Undergraduate research experience: an interview with Meenakshi Poti

Meenakshi Poti completely her B.Sc. from Mount Carmel College in 2015 and is right now on her way to Lakshadweep to study green turtles. During her B.Sc. years, she also managed to find time to volunteer on various research projects in CES. Meenakshi feels that the experience she gained through volunteering helped her secure a place in the prestigious Erasmus Mundus Master’s programme. I spoke to Meenakshi to find out more about her undergraduate research experience.

 Interview conducted on 29th January 2016 in the CES seminar hall.

 Hari Sridhar: To start, can you list all the projects you have been involved in during your B. Sc.?

Meenakshi Poti: The first one was Bharti [Dharapuram]’s project on green turtle foraging behaviour. Let me tell you how that happened. In 2012, soon after I joined college, I attended SCCS and heard Anne [Theo] speak there about her work on mixed schools of fish. I had never heard of SCCS, but a friend from IISER, Pune told me about it and showed me the list of speakers and it sounded interesting. So I went. From Anne’s talk at SCCS, I learnt that she worked with Kartik [Shanker]. I decided to meet him because I had always wanted to get into marine biology. Kartik told me about this green turtle project in Lakshadweep and after meeting him I started reading all his papers – back then I would just read the Introduction and stop because I couldn’t understand anything after that. Sometime later, I saw an ad. on the YETI mailing list for an intern for Bharti’s project. I applied for it because she specifically wanted an undergrad student with a botany background. Kartik interviewed me and I was selected.

 

HS: What did you do on Bharti’s project?

MP: I analysed the faecal matter of green turtles which she had collected from Lakshadweep, to identify the sea grass and algae they feed on. That project took over a couple of months, and we wrote up a report and stuff. After that, I started work on with you and Kartik comparing different co-occurrence indices used in community ecology studies.

 

HS: Which hasn’t gone anywhere, thanks to me!

MP: Which is still ongoing… then there was Viraj [Torsekar]’s spider-cricket interaction project. I used to come to IISc every evening for fieldwork in the nursery to look at predator-prey interactions.

 

HS: How did you get involved in Viraj’s project?

MP: I heard about it from Bharti. She told me that Viraj needed two volunteers and asked me if I would be interested. I said yes and also asked one of my juniors, who was in Christ College. We would come every evening for 2-3 hours of fieldwork in the nursery. Our work involved focal animal sampling. Viraj would release a cricket and a spider on a Hyptis bush. For two hours every day, we would sit at the bush and, every few seconds, look at the movement of the cricket and the spider and trace the movement. This was our work basically – measuring relative distance of crickets and spiders and recording encounters if they happened.

That season was quite dull – we weren’t getting any encounters between crickets and spider…the spiders and cricket wouldn’t even come close. But this one time, towards the end of the field season, this spider just swooped down on a cricket from a leaf, but the cricket managed to escape. I was so excited. I remember yelling “Viraj, they are close, they are close”, and when the spider touched the cricket, “Oh Viraj, you are missing this!!” I was screaming! We were doing these experiments in November- December when it was freezing. So it was a tough combination –sitting there in the cold and the spiders and crickets not doing much. It was the anticipation of these exciting moments that kept us enthu. during these experiments. I also got to see this really cool behaviour called baffling. The cricket would choose a big leaf and make a hole in it such that the wings would fit in exactly. When it called from there, the call would seem much louder.

 

HS: Didn’t you also do some work on coral reefs?

MP: Yes, I worked with Chetana [Purushotham] from the MSc program in NCBS. During her Master’s project in Andamans she had taken 800-900 photos of quadrats of coral substrates. I had to mark out each coral on the photograph and then identify it, using this software called ImageJ. It was a two month internship where I had to just sit in front of the laptop and mark each coral. The amount of data she had collected was vast and she really didn’t have time to do this. She gave me field guides, and in one month I had to learn up all the different types of corals.

 

HS: And then there was the new plant description.

MP: Navendu [Page] had found this Meliusa  – a species from the custard apple family – in KMTR, which he had never seen before. He asked me if I would be interested in helping him describe it. Navendu was very excited because he had finally found someone as interested in botany as him! My bachelor’s was a triple major – chemistry, botany and zoology. Initially I was interested only in zoology; I took botany only because it was a compulsory subject. But after doing taxonomy, I got interested in botany and that interest grew further when I went with the IISc undergrads on a field trip to Kudremukh. Navendu, Varun [Torsekar] and Anuradha [Batabyal] from CES were accompanying the undergrads to teach them identification and field techniques. I decided to join them last minute, just two days before they went. Kartik found out about the trip and because he knew I was keen on going to field he asked Maria [Thaker], who was coordinating that trip, if I could join them. This was when I was working on Bharti’s project. So I went a day earlier with Navendu and Varun and we spent the entire day walking around the area. I had never heard anyone speak about plants the way Navendu did. I think that was the trigger for my interest in botany. I helped Navendu describe this new species in 2015 and we just sent out a paper based on that. I also helped Navendu conduct tree walks in IISc during Neralu – the Bangalore tree festival. We also helped identify plants during a loris survey conducted in Bangalore.

 

HS: So far, I have – green turtle diet, comparison of co-occurrence indices, spider-cricket interactions, identifying corals and a new plant description on the list. What else?

MP: Right after college, the day after I was done with my exams in 2015, I went to the Dakshin field station in Orissa. This was during the time of mass hatching of Olive Ridley turtles and I got to see some really interesting behaviours, like predation of hatchlings by crows. I saw some instances where a crow would pick up a hatchling, fly away with it and then drop it from mid-air and come down and pick up another one. No idea why they do that. After coming back from Orissa I was free for a month, so I helped Nupur [Kale] on a project to determine sex ratios of the hatchlings. In turtles, sex depends on temperature. We could see, even before the analysis, a clear pattern emerging that the proportion of females had increased over the years because of increasing temperature.

 

HS: You have just finished a stint on Ravi [Jambhekar]’s project. Tell us more about that.

MP: That was the most interesting project I have been involved in so far. It was the first time I spent a lot of time in field. Ravi is working in Chorla ghats looking at movement of butterflies in the habitat complex –laterite plateaus, grasslands and mixed dense forests. It was really interesting because the methods he was using were new to me, e.g. mark-recapture. And I also got to see a lot of interesting events. We would follow these extremely small butterflies called four-rings. Initially it was very hard for me to even spot them but slowly I got used to it. We would catch them, mark them, give them individual ids, release them and come back 10 days later to recapture. Based on the recaptures we would estimate how many there are in that patch. We managed to mark around 400 butterflies. This one time we found this butterfly that we had marked 22 days earlier. This was exciting because Ravi though their lifespan won’t be more than 15 days. I remember I was doing a behavioural follow and suddenly I saw this butterfly – No. 196. It was still alive! I yelled out to Ravi and he asked me to follow it. So I followed it for 2 minutes and the next thing I know it was caught in a spider web! I got my phone out and started shooting, when the spider swooped down and, in a matter of seconds, spun its silk around it and carried it up. If you watch the video you will hear Ravi and me all excited and shocked – “Oh no! 196! What’s happening to you?”

This project was also nice because I got involved right from the beginning and so I could understand the connection between what we were doing in field and how that will answer the questions we were interested in. Even as we were collecting data, I could visualise how this might look when we analyse it. And then I also started thinking of other interesting questions we could ask with the same methods. That’s how I came up with the idea of doing mark recapture and behavioural follows on green turtles. When I came back from field I spoke to Kartik about it. I will be going to Lakshadweep soon to start work on green turtles.

I also enjoyed the isolation during Ravi’s project. I was in field with just one other person, thinking about things on my own with no one to influence my thoughts. When you are fresh out of college, people assume you don’t know too much and they keep telling you how exactly you should do things. But in the Chorla ghats, I was like I was a 7 year old with no inhibitions and I could come up with anything and no one was going to question that. This really opened my eyes to coming up with ideas and doing research. During my stay in Chorla I also had the opportunity to interact with Nirmal Kulkarni, an extremely passionate conservationist. My conversations with Nirmal have inspired me to integrate my interest in ecology into more conservation, education and outreach activities.

Also, after hearing about my work in Chorla Ghats, one of my professors from Mount Carmel wants to set up a butterfly garden on campus. So I am helping her with that – deciding what plants to grow etc. There isn’t much space to do this but it is still worth trying I think. Might be a model for other campuses to follow.

 

Chorla ghats_laterite plateau

Meenakshi in the Chorla Ghats

HS: Do we have a complete list of projects – green turtles, co-occurrence indices, spider-cricket interactions, coral reef identifications, plant description, plant walks, loris survey, turtle sexing and butterfly mark-recapture?

MP: I think so. I don’t know how I managed to do so much in 3 years. I guess, even though college has a tight 8.30 am – 3 pm schedule, the long summer breaks really gave me time to work on projects and to read up about the field. Actually, my first exposure to research was in college, through this spider survey I did along with one of my professors on campus. It didn’t go very far but it did give me a taste of research. Also, I attended some ornithology and herpetology electives in college, offered by guest lecturers, which really helped.

 

HS: Would you say your college and faculty were supportive of your extra-curricular activities?

MP: Yes. I think that was because I made sure my college work didn’t suffer because of these other activities. I knew it was important to be on good terms with them and so I would always keep them informed about what I was doing outside college, what came out of it and all that. That way they were happy and encouraging of what I was doing. There were lots of times when I even got attendance for the stuff I did outside college.

 

HS: When did you decide you wanted to do marine biology?

MP: It started in the 2nd or 3rd grade because I had heard my sister tell someone that she wanted to become a marine biologist. It sounded really cool to me, so anytime anyone asked me what I wanted to become after that I would say marine biologist. My sister, of course, did not become a marine biologist, but at that stage I wanted to be just like her. It started like that, but after that I also watched a lot of these documentaries on TV and read a lot of these books – not only on marine biology but about nature and wildlife in general. Do you know the Deccan Herald supplement on environment? That’s one paper that publishes news item related to nature and I used to read that regularly. Also, my grandmother would garden a lot and I would sit with her when she was doing it all the time. This connect with nature has played an integral role in my growth as an individual. I think that direct connect with nature is very important and unfortunately, now, fewer and fewer students get that opportunity. Lots of schools are just completely concrete – no playground, no trees, not even a single potted plant. Maybe there are lots of kids who will find nature interesting but don’t even know it because they haven’t been given the chance.

 

HS: Were there opportunities to do research in college itself?

MP: Its only coursework in undergrad. In the master’s courses, you can do research. I think that colleges should have a research-based bachelor’s too. The reason they don’t is, I think, because they feel that nobody will be interested. Like I told you, most of the students who join B.Sc. degrees in life sciences, do so only because they didn’t get medicine. As a result, people like me and Hannah, who are doing the course because we are interested, lose out.

 

HS: Did the research exposure outside college help you in college work? Did it make you think differently about what you were learning?

MP: Yes, definitely. Especially in botany. I’d go out on field and see in real what was described in the textbooks. Especially after that field trip to Kudremukh with Navendu and Varun, I realised that there was so much to study still, so little of which is reflected in our coursework.

 

HS: Was finding time for all these extra-curricular activities a challenge?

MP: College work was a huge burden because there was a lot of lab work to do and we’d constantly have exams. And the number of holidays decreased from 1st to third year – they kept shortening our holidays which upset me a lot because it meant less time for activities outside college. I always tried to finish college work in college itself because it was these other activities that I was really passionate about and wanted to spend as much time on as possible. A lot of what was taught in college – human biology and anatomy, for example – I didn’t see any point in me learning, given what I want to do in the future. So I made sure I finished college work as quickly as possible to give myself enough time for activities that I really wanted to do.

 

HS: Undergrad. students might find the prospect of approaching scientists in these big institutes somewhat intimidating. How has your experience been in this regard? Were the people you contacted welcoming? 

MP: I think so, but I have seen only one part of this entire community. But I can compare CES to other departments in IISc. I have friends in microbiology and biotech. who have approached other depts. in IISc, and other institutes, and often haven’t received any reply. Not even an email saying ‘No’. That’s very disheartening. But in CES, all the professors I wrote to replied. The first person I wrote to was Kartik. It took me five days to send out that email because I read it and reread it and rewrote it. I was writing to this professor and I wasn’t sure if what I had written was okay. I knew nothing about the field then. But I sent the email anyway and he replied promptly asking me to come to CES and meet him. The first time I met him I was taken aback by how informal it was. I went in there expecting this prof. to be sitting behind the desk and interrogating me, but it wasn’t like that at all. Kartik asked me about my interests, my goals and we chatted about the field in general. I felt comfortable at the end of it. And that was the case with all the CES faculty. I didn’t feel intimidated in front of any of them. I guess it’s also because of conferences like SCCS where you see these professors in a more relaxed setting outside their labs and their hectic schedules, and you don’t hesitate to go up and speak to them.

 

HS: Tell us more about working with the students from CES? Did you feel that you were fully involved in their projects?

MP: Yes, very. Sometimes I would wonder whether I should even ask something because it might seem stupid. With Bharti, for instance – I was just her intern and my job was only to analyse the faecal matter of turtles. But she would, every other day, take classes for me. Nothing related to green turtles; just ecology in general. She would keep a whiteboard, ask me to come an hour early in the morning, teach me something, and then would give me books to read up more – like Krebs & Davies and Richard Dawkins. I’d read and go ask her questions and she would explain it to me very patiently. Everyone went out of their way to help me, and the great thing is they never made me feel that the questions I was asking were stupid or silly. I really think that others should also get this opportunity of working in these CES labs. During a Bachelor’s, everyone is confused and somewhat disillusioned by the courses and what the future might hold for them. But if they get these opportunities early on in their Bachelor’s it could be life changing.

 

HS: After seeing you, have other people also joined projects in CES?

MP: A junior of mine – Sidanth – who is doing biotech in Christ, keeps in touch with me regularly to find out if there are any opportunities. When I was interning with Chetana she told me that a classmate of hers – Aritra [Kshettry] – really needed an intern to help him with some scat analysis. I asked Sidanth and he joined Aritra.

I have a lot of friends in other fields – software, engineering corporate, and other desk jobs- who keep asking me about my work. One of my friends, who did mass media and communication, went to Spiti valley recently and worked with some NGO. She is now really interested in this sort of work but thinks no one will give her a job because she doesn’t have a biology background. So every time I hear of an opportunity I tell her. People without biology backgrounds also have a lot to give to this field – writing, documenting and so many other ways to contribute.

 

HS: When you joined these projects were you told clearly what your responsibilities are and what you will get out of it, e.g. co-authorship on papers?

MP: Not always, that’s something that needs to be done. After doing so many projects I have realised that there was so much opportunity to publish but somehow it didn’t happen. I didn’t realise the importance of it earlier, and I would have known only if someone had told me. Publications are everything in this field. So that’s one huge regret I have, that I gave these projects so much time but I didn’t get any publications out of it. I guess that is a lesson.

Also, I got into these projects when they were at different stages, so my roles in them were often only a small part. But on this project with Ravi, since I have been involved in it from the beginning, I have spoken to him and Kavita [Isvaran] about the possibility of me writing up something. Apart from Ravi’s primary interests, there were so many other questions that came up when we were in Chorla ghats, which we can address using the data we have collected and maybe publish something out of that.

I really think that these things should be discussed with the undergrad at the beginning. Also, maybe people think that undergrads won’t be able to write, but I think they should be given a chance – undergrads are young enough to learn quickly what doesn’t work and what works. Also, the students in CES are super busy with their own PhDs, so it might be a challenge for them to find the time to involve and guide undergrads through the process of writing a small paper.

 

HS: Apart from the research experience, did these opportunities also help you network and get to know people in the field?

MP: A lot. Some of my closest friends are people I met at SCCS. We still keep in touch, I send postcards to Indonesia and ask them what they are doing there. Even the master’s course I have gotten into I found out about it only through a random conversation with someone at CES. I wouldn’t have found out about it at all otherwise because it is not a well-advertised course.

 

HS: Since you brought up the course – first, congratulations on being selected. Tell us more about it.

MP: It is a course in tropical biology and conservation run by the Erasmus Mundus organisation. The course is called Tropimundo. I am on the waiting list for the scholarship, but whether I get it or not I will join the course. People from all over the world apply for it because it lets you study in three universities, of your choice, in different parts of the world. I will be starting in Florence in Italy, then move to Malaysia and finish in Brussels. So I can tailor my trajectory very specifically based on my interests. I have chosen components on data analysis, two modules on marine biology and one on tropical botany. This is super because it covers all of my interests.

Something that really bugs me is that India has so few master’s courses in this field – one NCBS, one Wildlife Institute of India and one Pondicherry University. And all these are so selective, e.g. NCBS takes 14 students every two years. This bothers me because there is huge need for trained people in this field in India and so few opportunities to get trained. It doesn’t seem okay that there are 700 people who are interested and apply for a course and only 14 are chosen. That might be really disheartening for hundreds who are passionate about being in this field. I think we are being too selective, considering the manpower India needs. You look at all the job postings on the YETI list– most of them ask for a master’s, preferably in this field. But how are you going to get that if the courses are so selective?

 

HS: Did your undergrad research experience help in your application to the Erasmus Mundus?

MP: Yes, definitely. The interview panel spent a lot of time asking me detailed questions about it. I think the selection is based a lot on prior experience. One of the sections in the application is just for that, where you have to list out all that you have done and describe each briefly. So it does play a big role. They also give a lot of weightage – about 40% – to recommendation letters. I got letters from Kartik, Kavita and one of my college teachers. They even did background checks on the referees and spent a lot of time just looking at the reco. letters.

 

HS: Based on your experience, what would your advice be to institutes like IISc and NCBS with regard to undergraduate interns? Can institutes do more to be attractive to undergraduates?

MP: The Open Days that IISc organises are a great way to let students see what happens in these labs. But that’s just one day in a year. I think that in today’s online world it will really help if more professors and students start their own blogs where they write about their research and field work experience. This will make undergrads feel less intimidated about approaching these people. Another thing that might work is if these institutes organise workshops specifically targeted at undergrads – about writing, statistics, designing a research experiment etc. In my own experience, I often found that there were aspects that were at a level higher than what I had been exposed to. Like reading research papers – I couldn’t go beyond the introduction. And it is not just students from the life sciences. Engineers could do internships and contribute greatly through their skills in programming and coding.

 

HS: Final question – based on your experience, what would you tell people starting on a Bachelor’s course?

MP: I would say that the three years of undergrad. are a great time to experiment, and you should give yourselves the opportunity – start off with small research projects, come up with your own ideas and talk to your college professors first, because colleges like to be kept in the loop. So, start with that. Then, if you are interested, also write to professors in these research institutes, go on their websites and look for opportunities, get onto mailing lists like YETI, read articles in the field, maybe even start reading papers later on. Although, like me you might only be reading the introductions over and over again for a long time!

 

 

 

 

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