Interview

India doesn’t have a spirit of encouraging and appreciating success in science

Sathyabhama Das Biju is an Indian amphibian biologist, who teaches at the University of Delhi. With more than a hundred discoveries stemming from his personal work or that in his lab (established in 2006), his is one of the most productive amphibian research laboratories in the world. He has 30 years of research experience in Biodiversity, Systematics and Conservation.

Born in Kerala, Biju has discovered over a hundred of amphibian species, many of them from the Western Ghats region. He has been felicitated with IUCN/Sabin Award and Wildlife service Sanctuary Asia award for Amphibian conservation and research.

He is a scientific associate with Natural History Museum, London, Visiting researcher: Vrije Universiteit, Brussels, INSA/The Royal Society fellowship and Resource person/consultant for IUCN red list database preparation for amphibian. Biju has also authored many research papers and books. 

Q. Briefly tell us about your scientific research and career?

SDB – I started my research career as a plant systematist in 1989 and got my first PhD in plant science. However, I became increasingly fascinated with animals, especially frogs. I quit my job as a plant systematist in 2000 and joined for another PhD in animal science in Vrije University, Brussels. There I trained in molecular systematics and evolution of Indian amphibians (frogs, and legless amphibians called caecilians). In 2006, I joined University of Delhi as a faculty. I teach masters students and supervise doctoral students. I established the Systematics Lab at Department of Environmental Studies, University of Delhi. My research team is a group of young and dynamic researchers working on varied aspects of amphibians–their taxonomy and systematics, biogeography, reproductive ecology, evolution of frog calls and conservation.

My primary interest always has been discovery, understanding life and its conservation. So far I have discovered over 100 entirely new amphibian species. It is also my dream to involve the civil society in conserving amphibians incidentally the world’s most threatened vertebrate (vertebrates are animals with backbone) group.

Q. Congratulations on your discovery of ‘Legless Amphibians’. Please tell us more about the unique species?

SDB – Thanks. The discovery of legless amphibian family ‘Chikilidae’ is my second discovery of a new family from India. I was fortunate enough to discover an entirely new frog family (the Purple frog family¬–Nasikabatrachidae) too, in the year 2003 which was published in Nature.

The recently discovered new family of legless amphibians Chikilidae came as a surprise not only because it is an ancient lineage (about 140 million years old) but also because its closest relatives occur over 7,000 miles away in Africa. This discovery sheds light on evolutionary links and how continental movements influence the present distribution of organisms. Chikilids, popularly called ‘tailless burrowing caecilians’, are specialized burrowers. They have extremely strong skull that probably aids in efficient burrowing even in hard soil.

They lead a very secretive underground life and probably never come to the surface in their entire life cycle. They have a fascinating reproductive behavior. The mother guards her clutch of eggs during the entire brooding period. The young ones hatch out as miniature adults, meaning they are direct-developers skipping the ‘free swimming larval stage’ typical of majority of amphibians. Chikilids belong to a group of amphibians in the Order Gymnophiona – arguably the most understudied group of vertebrates.

Q. You have been working extensively in the field of Lost Amphibians. Tell us about the situation in India.

SDB – Lost! Amphibians of India (LAI) is a nation-wide campaign to rediscover over 50 ‘lost’ amphibian species. These are species known only from the original descriptions. They ‘live’ in sterile spirit jars as taxonomic fossils. Well, it is an ambitious initiative to seek out these lost species, some of which have been lost for almost two centuries. The initiative also aims to generate interest and awareness about conserving our vanishing biodiversity, particularly the most threatened vertebrates on Earth– Amphibians. LAI has over 600 team members and has conducted about 42 expeditions. We have encouraging results that we will announce soon. This initiative is unique in involving civil society in conservation initiatives and has huge implications in conservation of amphibians. 

Q. At one of your fascinating talk on ‘Lost Amphibians’ you suggested that as many as 50 species of amphibians have gone ‘missing’ from between 16 years and 169 years. How do you hope to find them?

SDB – We have been working for about two years across India in search of the ‘Lost Amphibians’. We are now studying the ‘lost’ species which we located from throughout the country for accurate identification and finalizing the results for announcement of conservation strategies. Yes, we hope we have located several of them. It is a mixture of good and sad news! Please wait! 

Q. As an educator do you think the spirit for research has died down in present generation? What can be done to revive it? 

SDB – Well, it is a big question. Your concern has two sides. One is to attract brilliance to research and second to pursue quality research. I believe both need improvement in Indian research. I believe many of the promising graduates do not opt for research in India as a profession because of complex reasons mainly because of government negligence, particularly towards academic research. Sadly, quality research in India is lacking.  PhD work is high in number but overall quality is low! If our country wants dedicated researchers and quality research we need to prioritize education and research to encourage academicians and researchers. 

Q. Do you think India as a country does not know how to celebrate science and scientists?

SDB – It is a difficult question because a few reports in the media made this remark on the occasion of one of my research achievements. Readers might interpret my comment personally. My personal opinion is, in fact, yes. We do not have a spirit of encouraging and appreciating success in science. It is as important as in any other field. Recognition and encouragement to scientists in the country is nowhere near to what is accorded in many other countries. Motivating and attracting talented researchers and faculties to Universities and Institutions is probably the only way India can excel in academic research. I think India, an emerging (economic) world power, must have the vision to inspire science and scientists and fire the imagination and creativity of the young minds who will be the next generation of leaders. 

Q. Despite reports of India’s dismal research output globally, which Indian institutes in your opinion are doing pioneering research work?

SDB – As I mentioned earlier in my opinion we have to give more importance to research and the current state is indeed dismal. Not even a single Indian University or academic institution is anywhere close to the top 200 excellent Universities of the World, according to the World University rankings 2011-12 developed by Times Higher Education. 

Q. Science and Research has become an elite phenomenon restricted to certain individuals and institutions, do you agree with that? How do we involve young minds at an elementary stage in science?

SDB – Yes, I do agree to a certain extent. We still live in a complex situation influenced largely by religion, caste and regionalism at all levels, even in the (highly) educated community. We require scholars and academicians to motivate our young generation and attract them to research. My personal opinion is that we need to revamp our education system especially at the elementary stage when students are at a highly formative phase of life. We need to encourage creativity and a vibrant interaction among peers and between students-teachers, to commune with nature, rather than textbook learning and cramming. After all, Science is all about ideas and imagination and as Albert Einstein said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” 

Q. Please share with us various initiatives that you are involved with?

SDB – I have been working in the field of systematics and evolution for over two decades, involving with individuals and institutions both international and national. In India, I have collaborators at NCCS, Pune and IISc, Bangalore.

Internationally, I have collaborations with The Natural History Museum, London; Vrije University Brussels, Belgium; National University of Ireland and Minnesota State University, USA.

Currently I am working on two initiatives. The first is to set up a Protected Areas Network for Threatened Amphibians of India http://www.wnpata.org/. This project is funded by the IUCN and is in its initial stages of planning and formulation. It involves the collaboration of a number of amphibian researchers from all over India. The second is the ‘Lost Amphibians of India’ initiative, which I have already discussed earlier. Both these initiatives are aimed at conserving the rich but threatened amphibian diversity of India. 

Q. What are your future research plans?

SDB – Personally I have many dreams. One of my wildest dreams is to discover, describe and conserve ‘all’ the amphibians of India in association with young students and my co-researchers. 

Q. What is one piece of advice that you would like to give to the young researchers?

SDB – The modern world is only talking about GDP growth. If we only consider growth is money then we will lose our precious biodiversity with which our lives and survival are intricately connected. Live with nature and conserve our precious biodiversity for our posterity.

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