Mangroves are ecological pillars of our environment that not only serve as the first line of defense against flooding, erosion or storm surges but also support the enormous diversity of marine creatures that are important to keep the ecosystem healthy.

Nehru Prabakaran, Scientist at WII (Wildlife Institute of India), studies mangrove ecosystems across the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to better understand and enable the conservation and protection of this unique tidal forest.

Nehru talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his restoration work on the Mangrove forests that were mostly lost in the Nicobar Islands after the 2004 tsunami, and the satisfaction of seeing the densely grown re-planted mangrove trees after 10 years.

For students, be ambitious, and don’t settle for anything below your expectations no matter how comfortable or well paying the job is !

Nehru, Your background?

I hail from an agriculture background in a village on the suburbs of Chennai. Growing up in the village and walking through the agriculture fields and by the lake on a daily basis was good enough to make me curious about all kinds of creatures. Apart from other sporting activities, fishing in the lakes and ponds was a daily routine during my school days. I can never forget the dark nights that I and my brothers (three of them) spent beside the water channels from the lake that lead up to our paddy fields. Listening to the frogs and being careful about the snakes were some of the vivid memories of my childhood. 

I did my schooling in government run Tamil medium schools. Post higher secondary, I desperately wanted to pursue something other than engineering (which all my three other siblings did). Somehow I figured that either Botany or Zoology could be a better choice to go ahead.      

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelors and masters in Plant Biology and Plant Biotechnology (merely a fancy name for Botany) from Madras Christian College in Chennai. 

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

The sudden change in the medium of education from Tamil to English during my bachelors degree was a bit difficult to handle in the beginning. I had to struggle to not only clear my exams but also communicate with my fellow classmates. Since I was usually good with academics during my schooling, I felt crestfallen as soon as I joined college. Two subjects: plant taxonomy and horticulture came to my rescue and helped me reinvent my academic spark. Plant taxonomy required skills to recognize and identify plants in their natural environment and horticulture practicals required a team of students to grow multiple food crops in a small plot. My agricultural background helped me excel in both the subjects and get appreciation from classmates and professors. From then on, I gradually began to feel a sense of belonging in the study program. 

Two people played a crucial role in my early career. My best friend from my bachelors class, Illayaraja, helped me clear my arrears and often translated the whole lecture in Tamil after the class. Second is my professor Dr. Narasimhan, who encouraged me to pursue higher studies and focus on plant taxonomy. I remember an incident when Dr. Narasimhan came up to me and insisted that I pursue a masters degree in Botany. He said if money is a constraint, “I will take care of it”. That was merely a one minute conversation, but left a deep impression on me. For the first time, someone who many students looked upto was confident about my abilities. Sure enough, I enrolled for a masters program in Botany and unlike BSc, I began my study program with a clear goal in my mind, “to become a plant taxonomist”. Moreover, my securing the Edward Barnes gold medal (awarded to a BSc student with outstanding performance in plant taxonomy) and the K.A.K.A. Ganesan prize for securing second rank during MSc were big motivations going forward.  

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

My intention after Masters was very clear, to gain as much field experience as possible in one to two years, and then get enrolled into a PhD program. Things, in a way, worked out exactly the way I had planned it out. Just after my masters I got a three month work opportunity with Care Earth trust, Chennai to document the biodiversity of the IIT-Madras campus. It was a small project where we documented all the plants and animals present in the sprawling IIT-Chennai campus. This research was published as two pictorial guide books, one was on the plants and the other was on the animals present in the IIT-M. 

I continued to work with the Care earth trust for a little more than a year and got opportunities to survey plants in many parts of Tamil Nadu. Subsequently, I got a fellowship opportunity at Salim Ali Centre for Ornithology and Natural History, Coimbatore to conduct a PhD study on the after effects of tsunami on the coastal vegetation in Nicobar Islands. Travelling to different islands, meeting with people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, and dealing with isolation and uncertainty in the islands were some challenges I enjoyed over the 18 months I spent in the Nicobar Islands. Having a chance to travel to the USA and Sri Lanka to present my research findings in international conferences were some highs of my PhD days. The travel grants provided by different government agencies have made these expensive travels possible. 

Just after PhD, I got a Scientist job at Himalaya Drug Company. My job was to create an authentication manual for the herbal raw materials that are used in their products. Usually the raw materials are procured from various vendors. As a result, we get a lot of adulterated raw materials that will eventually affect quality of the products. My skill in plant taxonomy was very helpful during this job. I did a compilation of a lot available information to formulate stringent quality assurance protocols for the herbal raw materials. This work has won me the Young Scientist of the year award (2013-14) at the Himalaya drug company. Though it was a very comfortable and well paid job, I could not really connect it with my PhD research, I was also very ambitious to do a post-doctoral study abroad. I made up my mind that the scientist job is just a pit stop (lasted for 15 months) and hence continued to apply for various fellowship opportunities abroad. I was lucky to crack the Post-Doctoral Fellowship award of the Leibniz-DAAD association in Germany. It is awarded to qualified young individuals with a promising future in a high quality research environment. It is among the very competitive fellowship programs with only 7 % – 8 % successful applications being selected each year, and researchers from across the world apply for this award. I was fortunate to get this fellowship and I spent 15 months in Germany to do my research on predicting the recovery patterns of tsunami affected forests using high resolution satellite images and ecological modeling. This research exposure was very helpful in broadening my knowledge.

I was keen to come back to India and find a long-term job to build on my experience. I came back to India and worked for the Indo-American Wildlife society (IAWS) on some small projects while looking for long-term options. The assignment with IAWS was very exciting where I happened to travel to many forested areas in Tamil Nadu and survey the negative impacts of non-native plants on the native plants and animals. Within six months I got a Research associate job at Wildlife Institute of India (WII), and did a research on the impacts of climate change on the traditional agriculture systems in Uttrakhand, Himalayas. Two years later, I continued with WII as a Scientist sponsored under the Department of Science and Technology INSPIRE-FACULTY award. It is one among the prestigious awards in India, which financially support high quality research by young scholars. Here I get to do my research, as well as teach and mentor MSc and PhD students. Also I get to train forest department officers from various Indian states on biodiversity conservation and management. Most importantly, the current job allows me to diversify my research area. For example, though I have a strong research background in plant ecology, I also do collaborative research on snakes and have published a few research articles in reputed journals on snakes. In nut shell, the current job is just what I have wanted for myself.

How did you get your first break?

I was very focused on plant taxonomy during my MSc. I used to spend roughly 3-4 hours every day after my classes in identifying plants. I got my first break just after my MSc with Care Earth Trust to contribute to one of their projects in documenting the plant diversity in IIT-Madras campus. I think that if you have put in hard work in a specialized subject, then the job finds you rather than the other way around. Moreover, keeping oneself aware about the people in the specialized field and approaching them with a clear mind is very helpful in getting the opportunities. From there on, it is just about proving your value in every assignment and adding new skill sets to keep yourself relevant. 

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

The first challenge was not related to my field of research, but more about communicating it with peers and others. In research, it becomes important to think and communicate in a language with broader acceptance. I realized it soon after joining the PhD program. I worked on improving my skills by volunteering for talks related to research in seminars or weekly forums to improve my presentation skills. I even tried a few times to practice my talks by having a small pebble underneath my tongue, just to improvise on my accent. Though I don’t know how much it worked, it did boost my confidence – not the pebble but the practice. Also, writing small articles in English dailies, reading and listening to a lot of English novels and movies, and actively participating in scientific discussions have helped me to get better with communication skills.  

Adding new skill sets to your expertise is crucial in most of the fields to keep you relevant in the advancing world. Not everyone is gifted enough to have a “state of the art” education typical of elite institutions. That already leaves a big gap between the individuals having the same educational background from different institutions. However, online learning platforms of recent times have widened the reach of education and training by providing high educational standards across global and socio-economic boundaries. I did a few online courses offered by elite institutions abroad to add some skill sets that I realized I should have. All of it happened post my PhD, which reminds me of the saying “learning never stops”.      

Where do you work now? Tell us about your role

I work at Wildlife Institute of India as a Scientist sponsored by DST-INSPIRE faculty award. My research group studies the mangrove ecosystems across the Andaman and Nicobar Islands to better enable the conservation and protection of this unique tidal forest. Conservation is a multidisciplinary field where accurate scientific information forms the foundation to convince policy makers, and local human societies. Generating such insightful scientific information and communicating it with policy makers and citizens in an acceptable manner is what we try to do. It is a challenging field, both physically and mentally. The huge window of challenges and opportunities is what I love about this job.    

How does your work benefit society? 

Mangrove forests support enormous diversity of marine creatures that are important to keep the ecosystem healthy and support the livelihood of numerous people who depend on marine resources (eg. fish, crab, oyster etc.). Therefore protecting these forests benefit the society directly. 

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

Mangrove forests were mostly lost in the Nicobar Islands after the 2004 tsunami. The local forest department was keen to restore or plant mangroves wherever it was possible, but there were a lot of constraints. Lack of information, especially on the potential places  where mangroves could be planted, and the local availability of naturally grown mangrove seedlings that can be used in plantation programs were some of them. My research has addressed both the limitations and soon the forest department has expedited mangrove plantation in many sites in Nicobar Islands based on my research results. I recently visited these plantation sites after 10 years, and seeing the densely grown mangrove trees provided me with immense happiness.       

Your advice to students based on your experience?

We might face inherent limitations due to our education and socio-economic backgrounds. However, these things are very unlikely to stop us if we are motivated enough to take up challenges, and find ways to grab opportunities. Trying and learning new things, and keeping yourself curious about small things can really help you excel in any field that you may choose. Try your best to keep your professional and personal life balanced. I believe that enjoying your job is the key that can take you to unimaginable heights.   

Future Plans?

There are a lot on this list. Mostly, it is related to diversifying my expertise and contributing to various conservation challenges.