Meet Devapriya Chattopadhyay: Indian Woman Palaeontologist Exploring The Earth Science

Palaeontologist Devapriya Chattopadhyay

It is an old saga that women cannot pursue science. However, many have broken the ceiling of gender restriction through their phenomenal achievements and inspired other women. Meet Devapriya Chattopadhyay, Indian woman palaeontologist who became the harbinger of a new era of palaeontology in the nation. Defying all the gender stereotypes, she went on research trips alone and with a group of student researchers to remote areas to study fossils and find answers for the intriguing questions about the prehistoric organisms and life. To know more about her  inspirational journey, SheThePeople reached out to Devapriya Chattopadhyay, who is also a caring mother juggling her career with raising children. Currently, she is an Associate Professor of Earth and Climate Science at IISER Pune.

Why did you choose to be a palaeontologist? What inspired your interest in fossils?

I had an atypical childhood compared to a regular city-dweller. I grew up in the North Bengal and spent my free time amidst nature. I was an avid nature enthusiast. I was curious about the process of operating and shaping the Earth every day. This was one of the reasons for me to choose Geology as a major during my bachelors. Just the thought of knowing a long-lost world that shaped today’s ecosystem excited me and driven me to palaeontology.

As you grew up, who was the role model that inspired you to be in science?

I did not have any specific role model whom I wanted to follow. I was always inspired by people I read about, who made important discoveries. I definitely wondered about the absence of a strong female presence in the list of successful people.

What has been the focus of your research works on fossils?

I try to understand how marine organisms respond to their environment (physical and biological) in the ecological and evolutionary time scales. I try to understand how the biological interaction (such as competition, predation) over millions of years shaped the evolution of marine groups using fossils that carry marks of such interactions. I also try to understand the response of marine fauna to the physical changes in their environment.

I use shelled molluscs (snails, clams, etc) as a model system because of its impressive fossil record and its wide presence in the recent ecosystem. The hard shell of such animals preserves important clues about the environment they were growing in. Specific chemical analyses of these shells provide us with valuable information about the prevailing climate and many aspects of the ocean including the seawater chemistry, circulation and nutrient availability.

Besides, my research group also works on modern organisms using under-water observations, conduct laboratory experiments in aquariums.

You went for many research trips and fieldwork which are considered traditionally masculine in India. So did you come across any gender stereotypes? 

I have experienced some gender stereotyping. Sometimes they are in the disguise of patronising comments and chivalrous gestures, and then on other occasions as caustic comments undermining the ability of “women”.

In the early days of my research field trips in India, I often encountered people who were concerned about my safety. They were also curious to know how my father/ husband “allowed” me to visit distant places all by myself. I was denied a room in a hotel once because it was too much for the owner to take my “responsibility”. When I travel with my students now, often the male students are assumed to be the in-charge and my presence is ignored in the initial conversation. Things generally ease out after a couple of visits. I have been lucky to have students of all genders who were sensitive and bold. They braved these troubling situations, often better than me. I still learn from them.

Being a mother, now I get new comments like “who takes care of your baby?” or “how can you leave her to someone else?” I wonder if my male colleagues ever had to answer these questions.

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When you started as a palaeontologist in India, there was a gap in the studies and data collection done on fossils in India. So how did you manage to bridge the gap and what challenges did you face during your research?

I was trained to address the palaeobiological question that requires a large collection of fossilised specimens. Unlike many of the countries in the West, India does not have a research museum (recently a forum of Indian palaeontologists started an initiative to build such a National Earth Museum). Such museums preserve collected fossils over centuries and aid researchers to address scientific questions by letting them access the appropriate collection. Without such a facility, I had to start from the ground up and build my own collection of fossils.

It is always challenging for young researchers to set up a laboratory and establish a research group for the first time. Half the battle is over if one finds motivated students; I was lucky to have many in the initial phase where they took the lead to tackle logistical challenges.

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Do you think there is gender diversity in palaeontology and marine ecology fields in India? 

The palaeontological community in India is very small and it would be unfair to point to the paucity of woman palaeontologist. I think the field shows a comparable level of gender diversity to any other experimental field, no more, no less. I have limited knowledge about the field of marine ecologists in India.

Interestingly, I always found an impressive number of young students of all genders and don’t find the same representation among the established academicians. This drop in the diversity higher up is probably because of the “leaky pipeline” that many of us are concerned about.

Who would you thank for being the biggest support in your journey as a woman in science?

Many of my colleagues and family members were supportive. Without the help of the nannies, it would have been impossible for me to function. Over the years, I have come to realise that people come with all kinds of contradictions. There are people, in spite of being believers of patriarchal values, can be incredibly supportive through their deeds. There are yet others who are true believers in gender equality but do not practise it in their lives. I have been supported by people of both sides through their words or deeds.

My biggest inspiration, however, is the group of working women who are always trying their best to survive in a discriminating society, to thrive through their honest work, and to strike a balance between professional and personal life (and always underappreciated!).

How can women in science inspire other women to build a career in science and defy gender stereotypes?

It is important for us to share our own story. For a young aspirant, it is important to recognise that there are other people who experienced the same. And yet, the joy of doing what you truly love is more rewarding than all the hardship put together.

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