In 1993, when Steven Spielberg gifted Jurassic Park to the world, he essentially changed the way we made movies. But beyond that, he changed our imagination forever. Suddenly it was possible for us to visualise the giant terrestrial vertebrates that dominated our planet in the Triassic and Jurassic period. The fascination grew to the extent that palaeontology became a sought after discipline of science, and funding grew for the same, leading to the term ''Jurassic Park Effect".
While we all agree that palaeontology is one of the most exciting professions, how many of us can name an Indian palaeontologist? Think about it. In India, not only are there few takers for the subject, there are even fewer who continue to research in the field. As famous Indian palaeontologist, Dr Ashok Sahni stated, “There is plenty to be found if only there are people available to look. But they are not there."
But it looks like one young palaeontologist is trying to change that narrative. Kolkata-based Sanjukta Chakravorti is showing the country and the world that there is a lot to explore when it comes to palaeontology in India. A geologist and palaeobiologist, Chakravorti is currently a researcher at the Indian Statistical Institute in Kolkata. She has contributed significantly to integrating mathematical and statistical concepts in palaeobiology, thereby recognising areas that are vital for fossil-related research. She has also worked on improving techniques for the study of fossils in India. She has represented India in various museums and institutes abroad like the University of Opole in Poland, the Teylers Museum in the Netherlands and the Muséum national d'Histoire naturelle (MNHN) in Paris, among others. Today, she is an ardent voice for science education, encouraging children and adults to value fossils and partake in protecting them.
In this interview, Chakravorti talks about her unusual career choice and how she is working towards getting more and more people aboard the palaeontology bandwagon.
How did you get interested in the field of palaeontology? Could you tell us a little bit about your journey?
A career in palaeontology was not something I dreamed of as a child. I was raised in a conservative family and had an ordinary upbringing. But my mother always pushed me to aim for more, and both my parents, for that matter, encouraged me to pursue whatever I thought was best for me. Although I did not know of palaeontology or palaeobiology back then, I was fascinated by the world of science and I knew that I wanted to study something different. During my post graduation at Calcutta University, I found my area of interest in the world of geology as I was introduced to Structural Geology and Tectonics taught by Prof. Tapas Bhattacharyya. I completed my M.Sc. dissertation under his guidance and he continues to be an inspiration for me. Even before I submitted my Masters dissertation, I had cleared the national entrance exam of the Indian Statistical Institute (ISI).
Although I initially had plans to pursue a PhD abroad, an opportunity to join ISI was too good to pass up, and I was fortunate to be mentored by Prof. Dhurjati Prasad Sengupta, one of the best palaeontologists in India. Prof. Sengupta, who I fondly call Papasaurus, understood my natural knack towards quantitative sciences and structural geology and inspired me to devise my own project. It was like getting free reign! I started studying statistics, morphometrics, took courses in R Programming, Python and thought of integrating my previous knowledge of deformation and tectonics into the realm of fossils. Palaeontology is actually a mixed bag of disciplines like chemistry, biochemistry, biology, physics, statistics and more. It is not all Jurassic Park. And I am glad that I found the right path to it. Without the mentorship of Prof. Sengupta, I would not have had the liberty to break the norms of traditional palaeontology in India. So, in short, I am grateful to my parents and my professors who steered me down this path.
What are some of the challenges that you face while conducting fieldwork? What kind of support do you think palaeontologists in India require?
Fieldwork involves several challenges depending on the terrain and the place of research. The biggest challenge that most women face is the absence of accessible restrooms. Most field areas are near remote villages in India, where the lives of women are restricted to household chores. People there are not used to seeing women dressed in jeans, full-sleeve shirts and hats with hammers in their hands, trampling the field sites. Social security remains a concern for many women carrying out fieldwork not just in my field, but across disciplines. The terrains are often very rough, and the accommodation at the base camps and hotels where geologists and palaeontologists spend months together are quite basic.
A significant challenge is the lack of conservation of fossiliferous lands. Everywhere we see new areas are being encroached as agricultural terrains, and in several parts of Telangana and Madhya Pradesh, dams are constructed over extremely fossiliferous areas. Who knows how much we have lost! Authorities are either unaware and lack any interest in preserving these areas or they do not have any other options as dams provide opportunities for better cultivation in these arid terrains. We also often face apprehensive people during excavation. Villagers are worried, sometimes curious and sceptical that we are mining precious minerals from their land. There is a severe lack of general public awareness and most of the times, the locals object to digging and excavation activities in their region. Some field areas fall within forest reserves, and gaining permission is a time-consuming process. Above all, the field of palaeontology does not have adequate funds for carrying out research and sustaining itself.
How can communities be more involved in understanding and protecting fossil sites?
Awareness needs to be generated from the grassroot level. The study of natural sciences should be a part of the curriculum in schools. Kids are fast learners and are often fascinated by dinosaurs right from their childhood. But without a way to explore that further, the love for dinosaurs remains an infatuation. Also, local outreach programmes should be facilitated so that people become aware of the extraordinary natural resources in terms of fossils that their regions host. It is important to teach and educate people, especially in villages near fossil sites, to conserve the fossiliferous lands. We have observed many times that in rural India fossils are collected and worshipped as gods. Vermillion and tamarind paste are applied all over the fossils, essentially destroying them. As it is, fossils, especially vertebrate fossils, are rare finds. The lack of conservation of fossiliferous lands has made finding vertebrate fossils even more rare.
Raising awareness about fossils alone is not enough. It must be stressed that local fossil collectors should report their findings to universities or respective authorities so that the fossils can be properly curated and studied in due time. A problem we face often is that people who reside in villages near fossil sites gradually become aware and come to know how to identify and collect fossils, which poses a bigger issue. They try and sell them to tourists or other amateur collectors and this results in substantial loss of geological and palaeontological data, making future research next to impossible. Promoting palaeontological research in the country is also a way to reach out to more people in the society. Palaeontology should be recognised as a branch of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). In India, most palaeontologists have limited options after their PhD. Unless the government encourages the preservation of natural resources, the valid efforts by a handful of palaeontologists like us who are driven by their passion will be short-lived.
You are also passionate about encouraging more women into the field of STEM. Please tell us a little bit about your initiatives in this respect, and what changes would you like to see in the education system to encourage the same?
I have always felt that the progress of women in STEM sciences is clustered in India. Even though we now see a number of women flourishing in STEM and interdisciplinary sciences, it is not representative of the vast majority. As it is, social security is a prime concern for women which prevents many from opting for field studies. Several other socio-physical reasons also cause them to drop out from such disciplines of study. My aim is to build a strong foundation for women in science streams and shine a light on the opportunities that await them. I try to organise outreach programmes for school and college children and focus on how various fields of sciences are integrated together to bring out a holistic conclusion.
I was very fortunate that the Indian Statistical Institute and Prof Sengupta always supported every endeavour of mine. With their support, I organised the first structured outreach event named “ Banglar Jeebashmo (Fossils of Bengal) – A Deep Time Biodiversity of Bengal” in January 2020. Secondary and higher secondary students of various schools, college students and research scholars participated in the event. We highlighted the formation of the Bengal basin and the huge bulk of vertebrate fossils present here. Educational visits were made to the Geology Museum of the Indian Statistical Institute and the students presented their views on conservation and promoting the studies of palaeosciences here in the country.
Recently, I was awarded an Engagement Grant from the prestigious Palaeontological Association of UK to pursue a new project of mine dubbed “The Museum on Wheels”. It is currently withheld due to the slow transfer of grants and funds at the time of the pandemic. The project aims to focus on urban and rural schools in India and build a mobile museum housing fossil specimens to promote knowledge and highlight the vastness of earth science studies. I also plan to spend some time with school going children in various villages where I do my fieldwork to encourage them to pursue science streams. I hope to gain more funds to streamline such outreach initiatives.
I can tell from my own experience and when I speak to school going girls of various villages in my field areas, that seeing me working in the field with hammer and chisel inspires them. I have delivered lectures and represented myself as an Indian palaeontologist at international platforms like the European Association of Vertebrate Palaeontology (EAVP). I was also recognised recently in a book called Rebels, Scholars, Explorers: Women in Vertebrate Palaeontology by Annalisa Berta and Susan Turner. Through my work and research, both in India and abroad, I have come to understand that not many deserving women candidates come to the limelight in our country.
Your work involves collaborating with people across fields. Would you say we need more interdisciplinary research to address some of the knowledge gaps in various areas?
Absolutely! We are lagging behind when it comes to interdisciplinary approaches in palaeontology as compared to the rest of the world. Interestingly, India, due to its palaeo-position and being a part of the Gondwana countries till the Cretaceous period (about 85 million years ago), to its collision with the Asian landmass in the Eocene (approx. 50 million years ago) travelled an epic voyage as an island continent. This led to a unique assemblage of fossil fauna in the country. Thus, India is a land of enigma to scientists worldwide. With the fast development of integrated science across the globe, there is already a severe gap in updated data in our country. We do need to collaborate with scientists across fields to close this gap in knowledge and reach out to the world. Palaeobiology is an interesting field of science that requires consolidated knowledge of anatomy, histology, pathology, computed tomographic scanning (CT scanning), biomechanics and several other fascinating disciplines that makes it an appealing medium for collaboration with people specialising in engineering, physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, statistics, and medical science.
Any memorable moments from your fieldwork that you would like to share with us?
I remember this one experience when I was doing field work in the vicinity of Tiki village in Madhya Pradesh. We were carrying out excavation in the midst of heavy rains and flood alerts. When working in the Gondwana terrains (especially in Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, and Panchet in West Bengal) we generally opt for the winter season as the temperature and the weather conditions are ambient at that time and suitable for long hours of work. However, in 2019, we had other field schedules and we had to accommodate the field work in Madhya Pradesh for some last minute data collection in the early weeks of October. It was raining cats and dogs from the moment we reached Beohari where we had set up camp. The field areas are dominantly extensive areas of red mud with dried up small nalas or little channels which are inundated with water during the monsoon. Fossils are mainly excavated from the red mudstones, and during this fieldwork, we came across an extinct amphibian skull (a Temnospondyl skull) that was peeping out of the red mudstone.
We knew that we had to excavate it somehow, despite the conditions around us. It was extremely difficult to walk on the clay and mud field as our shoes would get caught in the wet terrain, and we were constantly slipping and falling. There were insects and scorpions lurking around and I almost got bit by a scorpion. We even had a few minor accidents and we were crestfallen thinking that we would not be able to excavate the skull on time.
The next day we had to cancel visiting the field area as it was flooded everywhere and we were unable to move out of the hotel. We lost all hope. But on the last day of our stay, we were elated to wake up in the morning and see bright sunlight. We wasted no time in going to the field as we knew that the weather could deteriorate at any moment. After removing the overburden, we exposed the whole fossil from the topside, and dug a deep trench around it. We added plaster to the top and waited for it to dry. This process needs a lot of sunlight and we knew that It was a race against time for us. The field was still wet and every move was a challenge. Yet, we completed plastering the top side in record time, which took us just two hours. We could not wait for the plaster to dry completely and overturned the approximately 70 kg-heavy fossil in a wet field and then plastered the backside. When we finally completed the plastering it began to rain again. We carried the half dry-half wet plastered heavy jacketed fossil back to the hotel and I spent the entire night drying it with my hair dryer. Fortunately, the fossil was saved! Once we finally managed to dry the fossil, we visited the local stores looking for appropriate material to pack the fossil for transportation. Our pants and shirts were stained in mud and white plaster. Everybody was staring at us. A local seller queried if we were given the task of painting a house in the area.
Your advice for students who aspire to be palaeontologists?
Never be bogged down by the idea of following traditional streams. Think beyond conventional realms. You need to dream of the impossible to create and discover something new. Break new doors and above all be true to yourself and your beliefs. Palaeontology is a fascinating yet challenging field, but if you are passionate you will definitely find your way. Be open to accepting change, as it is the only way for scientific development. I would like to quote Charles Darwin here: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but rather the one most adaptable to change.” Best wishes to all future palaeontologists!