Indian Institute of Science Education and Research
Asian Scientist Magazine (Jul. 25, 2023) — Paleontologist Devapriya Chattopadhyay loves data. She studies rich fossil records of marine creatures, especially those with calcium carbonate shells that aid in their preservation.
Some of these marine groups like seashells also exist today, giving scientists a unique opportunity to study their modern counterparts such as moon snail and oysters and understand their behavior. Chattopadhyay’s primary research question concerns understanding how organisms behave or respond to environmental changes. These changes can be physical or related to biological interactions, influencing behavior and evolution of these animals. To address these questions, her research team looks at the long-term fossil records, experiments with living organisms resembling ancient seashells and observes their behavior in their natural habitats today.
Chattopadhyay speaks to Asian Scientist Magazine about her passion, challenges of field research and maintaining fossil records, and the importance of nurturing curiosity.
1. What excites you most about your research?
There is never a dull moment! I am constantly testing new ideas and approaches. Before starting, I often don’t know if the answer even exists, but the journey of exploring and designing experiments to find the answer is what excites me the most.
2. What are you working on these days?
My group and I are currently focusing on several broad themes. One area of interest is understanding how the seaway connections impact the distribution of organisms worldwide. For instance, the Arabian Sea borders India to the east and Africa and the Arabian Peninsula to the west. However, around 30 million years ago, this water body continued all the way to Mediterranean Sea. It used to be called Tethyan seaway. We are investigating how the development of landforms, separating a single seaway into two distinct waterbodies, led to changes in species distribution among marine organisms. To do this, we study the modern-day distribution patterns and track changes through time to see how these organisms evolved in the separated water bodies.
3. What challenges you face in your research?
There are many. One significant challenge is that I belong to a relatively small academic community, which makes it essential to seek collaborations and interactions to nurture new ideas actively. However, the pandemic has taught us the value of virtual interactions, allowing us to connect with colleagues worldwide despite geographical limitations.
Another challenge is related to logistics. My research requires a substantial collection of fossils. Unfortunately, India lacks a dedicated Natural History Museum where such collections can be preserved and appropriately curated. Existing collections are scattered across various institutes and universities; some risk being lost or not appropriately maintained after the responsible persons retire. Additionally, many fossil-rich field sites are not under strict protection, leading to potential destruction due to development projects.
Furthermore, limited funding opportunities in India for research that involves international visits hinder our ability to access and study collections in foreign museums. Finally, conducting fieldwork in remote or even urban areas can be challenging, particularly for a single researcher who is not male.
4. What about the collections in museums, like the Indian Museum in Kolkata and other government-run museums?
The structure of the museum is crucial. Natural History Museums, like the Field Museum in Chicago and the Smithsonian, have exhibits for public display and an extensive curated collection of specimens accessible to researchers. These museums are involved in active research, constantly adding to their collections through new research programs and proper curation.
Unfortunately, many Indian museums do not follow modern curation practices, leading to inadequate maintenance and accessibility of important collections. This results in valuable fossils being separated from their corresponding information tags, making it difficult to utilize them effectively for research purposes. Improving the preservation and accessibility of existing collections should be a priority to address this major drawback.
5. Have you recently collaborated with foreign institutes? How was that experience?
One remarkable collaboration we started during the pandemic was with researchers from all over the world. Specifically, two researchers from Germany and the UK approached me. They were interested in understanding the role of bias in paleontological research, particularly in the global database of fossil records, such as the Paleobiology Database (PBDB). Researchers worldwide use this database to reconstruct deep-time biodiversity. They asked whether we have considered the paleobiology database records are well-distributed across different countries.
Through our collaboration, we investigated specific instances of bias. We found that the Paleobiology database has a poor representation of the records from countries with low GDP and those with a troubled colonial history. This means that our understanding of global history and how life has changed over millions of years is derived from data collected primarily from a few selected places. This bias arises because the database gathers data from published literature, and publication rates are often influenced by a country’s level of education, economics, and colonial history.
We conducted this collaboration through Zoom meetings and wrote a paper published in Nature Ecology and Evolution. It was an interesting and fruitful endeavor where we didn’t know each other initially and never met in person until recently after the paper was published. I consider this collaboration as a high point during the pandemic, demonstrating that it is possible to connect with people even without physical meetings.
6. What would your advice be for young girls who aspire to become paleobiologists like you?
Becoming a paleobiologist is a diverse path with many possibilities. However, the common driving force for scientists is curiosity. If a young person has a strong curiosity about nature in general, it could be an early sign that paleobiology could be a suitable choice for them.
I feel, it is important to aspire to become independent regardless of the gender. Independence is crucial for success in any field, including paleobiology. However, it comes with the price of sometimes finding yourself alone and being comfortable with that solitude. I have observed that successful women in science often possess this combination of curiosity and independence; they give us strength to pursue careers that are not typically considered options for women. So, my advice would be to nurture curiosity and develop a strong sense of independence, regardless of their chosen path.
7. What would you have pursued if you had not become a scientist?
If I had not become a scientist, I would have pursued a career in communicating ideas. This could involve teaching or science communication. I can’t think of any other specific alternative because my exposure was not extensive enough to explore different career paths. From the moment I became conscious of what I wanted to do with my life, pursuing a career in science felt natural to me. While there are many other things I am interested in, they are more from a distance, and I never considered them as potential careers. So, I believe that becoming a scientist was always what I wanted to do.
8. What do you do outside of work to relax?
I don’t get much time to relax, but I have a few points of interest. Firstly, I enjoy reading books outside of my research and academic interests. Secondly, I am keenly interested in music, particularly Hindustani classical music, although I cannot perform myself. I enjoy walking, hiking, and spending time with my daughter. Watching her grow also allows me to reconnect with my childhood, which is immensely satisfying.
9. As a woman pursuing research, what do you think government policies can do to help more women stay in STEM?
Government policies can play a significant role in supporting women in the STEM, but these policies must be effectively implemented. For example, policies related to day-care facilities are important, but they need to be accompanied by financial and infrastructural support to establish functional day-cares. It shouldn’t solely rely on the involvement and interest of individual faculty members. The government is responsible for implementing policies and providing the necessary resources.
Another aspect is the goal of increasing diversity in institutes, including gender representation and representation from various backgrounds. Implementing such goals can be challenging, requiring careful consideration and effort to ensure they are effectively translated into real outcomes. Merely stating the goal is not enough; proactive steps must be taken to achieve true diversity and inclusivity.
10. Finally, what advice would you give aspiring paleobiologists in Asia?
From a paleobiologist’s perspective, I would say that the definition of paleobiology is constantly expanding, particularly in today’s world. Paleontology is no longer limited to the study of fossils, and it can offer unique insights that can help tackle major environmental and biodiversity issues. Paleobiology provides a glimpse into how life has interacted with the environment over long periods and large spatial scales, which are beyond the scope of contemporary experiments. So, if aspiring researchers in Asia are passionate about these subjects, I would encourage them to consider paleobiology as a field of study.
(Responses are edited for length and clarity).
This article is from a regular series called Asia’s Rising Scientists. Click here to read other articles in the series.
Copyright: Asian Scientist Magazine; Image: Wey Wen/ Asian Scientist Magazine