I’m Krithi Karanth, a conservation biologist, and this is how I Lead from Within
Dr. Krithi K. Karanth is currently the Executive Director at the Centre for Wildlife Studies and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Duke University. She spent her childhood in and out of jungles, and has been studying wildlife conservation in India and its human dimensions for 16 years. She was chosen as National Geographic Society’s 10,000th grantee in 2011 and Emerging Explorer for 2012.
I had a pretty unusual childhood. My father is a very well known tiger biologist and conservationist, so I spent a lot of my childhood watching animals and traveling with him. I was definitely interested in being outdoors, watching animals, and just being in nature but I also saw the difficulties he faced. In a way, conservationists highlight what the government is doing and track when mistakes are made; that’s not always looked upon favorably. Although the romantic and fun side exists, it is very difficult to be in conservation and do work that matters. I saw my father struggle a lot, and so I never wanted to even remotely pursue a career that was like his.
I started out majoring in environmental science and geography, but along the way kind of fell in love with doing research and broadly asking environmental questions. Once I reached my Masters degree, I did my first research project in India. We worked in a park, and that was the trigger for my personal decision. I thought, “Okay, I also want to get into conservation.” There are enough big questions that need to be asked and there’s definitely space for a lot more people to ask them. I went on to finish my Masters, PhD, post-doc and then, moved back to India in 2010.
Originally when I started out, it was purely to be trained as a scientist with the goal of asking interesting research questions and publishing a lot. But, over the last six years, I would say my career has transitioned. I’m still a scientist, I have a lot of ongoing research projects, but my interest and my professional development has gone from just doing science to considering how to influence policy and how to independently initiate actions to solve some of these big problems. It’s difficult, but it matters to me. I’m also taking time to inform the public, to learn how to put what I’m doing and why it’s important in layman’s terms. I think as a scientific community we’re not very good at broadcasting why these projects are being done. We may be excited about it, but we need to communicate the relevance to larger society and how it plays a role in terms of in decision-making and policies.
On Gender Biases
In India, women still are not taken seriously as scientists. India is changing, but there is still an undercurrent of “you’re a woman, why are you spending your time running around in jungles? Do you really know anything?” Whenever I’ve had to deal with people who are older than me, particularly government officials who almost always disdain scientists anyways, the reaction is “you’re a woman, what do you know?” So, that has always been there at a very subtle level with everything I do. It takes a long time to break through and convince people about why I’m doing what I’m doing, and why it’s important.
Or, for instance, when I was a PhD student, I decided to have a child. At that point, there was a backlash. I was told, “if you’re choosing to be a mom while you’re doing a PhD, then you’re not serious about your PhD.” And that was complete bullshit, because I finished much quicker than most of my peers who didn’t have children. There’s this perception that if you choose to be a mom then you’re not as committed to a career, and that’s not true at all.
This career is very much a question of ups and downs, because every time you think of a research project, you have to raise money for it. Some projects are very successfully funded and it’s very easy to raise money and implement it, and then there are other projects where people look at you like, ‘we don’t think this is worth pursuing.’ There’s always this frustration of what you want to pursue and what you have funding for. Some projects really take off and some don’t. Papers get accepted and others get rejected. It’s about learning to accept the up and down cycles.
I never give up. I’m a very, very persistent, passionate human being. If I want to do something, I never give up.
On Pursuing One’s Passions and Finding a Partner
Everyone should hold on to and pursue whatever field they’re passionate about. Given the right kind of partner and familial support any woman can have a career and family. I don’t think these are either/or choices.
As more and more generations of women go forward, more people will find “alternative” professions to pursue and will want very active careers. I don’t think any one should settle or compromise on those things. I think everyone should pursue what it is they love. But, I do think when women pursue unusual careers like wildlife, where they don’t have a regular 9-5 office job, they have to be with somebody who gets that. They have to be with someone who is not going to be questioning them about why they need to go and why they need to do this kind of work, because that will never work. For instance, I work from home when I’m in Bangalore, but when I’m gone, I’m gone to very remote locations. I’m gone to the jungle or gone to all these isolated villages. From this, I’ve learned women in alternative careers really need to be with somebody who gets that, who will get the long-term and not think they will eventually change and become an office person.
On Societal Change for Girls and Women
We need more women scientists; we need to look at younger girls. I have two daughters, my older kid is 9 years old and my baby is 5 months old. I already see the subtle ways in which the school system tells girls what they can or cannot do compared to boys. Whether they want to play football or cricket. Certain sports are acceptable for girls to play, and others are considered boys’ sports. And it’s in these little ways that we, at least in India, culturally start skewing what girls can and cannot do. I hope those kind of attitudes go away, and girls are allowed to do whatever it is they want to do.
Additionally, there are many brilliant women who take a break in their careers because they have children. And some professions have support systems to help women return to work, but in most cases, those support systems don’t exist. So if a woman leaves, ironically most often in the most productive years of her work career to have children, for six months to two years, it has very serious consequences as to what she can end up doing over the 30/40 years; it’s actually ridiculous. Careers lasts 3-4 decades, and if someone happens to take a short break in the middle they are heavily penalized. I think organizations and institutions need to play a bigger role in supporting women when they choose to have children. Finally, you have to pay women as much as men and there’s no doubt and no debate about that one.
On People and Nature
In the field of wild life conservation things are always sort of posed as “people versus nature” inherently. All of my work has involved addressing questions of people impacting wild life and wildlife impacting people. I think the solutions have to come from looking at both perspectives. In some things we have to put people first, and in some, we’ll have to put wildlife first. There are a lot of gray areas, it’s not a black and white space at all. If we want wildlife in a country like India with 1.2 billion people and less than 4 percent land set aside for wildlife, we’ll have to make some tough decisions about how we are going to manage wildlife and ensure people are not harmed. It’s a big challenge that we have.
On Getting Involved
We take regular citizens to do fieldwork. People can take anywhere from a week to ten days off, and we will take them walking in the forest. At a very basic level we have them conduct surveys, do research, and collect data.
On a more serious level, because NGOs have always stressed in terms of resources, if regular citizens engage in helping us communicate to the public our needs about fund raising that goes such a long way.
** To learn more about krithi and her work, follow her on twitter @KrithiKaranth