Benthic Zones (bottom of a water body like the floor of an ocean, lake, river or stream) are ecological indicators of pollution or other issues in the aquatic environment.

Geetha Plackal (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Director at World Alliance for Planetary Health & Scientific Expert, shares her knowledge about environmental issues through articles, media outreach and talks related to nature, pollution, climate change, sea-level rise, coral bleeching etc.

Geetha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about a project she did on soft coral taxonomy and ecology in Lakshadweep island that led her to do a PhD in Estuarine and Marine Benthic Ecology.

For students, if pollution has reached the depths of the river, sea and ocean floors where even sunlight doesn’t reach, we have a serious problem on our hands. Make it your goal to protect our marine ecosystems.

Geetha, can you tell us about Your background?

I am Dr.Geetha P.N. from Kerala, India,  an early career marine professional. My research area is in estuarine and marine benthic Ecology and taxonomy.

From my childhood, I have been interested in nature, animals, and birds, and curious about the ocean, stars and planets. My father is a farmer and our home is situated in a hilly area. So, I got a lot of opportunities to work with him in the farmland, and interact with plants and birds that visited the farm. My mother shared a lot of stories related to the forest, birds and animals in my childhood. I was interested in learning more about space technology and explorations, life in depths of the ocean, innovative science methods and discoveries etc. These interests led me to interesting subjects for my graduation upto PhD level.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I completed my graduation in BSc and MSc in Zoology (Specialisation: Ichthyology and Fishery Science), MPhil in Aquatic Biology and Fisheries. I did a PhD in Estuarine and Marine Benthic Ecology.

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

In my childhood, I read and heard stories related to birds, animals and forests. Later, during my graduation, I studied environmental problems due to anthropogenic activities and their impact on our planet which was getting worse day by day. I started to observe such issues in the world. I was motivated to act against such issues by teaching others and being involved in environment related research for a better future for all. Based on this interest, after my school, I chose science group.

Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” – a book that explained how pesticides were harming the environment (with special description of the impact of DDT on environment and biodiversity) influenced me a lot to learn more about environmental issues during my graduation.  

For my MPhil course, I worked on a project on soft coral taxonomy and ecology in Lakshadweep island.  I read about “Ocean acidification” when I was doing my reference work in the library. This word touched my heart very deeply due to the significance of that occurrence. Ocean acidification is  a phenomenon that increases acidity of seawater due to extreme heat absorbed from land. After reading about this, I decided to learn more about this issue that affects marine corals. I planned to pursue a PhD based on research on soft coral taxonomy and ecology, because ocean acidification is one of the major factors causing destruction of coral reefs and the phenomenon is known as Coral Bleaching. 

As we all know, global warming and climate change are affecting biodiversity and ecosystems in a negative way. We need to act against this for a better future for all.  Unfortunately, I didn’t get a chance to work on that topic due to some issues related to sampling and funding. For my PhD, I chose another topic on Estuarine and Marine Benthic Community Ecology. For this research, I worked on water and sediment quality analysis, benthic ecology and taxonomical studies. It was a turning point for my future profession. I learnt a lot about this subject through field and lab experience. I made a lot of connections from this subject area in India and abroad. I have presented my papers in seminars and conferences. Some of my articles are published in some peer reviewed journals. Different people who are working in nature related websites and organisations interviewed me for their channel programme and articles to inspire others. I have done presentations for several organisations as an invited speaker.  I am very active in different social media channels as an environmental and eco influencer. All these experiences helped me in preparing myself for my future career. I have membership in more than 20 national and international organisations related to my subject area.  I received my Doctorate degree in Zoology (Estuarine benthic community Ecology) in 2019.

For my research, I conducted field sampling with my research team. I collected benthos ( community of organisms that live on, in, or near the seabed, river, lake, or stream bottom, also known as the benthic zone), water and sediment samples from Cochin estuary, marine area near the bar mouth and freshwater regions of estuarine head areas. Besides these, we conducted survey of various wetlands and mangrove regions in Kerala coastal zones for other short-term research studies. We conducted fisheries survey in nearby harbours and markets in Cochin. The collected samples were analysed in the laboratory. We used Van Veen Grab for collecting sediment and benthic samples. The Van Veen Grab is an instrument designed for collecting sediment samples in fresh and marine water, from soft or medium-hard bottoms like sand, gravel, consolidated marl or clay.

The benthic samples were preserved for further taxonomical analysis. Specimens were analysed up to species or genus level. Benthos are group of living organisms that live in or on sediment under water in any aquatic ecosystem. We can see  benthic fauna in hard surfaces or rocks in intertidal zones or coastal regions, in coastal wetlands and mangroves etc.( eg. polychaete worms, molluscs, crabs, prawns, small crustaceans  like amphipods etc). My research was mainly on benthic community ecology. For this, we need to understand the water and sediment quality. In ecological studies, It is important to understand characteristics of the habitat and interaction of organisms based on environmental parameters like temperatures, pH, organic carbon, organic nitrogen etc. These are all important for ecosystem health assessment of that region. Benthos are used as ecological indicators based on which we can estimate the pollution or other issues in the aquatic environment. Some benthos are opportunistic and dominant. Hence, the distribution of different species can indicate the environmental quality of that area. 

We need to do data analysis of all environmental parameters and biotic parameters to statistically confirm our research findings. For this, we use different ecological software tools. I used such software for data analysis, interpretation and data representation. For writing thesis and research articles, we refer to a lot of articles from previous years in order to support our research findings and discussions. These all are very time consuming activities. We need a lot of patience and dedication to produce a good thesis or a good article. I also faced challenges related to funding. In other ways, it was easy work for me. I like to see different organisms under the microscope. Some benthos are visible to the naked eye. They are all beautiful living organisms.

I consider all teachers and other people who shared knowledge with me as my mentors and guides. I had no special guide in my life.

All scientists who are working in STEM, environmental, ocean, climate, space, related research and projects in different institutions and organizations in the world are my influencers. Their writings and research influenced me a lot to choose my path in the STEM field.

Based on this inspiration, I dedicated myself to study and learn about biodiversity and the threats from current environmental issues such as climate change, global warming, pollution and other anthropogenic impacts.

As a researcher, I wish to do something good for society. So I chose STEM and I am currently working on such projects for ocean and nature conservation. It’s my passion to work with such organisations and institutions for making a better future for all.

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

After my Mphil, I joined a professional development certification course. It was very helpful in improving my skills related to personality development, public speaking, debate, essay writing and computer proficiency for basic work. After the course, I worked as a Guest Lecturer in a College in Kerala.

At the time of my PhD research, I was working as SRF (Senior Research Fellow) in one project under the Directorate of Environment and Climate change, Kerala, India. This fellowship helped me financially in meeting research expenses. I have experience in project report preparation, financial settling and other official formalities of project coordination, field sampling etc.

Besides these, I had completed a lot of online courses related to climate change, sustainability, marine conservation, water conservation etc. from different institutions globally. These courses helped me in understanding these issues well so that I could choose a multidisciplinary approach in my profession. 

I participated as a team member (Marine benthic ecology expert) in two competitions (Team Banglore Robotics in 2016 to 2019) for developing underwater vehicles or AUVs (Robotics Technology) for cleaning the ocean filled with plastics and harmful chemicals. We were semi finalists in Shell Ocean Discovery Xprize and Finalists in NOAA Bonus Prize.

I am working with several international organizations in fields related to deep sea aquaculture, ocean conservation, tree planting projects. I also volunteer for environmental work.

How did you get your first break? 

I am currently Director at World Alliance for Planetary Health. I selected this job via a professional site. I’m active in different social media sites spreading awareness about environmental and ocean plastic pollution. Based on my qualifications, my social activities and my passion, i was invited to join the company. 

I received lot of other opportunities via several platforms for training, volunteership, interships, other environmental projects and some recognition as well.

What were some of the challenges in your career? How did you address them?

I faced a lot of challenges while doing my research work 

Challenge 1: Getting opportunities is very difficult because it is a very competitive field with a very low number of vacancies. Getting funding is tough, and we need funding to attend conferences & training programs, travel and publish.

Challenge 2: We need to constantly update our knowledge of new software, research methods and applications to get hired.

Challenge 3: We need to publish articles in peer reviewed journals to get hired. It takes a lot of effort to read, write, refer and publish works. It needs finance to publish papers in reputed journals. Dedication and hardwork is important to get a good job in this field.

Can you tell us about your current role as Director at World Alliance for Planetary Health?

My work is related to writing, preparing presentations and talks for publishing in different media channels and radio shows. I am also a scientific expert. I address doubts and other issues related to nature and water pollution research etc. We have different groups under this company such as renewable energy, organic fertilizer research, tree planting etc.

I am learning new online courses related to my subject area to enhance my knowledge and learn new skills. I wish to continue learning with my work.

Everyday is different with a new area of work  related to our projects. Sometimes, I need to prepare articles, presentations, reference works, while some other times, I send out emails for funding, investment, or requests for collaboration. We are currently working online due to the covid situation.

What do you love about your role?

I love this job because my work is related to conservation and protection of nature and biodiversity. I also work on mitigation projects against climate change, ensuring job opportunities for people in developing countries, marine conservation from harmful algal bloom and other issues, which are helpful for a sustainable economy. I am very  happy to collaborate on such projects for the betterment of the world.

How does your work benefit society? 

Estuarine and marine conservation is important for survival of humanity and better future of earth. For this, we need to understand aquatic ecosystems, their function, ecology and biodiversity. Nowadays, there is an urgency to save the ocean from environmental degradation, human impact, pollution, global warming and climate change. The world needs more dedicated and skilled marine professionals to research such issues. There is hope and lots of opportunities for aspirants or students who want to pursue this subject as their profession.

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

Between 2016 to 2019, I worked as a marine benthic ecologist with a robotics team for developing an Underwater AUV for cleaning the marine environment from plastics and harmful chemicals.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

For those who wish to study aquatic biology, marine biology/related fields, it will be a good option for your career as well as an opportunity to help society to make a better place for all via your work on marine ecosystems.  Without a healthy marine ecosystem, there is no life on earth.

I realised that, if we have passion for something, we must pursue that. It needs dedication, determination and hard work in order to achieve our goals. It is my experience in life. 

If we have to live on a healthy planet, we must do everything that’s possible to protect it. If everyone thinks like that, it will make substantial positive changes in our society. It can make a major impact on society for environmental conservation.

Future Plans? 

Now everything has slowed down due to the pandemic. I have a plan for professional development with other institutions.  I am looking to collaborate with other international organisations as a part of global actions to mitigate environmental degradation. I am also looking for a Post Doctoral Degree. I wish to work more for marine ecology and conservation of coral reefs and associated organisms. As global citizens, we are responsible to do something positive for our future generations on earth. My dream is a healthy and peaceful planet for all.

Thank you so much for this prestigious opportunity to share my views about STEM related activities for the betterment of the world and my experience to the student community in the world.