Recently in the limelight for being the first Indian to receive the prestigious Parker/Gentry Award presented by Field Museum, Chicago (honouring an individual or organisation for significant contributions in the field of conservation biology), Dr Uma Ramakrishnan is an associate professor at the National Center for Biological Sciences, TIFR, Bengaluru. Her work focuses on population genetics and evolutionary history of mammals, including work to save India’s tigers. Uma believes, in an increasingly fragmented forest landscape, tigers find themselves in ever decreasing isolated areas, hence it becomes critical to improve plans for conserving them.
In an e-mail interview for Firstpost, Uma answers questions about her shift from physics to genetics, her love for the outdoors, and the challenges facing the survival of tigers.
How does it feel to have won the Parker/Gentry Award?
This is indeed a big honour! I feel very happy that our science based approach to understanding tigers has been recognised as important to their conservation. I have always believed this, but this award, which is for conservation, suggests to me that others think so too!
You transitioned from a Bachelor’s degree in Physics to a doctorate in genetics…
I did a Bachelor’s (many years ago!) in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics because I wanted to pursue ecology and evolutionary biology. The latter fields are quite quantitative, and require a good background in Math. If I had pursued Biology (Chemistry, Botany, Zoology), I would have had to drop Math, and I did not want to do this. Besides, the CBZ program involved lots of drawing (for the practical) and I just cannot draw to save my life!
Things are different now in India, the IISERs provide opportunities for students to get good training in Math alongside Biology. It is important we have this flexibility. As science becomes more and more inter-disciplinary, we must be trained in different areas, and not restrict to these pre-defined fields.
What was your work like before you came back to India (from the US) and started working on tigers?
I did my PhD at the University of California, San Diego and then a postdoc at Stanford University. I have done research all my working life, mainly on conservation and population genetics. I have worked on several different species, but it has always been research.
Now coming to tigers — how and what got you interested?
I read a paper in 2004, just before I returned to India that suggested Indian tigers did not have much variation. This made me curious; it seemed odd given that 60 percent of the world’s tigers live in India. After I returned to India, I was contacted by Dr Ullas Karanth, who asked whether I was interested in tigers. After that there was no looking back. The species was fascinating, and the data and results seemed very important and relevant.
From all your time in the field, visiting some great forests, what are your most memorable recollections?
I love being in the field, but our science is a balance of fieldwork, labwork and analysis. I have to say I love the Himalayas. Working at high elevations is physically tough, but you feel like you are at the top of the world, so free. I love handling animals, which we get to do in our rodent and bird work.
Fieldwork on tigers in Central India is also amazing. Being on foot and walking through protected areas makes it a very personal experience. It’s amazing when you find a tiger scat and I wonder, who is this animal, what will I be able to learn about this tiger once I get genetic data in the lab?
What advice would you give to young researchers starting out?
Follow your passion. People around you may say that research is not a practical path, but listen to your inner voice, and do what you believe in. Remember that research takes long, and you will need a lot of patience. Try and pinpoint what fascinates you about what you are doing and enjoy your work.
Dream big. Don’t try and address questions that are the next step or easy to do. Of course, the question you chose should be feasible, but try to think outside the box.
Talk about and discuss your work. We all feel nervous about sharing our results, but it’s very important to discuss and get constructive criticism and ideas from others. This will challenge you to be more rigorous and do better science.
Work hard. A lot of research is hard work! And it takes long. Realise this and stick with what you are doing.
Communicate. As scientists we must talk more about what we are doing. It is important to develop communication skills so you can talk about your work to a layperson. This is critical especially in fields like conservation.
What sort of challenges do you face in running a lab?
I could give you a long list! In some ways, the biggest challenges are getting funding for our projects, and getting all the logistics including forest department permits and the fieldwork organised. I have been very lucky to work with amazing students and postdocs, and this is why it all works out in the end. NCBS is a great place that facilitates research, our staff are very committed to helping us, and this makes a high difference.
As forest cover in India has now reduced to about seven percent, what are its implications for species like tigers and other large mammals?
It is going to be hard to have biodiversity amongst so many people. But maybe India can lead the way globally in finding options for co-habitation. It will definitely be hard for species that move long distances.
What are your views on recent reports of increase in tiger numbers? Is it a cause for celebration or caution?
While tigers have recovered in terms of numbers in some reserves,habitat has gone down overall, and the prey base (the most important thing for tigers) is still under threat in many reserves. The statements by Dr Ullas Karanth and others are valid, and we must be careful about interpreting and celebrating these numbers.
From my own perspective, I believe that connectivity is crucial for tiger survival and with increasing urbanization this will only go down. We must continue to monitor tiger populations and connectivity with good science. I hope this will allow us to propose mitigation measures to ensure connectivity despite ongoing development.
How can science keep pace with or what should its role be, in conservation challenges?
We must engage more with policy and we must somehow get our work done faster! The time scale of science and policy is different. We have to develop better methods that are fast and can be used to generate the data we need quickly. We also need more trained people and facilities that can enable this.
How can science help to conserve free ranging mammals like tigers in an increasingly developed and urbanised world?
Through studies on connectivity that allow us to evaluate alternate models of development. Next, we could use these genetic data and inferences to propose mitigation measures, and finally evaluate the impacts of those measures in connectivity.
There may come a time when connectivity between wild populations is not possible. At this time, it will be important to understand how connectivity can be maintained. When and if re-introductions are to be performed, which individuals are genetically more likely to do better? Finally, when populations do become isolated, science can help understand what might be the impacts of small population size. Do these isolated individuals have a higher probability of extinction? Can we understand what might aid their survival?
What is the scope for your work or science to engage with policy? How do you plan to do it?
I am not sure of the answer to this, but if scientists could get involved in projects before they are sanctioned we could have more of a dialogue.
How do you plan to celebrate this award?
Sequence many tiger genomes! No, just kidding…I would love to go visit researchers in Africa to learn more about the systems there. This has always been a dream for me.