By Sahana Ghosh
Senior Zoological Survey of India scientist Dhriti Banerjee has straddled two different worlds of research — physiology of drug abuse and working on the use of insects in forensic investigations — in her career spanning 24 years. She has also embraced research and administration with equal zeal. Now, as the first woman to helm India’s premier taxonomic research organisation in its 105-year-old history, Banerjee aims to scale up the organisation’s foray into transdisciplinary fields with enhanced funding and train a new generation of taxonomists, especially women, required to match the demand for its services.
“We need a lot more of us around,” says Banerjee in an interview with Mongabay-India referring to the “overload of identification and advisory services” at the organisation.
“Taxonomy is the mother science of discovery. Once you identify and systematise a species, only then can you start working on the rest of its attributes. As we say, it all starts with the name. The next step is identifying its role in nature and natural surroundings specifically in our ecosystems. Then and only then the underlying importance of the species can be determined.”
“Once that status is ascertained then we realise that it is under threat and hence it needs to be conserved. ZSI has been contributing to the science of taxonomy and systematics for over 100 years and will be doing so for another 100,” adds a confident Banerjee.
Speaking of her goals as the Survey’s director, Banerjee adds that taking the science from the lab to the field is key for the organisation’s work’s relevance and impact on society: “Increased funding is of utmost importance. High-end research today has become extremely expensive and we in ZSI are making our foray into several new fields which need to be funded.”
One such area is the application of genomic tools such as next-generation sequencing (NGS) technology and the collection of genomic data for species conservation. “Unpacking the biodiversity, including the species that we cannot see, in a Protected Area, using NGS can highlight the species richness in an area which could help our Protected Area managers and policymakers in framing better laws.”
“So far we have focused on a few charismatic species for conservation goals because they are visible to us. But there are so many species, such small insects to micro-organisms that are crucial to biodiversity, but need special tools to be seen and assessed,” said Banerjee, adding that the application of genomic tools can aid assessments, monitoring and managing efforts.
“It’s like seeing the glass as half full,” she shared.
Dhriti Banerjee in her office at ZSI headquarters in Kolkata. Photo from ZSI.
Banerjee, who pursued her doctorate studies in animal physiology at the Presidency University (earlier Presidency College), is also not afraid to take up thorny issues such as economic assessment of biodiversity and ecosystem services in addition to biodiversity research in agriculturally important sectors to amplify the organisation’s role in science for society.
There has been a growing dialogue on addressing the “economic invisibility of nature”. The recent UK-government commissioned The Economics of Biodiversity: the Dasgupta Review argues that natural capital should be viewed as an asset, like produced and human capital. Between 1992 to 2014, globally produced capital per head doubled and human capital per head increased by about 13% but the value of the stock of natural capital per head declined by nearly 40%, according to the review.
“We, in our country, have been made aware of the value of biodiversity through culture, mythology and religion, but understanding the economic value of biodiversity will make people more aware of it and that we need to protect it,” shared Banerjee.
Better funding would aid such nuanced scientific work, argues Banerjee and would allow the survey organisation to take its science to the masses or “non-niche end-users”, which she likens to the transformative action of performance art from street theatre to films.
“Though we receive funding from several external agencies like the Department of Science and Technology, the Department of Biotechnology and others, science can work a lot better with more funding. We are one of the very few institutes that work in the field, in dry lab, wet lab, computer and digital labs simultaneously to generate effective results. Increased funding would allow seamless transitions and make our outputs more effective and increase the penetration of our results to the non-niche end-users.”
For Banerjee, the confidence to blend multiple scientific domains and embark on collaborative work comes from her multifaceted professional experiences at the organisation. Since starting with the ZSI in 1998, Banerjee, the forensic entomologist specialising in species of the order Diptera, has amassed significant administrative and scientific work experience. She worked in finance for five years and another five years as head of office at ZSI which saw her juggle multiple tasks simultaneously, move out of her comfort zone and push the envelope.
An important milestone is the launch and steering of a suite of Digital ZSI initiatives including the ZSI Digital Library at faunaofindia.nic.in. One of the most important learning experiences in her career came from organising the centenary celebrations of the Survey in 2015 for which preparations began in 2012. She was involved in the compilation of The Glorious 100: Women’s Scientific Contribution in ZSI 1916-2015report with colleagues Debashree Dam and Nivedita Saha which documented the women’s career trajectory in the survey organisation.
Percentage frequency of women scientists recruited at Zoological Survey of India between 1940 and 2015. Chart from ZSI report.
“Compiling the report was an eye-opening experience,” remarked Banerjee on the gumption displayed by women scientists who took on a male-dominated survey and exploration domain.
ZSI welcomed its first woman scientist in 1949 (late Mira Mansukhani), three decades after its inception in 1916. She continued to be the only woman scientist for three years, the ZSI report documents. In a hundred years of existence (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientist recruitment shows a marked increase from 3 percent in 1949-1960 to 40 percent in 2001-2015.
“What must have been for the women like Mira Mansukhani to work with men when women were seen as ‘burden’ on fieldwork,” Banerjee wonders.
According to a Department of Science and Technology (DST) report, as of April 2018, only 16.6 % out of the total 3.42 lakh research and development (R and D) personnel directly engaged in R and D activities in scientific research establishments in the country were women.
Shifting the needle to augment women’s leadership in a career in science administration and management calls for enhanced confidence-building measures and inspiring leadership that encourages women to push the envelope. “One way is to work (for scientists) in areas that you think are not related, for example, science administration and finance.”
Administration aside, the Kolkata-based Banerjee has had her fair share of thrills and spills in the lab and on the field. Watching maggots creep over the carcass of dead mice in the laboratory during her PhD days in animal physiology (at the Presidency University) tickled her fancy that eventually led her to explore forensic entomology.
“Since they were alive and growing I started recording their growth and maintained the maggots in the lab to see them pupate and hatch into small flies. When I started digging into the web for information, I learned about forensic flies and their role in postmortem interval assessment in criminal investigations,” she shared with enthusiasm. Additionally, the entomology lab next door was rearing biting midges from banana stalks which piqued her interest.
Scientists at ZSI and only another lab in Madhya Pradesh are working on forensic entomology, she says. “Forensic flies are a group of flies that you commonly encounter but do not notice as you are not aware of their importance. The shiny bluebottle flies and the grey checkered back flies are the notable ones. They are important nutrient recyclers of our environment. Their small white larvae feed on rotting decomposed organic matter and recycle the nutrients back to our ecosystems. Their role in assessing the time of death, cause of death and at times also localisation of death is enormous. But it is not very well studied in our country.”
*Biologist Dhriti Banerjee, who has straddled the realm of scientific administration and management, is the 105-year-old Zoological Survey of India’s first woman director.
Zoological Survey of India is the country’s premier taxonomic research organisation set up in 1916. In hundred years (1916 to 2015), women represented only 20 percent of the total scientific staff strength. But the percentage frequency of women scientists recruited has increased.
This article was originally published on Mongabay India
Sahana Ghosh is a science journalist and a LEDE fellow (2019-2020) based in Kolkata/Delhi. She is a Contributing Editor to Mongabay India.
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