Interview conducted on 28th August 2015.
Mandyam Srinivasan holds an undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering from BMS college of Engineering, Bangalore (1968), a Master’s degree in Electronics from IISc (1970) and a PhD in Engineering and Applied Science from Yale University, USA (1976). Over the last 40 years, he has been studying vision and cognition, primarily in bees, and its applications in machine vision and robotics. Currently, he is a Professor of Visual Neuroscience at the Queensland Brain Institute in Australia. On his last visit to Bangalore, I spoke to him about making the transition from engineering to biology, working with bees, how he picks his research questions, scientists he admires, etc. This is the second part of a two-part interview. The first part can be found here: https://cesess.wordpress.com/2015/09/20/interview-with-mandyam-srinivasan-part-1/
Hari: I notice that your work showing bees can count has received a lot of media attention. How did that discovery happen? Was it also accidental?
Srini: It was a follow up on the idea that bees can measure the visual flow and integrate that to know how far they have flown. Marie Dacke from the University of Lund, was visiting me as a post-doc and we were wondering about the importance of landmarks along the bee’s route – are they just treated as something that also contributes to the optic flow or are they seen as separate entities? We started to do that, but we were not the first to ask that question – Lars Chittka’s group had earlier looked at this landmark counting. But it seemed to us that their experiments were not designed with proper controls. Let’s say you train a bee to go and find food after it has passed 3 landmarks, i.e. the 4th landmark is the one that provides the food. To tell if the bees are actually counting landmarks and not just measuring optic flow, you need to change the distances between the landmarks but always ensure that food is at landmark 4. Only if the bee goes to landmark 4 irrespective of the distances between the landmarks, can we rule out optic flow. This was the change we made to the original experiments conducted by Chittka’s group and found that bees can, in fact, count.
H: 4 is the maximum they can count?
S: Yes, 4 is the maximum, for some reason!
H: Earlier, you spoke about how science is driven by publication these days. For people like me, who are at an early stage in a scientific career, the moment when a paper gets accepted by a journal is a big deal. A big relief. After publishing 100s of papers in your career, do you also feel the same way?
S: It feels even better to me these days, because it is becoming harder and harder to publish! The competition is getting stiffer and stiffer and so it is even more of a relief and joy, these days, when a paper gets published. Also the feeling that your work gets to see the light of day, hopefully someone will read it and enjoy it. I just wish that this constant emphasis on having to publish in high-impact journals and build up your citation index would gradually go away. I think there are encouraging signs, with the growth of these arxiv-type systems, where you can deposit something – unrefereed – and people can make their own judgement about whether they like it or not, and even put in commentary. That seems better than this long-winded process of refereeing and rejection and resubmission. It just seems like a lot of waste of time. People who read papers are usually good judges of what they see, and they can decide whether something is good or not, and I think that that’s the way it should be. Storage and space is not an issue any longer with electronic journals, so that is likely to be the way of the future.
H: If I asked you to pick one or two scientists whose work you really admire, who would they be?
S: In my own field, I would say my own gurus, I suppose. My PhD professor Gary Bernard, who is an engineer-turned-biologist like me, really laid the foundation for me getting interested in insect vision. Then when I went to Australian National University, I worked with this professor called Adrian Horridge. What was amazing about him was that he really taught me to think laterally. If an experiment did not work he would come up with an interesting theory as to why it did not work and make you pursue another question which will give you an interesting answer to the whole thing. He really was very nimble on his feet. And then when I went to Zurich, there was Rudiger Wehner who has done wonderful work on ant behaviour. I learnt a lot from him, not just about conducting scientific research but also the didactic aspect of it – how to talk about these things and how to communicate these ideas to the public. He was also extremely good at making slides. – not PowerPoint but old-style slides. He would always prepare them in such a way that the main point of the slide was immediately apparent, without a lot of clutter and unnecessary detail.
H: Among your contemporaries, especially in animal behaviour?
S: There is this person called Michael Land from University of Sussex who has studied arthropod vision and behaviour to answer a whole variety of questions. He is such a polymath. Every topic is slightly different but he champions it and writes so beautifully about it. I really admire his work and he inspired me a lot. There is another person, also in Sussex, by the name of Tom Collett, who has done a lot of work in spatial orientation and navigation in bees and ants. I admire their work a lot and have been inspired by it. In the field of biologically inspired robotics, I greatly admire Nicholas Franceschini, at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS) in France, who was the first to build an autonomous terrestrial mobile robot based on the principles of insect vision. Another imaginative scientist/engineer working in this area is Dario Floreano at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne in Switzerland, who has used intriguing biological principles to design a large variety of robots, as well as a miniature artificial compound eye that has the same functionality as an insect eye.
H: I am at the stage where I have to decide whether I want to get into a full-fledged research career or not. One consideration, in that decision, is all the additional responsibilities that come with being a scientist – administrative and managerial responsibilities, grant writing, paper work, being part of committees etc. I am sure at the stage you are in your career, this sort of work takes up most of your time and leaves little for hands-on research. Are these additional responsibilities something you enjoy or do you just put up with them?
S: I think it is really something I put up with. My ideal would be to just be left alone to do my own hands-on research. That’s what I would really love. But unfortunately the system doesn’t work that way. If you try to do that they will say you are a failure! If I could digress for a moment – some ten years ago I knew a really brilliant mathematics professor called Rodney Baxter, who happened to be my neighbour. There are even some equations he developed which are named after him – Baxter equations. He is the sort of man who just likes to work by himself. He didn’t need much money, just a notepad and a pencil and time to be left alone. But his university would hound him constantly, asking him to apply for some grant or the other. Rodney would always tell them – ‘look, I don’t want it, I don’t need the money, I am happy to be just left alone’. The university didn’t like that. They wanted him to get the money because there is pressure to get money – because the performance of the university is measured by how many grants it gets. So, finally, things came to a head and the university told him if you don’t apply for a grant this year we will deprive you of your office. Rodney said ‘fine’ and resigned! He retired early and continued to work from home. I would walk by his house every day and we would say ‘hello’ and I would say ‘what are you doing Rodney?’ and he would say – ‘oh, I am just working on some sums’ – he had this modest way of saying it. And then later on, two years later, it turned out he won two major awards in mathematics for what he did during that period – no thanks to his university.
H: You say you don’t enjoy the additional responsibilities that come with being a scientist, but are you good at it?
S: I am moderately good, I wouldn’t say I am the best. That is one of my shortcomings. My students constantly keep reminding me about deadlines and saying – ‘hey you know, I have my milestone coming up for my thesis, read my project’. That sort of thing happens a lot. I wish I could be a little better with that but I am just not cut out for it, unfortunately.
H: What about teaching, and guiding PhD students?
S: I enjoy teaching a lot. I don’t know if the students enjoy my teaching, though! Guiding PhD students is also something I like. In the Australian system it is really the responsibility of the supervisor to make sure the students gets their PhDs. This is unlike the situation in the US, where the student is left alone most of the time to do his or her research. There, the supervisor only points out the general area of research and it is the students who have to come up with the specific ideas. Here, in Australia, it is somewhat different. The supervisor is responsible for how the thesis turns out and even if the student under-performs the supervisor can be held responsible. So, the supervisor has to take an active role in mentoring the student and guiding them at all stages.
H: A PhD in Australia is typically 3 years?
S: Yes, and it can be extended to a maximum of 3.5 years, but after that the scholarship stops. If we have some additional money in one of our research grants and the grant is relevant to the project we might be able to find some funds to continue to support the student, but otherwise it becomes very difficult. Of course, there is no course work, so students go straight into their research.
H: Here (in IISc) students get five years to complete their PhDs (including a year of course work), with the possibility of an additional year at reduced scholarship.
S: That’s wonderful. I wish it was like that in Australia too, because it would produce much better quality theses. In our university, the thesis goes out to examiners in other countries, and so we have to let them know that the work was done only in 3 years and that therefore the quantum of work done needs to be judged in that context. They have to be made aware of this in advance, so that they don’t expect a five year thesis.That’s the situation.
H: Do you still find the time to do get involved in the experiments?
S: Not in the doing of the experiments itself, but I help with the formulation of the scientific question, the design of the experiment, the modelling and analysis, and to some extent the writing. Sometimes, if something requires more than a few pairs of hands, I go in and help. I do menial things like feeding the birds in the field site during the weekends – I don’t like to bother my students or staff with this in their off-days so I go and do it myself.
H: Do you miss doing experiments, observing bees etc.?
S: When I retire, hopefully, I will get back to that. I can do exactly what I want then.
H: Speaking of retiring – you turn 67 today, how much longer do you plan to continue at the university?
S: There is no official retirement age, but I think as you get older the pressure on you gets progressively larger to make room for younger people. It is only fair. If I sit there and consume a big salary it prevents other younger scientists from coming in and being funded for their research. I have some grants which continue for another 2 years. After that I will think of winding down. I am looking forward to that.
H: If you look back, is there anything you would have done differently? Is there anything you wanted to but were unable to do?
S: Not really, no. I have been fortunate enough to be able to do whatever I wanted to do. In addition, I unexpectedly happened on things that turned out to be exciting. I really have a lot to be thankful for. No, absolutely no regrets, although I may give that impression because I sound cynical at times.
H: If I put it slightly differently – if you had to advice somebody, who is early in his research career, what would you say?
S: My advice would be to try and follow your own heart. Don’t succumb too much to external pressures about what you ought to be doing. Nowadays, the current wave is to relate everything to molecular biology. That sort of thing somehow becomes quite artificial sometimes. You find a lot of people doing molecular biology, even if it is not terribly exciting, because that’s the only way to get published in a particular journal. Try not to do that. Follow your heart. That’s what I always did. I didn’t worry much about whether that would give me a career or long-term job prospect. I did something only if it was interesting and that usually works out best I think. Your heart has to be in it and you have to really enjoy it. That’s what really matters in the end.
H: What advice would you give on running a lab or research group?
S: Ideally, if one has the luxury of hiring a lab manager who takes care of all the routine material – making sure the supplies are available, organising things like field trips, taking care of all financial purchasing and payments – that would be terrific. That would mean you would be left alone to focus on the research part, work with students and post-docs to plan the research, and of course retreating from time to time to work on research grants. I used to have this luxury earlier, but that has gradually dwindled away because of shortage of funds. I can’t afford to have a full-time administrator anymore and now I do it mostly by myself. I can still use some of my money to hire somebody but that means I have to cut back on a student, or cut down travel money for students to go to conferences etc., and I don’t want to do that.
H: You have spent all your research career out of India. Have you ever wondered about how things might have been if you had worked in India instead? Do you think you would have been able to do all that you did?
S: That’s a good question, though I haven’t given it much thought. I feel that science and teaching in India is extremely creative and imaginative. In fact, some of the best teaching I have had really was in Bangalore at the BMS College of engineering. We had some wonderful teachers and I owe them a lot. And now when I look at the calibre of the PhD students who come and work in our lab, from India – we have recently been fortunate to have a couple – they are very good. Yes, in a way it would have been nice to stay back I suppose but I am thankful for the experiences I got living abroad. Like living in Zurich and learning German. All that cultural exposure I am grateful for.
H: The reason I ask is the following: there are numerous examples of Indians, like you, who have gone abroad and been remarkably successful in science. At the same time, science done in India receives very little global attention.
S: I don’t know if it is all to do with quality – a certain amount of prejudice is involved I feel. I often got the feeling that, earlier, any paper that came from the Indian subcontinent was automatically perceived by the referees as being not up to standard, whereas the same thing if it came from a prestigious university in the US or Europe had a much better chance of getting in. That bias has always been there but is gradually going away now I think – people are realising that science done in India and Asia can be very good.