Conservation and Ecological problems require diverse solutions, not just from a biological perspective but also from an engineering lens.

Yogita Karpate, our next pathbreaker, Junior Research Fellow at Ashoka University, collaborates with scientists to find answers to some very interesting mysteries in the field of ecology, using statistics, data-analytics tools, and spatial analysis tools to interpret the data.

Yogita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about leaving behind a 7-year core engineering career to be a conservation ecologist, and her first field work tracking Elephants in Kaziranga national Park, armed with cameras, GIS devices, binoculars, and a couple of notebooks to record their morphological features.

For students, you can be anything you want, but there are difficult choices you have to make, and you have to be open to wrong decisions and failures before the door of opportunity opens !

Yogita, can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Hola to all my dear friends! I am Yogita and I am very pleased to share my experience with you all. I work as a researcher with a  focus on Wildlife ecology & conservation. I am a Maharashtrian, born and raised in Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. We are a family of five. My father is an Architect, and my mom is a homemaker. I am the youngest of three siblings, my eldest sister is a pathologist and the one younger to her is a Chartered Accountant. I studied in an all-girls Hindi medium school till class 12th, after which I moved to Maharashtra to study Mechanical Engineering. Back in school, I  had a great interest in drawing and sketching and wished to make my career in the field of arts. Although I was not sure about my choices, looking at my father, I was attracted towards a career in Architecture. Back then, my family wasn’t very supportive of this idea, and I not being very sure, ended up preparing for engineering entrance exams! It might sound like a compromise, but  actually, it wasn’t, and you will understand, just keep listening! Arts was not my only interest, I was also very interested in Mathematics. I remember striving hard to excel particularly in the Math exam. In general, I was an inquisitive kid who was interested  in finding reasons and solving puzzles. As a kid, I used to make  frequent visits to the banks of river Ganga and a village called  Bithoor, not very far from Kanpur. That was the only time I could get a chance to connect with the natural surroundings. But when I think in retrospect, I feel that these experiences had a great impact on me, which eventually led me to opt for my current career path. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation? 

I wasn’t very sure of what stream of engineering would suit me the best, though I was clear that I didn’t want to opt for computer science. Considering that Mechanical engineering is one of the core branches, I opted for it. I studied at Nagpur University and did fairly well in all the four years of the course. Studying engineering specifically improved my analytical skills. The campus life, in general, helped me come out of my cocoon, discover different  aspects of my personality, and eventually my strengths and weaknesses.  

What were some of the key drivers that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career? 

After graduation, I worked as an Engine Calibration Engineer with a focus on reducing two-wheeler engine emissions and improving fuel-efficiency. My work was challenging as well as fun. I stumbled upon a career as an Ecologist and a Conservation Biologist, after working for 7 full years in different engineering organizations. I think you must have gotten the hint that it wasn’t planned. While working as an engineer, I got multiple opportunities to hone my technical and professional skills which eventually proved to be very useful in my later role as a researcher. I was mostly living in Bengaluru then and hence like every other  Bangalorean, I was frequently traveling to the neighborhood of the city. These moments were perhaps the second time I felt closer to  nature, and this time I started thinking seriously about options to  remain in close contact with nature for more than just a couple of weekends. 

I did a certification course in Environmental Management from IISC, Bengaluru where I learned about different career options in this domain. With every interaction and meeting with professionals from different educational backgrounds who were contributing to conservation science with their own set of skills and expertise, I was amazed to discover how interdisciplinary this field was. I couldn’t hold myself back and started writing to various scientists with the hope of finding an internship. I was lucky to find a short-term job as a Research  Consultant at TERI in New Delhi. Here is when I first got introduced to the concept of academic research and eventually published my first paper here. Though I had to return to my engineering career for some time, my heart craved to go back to ecological sciences. After working for some more time, I again wrote to a couple of scientists and then never looked back!  

During this entire journey, what influenced me most was my interaction with professionals and scientists who were engaged in contributing  to conservation work. I had a fulfilling career in engineering, still, in  some corner of my heart, I felt I can use my engineering skills, for greater benefits to our planet and society. I give full credit to my inner urge to learn about nature and desire to look for sustainable solutions to coexist with nature, for driving me on this path. 

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 realizing my interest fell broadly in nature conservation, I  started looking for a career path. But, this being a vast domain, like any other career track, I felt overwhelmed and unsure of what could be the next step. Back then, I felt that post-graduation would put me on the right track. I applied to a couple of universities in the US and got admitted to a Masters in Environment Management at Duke University. Due to a lack of funds, I had to withdraw my admission. While still working full-time as an engineer, my mind was processing all the possible permutations and combinations for my next move. This was at times hard, as my work was pretty demanding. But I continued to work to secure myself financially.  

After a good deal of introspection, I realized that I learn the best on-job rather than being inside a closed setup of a classroom. Internships were the second-best option I could think of to get real world experience. I became sure of building a career in academic  research after working in TERI. Next on my agenda was to find what topic appeals to me the most. I wrote to some more scientists and very soon found myself collaborating with an awesome team of researchers and scientists at Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. My first internship assignment was in data analysis. Thanks to  all my accumulated professional experience, I did well in my first break and eventually ended up working with the same colleagues and mentors for the next 3 years.  

How did you get your first break? 

Not just the first break, but all of my breaks were possible because I started connecting with scientists and colleagues, initially using  LinkedIn and later personally. In the emails, I used to mention what part of their work inspired me, what my interests were, and if they were willing to collaborate. Writing openly to people has always helped me. I still do it and it is still helping me in expanding my network, and finding collaborators. 

My first assignment was with TERI where I worked on a project which resembled my formal subject of research, and that was engine emission reduction and fuel efficiency improvement. The difference between this job role and the previous was the approach. In TERI, I was addressing the same question, but with the academic research approach, whereas in my older job profiles I was working on this topic hands-on in the lab. Hence, I got both, real-world experience and publishing experience by this point in my career. Although I was happy with my new learning experience, I realized that this is not the topic which I would want to work on in the long term.

So I had to go back to my old job profile, and still keep my search on. This second search period was a little longer than I expected, nevertheless, I found what I do now. Some of my acquaintances who were already working in Wildlife Ecology inspired me to think about this as a career option. I would like to bring to your notice again that I had no connection whatsoever with wildlife or jungles in any sense(remember I grew up in the cement jungle of Kanpur?!!) At a certain point, I felt that me being a Math student would be a bottleneck, as the word ‘Ecology’ sounds like ‘Biology’ to many unaware Math students like me. But my curiosity led me to investigate more and that is when I found that there are many engineers turned ecologists working actively in this domain not just overseas but also in India. This was an encouragement. I didn’t waste any more time and wrote to Scientists heading the North-east India team in Wildlife Conservation Society-India. They hired me as an intern for 2 months, and later as a full-time member in their team. 

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

Challenge 1: Choosing a career track

The first and foremost challenge was to choose from a platter full of  different career tracks and options. As I mentioned earlier, it was overwhelming at the time, especially because I wasn’t academically trained in this domain. I resolved to address my challenges with  patience and perseverance. I started reading more, researching on the internet, reading popular science articles, and most importantly, talking and writing to professionals already established in this field. Surely, it was time-taking, but the best part is that I ended up making the right decision. 

Challenge 2: Financial sustainability 

Coming from an engineering background, and that too switching to  the non-profit sector from corporate was a big blow on my pocket. I  had to downscale my expectations for remuneration and also give a thought about how to manage my financial health wisely. It wasn’t a big challenge for me as I always maintained a very simple lifestyle even when I was working as an engineer. Still, long-term sustainability was in question. I managed my monthly budget in such a way that I needn’t touch my savings. I hired a financial  advisor who could help me reorganize my finances and investments for long-term financial durability. 

Challenge 3: Balancing personal and professional life 

Not just in this particular career track, but I feel we all often experience losing work-life balance. It is very prominent in a career that has no defined working hours. My lessons came the hard way.  I struggled a good deal balancing my priorities and professional demands. But eventually, I realized the importance of taking breaks and spending some quality time with myself. My eldest sister introduced me to the concept of Meditation and to Heartfulness, a  non-profit, non-religious spiritual organization, where I learned a  very special technique of meditation. The best part was that I got  introduced to a larger community of people, from diverse  ethnic, professional backgrounds, and age-class, who shared my interests in self-discovery through spirituality. Practicing mediation is  not just helping me grow spiritually but is also helping me improve emotionally and professionally. I also rediscovered my interest in sketching and reading and now all of these are my everyday companions. 

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

At present, I am a Junior Research Fellow at Ashoka University. Here I am collaborating with scientists to find answers to some very interesting mysteries in the field of ecology. Just to give you a snapshot, I am trying to figure out whether our nature around us is resilient enough to sustain in its present condition for a long-time.  Answering this question requires a mix of many skills. I use  statistics, data-analytics tools, and spatial analysis tools to interpret the data. But before jumping to making interpretations, I have to read a whole lot of research already done on this subject. When it comes to reading research papers (which are often mind-boggling, yet mind-blowing!), the idea is to wear your critical-thinking cap and read between the lines. 

Previously, I worked in Kaziranga National Park and also in other not-protected forested areas of Assam. My job there was to follow Elephants! I used to be armed with cameras, GIS devices, binoculars, and a couple of notebooks to record my observations. My work was to track and identify elephants with their outer features (in a scientific language it is called morphological features). By doing this I was trying to individually identify each elephant and then understand what the size of the population is. Did you know that the morphological features of elephants differ from each other? I didn’t know it before I did my fieldwork. I wouldn’t have known about how nature functions, hadn’t I worked in the field. 

Nobody taught me any of it. I learned it on the way and that is how everyone in research does it. I have to depend on myself to acquire new skills. I take help from the internet, books, and, like always, my colleagues. I trained my mind to observe and self-learn and that I feel is the best part of my job. Another great thing is that I  get to govern my work schedule and target myself, therefore my job gives me a bit more flexibility than some other jobs out there.  But such flexible jobs come with their drawbacks, as it is very easy and highly likely to mismanage and be super unorganized, and that is where I depend on being more alert towards my choices throughout the day. What works for me is planning my day every morning, keeping small and realistic targets, taking breaks, maintaining a journal, and most importantly sticking to my meditation and exercise schedule. 

How does your work benefit society? 

The Internet can give you better answers to why conserving nature is good for you. On the contrary, I feel that my job does a little more than offer benefits to society. When it comes to nature conservation or sustainability, we often think from the ‘utilitarian perspective’ which means that we center our research to understand how conserving a certain natural resource would help human society. Surely, It helps to make effective conservation decisions and management plans, as the goal is to serve human society for the longest possible time. But here is where the trap lies!

We might end up not prioritizing the conservation of a certain natural resource if science doesn’t give us a convincing answer to ‘how this would help humans survive for the longest time.’ There have been studies (and still many are revealing..) around the world where scientists have found how a certain ecosystem or a species or a resource is indirectly linked with the long-term viability of human society. 

Therefore, even if something doesn’t appear to be offering direct benefits at first glance, I try to dive deeper to look for the hidden treasure! On a serious note, I believe that the key idea of conservation science is to realize ‘the intrinsic right of everything  around us to sustain and thrive as it is!’ The challenge is how to achieve the goal of nature and human coexistence so that it is a win-win situation for both. (You might argue that humans are also part of nature, which is a very valid point in my perspective!!) 

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

I can’t think of one! All the projects that I have been working on have challenged me in all possible ways and thus all of them are equally memorable. 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

I am a student myself, hence it would be over-glorifying to offer advice to other students. Still, I would like to say that it is good if some of you are feeling overwhelmed and vulnerable. (I still feel it at times!) The key to making the right decision for yourself is to be patient and listen to what your heart says. Before rushing, take some time to understand your interests, your strengths, and weaknesses. Be open to wrong decisions and failures. Ask yourself what you want to do and why you want to do something before heading straight to how you want to do it. A good everyday habit to organize your thoughts and ideas is to write a diary every single day! And last but not the least, It is easier to follow others’ advice but difficult to give a good one to yourself. 

Future Plans? 

My short-term plan is to go back to school for higher studies and think of innovative ways to integrate all my skills for conservation work. In the long term, I wish to keep collaborating with scientists around the world and add something meaningful to the body of knowledge already existing.