Plastics finding their way into the digestive systems of fish and other marine species is no longer a rarity. This is part of a bigger problem due to increasing levels of microplastics in waterbodies !

Kalpana G (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at Luleå University of Technology, Sweden, collects and analyzes stormwater for microplastic contamination to understand the influence of urban activities on the microplastic loads and pathways.

Kalpana talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her defining moment while researching the influence of water quality based on sandbar formation in Muttukadu Backwaters which led her to continue research on marine pollution.

For students, everywhere you look around you, you will see some form of environmental contamination. Don’t complain, instead look for solutions to reverse the damage !

Kalpana, Your background?

I grew up in Chennai. I did my schooling in St Matthias Anglo Indian Hr Sec School in Vepery. My parents are humble people. My dad owned a stationary shop near the school where I studied. He studied till 10th standard only since he was born in a big family of eight people. My mom is a housewife, and  a pillar of my success. She was the one who used to take me to all the tuitions and wait for us. I have a younger sister who is currently living in the US and working as a Data Scientist. I love dancing and painting. I learnt Bharatanatyam for a few years when I was in 10th standard. My parents did not allow me to continue dance class thinking it would affect my studies. I studied Hindi privately and completed till Praveen Uthrad when I was in 8th standard. I had a passion to learn new things; so I tried typewriting shorthand and even learnt Sanskrit. In higher secondary I took science stream ( biology with maths). 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I wanted to get into medicine, but since I did not score much in 12th std, I ended up doing my BSc in Plant Biology and Plant Biotechnology in Stella Maris College.

I got an opportunity to do my Masters in Environmental Studies in Anna University, Chennai. I did my masters thesis in the Muttukadu backwaters which was a short project. But it made me think of a research problem and inspired me to take up research. I enrolled myself in PhD immediately after completing my masters in Centre for Environmental Studies, Anna University.

My mom was really against me joining PhD since she wanted me to work for two years and then get married. I promised her that I will study for a PhD only on scholarship and not on my parent’s money. I applied for a UGC meritorious scholarship and also got selected for it. Life does not go as per plans. My parents, even though they agreed to let me do my research, pressured me to get married to the guy whom they selected. I had only one condition: that guy should allow me to continue my research. I ended up getting married at age of 23 while doing my research and getting divorced at age of 26 with a 3 year old son. I completed my studies with a lot of difficulties since I got pregnant and it was hard to write a thesis with a baby, but with god’s grace, I overcame this. My thesis and writing skills were highly appreciated by my examiner. My marriage was short-lived because of a lot of issues. I decided to end my marriage immediately after I got my doctorate. I came out of the marriage and decided to raise my son on my own. 

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

When I am in the field, that is the backwaters and estuary, I have always felt that I belonged to the place and really wanted to know more about nature and how it works. We as humans have damaged nature and I wanted to come up with solutions to the problem. Through proper management I think any problem can be sorted out. That’s how my career in environmental studies in ocean water quality began. 

During my masters thesis, I researched the Influence of water quality based on sandbar formation in Muttukadu backwaters. It was a short project where I was able to study water quality change for a two month period. Within this two months, I used to visit Muttukadu every 15 days to collect water. I was able to see changes in water quality, and when the sandbar was closing, I even saw fishes migrating from backwater to sea. One of the fishermen who helped me during my field visit said that the migration of fish has been changing over the years and that water quality is also not bad. He suggested that it might be with regards to the sandbar, but he never knew the technical terms and the solutions to improve the water quality. This is when I decided I want to continue on the research and come up with solutions and help the fishermen community. 

One of my key influencers was my guide Dr Usha Natesan, who encouraged me to pursue research on the ocean. She was a constant support to me during difficult times and had immense faith in me. She is also a person that I look up to for what she has achieved in her career. 

Dr Srinivasalu was a mentor who played a great part in building my career. I remember joining him as a research associate after my doctorate. He taught me and guided me regarding the geological aspects of the ocean. He was the one who taught me about ocean research in subjects like tsunami and how to use foraminifera as a tool to study the ocean. I am really indebted to him for his guidance. He is a person who can answer any question with respect to tsunami research.  

I think after joining him, my life changed for the better. I started developing more interest in ocean acidification. I used to read a lot of research papers and with his push, we applied for a project in UGC for my Post-Doctorate. I got it and we made a good discovery which further helped me in my career.

A few turning points in my life which changed my path and made me strong were my divorce at 26, immediately after getting my doctorate degree. Though It was hard to be on my own with a three year old kid, my education gave me strength. I started as a research associate, but with Dr Srinivasalu sir’s motivation, I was able to write a research proposal and look into a research gap. It was where I learnt how to write a proposal. So, from there I did my post-doctorate in ocean acidification. I have always loved working on environmental issues. 

There were some challenges that affected my personal life, when I needed to be on a cruise for 1 week. My son was very young and really missed me since I was the only one in his life. So when I completed my post-doctorate, I applied for a DST women scientist position in microplastic research in freshwater as there was no study done in that area. Based on findings in the newspaper, the Central Water Board approached us to study this issue further and work with them in order to control the issue. During this time I was also looking for a position abroad due to personal reasons. I got an opportunity to do the same microplastic research in storm water in Sweden at Luleå University of Technology. It was a completely new subject since I have not worked on stormwater, but was willing to learn and grow. I think what makes a researcher is the curiosity and willingness to learn.

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 approach to my career was simple; I wanted to learn more and work towards creating a better environment and treating nature in the way it has to be treated. When I see any news which really piques my curiosity, I try to get to know the problem and try to come up with a solution. I love to teach. During my postdoctoral and other positions, whenever I had an opportunity to teach, I was the first one to accept it. I think when you teach you learn. My advice to anyone is, don’t ever quit. Keep trying and you will achieve great things. Don’t think any position is less. I actually wanted to teach in school after my doctorate. Still, I have that idea in my mind. Maybe one day I would start a school of my own where the approach to studies is not based on marks but on skill. Each kid is gifted. I always think of the Albert Einstein quote “Everybody is a Genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid”.

I enrolled myself in PhD immediately after completing my masters in Centre for environmental studies, Anna University.

I got a UGC Meritorious Science Fellowship for doing my PhD.

My doctorate problem was focused on observing water quality changes with respect to sandbar formation in Muttukadu backwaters. Humans have always used estuaries as a resource for food and settlement. More recently, estuaries have been utilized for industrial development, waste disposal and recreation. As the use of these systems has increased, so has the impact on the natural functioning of these systems. Loss of inter-tidal and flood plain area , constriction of flow due to bridge piers and canalization, dredging activities and manipulation of the mouth to suit recreational or commercial purposes are examples of local development that may alter the natural functioning of these systems. The increase in pollutants and changes in catchment and coastal processes has lead to the eutrophication of many estuaries around the world. This deterioration of water quality is a major environmental concern as it affects the great wealth that estuaries provide to communities and the environment. Muttukadu Backwater, on the east coast of Tamilnadu, is one of healthy estuarine environments in the region. However, increasing pressures from the catchment and coastal processes are causes for concern for the future health of the estuary. Like many estuaries in India, a sandbar builds at the mouth of the Muttukadu Backwater creating a physical barrier between the ocean and the backwater at varying times in the year. The presence of a sandbar at the mouth prevents the interaction between sea water and backwater. Consequently, the water quality of the backwater is affected by the presence of the sandbar due to the changes it causes in estuarine processes. The dynamics of the sandbar at Muttukadu is unique. While many estuaries in the region are seasonally closed from the ocean, Muttukadu Backwater is classified as an intermittently open meaning that it opens to the ocean at irregular intervals. This unique sandbar formation has major influence on the water quality of the estuary.

Owing to its unique hydrology and biogeochemistry, Muttukadu Backwater was chosen to study the water quality with respect to the sandbar formation. Hence, these points have been considered in framing the objectives of this research which was to understand ∙ the spatial and temporal variations in the physico-chemical characteristics within the backwaters

 ∙ To uncover the influence of sandbar formation on water quality of the backwaters

 ∙ To assess the nutrient budget and eutrophic status of the backwaters. The output of the research is intended for use in the process of decision-making in order to help environmental managers involved in the utilization, preservation and restoration of Muttukadu ecosystem. 

After my doctoral degree, I joined as research associate in Tsunami studies using foraminifera under Dr Srinivasalu. This study deals with differentiation of tsunami and storm deposits from coastal sedimentary archives and provides solutions to resolve the origin of paleo – washover deposits. We did sedimentological and geochemical analysis of sediments to study and differentiate tsunami and storm deposits. I was responsible for working on foraminifera. 

I also received the Dr Kothari UGC postdoctoral Fellowship to do my post doctorate in the Department of Applied Geology, University of Madras under the supervision of Late Dr Jayaprakash.

Project Title: Geological Signature of Ocean Acidification in Gulf of Mannar using Foraminifera 

The research was funded by the University Grants Commission (UGC) and was carried out to know the past of the Gulf of Mannar region, which did not get affected by disasters such as the 2004 tsunami. It was found to have marine terraces which had a steeper descending slope on the seaward side near the Rameswaram islands. 

1. “It’s a major finding as we are one of the first groups to have scientifically got the samples from Adam’s Bridge. Now, it has been confirmed that the structure was formed at least 18,400 years ago,” 

2. There were research publications indicating Indonesia and Thailand, Sri Lanka, Andaman had records of a major Tsunami and earthquake around the same time. But, there is no study that showed any quake affecting the east coast of India. This is the first study to find the evidence for an earthquake in the Bay of Bengal. 

3. Further this research was published in Deccan Chronicle (Local newspaper) edition on Jan 31, 2018.

I worked as a DST women scientist on a Three year project funded by DST with sanction for buying an instrument for studying microplastics in freshwater systems of Chennai in Institute of Ocean Management, Anna University.

Project Title: “Micro plastics in freshwater systems of Chennai: a review of the emerging threats, identification of knowledge gaps and prioritization of research needs” 

I was involved in monitoring the presence of micro plastics in the freshwater systems of Chennai. It is important to generate comprehensive monitoring data on the abundance of freshwater micro plastics to understand their environmental impact. 

I investigated the sources and fate of freshwater micro plastics. Currently, we still do not understand the behaviour of micro plastics in aquatic ecosystems. Based on data on their abundance, modelling approaches are needed to identify hotspots and sinks and quantify loads. One important aspect of understanding the environmental fate is also to identify relevant inland sources of micro plastics and determine the fragmentation rates of large plastic debris. This directly relates to methods for their accurate detection and quantification; the extent and relevance of their impacts on aquatic life. 

I was also a Programme Officer at the Institute for Ocean Management, Anna University, Chennai for a project on “ Empowering Girl Students in Science, Technology and Culture “

We shortlisted different schools from Chennai and two girls from around 30 students were selected . a total of 32 women speakers from various fields from India gave talks to the girls.

I was Involved in organizing the 21 days event in the Institute for Ocean Management, Anna University. 

After that, I got an opportunity to do the same microplastic research in storm water in Sweden at Luleå University of Technology.

How did you get your first break?

My first break in my research career was when I completed my doctorate under the supervision of Dr Usha Natesan. Without her I feel I would not be where I am today. So I am grateful for her constant support. After that I worked on further research questions and chose to study ocean acidification. During this three year period, I had a lot of opportunity to grow and carry out research on my own. I remember contacting people from other countries for analysis and writing a lot of emails. Few professors did respond and helped me out in my research. I am really grateful to them. 

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

Challenge 1: When I decided to study ocean acidification in the Gulf of Mannar region, I needed to approach the National Institute of Ocean Technology(NIOT), Velachery, for a ship to collect core samples from the sea region. We tried to collect core samples during May 2015. We were on a ship for three days, but it was a failure. We were not able to collect the samples since the vessel was small. I was persistent and kept approaching NIOT for a bigger vessel. The Director of Vessel Management was very supportive and again gave me an opportunity to go on a cruise in Sagar Manjusha, a bigger vessel. Right after Chennai floods in 2015 we went into the sea. With 5 members, I was able to retrieve core samples. 

Challenge 2:  Analysis of foraminifera samples for radiocarbon dating to know the age is very costly. But I needed it to be done since it was necessary for my research. One of my professors (Dr Srinivasalu) helped me with a few samples, but I needed more samples to be analysed. I emailed many laboratories in India and abroad asking them if they could do it. One professor in Canada, seeing my constant email, agreed to do the analysis without taking any money. It typically costs around 1.5 lakhs for analysis of 5 samples. 

Challenge 3: When I moved to Sweden after getting the opportunity, I had to face a lot of challenges since I moved during the pandemic. I still haven’t gotten to know many of my colleagues since most of them are working from home. I got separated from my son during this time. With a lot of difficulties he flew to Germany on his own and then came to Sweden. Being a single parent in another country which is not English speaking is hard. I am working on it each day, learning the language as well as learning stormwater research. 

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am currently working in the Urban Water Engineering Department, Luleå tekniska universitet, Luleå, Sweden as a Post-Doctorate. I am responsible for collection of stormwater for study of microplastic from three locations in Luleå and preparation of the protocol for collection and analysis of the samples.

What problems do you solve as a Postdoctoral researcher? 

I am currently working on microplastic pollution in stormwater drains. Microplastic in stormwater runoff is considered as one of  the main pathways for the transfer of microplastics into the sea. Even though it has been identified that urban runoff comprising stormwater is a major source of transfer of Microplastic into the ocean, relatively few studies have been carried out till now.  I  am currently working on  understanding the influence of urban activities on the microplastic loads and pathways. Urban rainwater runoff seems to play a significant role in facilitating the migration of microplastics to freshwater.

My previous work on identification of microplastic in waters. helps me with this job. 

What’s a typical day like? 

My typical day starts at 6 am. I do yoga for half an hour. I then start preparing food for my son since he leaves by 7.45 am. I then get ready for my office by 8.30 am. I start my day by searching for recent research papers in my field. I read at least one paper and then complete the work assigned to me by my mentor. One benefit of working in Sweden is that your work ends at 4.30 pm. I am able to manage my parenting responsibilities and research work. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love my job because each day I have the opportunity to grow and learn. It gives me satisfaction that I am making a change by studying the environment and creating awareness and saving nature. It really gives me a great amount of satisfaction.

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is focused on creating awareness of various types of pollution caused by humans, how it should be controlled and various ways to reduce it. So I am really proud of working on environmental problems, thus being a considerate citizen.

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

One work which I did that is very close to me is working as a programme officer for a school project. In this project I was able to meet school students and I really enjoyed the 15 days I spent with them on campus. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My only advice to students is, never give up on education. With proper education and will power you can overcome any hard situation and whatever life throws at you . Believe in yourself. Don’t let society decide the future for you.  

Future Plans?

I want to get a Lecturer position in the environmental department. I want to expand my knowledge in this subject. Down the road, before retirement, I want to start a school for younger kids with a different approach to studies.