Nature matters for development, because humanity is embedded in nature, and is entirely dependent on nature for survival, wellbeing, and economic prosperity.

Gayatri Kanungo, our next pathbreaker, Senior Environmental Specialist at World Bank Group, manages a diverse portfolio of projects dealing with environmental challenges across the globe and leads programs that implement nature based solutions.

Gayatri talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being fascinated by the interconnectedness between science and nature, and finding her true calling in addressing large scale environmental challenges.

For students, we live in a world that is adapting to change. Acknowledge it, embrace it and innovate to come up with sustainable solutions for our planet !

Gayatri, can you tell us about your growing up years?

My early years were spent growing up in New Delhi and I graduated from the Air Force Bal Bharati School, Lodhi Road. My formative school and undergraduate years did influence some positive personality traits, and also allowed me space to take up extracurricular activities including playing national level volleyball and lots of reading. Notably, ‘leading by example’ was a mantra that stuck in my mind from seeing my Dad, a dedicated senior IPS officer leading the Central Industrial Security Force and my mom, a lecturer turned school principal. As I sit back and recollect now, “Nature and its marvels” always remained a fascination throughout my childhood and early adult life.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I graduated with BSc (Hons.) in Zoology and MSc Zoology from the University of Delhi studying at Miranda House College, where I started noting my love for genetics and its potential for fun experimentation! Following that, I pursued higher studies through a PhD (Botechnology) from the University of Cambridge, UK. 

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

For me, learning was a continuum during my student life – coming from many big & small experiences, be it at school or university – with several teachers and professors who made an impact. And I remain thankful to each one of them, as I learned from them the importance of a strong educational foundation, perseverance and evidence based work that science offered.

Influences that shaped my academic ambitions came from varied directions during my formative years of growth – be it from my father, my grandfather (a freedom fighter), my aunts and uncles who were doctors, or friends of the family holding prestigious positions and, all of whom wanted to make a difference to our way of life! At one point, I was all focused on becoming a journalist so I could follow social and scientific issues and bring them to the people. As an avid reader, I enjoyed reading biographies and followed champions of change at the grassroots level, who I believe, in hindsight, became the igniting factors for my aspirations to lead by example and experience the world!  This, I also hoped, would inspire my sibling and others to step out into the world and discover themselves. For all this to happen I needed to increase my knowledge and my credentials, and which is what I set out to do.

The key turning point in my life was when I finished my PhD at Cambridge and went into a self-discovery mode to determine my path forward. My experiences during the stay abroad included understanding the vast field of biotechnology, some wonderful travels discovering nature and different environments, meeting people from diverse backgrounds, meeting scholars who worked with passion and, most importantly, living an independent life in a developed world! All as fun and exciting as it could be. 

But importantly, I began to seriously wonder about the interconnectedness of science and nature, particularly as my doctoral work on biologically producing pharmaceuticals also allowed me to look into the potential negative impacts of release of pharmaceutical waste into the environment. These experiences were subtly driving me towards a professional life outside pure research laboratories and to pick up opportunities in the field of development that could connect me with environment and people in India! Needless to say, this brought with it a dilemma and some hard decision making as I struggled to gather courage to leave the wonderful settings in Cambridge and head back to India to explore and establish a career that could feed my passion. 

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.

Science always found my interest and that is what led me to pursue undergraduate and graduate degrees in aspects of biology and biochemistry. Note also that this was a good subject of choice that had the potential to support higher studies in Medicine or allow me to take the civil services exam as back up options!  At the end of my Masters in Zoology, having secured top rank in Delhi University (DU), I found opportunities with relative ease to pursue a junior research fellowship towards a doctorate degree in DU through a CSIR grant. In parallel however I applied to various scholarships for higher studies abroad.

To date, I am thankful for securing the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Fund Scholarship of the Cambridge Commonwealth Trust to do a PhD at the Institute of Biotechnology in Cambridge UK – where I focused on recombinant gene technology for biological production of pharmaceuticals and then continued as a fellow for an additional year. This experience provided me with a strong foundation in analytics and independent thinking, which proved to be the stepping stones for my broader work on environmental issues.  Further, my knowledge of zoology and botany (popularly termed ‘fauna’ and ‘flora’ in the field of development) from my graduate degrees definitely added to my technical strength and overall skill set.

During my postdoctoral fellowship year, I made the firm decision to return to India and explore career paths that were science based – academics, pharmaceutical development, environmental biotechnology etc.  Upon returning, I visited science Institutes and universities across India, pharma industries in New Delhi and explored international organizations such as the United Nations, World Bank Group, FAO, WHO etc., to determine the potential for jobs within. 

One such opportunistic networking meeting gave me my first break in the field of environment policy and investments through the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in India. What started as a short term consultancy led to longer term work that exposed me to the international development arena, the challenges of environmental degradation, and its impacts on human wellbeing. This is perhaps when I excitedly realized my true calling ! Nature, environment, society and people – as I think back now – made the right base for sustainable development.

Life decisions happened in parallel, which brought me to the United States of America. This is where I began to shape and refocus my career path in a meaningful way, also placing emphasis on maintaining a work-life balance. I applied and secured a job with the World Bank Group. Professionally my job saw a gradual progression, where as an environment specialist I learnt the mechanics of investment & policy development in Africa, and then moved to leading sector strategy development and and portfolio management as the Africa Coordinator. Gaining experience, I became a senior environmental specialist and the fund manager for an interesting partnership – TerrAfrica – which supported investments & innovative knowledge. Now I lead, design and coordinate large investment programs. My work place offers a cosmopolitan environment for professional learning and knowledge sharing – something that I have taken immense advantage of – appreciating diverse cultures, country contexts and, different yet common challenges that can bring collective action.

How did you get your first break? 

Both the UNDP and World Bank jobs were through networking meetings, followed by interviews and the usual hiring process. Here I cannot not stress on the importance of a strong network of peers who can play a critical role in career planning.

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

All journeys have challenges and I faced a fair share at various stages of my educational and career paths. A few to highlight  include: 

Adapting to the field of development work. A challenge I faced was when I switched from post-doctoral academic work to the international development arena. This required a lot of reading relevant resource material (almost a second masters!), formal and informal discussions with colleagues, seeking mentorship and most importantly, setting myself simple but realistic learning goals. 

Writing skills to match the needs of the work. While writing was something I always enjoyed, I put  particular emphasis on learning the subtle nuances to help understand differences between, say, an academic research paper and a policy note. This is easily learnt with diligence and practice. Nowadays there are a lot of soft and hard skill courses that one can avail to enhance capacities. I say make use of them.

Developing a strong network and support at the workplace. A strong network of peers and colleagues, both inside and outside the institution, enables healthy cross-fertilization of knowledge and can become a robust support system. This needs effort, patience, reaching out and good communication skills. Through observation and practice I learnt to: better connect with people from different cultures with empathy, understand cultural biases objectively, listen more and respect differences in opinion, and importantly share knowledge with humility both for visibility and leadership. 

Where do you work now? What do you do as an Environmental Specialist?

Currently, I work for the World Bank in the Environment, Natural Resources and Blue Economy Global Practice managing a diverse portfolio of projects dealing with environmental challenges across the globe and leading programs that implement nature based solutions.

What problems do you solve?

Nature and its ecosystems are central to healthy human existence. Keeping our planet healthy and resilient, therefore finds significant relevance, particularly as we are slowly emerging from the devastating impacts of the global COVID-19 pandemic. Globally complex interactions including climate change impacts are leading to increasing vulnerabilities in nature and jeopardizing livelihood prospects for millions of people across nations. Land degradation is increasing at alarming rates in several vulnerable ecosystems.

Thus, nature matters for development. Humanity is embedded in nature, and is entirely dependent on it for survival, wellbeing, and economic prosperity. Biodiversity, land and the ecosystem services they support such as food and raw materials, water filtration and climate regulation, underpin development. Together, this natural wealth, along with produced wealth and nonrenewable natural resources provide the base for generating income that drives economic growth.

My focus has been on enhancing green, resilient, and inclusive development through a broad spectrum of actions that can help address the drivers of nature loss and harness nature’s services across sectors such as agriculture, disaster risk management, water management and urban development. For example, actions in conservation and restoration of nature, institution and capacity building, as well as analytics and tools that help provide evidence-based knowledge. There is increasing understanding that degradation of land and water resources transcend institutional and geographic boundaries. Integrated management of this mosaic of land-based production systems – watersheds, pastoral and rangelands, protected area habitats, and dry forestlands – can offer an effective solution to strengthen countries’ resilience to natural disasters and climate change. I continue to promote strategic investments in nature-based solutions.

In short, I feel what we the People can do to ‘Nourish our ecosystems, Nurture our biodiversity, Enable reliable food and Enhance resilience’ will positively translate to ‘Better environment, Better production, Better nutrition, and Better lives’.

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

This field needs sound technical knowledge of the global context of environmental issues to help recognize the problems, an analytical mind to search for solutions, innovative thinking to allow structuring the problem and solutions, and strong people skills (teamwork & collaboration) to effectively implement actions, supported by good communication skills. Both my educational pursuits and learning-on-the-job approach (doing courses, taking trainings etc) helped gain and hone the needed skills.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day, which can stretch to 10-12 hrs, is a mix of remote meetings with clients in developing countries, brainstorming with team members and external partners, advisory for crisis management, project/policy reviews and strategy development etc. My work also includes traveling across the globe for international meetings, project related work in countries including meeting sector ministries, partners and communities – all towards supporting sustainable development goals.  

What is it you love about this job? 

The versatile nature of my work offers me the opportunity to not only better understand the increasing relevance of a ‘healthy planet’ but to also be able to strategize ways to meet the challenges it faces. I truly enjoy its multisectoral and interdisciplinary nature where evidence-based science can support nature-based actions. I love these opportunities to find green solutions, travel to countries to implement them and, more often than not, actually see the visible impact it has on both people and the ecosystems ! A win-win as it strongly feeds my passion.

How does your work benefit society? 

At the core of sustainable development is ‘Nature and the people that inhabit it”. The world faces dual crises of nature loss and climate change that unfortunately threaten and have a disproportionate impact on the poorest and most vulnerable populations. 

But investing in nature offers solutions to reducing poverty and protecting the biosphere and stability of the climate system. Better managed forests and landscapes, sustainable agriculture practices, efficient harvesting and management of water, reducing marine plastic pollution and greening urban spaces – all impact society and us who live in it. 

Nature based solutions can address several societal challenges, including food and water security, human health, disaster risk and climate change. Working collaboratively with countries to meet their relevant national priorities and commitments is central to my work – both analytical and on the ground – all of which has direct implications on enhancing ecosystem resilience and people’s livelihoods & wellbeing. 

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

I feel fortunate to have worked on diverse and interesting programs on restoration and protection in several countries. My work in sub-Saharan Africa however is close to my heart and gives me immense joy. Let me give you an example of our work in Ghana which recently received recognition for delivering demonstrable and transformative results at the national and community levels. Located in the heart of West Africa, Ghana’s arid Northern Savannah Zone is characterized by high poverty, vulnerability, low climate resilience and severe land degradation within its ecosystems. Through an innovative programmatic approach, the project combined a package of soft and hard investments and community-based interventions to change the trajectory of unsustainable land management on and off farms towards adoption of sustainable land and water management practices for achieving resilience and food security in vulnerable Ghanaian communities.

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Working with the government, the project has helped Ghana (i) provide a proof-of-concept for adopting integrated landscape management that brought for the first time agriculture, water, land and environment sectors together for joint action, (ii) experiment in community incentive mechanisms to successfully pilot an innovative method for payment of ecosystem services that encouraged adoption of economical trees (cashew, mango, & mahogany) on farms for additional incomes and, (iii) promoted gender equitable & inclusive actions to build financial capacity of local Ghanaian women for their empowerment and well-being. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

For the new generation of students and young professionals, I have four take away messages:

Recognize and follow your passion: Always find time to reflect on your strengths and weaknesses – be it in your personality or academic endeavors. Knowing them well will help define the strongest career path for yourself and sustain your passion in the longer run. No one is good at everything, so prioritize what works best for you and take inspiration from others to better yourself.

Adapt and persevere: the world is changing, problems are changing, solutions are changing  – so don’t be afraid of change. Learn to adapt and innovate! There is a lot of joy in innovation, experimentation and risk taking. And I honestly believe that ‘Success’, both needs and, follows perseverance. 

Lead by example: As they say, ‘be the change that you want to see’. Leadership is a wonderful combination of knowledge, creativity, decisiveness, inspiration and humility. None of these traits are beyond reach. Work towards them and, on them. One of my favourite quotes that best describes this for me is-  “A leader Knows the way, Goes the way and Shows the way”.

And last but not the least, 

Find time to be environmentally conscious and nature friendly in your actions !

Future Plans?

Professionally, I look forward to expanding my portfolio with new innovative programs that can become models for replication in countries for collective environmental action. Personally, I hope to inspire our youth, including my kids, to think out of the box as they consider career paths that could bring their respective knowledge to the science-nature-people nexus !