My research journey: An experience from the Global South

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I had no job, was not getting selected for any full scholarships, and future seemed bleak with no end in sight with the COVID lockdowns. So, as a budding researcher from the Global South I decided to learn something new which would take a lot of time at least taking my mind off of the awful state I was in. I decided to go for learning species distribution modeling. I had some basic understanding of it from my days of internship at IUCN Nepal so, I thought why not take a deep dive. I started with learning the theory itself and when it came to exercising it for a species, I chose ganges river dolphin.

I decided I want to write a paper on this. And I had my previous colleague to contribute. I started collecting records of the species throughout its range. This new area of research wasn’t mine. I wanted some mentorship and guidance but it wasn’t something that was available to me. Still I continued because it was an escape. Little by little I had collected a lot of data and even drafted a paper. I couldn’t get anyone to comment on it so I just submitted it for publication knowing it would be rejected but at least I would get some comments out of it. To my surprise, the paper was not rejected outright and came with a lot of comments. Just what I was looking for.

I tried making use of GRASS GIS for a part of the analysis. But ran into some errors. I couldn’t comprehend it and made an appeal to a facebook group. Someone replied – a data scientist nonetheless! He made me understand what the error meant and we just started talking. Finally, I had a mentor!

With the comments received and a realization that I didn’t have enough records I reached out to a researcher who had some important records of the species. I explained that this was just an exercise for me to learn more and I would eventually want to publish the findings. I requested if he would be a co-author as well. To my surprise, the researcher reached out and gave me the records. We kept in touch through emails and I would update the progress of the research every now and then.

As the progresses were being made, I approached my data mentor to be co-author as well. Now we were four authors towards a common goal. I couldn’t get anyone from my own country for mentorship but with this virtual voluntary group I had co-authors expert in their field – data scientist from Mexico, biologist from India, and my colleague an environmentalist.

This year after three years of hard work, two dolphin papers have finally been published. The first one has identified priority areas for efficient conservation planning of ganges river dolphin. The second one looks into the effect of physiographic and hydrologic complexities and their alterations on the distribution of obligate freshwater dolphins. A introductory info here as well!

We started off trying to write one paper and now we plan on publishing three more but who knows we might be tempted by some new ideas! The second paper was one of such deviation. We were never meant to pursue this paper but collaborations do have a way of generating synergies. At its core, the paper was written in three months, overall a year.

We often hold meetings which sometimes even take three hours to discuss on the results or comments on clarity and improvement. It mostly takes place on Sundays which are technically a workday for me but for my co-authors they are sacrificing a part of their holidays. This simply goes on to show what a group of enthusiastic researchers can do. I am really proud of my team and it might be sometime until we publish again but publish, we will!

Research from the Global South are often underrepresented and its very difficult to undertake research given the lack of mentorship or collaboration opportunities. Plus, limited funding is strong enough to make one deter away from research. But for me, being able to foster a research insight has been a big motivator. Programs such as the Research4Life has also helped a great deal in surpassing the publication barrier as they provide waiver for publication in different journals. And I am really lucky to have different research teams working in different issues that interest me. This one being the obligate dolphins’ team, I have another one that works with fisheries and another that works in nature-based solutions. I have also been fortunate enough to be getting freelance works that took the pressure from having to work full time allowing me to explore different avenues. And all this I managed during my MSc studies. As I am set to graduate in June this year, I am excited for the new avenues that I get to explore.

Anu Rai

I am an aspiring environmental researcher.

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