In a country like India, observing the adverse effects of climate change at the grassroots level teaches you a lot more than what academic texts can offer !

Udita Sanga, our next pathbreaker, Researcher at Stockholm Resilience Centre (Stockholm), works on understanding social and ecological dynamics within agricultural systems using computational models in order to support informed policy making towards agricultural sustainability in developing countries. 

Udita talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her eye-opening experiences through extensive fieldwork on climate adaptation challenges, farmer resilience, agricultural livelihoods in South and South-East Asia (India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Vietnam). 

For students, managing social and ecological conflicts will play a critical role in the integration and reconciliation of natural resource management and conservation, along with human development.

Udita, Your background?

I am from the state of Jharkhand, known for its rich indigenous culture, deep forests, rolling hills and waterfalls. The state is also rich in minerals and coal, which makes for a lucrative landscape for the mining industry. However, despite contributing to almost 40% of India’s mineral and 30% of coal reserves , it’s also one of the poorest states in India. I became interested in studying sustainable natural resource management, rural development and environmental preservation through my observations of conflicting debates of forest preservation, tribal rights and economic development in the state I grew up in. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I have a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Biotechnology from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra; a Master of Science degree in Ecology from Utah State University, USA and a dual PhD degree in Community Sustainability and Environmental Science and Policy from Michigan State University, USA. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

My father used to work as a government doctor in Jharkhand (Bihar before the formation of the state in 2000)- and in my early formative years , we would spend summer holidays in Garu block in the forests of Palamu district where my father used to work in the government hospital.  I have fond memories of taking walks with my parents to a bridge across the Koel River and watching herds of wild elephants drink from the river. Several years later, just after my 12th board exams, I happened to travel back to the same river and was met with a dried river with a dam constructed upstream, and stories of increased human-elephant conflicts in the village. That incident had a profound impact on me and sparked my interest in environmental sciences as a career 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

I had chosen Physics, Chemistry and Maths (PCM) as my subjects for my intermediate 12th boards. I struggled to find an educational path that would allow me to study an environmental sciences based field for my bachelor’s degree as most related degrees needed a Biology background. I found a solution to my dilemma by enrolling in a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Biotechnology at Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra. It wasn’t exactly the field I was interested in, but it was a step in the door towards it. Much of my four years in Engineering is a blur. There was one course in Environmental Sciences taught during one semester that had excited me initially, but it was taught in an extremely dry manner to a group of rapidly disinterested students. I tried to make the most of it by choosing a final project that was related to environmental biotechnology. The project was on the use of biofertilizers from wastewater sludge (not nearly as exotic of a topic as that of my idol Dr Jane Goodall who studied the social life of chimpanzees in the Gombe!) 

After graduation, I interned at a non-profit organization at Navdanya , an NGO led by Dr Vandana Shiva , a prominent environmental activist where I learned more about biodiversity conservation in Himalayas and also got introduced to the issues of farmer suicides in Maharashtra due to issues of rising debts, and seed conflicts with BT-cotton and other genetically modified crops. That year, I started applying for courses in natural resources management, ecology, and conservation science in the US. I also appeared for the entrance exam at the Forest Research Institute, Dehradun and the Energy Research Institute (TERI), New Delhi. My final decision to pursue a Masters in Science degree in Ecology at Utah State University (USU) was based on financial considerations as I was offered funding in the form of a research assistantship from Utah State University.

At Utah, I worked with Dr. Fred Provenza who is a prominent behavioral ecologist and rangeland management expert. Dr. Provenza offered me a research assistantship position on a project which aimed to study the transmission of self-medicative behavior from mothers to offspring in sheep. My field site was the Green Canyon ecological site near the USU campus. Not quite the rainforests I had imagined, but it was as close to studying animal behavior as I could get, like Dr. Jane Goodall. I designed and conducted a natural experiment where I tested the capability of mother ewes to teach their young lambs to self-select medicinal plants when they were sick. [ The paper we wrote from that research informed subsequent work on the feeding behavior of wild great apes!]

During my 2 years at the USU, I soon realized that in traditional sciences such as Ecology, the environment is treated separately from humans. What I had seen back in India and specially in Jharkhand was the co-existence of humans with nature. I had also started getting interested in solutions for poverty and rural development. I came back to India in 2010 and started working as a researcher on the impact of climate change on rural farmers in various states across India such as Bihar, Maharashtra, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat. I also had the opportunity to do extensive fieldwork on climate adaptation, farmer resilience, agricultural livelihoods in Nepal, Bangladesh and Vietnam. 

Initially, I joined a research-based non-profit organization in New Delhi called the ‘Micro Insurance Academy’ that worked on developing microinsurance solutions for rural communities. The organization had just received a grant from the Swiss Climate Change Division to design a composite community-micro insurance project to mitigate climate risks in agriculture, manage livestock and health of communities in drought and flood prone regions in India. This research took me to many communities where we talked to farmers, conducted surveys and organized focus group discussions. I was also involved in another project on assessing the scope of community based agriculture microinsurance to address climate risks in the coastal parts of Vietnam.

I worked at in these organizations as a consultant and later a research associate to help the socio-economics team design and implement surveys that capture data on the impact of and response to climate risks on agriculture among farmers in India, Nepal and Bangladesh within the Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security (CCAFS) projects.

 At CIMMYT, I was involved in a project on developing Abiotic stress tolerant maize for increasing income and food security among the poor in South and Southeast Asia”. I conducted socio-economic surveys and research on maize production in Gujarat, India and Comilla, Bangladesh.

Having observed the adverse effects of climate change at the grassroots level, I developed a deep passion and interest in exploring further the science behind the impact of changing climate on agriculture coupled with the impacts on farming communities. These projects really grounded me to the reality of the impact of climate change on farmers and effective strategies that enable the farmers to adapt to these changes. 

As I conducted field research in these sites across South Asia, I found myself more and more limited, both administratively and methodologically, by my position as a research associate working under the project scientists as well as the mainly neoclassical economic theories and tools with which the research was being conducted. It retrospect, with my educational training in ecology and work experience in social science, I was looking for an approach which integrated the two systems (I wasn’t aware of the socio-ecological systems framework then). I wanted to expand my professional scope with a doctorate degree and learn novel tools which would perhaps be better suited to assess and guide the current understanding of climate change adaptation within the climate change research. 

In 2014, I started a dual PhD course in Community Sustainability and Environment Science & Policy at Michigan State University. I had finally found a place where I belonged to a community of like-minded scholars who wanted to find solutions to sustainability problems that the world faces currently through an interdisciplinary lens. At MSU, I learnt a lot about systems science and how to apply it to real world solutions in a critical way. 

How did you get your first break?

I would say my first break was when I was admitted to the Ecology program at USU which exposed me to a completely new worldview. I have had several subsequent breaks , each of which propelled me to find a path towards a larger goal of working towards solutions towards better understanding of social-ecological systems. 

To be honest, it may sound like I knew exactly what to do and how to go on about finding jobs after my master’s in a a new field, but that wasn’t the case. I most often went by intuition and did a lot of google searches. For example, once I finished my masters, all I knew was that I wanted to come back to India and do fieldwork so I could learn more about what was happening on the ground. Fieldwork teaches you so much more than what academic texts can offer. Once I was back in India, I applied to many organizations who did research in the field of natural resources in India. I got an interview with the Micro Insurance Academy who were looking for someone with experience in researching climate change. Although my master’s did not focus on climate change or on socio-economic surveys with farmers, they must have seen something in me to hire me. It helped that I had a degree from a US based university. 

I spent 6 years in Michigan for my PhD, and I was missing doing fieldwork in India. I joined WOTR (Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) Center for Resilience Studies) as a short term consultant for a project that explored how farmers in Maharashtra engaged with sustainable groundwater management. As you know, some regions in Maharashtra are extremely water scarce, and the project aimed to understand how past experiences with drought and water scarcity have influenced farmers’ beliefs, perceptions, and actions towards groundwater management.  

The other break with my current company, Stockholm Resilience Centre was for a position that was advertised for a project with Dr Maja Schlueter, a scientist whose work I had admired during my PhD work. The position was a great fit with my analytical skills and interests. Having worked in various agricultural contexts and geographies across South Asia and West Africa across the years, combined with systems modelling skills, worked in my favor during interview with Stockholm Resilience Center.

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

1. One of the first challenges I faced when transitioning to a graduate course in Ecology was not having a background in the biological or environmental related sciences. I was introduced to several new concepts which I had to quickly google, learn and process before I could engage with classroom activities or synthesize my learnings. It took me several months to learn the ‘language’ of ecology. 

2. Another challenge I faced  initially was my rustic critical thinking skills. Unfortunately, our primary and secondary educational system in India as well as engineering education does not offer us many opportunities or rewards to think critically and formulate our own opinions about pertinent issues. I had to overcome my fear of ‘saying the wrong things’ or ‘sounding ignorant’ during classroom discussions by reading and preparing myself beforehand. I enjoyed what I read, so it was a pleasure to do it. I became better at formulating and expressing myself with time. 

3. Fieldwork as a woman can sometimes put you in uncomfortable situations due to gender-based biases or microaggressions. One learns through experience how to handle such situations and be assertive when need be. Having said that, in my experiences I have found that travelling in rural places (sometimes as the only female in the team) is often much safer than living in an urban metropolitan such as Delhi. 

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

Currently, I am a Researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre (SRC) affiliated with Stockholm University, Sweden where I work on understanding social and ecological dynamics within agricultural systems. I specialize in systems modelling which uses system thinking and computational tools to understand how social-ecological systems operate. The models support informed policy making towards agricultural sustainability in developing countries. 

What are the skills required in your role? How did you acquire them?

I have drawn from my experiences in programming from my engineering days with object-oriented languages (C, Python and C++) and applied it to study socio-ecological systems and complexity. I use skills I developed from my fieldwork workdays of collecting survey data and talking to farmers to participatory modelling exercises with community members in South Asia and West Africa.

What I love about my job is the ability to conduct field work in remote places and learn from talking to people. I also love the creativity my research offers me. 

How does your work benefit society?

I work on topics such as climate adaptation, food security, poverty traps, sustainable water management, and sustainable agriculture which ultimately benefit society.

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

The project closest to my heart is my PhD project that I conducted in Southern Mali, West Africa .I went to Mali to conduct field work every year for three years from 2014- 2017. I had the opportunity to travel to very remote villages and speak to many Malian male and female farmers. As a way to understand how farmers make decisions under climate risks, I co-created a role-playing board game which I played with farmers in Mali, West Africa. I then used the data from the games to develop system dynamics models that enable us to understand the causes and constraints that create food insecurity and hunger in the region and find solutions to overcome them. The research participants in Mali loved the game and some even sang songs for me !

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Back when I hadn’t even started my career journey of wanting to be an environmentalist, I was given the advice to keep my passion as a hobby and chose a pragmatic field /job that would enable me to earn a living instead. While the person who gave that advice meant well, I encourage you to follow your passion, and money will somehow follow. Too often, young students in India are stuck with thinking that engineering, medical sciences, or MBA is the only way to make a living. I would advise students to reach out to people who are working in the field you are interested in and ask for guidance.  You will find that there is always a way, and the journey is often an adventure!

Future Plans?

I want to circle back to the issue that inspired me towards my career path in the first place. I am working towards securing funds for research projects in Jharkhand, specifically on social and ecological conflicts within forest systems as well as food insecurity and displacement-driven diet shifts among indigenous communities in Jharkhand. I would also like to work with and mentor students who are interested in similar topics. At the academic level, I notice a growing niche space for integration and reconciliation of natural resource management and conservation with human development. We need more scholars who work in the integration of socio-environmental systems and can apply their knowledge in interdisciplinary research and communication.