The North-Eastern states of India are well known for their breathtaking scenic beauty. But a lesser known fact is that they are also a natural habitat for small mammals.

Murali Krishna (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Assistant Professor at Amity Institute of Forestry & Wildlife, Amity University, Noida, teaches and mentors grad students as well as conducts research on small mammal ecology.

Murali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about doing his PhD on the diversity, ecology and conservation issues of the nocturnal flying squirrels in his dream destination, the pristine state of Arunachal Pradesh, India.

For students, India’s wildlife diversity is astounding. Take up a career in wildlife ecology and conservation to uncover new species !

Murali, Your background?

I was born and brought up (till my plus two) in a town from the Deccan plateau (Kurnool in Andhra Pradesh) which is home to one of the endangered species of birds, the Great Indian Bustard. At school, I was strong in Biology and later on in Zoology. After schooling, I went to Regional Institute of Education in Mysore to do my Bachelor’s and B.Ed (integrated course offered by NCERT) in Botany, Zoology and Chemistry. Here, I took up bird watching with the support from one of my teachers – Dr. SP Kulkarni, which shaped my interest in birds. I used to conduct small experiments in the zoology lab to understand the influence of Iodine on the growth of Tadpoles. After completing my bachelor’s, I went to the coastal city of Pondicherry, where I did my Master’s in Ecology and Environmental Sciences from Pondicherry Central University. This was where I was exposed to Rain Forest trips, Eastern Ghats trips, Coastal systems etc. I did my masters dissertation on understanding the vertebrate diversity of Rollapadu Wildlife Sanctuary in Andhra Pradesh. Then I moved to Northeast India, the dream destination that I always had in mind. There, I joined the Department of Forestry in North Eastern Regional Institute of Science & Technology (NERIST) to study Gliding Squirrels (Popularly termed as flying squirrels). 

Since my childhood, I have had a keen interest in the World/Indian Atlas. The states of North East India, especially Arunachal Pradesh(Land of Rising Sun), Meghalaya (Abode of Clouds), Nagaland (Land of Nagas) fascinated me. My father is a state government employee, and my mother comes from a zoology background who actually had a dream to pursue her PhD in Zoology. So, I thought I should fulfill her dream, which my brother and I both have done. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For my graduation, I did an integrated course – B.Sc.Ed. (B.Sc. + B.Ed) in CBZ (Chemistry, Botany & Zoology) from Regional Institute of Education in Mysore. It is a premier institute run by NCERT, Govt. of India. For the whole of South India, it was the center. After completing my masters, I went to Pondicherry to do my Masters in Ecology and Environmental Sciences from Pondicherry Central University. I then did my PhD on diversity, ecology and conservation issues of flying squirrels from NERIST, Arunachal Pradesh, India 

What drove you to pursue such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I have always been strongly inclined towards biology/zoology since my childhood. I was quite fascinated by wildlife, especially while watching Steve Irwin shows in Animal Planet. Later, I was inspired by Prof. Mewa Singh from Mysore University, who is well known throughout the globe for Primate Research, followed by one of my teachers at Pondicherry university, Prof. Priya Davidar. Her teaching and concepts always inspired me. And during my PhD, I was very much influenced by the works of Prof. John L Koprwoski, who is currently working as Dean, Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources, University of Wyoming, USA. 

Prof. John L Koprowski is my mentor. I usually get tips and suggestions from him before proceeding on any work on squirrels. He has been my guiding force. 

During my PhD, I was lucky to get a travel grant to attend Society for Conservation Biology Conferences in Malacca, Malaysia. This was the biggest turning point in my career, where I was exposed to research in the whole of Asian Region. Later, I went to Helsinki, Finland, where the 7th International Squirrel Colloquium was held. This was the platform where my work was recognized and that was when I directly met Prof. John L Koprwoski. 

Another turning point in my life was getting selected as Junior Research fellow for a DST, SERB, Govt. of India sponsored project to work on Hoolock Gibbons in Arunachal Pradesh. I am always thankful to my guide who gave me an opportunity to travel to my dream destination where I could work on the understudied and amazing gliding mammals. 

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 completing my Bachelors’, I attempted for the exams to get into Masters in Wildlife Institute of India as well for National Center for Biological Sciences. I could not clear both the exams, that is when my brother suggested that I should try for Masters in Ecology and Environmental Sciences at Pondicherry University. This was followed by my PhD in Forestry (specialization in Wildlife Sciences) at NERIST. Getting a PhD or position after my Master’s was extremely difficult as I lacked skills and experience. I tried reaching professors nationally and internationally. This was the most difficult phase of my life. But without giving up hope, I continued being active on social networking sites – Facebook (which was pretty new at that time). This paid off, as I got a message one day saying that a position to work in the Northeast is available and if interested, I could apply. Holding the rope, I could climb the mountain.

I got my first scholarship while working as Junior/Senior Research Fellow in a DST, SERB, Govt. of India project. Later, I had to write proposals to self-fund my PhD work. I was successful in getting funding from Rufford’s Small Grants for Nature Conservation, UK, followed by Idea Wildlife grant for equipment, and Indian Bird Conservation Network (BNHS & RSPB, UK) grant to work on birds.  

My job as Junior Research Fellow was to conduct surveys in Eastern Arunachal Pradesh landscape on Eastern Hoolock Gibbon. The tasks included surveying both fragmented forest patches as well as protected areas, as well as collecting data on vegetation. 

When I was working on the above project, I registered for my PhD and finally decided to work on gliding squirrels. It was a tough thing to choose as there was no proper methodology to survey these nocturnal gliders especially in South and Southeast Asia. I tried digging all the literature available in order to come to an understanding on how less explored this hotspot was for gliding squirrels . I initially adjusted my methods to study these nocturnal gliders from the research papers available and then had to standardize them according to my field sites and conditions. This was tested during the pilot studies. Initially, it was very difficult to study these nocturnal gliders in the thick low land forests of Arunachal Pradesh. Moreover, there was lack of electricity even to charge my equipment (which were the lifelines – spotlights). I had to build customized lamps which could be charged with solar. Less funding to buy proper equipment was the biggest challenge. Moreover, these species are canopy dwellers and studying them is a neck-paining job. I could achieve some results just because of the strong support from my field assistants – Mr. Biranjoy Basumatary, Mr. Erebo Chakma and my colleague Dr. Parimal Chandra Ray.

Later, after my PhD, I worked for National Mission on Himalayan Studies (NMHS) as project scientist at GB Pant National institute of Himalayan Environment (Nodal office for the scheme NMHS). My work included initial screening of research proposals submitted under this scheme and sending the information for expert committees. Currently, I work as Assistant Professor in Amity Institute of Forestry & Wildlife, Amity University, Noida. My work includes teaching, research, guidance and mentoring.  

How did you get your first break? 

I attended interviews after completing my Master’s, but none gave me a position, as everyone asked for experience. Finally, a social media platform helped me. As I used to follow like minded people and vice versa, I got a message one day from Dr. Kripal Jyoti Mazmudar from Assam, mentioning that there is a position that I might be interested in applying for. This was the first breakthrough. I was selected for the position, I am very thankful to my guide Dr. Awadhesh Kumar who gave me the opportunity to work.

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

Challenge 1: 

Everyone asked me for experience for the positions that they offered, this was the biggest of the challenges. This was overcome with the help of a better interview, by explaining how I could fit into the project without experience.

Challenge 2: 

Lack of proper guidance was the second biggest challenge. Today, I mentor my students and help them draft emails and help them on how to build circles and contacts. But, none really guided me in this regard. I used to write on my own to scientists whose work inspired me. Establishing contacts is one of the biggest challenges. I never used to get depressed even though I did not get any replies.  

Challenge 3

Without proper contacts, getting referral letters for funding/fellowship applications is difficult. This was one of the challenges. With the limited contacts that I had built, I could achieve this. Because, it is the quality, not the quantity that matters at the end of the day.

Tell us, what do you do currently?

I currently work on an array of topics, as I get students with interests in different areas. At the end of the day, the basics of the work/research remain the same. I train them on these basics and the rest, they take care. I want my students to be independent workers. I work on aspects of small mammal ecology, tribes and their connection with nature, nature’s contribution to people, zoo management, marine ecology.

What skills are needed for your role? How did you acquire the skills?

My bachelor’s degree is an integrated degree and thus, I am well trained and equipped with teaching skills. Thus, I have skills required for teaching, secondly, I hold skills required for field work, paper writing and grant writing. These skills helped me in getting this job. 

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day is spent mostly in teaching and guiding students with their research work. Apart from my professional life, I spend 2 hours playing badminton so that my mental stress is relieved. Apart from teaching, on a daily basis, I also must do a lot of management work which no academician/researcher really likes (in low tone).

What is it you love about this job? 

What I love about this job is that I am involved in transferring my knowledge to more people. Also, I can get involved in multiple research areas based on my student interests and learn new things every single day.  

How does your work benefit society? 

Nature is something we all are dependent on – either directly or indirectly. Whatever work we do is directly beneficial to humans and adds to the knowledge of science. Rodents are thought to be vermin (harmful) in most of the cases, my research focuses on showing society how these are important in an ecosystem (as prey, as pollinators, as seed dispersers and predators etc.). 

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

My paper which has shown the diversity of gliding (flying) squirrels in Arunachal Pradesh. It is a part of my PhD work, and it has shown that a single state of India (Arunachal Pradesh) alone boosted diversity similar to countries like Malaysia and Indonesia which can be considered as hotspots of gliding squirrel diversity. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Never give up and keep trying. Patience is the key. Once you decide your interests, you should hold on to it, success will come for sure.

Future Plans?

I want to expand my work to other southeast Asian countries and build a squirrel researcher network. Also, I want my lab specifically known for squirrel research in South and Southeast Asia.