The only way to explore the rich marine biodiversity of India is to keep your head down (literally) studying the amazing creatures living in the ocean !
Sudhanshu Dixit, our next pathbreaker, Project Scientist-B in the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE), surveys marine species in and around Lakshadweep and Andaman group of Islands,
for Taxonomical identification of corals and associated organisms.
Sudhanshu talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his PhD on Marine Flatworms which involved biodiversity surveys in and around A & N Islands through intertidal areas and several hundreds of scuba dives.
For students, if you want to witness the beauty of the pristine marine world, don’t miss the underwater video (link in the interview) taken by Sudhanshu during his scuba dives !
Sudhanshu, can you tell us about your early years?
I was born in Ghaziabad and later shifted to Faridabad (Haryana) where I did my schooling from Gita Convent School (now Scholars Pride). I come from a middle class family. My father is a mechanical engineer and mother is a homemaker. I was interested in animals and sports from a very young age and was always watching animal related programmes on Discovery and NatGeo channels. Since I was not much interested in maths, I chose Biology for my 11th and 12th standard. I really enjoyed studying biology.
What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?
I got decent marks in my 12th in 2007, and got admission in BSc. (H) Zoology at Acharya Narendra Dev College, University of Delhi. It was here that my love for studying animals took shape and I decided to be in this field. Later, I decided to do my post-graduation as I was inclined towards research. I got admission in MSc, Marine Biology at Pondicherry University Campus at Andaman and Nicobar Islands (through national level entrance test conducted by Pondicherry University). Being from a land locked state, witnessing the unmatched beauty of these islands and witnessing the sea for the first time in my life just blew my mind. During my MSc, apart from normal classes and practical activities, me and my friends used to go snorkelling at intertidal areas where I saw numerous animals alive (animals which I only saw as specimens during my school and BSc.). I then did my PhD in Marine Biology and Biological Oceanography from Pondicherry University and Zoological survey of India at Andaman and Nicobar Islands.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
During my school, though not knowing the details, I was fascinated by the fact that if we name any living being on this planet, our names are attached to it forever. I think this was the driving force that drove me to become an animal taxonomist. Also, the support of my parents who always gave me the freedom to do whatever I want in my life has made me what I am today.
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 MSc, since I was more inclined towards research, I decided to opt for a PhD to further explore marine animals. I got admission into the PhD program at the Zoological Survey of India at Andaman and Nicobar Islands (through national level entrance test conducted by Pondicherry University) and this is where my real journey as a taxonomist started.
Since the main mandate of the Zoological Survey of India (ZSI) is to study the biodiversity of our country, it was a good place for me to learn and apply the science of taxonomy on my group of animals.
While doing my PhD, I got selected as Junior Research Fellow (JRF) and later Senior Research Fellow (SRF). I also did my scuba diving certificate course which changed my whole perspective towards marine life. My work included marine biodiversity surveys in and around A & N Islands with special reference to marine flatworms (my PhD work) through scuba diving and intertidal surveys, research paper and report writing.
When I joined my PhD, I was searching for some understudied group of animals to work upon and one of my senior colleagues told me about marine flatworms. At that time, nobody from India was working on these marine organisms and I thought i would give it a try. When I started working on these majestic animals, I came to understand why nobody study these animals. Marine flatworms are very hard to find and difficult to preserve for further studies due to their soft bodied nature. I took it as a challenge and started working on this without thinking much about the future. Around 4 years after starting my PhD, I was able to publish my first species description in a reputed taxonomic journal. For those 4 years, I was patiently working while steadily acquiring knowledge about taxonomy and its principles.
It was my PhD and nature of my work at my institute that took me to various islands (inhabited and uninhabited) on the entire A & N Islands, and to many places where common people/tourists cannot go (Nicobar Islands). I did around more than 500 dives in and around A & N Islands during my work, apart from numerous intertidal area surveys.
How did you get your first break?
Joining PhD, getting JRF and Scuba diving certification resulted in my first break in the field of actual research and taxonomy.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
I would rather not say this as a challenge but as a chance for me when I got admission into PhD in A & N Islands. I decided to go there without any prior information about the place. This was a chance which I took since it was first time i was travelling this far from home without family. I got comfortable at sea during my MSc days when I went to my snorkelling trips with seniors and classmates (we used to take proper precautions before/while entering into the sea since it can be dangerous sometimes). After joining ZSI I took a few diving classes from my senior diving colleagues and which helped me a lot in getting comfortable in water even before I did my certification course. Getting comfortable in the water is the biggest challenge when we go for diving and all of the diving experiences would be based on that how comfortable one is in the water.
Taxonomy is a challenging field of science which requires rigorous literature review and good knowledge of principles of taxonomy. We have to be up to date, as many people are working on the same group of animals around the world. As a taxonomist, I have to be accurate while writing any research paper with substantial proof, getting it checked by reviewers or other experts before publishing it in a reputable journal. This process, though seems simple, can take years and thus patience is something which is of utmost importance in this field.
Where do you currently work? What do you do?
Presently I am working as Project Scientist-B at the Centre for Marine Living Resources and Ecology (CMLRE), Ministry of Earth Sciences, Kochi. My typical day in the office, off the field, generally starts with reading a few research papers related to my field, making a few notes, and identifying animal samples collected during various field trips with the help of literature that has been published. If the animal seems indescribable/unidentifiable, then I have to write a new description for it, by giving it a formal scientific name and publishing my results in a reputed taxonomic journal. I also have to maintain the natural history collections in the museum, make databases and other related works.
Here is a video that I shot during my field surveys in Agatti Island from 2018 to 2019.
What do you love about your work?
During field trips, I do scuba diving and intertidal area surveys and underwater photography (especially macro photography). I also record data and collect animals which could be new, without a name or difficult to identify in the field. The things I love about my work are going on field trips, scuba diving, seeing animals in their natural habitat and being closer to nature.
Tell us, how does your work benefit society?
My work is directly connected to biodiversity which in turn is connected to society in one way or another. As a marine biologist and taxonomist, I identify animals from an area and then later report about them to many stakeholders like the government and general public. This helps to create awareness about the rich biodiversity of our country and thus plays an important role in their safeguard and conservation. We cannot save any living being until we know about it, its character and its name.
Tell us about a memorable project that you worked on?
Though I have named 12 species of marine flatworms from India and all of these are special and memorable to me, the most memorable are the species which I named after my mother and father, Pseudoceros meenae and Pseudoceros vishnui.
Your advice to students?
Finally, to those who are reading this, I just want to say that dream big, try to achieve it and do whatever interests you most. Be it any field, hard work always pays off. Taxonomy and Marine Biology are challenging yet interesting fields if you are really interested in studying the amazing creatures living in the ocean. There are many groups of animals for which the number of taxonomists are very less around the world especially in marine realm. Scuba diving is another field with good job prospects, plenty of adventure and a good career can be made out of it as you gain experience and high levels of certifications. India is now a rapidly growing place for scuba diving with many dive schools/resorts opening in most of the costal tourist places.
Your future plans?
In the future, I want to name more species especially in the marine animal groups, which are relatively understudied due to the lack of experts in our country. I am also interested in studying coral reef biology and how they are changing due to the climate change crisis on our planet.