In this new series, leading up to YIM 2024, researchers who have attended YIMs from the past tell us about what it was like for them back then, what they took away from the experience, how things have changed, their ideas for future YIMs, and tips for the newest generation of life scientists gearing up for their first meeting. Manzoor A. Shah is a botanist at University of Kashmir, Srinagar. In this interview, he shares his YIM experience with Nandita Jayaraj.
Tell us about where you were in your career & research back in 2015.
I work largely on biological invasions from a biogeographic perspective, exploring how invasive species behave in native and non-native regions, using macro- and molecular-ecological approaches. These were the questions that I used to ask back then as an assistant professor in University of Kashmir’s department of botany.
Tell us about where you are in your career & research today — how have things changed?
Now, I’m a full professor. Since 2015, I have been able to run 15 research projects including three major international projects — an Indo-Canadian one, an Indo-US one, and an Indo-German one. I see these as an outcome of the learnings from meetings such as YIM. Through these bilateral projects, many opportunities for student exchanges came up, and so have a series of high impact research publications.
Can you recall for us how you came to organise the 2015 YIM?
It was at the 2011 YIM at Bhubaneshwar that I casually floated the idea of having one of the YIMs organised at Srinagar with Satyajit Mayor, Ron Vale and LS Shashidhara. Then evening in 2014 while I was organising an INSPIRE camp for school kids, there was a knock on my office door. I opened it and to my surprise, I found Ron Vale outside! I remember it wasn’t a normal day in the city; there was a transport strike, but somehow he had managed to come. He told me that he happened to be in Ladakh and felt that he should meet me to discuss the possibility of having the next YIM in Srinagar. Ron ended up giving a plenary talk at the camp and that was so good. That’s how we ended up organising the 2015 YIM in Gulmarg.
Tell us about one meaningful connection you made at a YIM.
After the 2015 YIM, Shashi wrote a note to me expressing gratitude at finding a long-term partner in Srinagar for future discussions. Since then, my connection with him has become stronger. And I must tell you that he has come here during difficult times, interacted with students, faculty, and contributed a lot to the academic and research discourse that’s happening here.
There’s also Nandini Rajamani who was at IndiaBioscience and with me in the organising team. She works on marmot ecology in the Ladakh landscape. We later worked together on a DBT project on plant invasions in the Dachigam National Park, and how these affect the feeding ecology and breeding behaviour of the Hangul or the Kashmir stag deer. She is co-supervising a PhD student with me who spent some good time at her lab in IISER Tirupati recently.
Besides this, I also got to know Fayaz Malik and Sreelaja Nair, who organised the meeting with me. Fayaz belongs to the same place as me but we actually met in the YIM. Now we are good friends doing some interesting work together.
Can you tell us one memorable behind-the-scenes story from your time organising a YIM?
The 2015 meeting was held in Gulmarg in the middle of the winter. It was snowing extremely heavily and many people told me that it gave them a better feeling than Davos, Switzerland, which is generally the venue of the World Economic Forum.
There were many challenges behind the scenes, however. We had to take care of everyone’s transport. Reaching Gulmarg is an uphill journey and in the winters, vehicles need special chains to ply on those roads. We had to engage with several departments and the government to make sure all the participants were picked up and dropped safely.
There are also some specific security concerns when it comes to Kashmir. In view of some advisories in place, some people were concerned about whether it was safe to come. It was sometimes hard to convince them that they would be well taken care of, and the situation on-ground is not as bad as the media portrays it. Ultimately, we were able to resolve all the last-minute issues. Everyone made it and we had a great meeting!
Describe for us one YIM session that made a strong impression on you?
Nobel laureate Tim Hunt delivered the concluding session and he left a take home message which I quote quite often to young people. When the biochemist first discovered the cyclin protein, his supervisor was not interested. But Hunt was convinced that this was something new and special. So he went to a different lab in Europe, repeated the experiment and the professor there confirmed his hunch. That conviction led Tim Hunt to a Nobel Prize.
That shows that sometimes you need to believe in yourself even as a student, even if your supervisors themselves aren’t convinced with what you have discovered.
If you could pick the brain of any scientist from the past, who would it be and what would you ask them?
One that comes to mind is AR Naqshi. He was actually our teacher at the Department of Botany at University of Kashmir. As a taxonomist, he was a class apart. People from all corners of the university and even outside the university would come to him for identification of plants. He could simplify all complex taxonomic issues for us. Over time, taxonomists have become a rare breed all over the world. These days, taxonomists (and even other scientists) seem more interested in what benefit they would get out of identifying something. If I had a chance to talk to Naqshi, I would request him to advise young people in the field to work selflessly, for the larger good of the society. Unfortunately, he passed away just a couple of years back.
If you could add one programme to the next YIM schedule, what would it be?
Future YIMs should, I believe, look at the funding scenario of research in India. Somehow there is an emphasis on applied research. Funding agencies are more inclined to fund you, if your research output has immediate applications. But all the great applications of research have their roots in basic science. Of course, we need to support research that addresses immediate concerns and needs of society, but at the same time we shouldn’t lose sight of fundamental research. I believe there has to be a session that deliberates upon how to balance this and how to get these funding agency directors on board in this regard.
What message would you like to pass to someone who is attending their first YIM in 2024?
I would like to convince young investigators in India to think of local concerns but be more global in their discourses. To think beyond borders, when they are doing science.
Most young investigators have come back after postdocs across the world, but when they join institutes in India, they forget those connections. Even while asking questions in an Indian context, speaking to and working with people outside can help you answer them in a better way. I’ve experienced this myself while working on Conyza canadensis or Canadian Horseweed, an invasive species in Kashmir Himalaya that came from North America.
Over a decade, we have built a network of more than 300 scientists globally working on this plant species. We share data, protocols and sometimes it opens up many opportunities for student exchanges. Thanks to this we are able to understand the species, how it behaves in the non-native and native regions. We have been able to study its population genetics and how it varies between and across different populations and ranges. Many of these studies have been published in various journals as a series. An important story is emerging and we are having a lot of fun doing this!