I managed to get a volunteering opportunity with the Keystone Foundation in the Nilgiris, which was my first professional experience in the field of environment and ecology.

I studied Environment Management at the plush campus of the Forest Research Institute (FRI), Dehradun. Studying at this campus opens up many avenues for your future path, because here you learn not only through the curriculum, but through a richly maintained forest area in the campus where practical lessons can be easily conducted.

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

Other than an interest in the subject of ecology, the other factor that had an influence on my decision was the sudden coverage of environmental issues in the media during 2004-05. I still remember how I felt about the environment when reading editorials on waste, pollution and the much-coveted Tiger task force. Reading about pollution and waste issues made me an environmentally conscious person, and the Tiger and Elephant projects would simply fill me with awe. I would say my choice and career path so far has been pretty straight forward. The only turning point was not getting selected in the medical entrance exams, which made it clear to me that environment and ecology is my next move.

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

As I was clear about my interest in the field of environment and ecology since college, I had been very active with local NGOs, in order to get an exposure in the field. As mentioned earlier, environment was an upcoming subject during 2006-09, and there were only certain institutions offering courses on environment and ecology. It was not very difficult to make a list of target institutions for a master’s study. I had a list of about 6-7 institutions that I would attempt. Incidentally I got selected in three institutes of my choice. To solve my confusion in selecting the best institute, I looked up the lists of the alumni of those institutes, found them on Facebook and Orkut (the redundant social media platform that existed back then). I sent out messages to almost everyone whom I could find on those platforms, asking for feedback about the course curriculum, teachers, facility and worthiness of the course. Feedback from the alumni really helped me make a choice between the institutes where I was selected for the post graduate course in environment. 

At FRI, the course offered us the opportunity to work on projects of our choice in each semester, with a scientific advisor of our choice. This arrangement was very helpful in experimenting with the topics that we liked. By working on small research projects alongside our curriculum, we got a practical insight into the nitty-gritty of a particular topic. I had worked on birds during my semester projects and had wanted to also do a master’s dissertation on birds. For over a year, before the beginning of the dissertation period, I was in touch with three different scientists, discussing possibilities of a master’s dissertation. However, due to lack of funds for a field research, none of the projects materialized and as a last resort, I took up my master’s dissertation on land use/ land cover change detection at the remote sensing and geographic information system (RS&GIS) lab at the FRI campus itself. To emphasize that this decision was a last-minute resort and compromise, I must add that every student wants to do their dissertation at an institute outside their campus, so that they may get a wider exposure and build a larger network. Nevertheless, this compromise turned out to be a career path that I have pursued till date and continue to grow with. 

After completing my master’s, I took an M.Phil in Ecological Informatics from Indian Institute of Information Technology & Management, Kerala and went to Germany for M.Phil dissertation work. By this time, I had become specialized in land use modelling and was clear about doing a PhD research on similar lines. 

My MPhil dissertation was in Leibniz University, Hannover, Germany. At the lab for Land Use Planning, the scientists were testing a software for its power in land use modelling. My dissertation was on parameterising the software and assessing its applications for different land use systems.

In the last month of my Master’s course at FRI, I had succumbed to typhoid and malaria and had to be hospitalized for three weeks. At this time, I had also cracked interviews for the position of JRF at two institutes (University of Agricultural Sciences in Bangalore and G. B. Pant Institute of Himalayan Ecology in Almora). However, both the projects were based in remote locations in the Himalayas, required extensive field work and thereby, excellent physical health. But the dual attack of diseases had left me too weak to take up any field-based research immediately, and I had to give up those opportunities. At the same time I also got selected for the M.Phil course in Ecological Informatics. Their curriculum seemed like a technological extension of my master’s course at FRI, giving an exposure to various tools like R, Matlab, HTML, DBMS, Geostatistics etc. At that time, taking up an M.Phil course instead of field research was a practical decision, but later it also worked in my favor as the M.Phil degree and M.Phil dissertation in Germany helped me get some leverage over others in interviews.

For anyone to start a research career after completing master’s, the first step is to get recruited into a project as a Junior Research Fellow, or similar research roles. One’s PhD may be funded either by the national agencies like UGC and CSIR, or it may be through the project one is recruited into. My PhD was funded through the project that I was working for, at the Wildlife Institute of India (WII), Dehradun. 

At WII, my doctoral study was on land use monitoring in the Godavari river estuarine ecosystem, Andhra Pradesh (AP). Working in the coastal landscape in AP, was an extraordinary experience. I assessed the land use changes in EGREE ( East Godavari River Estuarine Ecosystem) between 1977 and 2015, with the use of remotely sensed satellite data. I visited different parts of EGREE, collecting ground truth information, understanding its land use patterns. In 1977, EGREE had no aquaculture and minimal industry. By 2015, there was more than 170 km2 of aquaculture and tremendous rise in industrial as well as built up area. I conducted social interviews in the villages in EGREE, in order to understand what factors influenced land related decisions of the locals, what challenges they faced in agriculture and why they would prefer converting/selling their agricultural land for purposes of aquaculture or real estate. I combined the knowledge from the field and data derived from satellite imagery and modelled prediction maps for land use in EGREE in 2029. Land use models and prediction maps are useful in getting a visual of the future land under different hypothetical scenarios. As researchers we wish these outputs to be used by the governments for formulating land use policies and hence communicate the results through both reports and research articles.

A PhD is a study that teaches many life lessons, the degree is only a part of the experience. One has to learn to manage their field expenses, hire assistants, manage the logistics, keep up the academic fervor and be a highly performing individual most of the time. It is a period when one gets trained for performing independent research. As my PhD was dependent on a project, and due to the low funds in my current project, I moved to another project after completing my fieldwork from the PhD related project. After moving to a new project, which was a CAMPA (Compensatory Afforestation Fund Management and Planning Authority) funded program for recovery of species, my life was divided between project work in the day time and thesis writing in the night. In the CAMPA project I was playing the role of the RS&GIS (Remote Sensing) specialist for all the species and had a wonderful time gathering experience from different landscapes and species habitats. 

As the RS&GIS specialist in the CAMPA species recovery program, I had the opportunity to work on four different species at one time – Dugong, Gangetic River Dolphin, Sangai and the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). While I was providing end to end geospatial support to all the four teams, I was deeply involved with the Dugong and GIB research activities. Working on a marine mammal and a desert bird both at the same time was very exciting for me. For Dugong, I had to map its habitat i.e. seagrass and for GIB I had to map the grasslands in the Thar desert. Both were challenging tasks due to their spectral behavior in remote sensed data. I had also received the first prize for presenting my work through a speed-talk, at the Annual Research Seminar (2018), at WII.

How did you get your first break?

My first work break after M.Phil, was with the Bharti Vidyapeeth Institute for Environment Education and Research, Pune as the Program Officer for a Biodiversity Awareness program. It was an advertised position and I attempted the walk-in interview. After completing PhD at WII, I got recruited at the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), Kolkata as the RS&GIS specialist in the project for conservation of Himalayan vertebrates. The recruitment was done through a walk-in interview for the advertised position. 

My work at ZSI, apart from providing end to end geospatial support to the entire team, training junior researchers in GIS, conducting workshops for forest department, field surveys, also included very interesting research on species response to climate change. I used ensemble models to predict the habitat shifts in the Himalayan Langur for the predicted climate of 2050 and 2070. Later I worked on Galliformes, where I used various clustering models to group 21 Galliformes species of the Himalayas into similar habitat liking groups. With the clusters, it was possible to predict the suitable habitat for rare and data deficient species. Having modelled the suitable habitat for the rare species, I could also predict the possible shifts in their habitat for the predicted climate of 2050.

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

There are several challenges in the path of making a research career. It starts with getting recruited as a JRF or a Research Assistant into a project that has a study objective relevant to one’s educational qualification and the skills acquired. I terribly failed in the first two interviews I faced. I vividly remember all my failed interviews, as they still help me prepare for any interview.

The second challenge that anybody must be aware of before entering the profession of research, is the scale of the remuneration one receives. Thanks to many petitions by researchers, the current stipend scale is much more respectful, but in my early career the stipend was extremely humble. This can particularly be a challenge for students who come from a background wherein their families need to be supported after accomplishing education. I was fortunate that I was in a position where I wasn’t needed to support my family monetarily. 

The third challenge in research is that until one gets recruited in a permanent scientific or faculty position, one’s career is dependent upon shifting from one project to another. This brings an immense sense of instability sometimes. I counter this challenge by keeping myself engaged with some or other research prospect at all times.  

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I had completed my tenure with ZSI in December 2019 and in January 2020 I was planning to take up Post-Doctoral research position with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. However, the postdoc plan had to be dropped for obvious reasons. My other applications also were annulled during this period. Since my expertise is in RS & GIS (Remote Sensing and GIS), I had the leverage to work at home, independently. I decided to take up freelance GIS consultation work. I have completed one freelance project on the Fishing Cat and land conservation units identification for Fishing Cat conservation. My next consultation work is in the capacity of a biodiversity expert for a forestry project funded by Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). 

My work as a GIS consultant is not much different from my work at a regular research job, the difference being, I am working independently and have to use networking skills to get projects. I provide RS&GIS support to ecological projects through landscape mapping, habitat suitability assessment, land use modelling, climate change impact assessment. 

The skills needed for my work are in-depth understanding of the concepts of RS&GIS, fluent use of RS&GIS software and ecological understanding for appropriate application of RS&GIS tools. I acquired these through my work experience. Being in research, one has to constantly learn the new tools and stay updated.

A typical day when doing a desk job is similar to any other regular 9-6 job with long working hours in the night if there is a research article or a report being written. However, when doing field surveys, the day starts early in the morning, so that we reach the study site before day break. Depending upon the study area and objective of the study, the field duration may range over 6-10 hours. We return to our base in the evening and cook, eat, sort the data or samples, plan for the next day, and sleep.

As a landscape ecologist, I need to adopt a holistic approach towards studying a given landscape. Apart from the geography, topography and climate aspects, it is important for me to understand the socio-economics of the population and the land use policies of the government, for the given region. I find it very interesting to learn how every landscape is made unique due to various factors. However, the most rewarding part of my work is the sighting of an animal on the field, wild and free in its habitat.

How does your work benefit society? 

It is unfortunate that still a large part of the society looks at environmentalists as people against development. As environmentalists we fight to protect the last remaining reserves of nature with us. Natural and green spaces are essential for human wellbeing. It is the right of the forest communities to live in the forests and use its resources. It is important to highlight the significance of habitats for species conservation. As a landscape ecologist, I try to do all of these. 

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

During my doctoral research work, I was on the coastal waters of AP, surveying mangroves of the Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary. I and my boatmen were tired after collecting samples on the difficult muddy forest floor of the mangroves. On our return journey we were treated with an unexpected sight of a school of Indo-Pacific Hump-backed Dolphins, which also was a first such record from AP. I reported this sighting in one of my publications. The unexpected sighting of the Dolphins, moving in a sprightly stance is vividly imprinted in my memory. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My first advice to students would be to first be sure of what they do NOT want to do. For example, I was clear since my school days that I was not interested in commerce/economics/finance related careers. Having a list of no’s is very helpful in streamlining the interests. Second, one should be clear at the start of their career whether they prioritize their liking for a subject, or the monetary aspect. Research is a career path that demands a tremendous amount of patience and one must be aware of it before plunging into it. Be flexible and open to opportunities, be prepared for challenges.

Future Plans?

Due to the uncertainties that the pandemic has thrown at us, I am currently flexible about my future plans. I have made post-doc applications, applying to full time scientific positions and am also growing my freelance consultation work.