Interview: Ashwini Petchiappan (Civil- 2017)

Please elaborate on your current profile.

I am a consultant at Dakshin Foundation, an NGO. I do research work focussed on sea turtles. My supervisor is Dr Kartik Shanker, a professor at the Center for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Bengaluru, as well as a trustee at Dakshin. His speciality is evolutionary ecology and biogeography.

Can you tell us more about the Dakshin Foundation and your work as a part of them?

Dakshin Foundation is a non-profit with a mission to inform and advocate conservation and natural resource management while promoting and supporting sustainable livelihoods, social development and environmental justice. The goal is to promote ecologically and socially appropriate approaches to conservation and management in coastal, marine and mountain ecosystems in India.

I am currently involved in two projects. One is to model global distributions of all seven species of sea turtles. The other is a study on migrations of leatherback sea turtles from Andaman islands. I also provide support for miscellaneous GIS and remote sensing tasks. 

How would you describe a typical workday?

Most days, I am based at my supervisor’s lab in IISc. We have flexible hours, so there’s no compulsion to show up for a certain number of hours a day – whatever gets the work done. I like to have a routine though, so I typically show up between 9 and 10 in the morning and leave sometime between 5 and 6. What happens in-between, depends on what’s up for the day. Depending on the stage my project is in, I could be splitting my time between reading literature (journal articles about previous work in the same area of research), downloading and processing remote sensing data using R and QGIS, creating and running models, analyzing the results, etc. I have regular meetings with my supervisor, and email/Skype correspondence with other project collaborators (most of them are sea turtle experts from around the world). 

Of course, there’s lunch break and coffee breaks in between. We all like to have our own mugs. I have one with painted sea creatures, which I’m quite proud of. Some days there are guest lectures or other events – all fun to attend.

What technologies are employed in your work, and are you looking forward to any developments in this arena?

Good internet, haha. I handle a lot of big datasets. Fast and steady internet can be a lifesaver. I feel it quite potently now that I’m stuck at home thanks to a certain virus that has us all in lockdown. 

Both my projects are aimed at finding locations and environments preferred by sea turtles—most of the data I use come from remote sensing of various types. So any improvements in the quality and resolution of the data are always welcome. Often small islands are skipped in these datasets, which is sad for us – the turtles seem to like them so much! 

I use QGIS and R for processing and analyzing the data. And of course, because it’s mountain loads of data, it takes mountain loads of storage space, and mountain loads of hours to process. I am running code as I’m answering these questions. Faster processing speeds could save my life someday. Or my laptop at least. 

How did you approach the organizations for the position? How did you come across the opportunity at IISc? 

I looked up researchers who worked in areas I was interested in. I came across Dr Kartik Shanker’s profile at the IISc website and read some of his papers. He seemed like the perfect fit for me, so I emailed him, asking if there was any position available. I mentioned my background (qualifications and research experience), and what I was looking for.

How is global conservation perceived, in your opinion, and how difficult is it to convince people, when more pressing matters are at hand?

That’s quite a big question. The answer might depend on who you ask, and in what context. People are often pro-environment on paper (and social media), but hesitant to make changes in their own lives. Preaching but no practising, basically.

How much of an effect do internships have in the application for a Master’s degree, specifically in environmental research and conservation?

For any research degree, having research experience is a huge plus. Besides, it’s a way for you to try out the field, and research in general, and see if it is something you’d like to do. Many students take this decision lightly – bad idea.

Internships can be a steep learning curve because you apply as you learn. During my bachelor’s, I did a summer internship at the University of Calgary, Canada. In those three months, I learned Matlab, QGIS, got experience with machine learning techniques, scientific writing, research, and gained international exposure and connections. My professor there also wrote me letters of recommendation for my Master’s applications.

When it comes to a career in conservation, to what extent is a master’s degree fruitful? Is it possible to step into the field without one? Also, elaborate the transition from Civil engineering to ecology/environmental science and if there’s any way that helped ease the transition.

A master’s degree gives you a field and research experience. Without that, I doubt research work will be a viable option. I am not so sure about non-research work. But it helps to get some experience before you step into long-term positions. A master’s degree is one way of getting it (provided you choose the right one).

The transition from civil engineering to ecology wasn’t as huge as you seem to think. People often have a limited perception of what civil engineering is – building, bridges, bla bla. But it is actually the discipline that deals with both artificially and naturally built environments. We learnt remote sensing, environmental engineering, water resources management, and so on. It’s quite a broad field. I think, of all the engineering branches (that NITT offers at least), civil is the best fit for moving to environmental studies. It was a smooth transition to the Master’s in environmental science, where we looked at remote sensing, climate, weather, hydrology, etc. It helped, naturally, that I was well-read in climate matters (through MOOCs, etc.). 

For my thesis, I looked at the active microwave remote sensing of the Amazon forest region. From there, it wasn’t hard to move on to my current field. I basically use remote sensing techniques to study sea turtles. I don’t have a strong background in biology that my labmates do, but I have more experience with coding, remote sensing, etc. You always have to learn new things for every research project, regardless of your background. It’s a massive plus if you’re comfortable with being out of your depths. That’s when you learn and grow.

Is there any difference between how Indian and foreign Universities handle environmental conservation?

“Foreign” is a broad term. Typically in western countries, universities tend to be more directly involved. At my department in TU Delft, for instance, Master’s students had the option of doing a “multi-disciplinary project” (instead of an internship), in groups with students from different specializations, to develop a solution to a problem anywhere in the world. I haven’t heard of such hands-on approaches in India universities, although my knowledge in this matter could be limited. 

During your time in TU Delft, were you the recipient of any scholarships? If so, what factors affect getting one?

Justus en Louise van Effen Scholarship (also called Excellence Scholarship). It’s awarded to 2/3 international students in a department. 

It would be best if you had a GPA above 80%. Apart from that, the criteria are not rigid. They look for academic excellence. But other factors like research experience, extracurricular activities, and so on count as well. So you’ll find very different backgrounds and stories among the awardees. They aren’t looking for a typical mould.

What did your work at the TU Delft Scholarship Club entail?

I was a member of the founding board of the club, as well as the Communications Manager. It was quite a unique experience, starting the club from scratch, working together with fellow scholarship awardees. We wrote the charter, decided the goals of the club, and set up the community.

As the head of communications, I set-up the social media presence of the club helped with website creation, wrote the content. I was in charge of online publicity for the club’s events. And of course, the board did the event organization. There were informal events like potluck dinners for the students, and black tie events with important people like the Rector of TU Delft attending. It was quite a challenge putting together the bigger events. But we got to connect with scholarship alumni, representatives from TU Delft administrations et al.

Do you think parallels can be drawn to any of the clubs at NITT or if such a club can be implemented in NITT?

I am not aware of any such scholarships or clubs in NITT. If there is a scholarship of this sort, then it might be nice for fellow awardees to get to know each other. But apart from the social angle, it’s up to the members to decide their goals.

The TU Delft Scholarship Club, for instance, organized workshops for skill development, facilitated connections with alumni and aimed to enable inter-department collaborations.

We’re curious to know how your work was at the Communications Office at IHE Delft and Science Gallery Bengaluru. How did they align with your goals?

I like science, and I like writing. Naturally, I want to put the two together. I have been involved in writing for magazines, etc. for many years. I wanted to get professional experience in science communication to see if that would be something I’d like to take up as a career. So I interned at the Communications Office of IHE Delft Institute for Water Education. I absolutely loved it.

When I graduated, I wanted to try it further, and ideally in a different medium of communication. So I became a Communications Intern at Science Gallery Bengaluru. SGB aims to engage young adults at the interface between science and the arts, drawing on the intellectual capital of three of India’s leading research institutions, Indian Institute of Science, National Centre for Biological Science and Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology. I was involved in SUBMERGE, SGB’s first exhibition-season which showcased what could happen “if geologists, hydrologists, artists, civil engineers, ecologists, social scientists, oceanographers, historians, and storytellers, among others, shared and created knowledge about water to address challenges and identify futures”.

At what point of your education did you realize or set in mind that this is your field of interest, and this is your career?

I’ve always loved both science and writing. I have been keen to put these two passions together since my bachelor’s. I care about wildlife and the environment deeply, and my Master’s was about getting knowledge and experience on this end. My current work at Dakshin is helping me gain research experience. 

I haven’t quite charted out my career yet. As you might have guessed by now, I wouldn’t say I like looking too far ahead. I like to take things as they come, do work that I love, and grow as a person by stepping outside my comfort zone incessantly. I want to take up science writing as a profession, but I’m not sure yet in what form I’ll do it.

Any insights about pursuing higher education in this scenario?

I was quite keen to do a master’s in science communication this year. But the virus thwarted me. Let’s see how it turns out in the future.

What type of (prospective) positions are you looking forward to in the future?

Ah, it’s always a task answering questions about the future. As I’ve mentioned before, I want to take up science writing as a profession, but I haven’t decided how. Perhaps I’ll work for a magazine. Or maybe I’ll continue to be a researcher, and spend more time on my science blog (Science Plus Plus on Medium.com). Perhaps that’ll give me more flexibility to write as I wish. 

We have observed your writing, how do you transition between writing styles and have a varied approach towards different audiences?

That’s always a challenge. I don’t exactly write within genre boundaries. I think of the topic, and then develop a structure that would suit the matter and convey it in a fun manner. Some times it is fiction or a mixture of fiction and non-fiction. It’s great not to fit yourself in a box, but I have to prevent myself from getting carried away.

I try to keep Kurt Vonnegut’s advice in mind: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.” This was suggested to me by a science communication professor at TU Delft. I think of one of my friends who might like reading about the topic I’m working on. Sometimes that “one person” is me. 

It was getting tricky to manage such a broad range of writing on one blog. So I decided to have two instead. This way, I can also keep a smaller set of audience in mind when I am writing. Science Plus Plus is for science writing. The Imaginist is for fiction, etc.

You’ve interacted with quite a lot of diverse people in various fields. How tedious or enjoyable is it, compared to what it looks like from the outside, and how is work done, accumulating such different interests and ideas?

An interesting question. The last year has been quite a twisty journey with varying mixes of people at every turn. At TU Delft, it was students from all continents. Then at IHE Delft, I was among communications professionals – quite a change from having young science nerds around. At SGB it was international artists. Now I’m back around “science-y” people, but ecologists and wildlife lovers like me. 

For my global distributions project, we have 30+ collaborators: mostly sea turtles experts from around the world. It is a Herculean task just keeping up with all the emails and meetings (at whatever time zones people happen to be in). I have always considered myself “organized”, but haha. Every mail has to be CCed to the right set of people (some of who use more than one email ID). I have to check time zones every time before setting up meetings. Sometimes the timings will be outside of conventional work hours for people, so the degrees of sleepiness can vary (apart from internet stability). 

People also differ in what software they are comfortable with. So I have to put together feedback from different media (Excel, GIS, Google Earth, etc.). It takes every atom of patience, focus, and organizational skills I have. 

But people are generally quite accommodating. It’s an experience meeting people from Florida one day, Queensland the next, and France afterwards. It helps that they are all professionals who are used to this. At TU Delft, among students, it was a lot more challenging.In the end, it’s rewarding to have so vast a network. During the lockdown, since I was (bored and) hearing very different experiences from people around the world, I thought it might be nice to put them together. So, along with two friends, I started a project called “Lives in Lockdown.” In less than two months, we got stories from 14 countries and all continents (except Antarctica, of course). It was amazing to read, compile, and share these stories.

Ashwini Petchiappan can be reached at: ashwini.2404@gmail.com.

Interview coordinated by Deeksha.

Questionnaire by Sriram and Dhwani.

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