Our first job, in many ways, defines our career in terms of what we want to do for the rest of our life and what we do not want to do for the rest of our life !

Akanksha Rathore, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour, Konstanz (Germany), looks at the underpinnings and implications of certain animal behavioural patterns at a broader level, i.e. population, species, and even ecosystem level. 

Akanksha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her hidden infatuation with nature and wildlife, along with a problem-solving aptitude which took her from the confines of a well paying corporate job to the north eastern rainforests, analyzing animal behaviour in the wild.

For students, no knowledge or skill goes wasted during career transitions, since everything is transferable in the inter-disciplinary world that we live in today !

Akanksha, what were your initial years like?

I was born and brought up in Rajasthan and did my schooling from Kendriya Vidyalaya in nine different cities owing to the nature of my father’s government job. I spent most part of my childhood in Border Security Force’s campus enjoying the beauty of nature – the flow of the streams, the rustle of the trees and the whisper of the winds.

 I enjoyed my childhood thoroughly and got introduced to Mathematics and Logical Reasoning in a crude manner. My grandfather used to challenge me with puzzles and brainstorming questions about the world. As a child, I was ingenious in solving those and this led to an affinity towards mathematics and nature, a strange combination I must say! With limited knowledge of the career options I took Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics in High School because of my interest in Mathematics, and eventually landed up in the Software Engineering field. Although I enjoyed all the intellectual challenges requiring inductive reasoning aptitude in this fiel,d but deep inside, I still felt a void and longing for just staying in the lap of nature. There are two things that I expected from my career, intellectual gratification and closeness to nature. So, I started looking out for career options in which I could utilize my mathematical and reasoning skills and still get an opportunity to work in the open areas and observe the marvels of nature until I was tired. That’s when I realized that the field of research in Ecology and Wildlife amalgamated my true interests in a unique way. So, I opted to pursue this career path and started my journey leading to the world of wonders i.e. Ecological Science.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelor’s in Information technology from Malaviya National Institute of Technology, Jaipur (NIT Jaipur), and worked as a software engineer at SAP labs India for two years.

After deciding to switch my career, I briefly did some projects with the Nature Conservation Foundation, working in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, and applied for a PhD program at the Indian Institute of Science. I did my PhD from the Center for Ecological Sciences, IISc, Bangalore.

Currently, I am working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Center of Advanced Studies of Animal Behaviour, University of Konstanz, and Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

I had a hidden infatuation with nature and wildlife along with a problem-solving aptitude. I could see that by building a career in Ecological research I could marry my interests namely research and wildlife.

I was extremely fortunate to come in contact with some of the most amazing and inspiring people who guided my path as mentors. My first break in the field of Ecology was through Dr. Karpagam, who not only provided an opportunity to venture in this field but also provided the much needed support to a beginner. She acted as a bridge to the field of ecology, by exposing me to this beautiful field and for providing never-ending inspiration and affection. While working in the Eastern Himalaya Program, I received top notch field training and an understanding of natural history from Dr. Rohit Naniwadekar and Ushma Shukla.

During my PhD, I had the support of my advisors Dr, Vishwesha Guttal and Dr. Kavita Isvaran. Their guidance and encouragement helped me navigate and complete my PhD journey with ease. They provided indispensable insights into the field of animal behaviour and in general the philosophy of Science. I can very proudly say that I had the most amazing PhD advisors there could ever be!! They continue to be my towers of support even now.

Most importantly, I am blessed with exceptionally supportive parents and husband. My husband always had my back, and we overcame all the challenges together by just laughing and dancing our way around. My parents supported my choices and were always there for me to share my burden even if they weren’t sure about the direction in which I was going. They unconditionally trusted me and cared for me!

The most memorable events in the academia are –

  • Getting an opportunity to work in the forests of Arunachal Pradesh with the most amazing scientists who also happened to be beautiful human beings and with whom I got made friends for life.
  • Joining the prestigious Center for Ecological Sciences, IISc for a PhD program. My tenure there was a joyous ride and I got the mentors for life.

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom”

The above line summarizes my decision to pursue a career in ‘Ecology and Biodiversity’ after working for two years as a Software Engineer at a reputed firm. For me, the trigger was my corporate job, the nature of the job and city lifestyle which made me take the leap of faith. At my job, I was interested in digging into the causation and working of things but such an approach wasn’t encouraged, so I was quite sure that I want to pursue research. However, I also had this strange desire of working and staying very close to forests and wildlife. So, the turning point for me was when I decided to quit corporate life and venture into the field of ecological sciences.

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 transition from the corporate sector to academia started with a chucklesome google query – “career options for staying close to nature”. After ruling out Indian Forest Services and organic farming, I got fixed on, “research in Ecology”. This field fascinated me for various reasons, the most important being that it beautifully amalgamated my passion for problem solving and nature. However, I wanted to be very sure that it wasn’t mere escapism from my monotonous job. So, to be sure that it’s just not the case of “Distant pastures look greener”, I bought Ecology textbooks and started studying. Within a week, I was just hooked and I had never been more sure about my career direction.

The next step was to figure out whether I am even eligible to pursue higher studies in Ecology, given that I was from an Engineering background and hadn’t studied biology after high school.

So, I started my next online research and browsed the profile of all the students at CES, IISc, and realized some students had switched from Physics and Engineering fields. I wrote to these people and got replies and guidance from Ankur, Jaideep, Sandeep, and Karpagam. Before contacting Karpagam I had already written to numerous professors and students at IISc, the University of Delhi, and WII for volunteering opportunities. Many of them advised me against leaving my high-paying corporate job. Finally, when I wrote to Karpagam she called me to Bangalore to volunteer on a project for two weeks.

While volunteering on this project I was even more sure that this is what I want to pursue further. Fortunately, I also got the next volunteering opportunity through Karpagam – eastern Himalaya Program. So, I came back to Delhi, and on that day itself, I resigned. Coincidentally, I also got a promotion in my company when I was on leave but that didn’t matter to me anymore.

My first project with the Eastern Himalayan Program, NCF was on Hornbill’s breeding biology. Hornbill is a tropical bird that is one of the rare species dispersing the seeds of large evergreen trees, hence they are also known as keystone species of the rainforests.

This study was conducted in Pakke Tiger reserve, Arunachal pradesh.  I was a part of field project for 10 months. Here, I  collected data of hornbill diet during the breeding season. I conducted 6-hour long nest watches everyday to record hornbill’s diet.  As this project focused on seed dispersal by hornbill in northeastern rainforests, once we recorded information on which tree species hornbills visit and hence aid in seed dispersal, next step was to understand the range or distance up to which they can disperse seeds. For this, we tagged 7 Great hornbill individuals (males) with GPS tags and collected their movement data. I was involved in field work during capturing and tagging of hornbill individuals, setting up GPS tags and receiver and manuscript writing. Involvement in all the stages of this project provided me with a wholistic experience of how research in ecology is conducted. I also learnt various field skills such as bird identification, tree identification, canopy climbing, focal scans of behaviours and hornbill biology.

I realized that for further growth in this field and to become an independent researcher, I must do a PhD. So, I started preparing for the GATE Ecology and Evolution exam along with my fieldwork. I was fortunate enough to secure a very good rank in the exam and got called for the interviews. The CES (Center for Ecological Sciences) interview was unique in the way that it didn’t test any of the rote learning or memory-based concepts but rather focused on the problem-solving approach. As a result, I got through and thus started my journey in academia.

At CES, my PhD project focused on the collective escape behaviour of animal groups in the wild. Collective animal behaviour is fascinating as animal collectives not only produce spectacular visual patterns but also evoke questions such as – How the individuals in such big groups convey information to each other? Is there a leader in such groups who navigates the groups? What are the functional consequences of having such big groups?

My PhD work was motivated by a fascination to understand some of these fundamental questions on collective behaviours of animal societies. It was a highly interdisciplinary work that required state-of-the art methods for data collection – we used aerial videography (UAVs) to collect videos of blackbuck groups. On these videos, I applied machine learning and computer vision algorithms to acquire high resolution movement and interaction data. I then analyzed this data to reveal the collective escape strategies used by blackbuck herds in pradation like events.

How did you get your first break?

My first break in this field was a volunteering opportunity with the Nature Conservation Foundation. I got this opportunity after writing to and contacting many people. After ensuring my intended direction for a career, I looked up the resources and contacts available online, and out of maybe 100 people some 5-6 replied. In retrospect, getting the first opportunity to gain some experience was the most difficult part.

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

Challenge 1: First challenge was to make this switch between two completely different fields and that too with limited exposure in Biology. Volunteering with various projects before applying for a PhD and learning on the job helped me a lot to crack the exams and interviews.

Challenge 2: From the personal and practical point of view, it was a big decision financially. From earning a 6 figure salary to volunteering for free required a lot of courage. However, for me the biggest factor in overcoming this challenge was the support of my husband (then boyfriend), just knowing that if something goes wrong he is always there for me. He encouraged me to pursue my dreams without any fear.

Challenge 3: During my PhD, there were numerous challenges scientifically that required out of the box thinking and a highly interdisciplinary approach. Thanks to my engineering degree, I could overcome these challenges.

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

I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute of Animal Behaviour, Konstanz. This is a collaborative project with my team mates Dr. Vivek Sridhar and Dr, Hemal Naik.

In the field of animal behaviour, we look at the underpinnings of certain behaviours and that implications they have at a broader level i.e. population, species, and even ecosystem level. 

In my current project, I am studying the mate-choice behaviour in Blackbuck (Antilope cervicapra). Some populations of blackbuck show a very unique and interesting behaviour called lekking, in human context it is quite similar to the tradition of Swayamvar. 

Mate-choice strategies have implications on the sexual selection pressures and hence evolutionary outcomes at species level. 

My work involves understanding the mechanistic as well as evoltionary processes that contributed to lekking behaviours. 

The activities to answer such a project involves multiple layers of approaches – for example, observing the behaviour in the wild to gather the data, also known as field work. We then try to make sense of the observed patterns from this data and show what are the implications of our findings in the broader field. My current work is an extension of my PhD work in some sense but with many challenges that require collaborative efforts. In this project, we designed a novel data collection technique to record the behaviour of close to 150 individuals spread across 6 km square area using 3×3 drones doing a relay. It’s first study of this scale observing animal behaviour in the wild. For further analysis, we would be using computer vision techniques for visual tracking of animals in these videos. 

Ultimately, we aim to understand the evolution of lekking behaviour and its implications on the populations.

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

As a researcher, we look at the missing gaps in the knowledge base and try to answer the questions about nature that are still unanswered. Running a research project requires many skills and creative thinking. An independent researcher plays the role of manager, HR, communication officer, marketing expert, data analyst, writer, and of course a lifelong student. I think on-job learning is “the” required attitude in our field. Nowadays research has become highly interdisciplinary and hence it’s impossible to know everything before starting a project. So it requires a lot of learning every day. We also need to collaborate with other scientists and mentor students, and this requires people management and good communication skills. While doing research we are always trying to fill missing gaps and hence it requires a lot of reading to know what is already done.

What’s a typical day like?

The best part of this job is that no two days look alike. Although most of the time it would be a combination of writing, reading, meetings, attending talks, or presenting. However, there is something new to learn every day and the flexibility to plan our day as we want. On some days, I would be in a forest observing your study system. Another day would be spent in attending a conference or giving talks/lectures. Some days are devoted to writing or data analysis. It’s a never-ending pursuit and I love every bit of it!

How does your work benefit society?

Animal behaviour has already been an inspiration for many of the great inventions and theories – for example, economics, physics, and ecology have many theories commonly inspired by nature and animal behaviour.

One of the direct implications of our work is towards informing conservation and climate change policies and preserving the biodiversity of this planet which is essential for a sustainable future. The various areas of research in ecology provide us with information to better understand the world around us. This information also can help us improve our environment and manage our natural resources, and lead a sustainable and healthy life.

However, in my opinion, the most common drive behind scientific discoveries has been just human curiosity about the world around us. Therefore, the biggest contribution of research in basic sciences is towards building the knowledge base for human society on which many inventions and technologies stand. Many of the discoveries or studies might not have direct applications until a time much further in the future and that is how this wheel rolls.

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

For me, the most memorable work would be my internship in Eastern Himalaya Program at NCF, as this was the very first time I was getting exposed to this humongous field that I didn’t even know existed. Also, being a novice in this field generated a child-like curiosity in me and a drive to know more and explore more. In my initial days, I got the opportunity to apply my programming skills to solve the puzzles of nature. In a short duration, I got exposure to various field skills such as observation methods, trekking, high canopy climbing, mist-netting, bird handling, phenology surveys, etc. It was quite an enriching experience that prepared me very well for the future years. Spending time every day in the glorious rainforests was a cherry on the cake, these memories will always have a special space in my heart.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would encourage students to break the boundaries between various fields in Science and take an integrative approach. No knowledge or skill goes wasted since everything is transferable, we just need to think creatively and find the ways. Sometimes, it may even require multiple trials to find something. 

Future Plans?

I would like to keep doing science and solve the puzzles of nature, and eventually be a good mentor to the future generation and still stay a student and learner.