Higher Education

Higher Education

Deep sea, aquatic life hold secrets that need to be told

PUBLISH DATE 18th July 2018

Think marine biology and it brings to mind a life spent on the beach, researching coral reefs and deep-sea diving.

But marine biologist Sachin Vaishampayan says the reality of a marine researcher is vast. “ There’s so much more to marine biology. One has to visit fishing communities and interact with them, study the catch and communicate with the fishermen for information. Networking is important. Students should keep their minds open,” he said.

According to Vaishampayan, salaries are not as high as other conventional fields. “They rise with experience and qualification, and there is no such things as placements. Students have to look for grants and positions at institutes. Researchers can help, but initiative in necessary,” he added.

Vaishampayan is currently working as a research associate with the Andaman and Nicobar Islands Environment Team, a non-governmental organisation, that is the field base of the Madras crocodile bank. His work involves a mix of social sciences and marine biology.

“I did my bachelors in zoology and my masters in marine biology from Pondicherry University. They have a campus in Port Blair. I also volunteered with a marine researcher doing a PhD. She had a small grant. The experience gave me an idea of what to expect and I started applying for such grants which helps conduct your own research through small-term projects that last for about a year. I was based in the Andamans. My project looked at marine mammal and fisheries interaction,” he said.

Vaishampayan is compiling a report on the human-crocodile conflict in the Andamans. “I am looking forward to working on another project and am considering a PhD in fisheries,” he said.

His professor, Mohanraju, heads the department of ocean studies and marine biology at Pondicherry University’s Port Blair campus. “Any basic science graduate can apply for the masters in marine biology programme. Ideally, they should have a biology component, but we take students who have a BTech or a microbiology degree. Students who have done environment science can’t apply as it doesn’t come under biology. The course has four semesters pattern. Only around 10-15% is practical based as the water in the Andamans is very deep.”

“We have exam centres throughout India. An external panel sets the questions. It’s an online test and based on merit they we provide them admission and some get scholarships. Our intake is 56 and this year we got 502 applications. The two departments for our masters courses in marine biology and coastal disaster management are located at a campus in Port Blair,” he said.

“They also study the wealth of the ocean, apart from fisheries. We also cater to the pharmaceutical industry and which organisms can be tapped. Students are taken on a four-day field trip. We take them to the large mangroves and teach them about protection of the coast, soil erosion, climatic changes. Students are taught how to identify these mangroves, phytoplanktons and kinds of bacteria.”

Mohanraju said students can get into the fish industry, environmental impact assessment and take up their own projects. “It’s not a tough course, but depends on interest. Some students are working in the National Institute of Oceanography, the national coast guard in Chennai and some of them set up their own businesses. Many learn scuba diving by themselves.”

Mahi Mankeshwar, another a marine biologist, is working on an independent research project on dolphins and whales.

“In the Andamans, I am looking at how these marine creatures are distributed and the seasonality of their presence. My project started three months ago and I did the groundwork for this study for two years.”

She said some sightings are rare.

“There were days when I didn’t see anything and then there were times I had around ten sightings in a day.” Marine biologists are few in India but volunteering helps learning, she added.

Environmentalist Sachin Punekar said the central government has launched the blue revolution or ‘neela kranti’ to encourage wetlands and rivers protection giving importance to marine ecosystems.

“The government is keen on funding such projects. There is a concept called bioplastic. Certain marine organisms like seaweed can be used to prepare bioplastic as an alternative to polymer plastic. The field does have opportunities,” he said.

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