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Dr. Mahesh Sankaran awarded the Infosys 2021 prize for Life Sciences

Prof. Mahesh Sankaran has been awarded the Infosys Prize for Life Sciences for his exemplary contributions to the field of ecosystem ecology. His work on savannas, specifically the drivers of savanna ecosystem structure and the potential responses of these ecosystems to climate change have been critical in shaping the research agenda in this field over the past decade.

'Congratulations to Mahesh Sankaran! This award is richly deserved, and very special as it is the first prize in the life sciences for ecological studies, and comes at a very critical time while our planet’s future hangs in balance ', say Prof. Satyajit Mayor, Director, NCBS

The National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) congratulates faculty Mahesh Sankaran on winning the 2021 Infosys Prize in the Life Sciences category. The Infosys Prize is given as a marker of excellence to honor outstanding achievements of contemporary researchers and scientists in their respective fields.

Sankaran currently heads the Community and Ecosystems Ecology lab at NCBS, which studies the interactions and feedbacks between climate, biogeochemistry, fires and herbivory and their influence on the structure, composition and stability of ecosystems and the cycling and sequestration of nutrients. They’re also looking at how projected changes in climate such as increasing variability of rainfall, increased frequency of droughts, increasing aridity in the tropics, nitrogen and phosphorus deposition and rising CO2 will impact ecosystem function, stability and services.

After an undergraduate degree in computer science, Sankaran changed track to pursue his passion in ecology by applying for a masters’ degree in wildlife studies in the US. He did his PhD at Syracuse University, New York, followed by a postdoctoral stint at Imperial College, UK. He worked and taught briefly at Colorado State University and the University of Leeds before joining NCBS in 2009. 

Q: Can you tell us about your academic journey? What was the research point you began with, where you are now, why you chose what you did and how has the journey been?

A: I completed my undergraduate degree in Computer Science from BITS, Pilani and then worked for a couple of years in the industry in Delhi and Auroville. By this time, I realized that this was not my calling, and so I decided to pursue a career in ecology and wildlife biology; something I was always passionate about.  

Options at that time in India were quite limited, particularly if one did not have an undergraduate degree in the life sciences. So I went to the US to do a Masters in Wildlife Biology at Auburn University (where I used computer simulations to look at the population genetics and demography of an endangered species), followed by a PhD at Syracuse University.  

My PhD research was carried out at the Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve looking at how fires influenced savanna grassland plant communities in the reserve, and how this, in turn, impacted herbivore populations. I then moved as a postdoc to the Centre for Population Biology, Silwood Park, Imperial College in the UK where I continued my work on savanna ecosystems – this time looking at how large ungulates structured savanna communities and influenced ecosystem processes in semi-arid rangelands of Kenya.  

I then joined the Natural Resource Ecology Laboratory, Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colorado as a Research Scientist  – it was at this time that I broadened my focus to look at patterns and processes at larger scales, i.e. continents. The questions that I was asking were: how do different drivers (fire, herbivory, climate, soils and anthropogenic pressures) interact to influence the structure, function and distribution of savannas across Africa, and what are the implications of this for how these ecosystems are likely to respond to future climate change?  

After this, I briefly taught at the University of Leeds, UK and then joined NCBS in 2009, where I have continued to address these questions at global scales, with a particular focus on Asian savannas and grasslands and their responses to climate change.  We have also extended this work to forested ecosystems in the sub-continent, and have set up a network of long-term monitoring plots across different forest types in India.  More recently, I have also expanded into the policy sphere through my engagements with the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity & Ecosystem Services and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Q: Considering the current political and ecological climate, can you talk about the discourses around grasslands and their ecosystem services and if/how it has changed? Is it urgent and/or informed enough in India? What needs to change?

Grasslands and savannas in India have historically been, and continue to be, misunderstood and misclassified, and hence mismanaged. There is a widespread perception that they are either degraded forests or less productive and hence less valuable than forests (what has recently been termed Biome Awareness Disparity – BAD).  

Many of the grasslands and savannas of India are classified as ‘wastelands’ and hence diverted for other uses, including ill-conceived climate-mitigation strategies in the form of tree planting in these ecosystems – despite the unique biodiversity they support and the critical ecosystem services they provide (grazing, hydrological services, soil carbon storage etc) including their strong cultural links to dependent communities.  This needs to change. 

We need to stop thinking of them as wastelands. We need to change the mindset that fires, which are an integral component of grasslands and savannas, are bad, and better appreciate them for the unique biodiversity and charismatic megafauna they support, their cultural importance and the valuable ecosystem services they provide including carbon sequestration. Lastly, we need to provide stronger protection and manage them better.

 Q: What makes for a good and healthy environment for an ecologist, especially someone who works on grasslands, to carry out research, in countries like India grappling with many challenges regarding its ecosystems and their governance?

I think one of the biggest challenges facing any ecologist in India, including those working on grasslands, is getting Forest Department permits on time (or at all) to carry out research.  

Given the urgency of the biodiversity and climate crises, such delays or refusals come at a huge cost, not just for researchers and the pursuit of science, but also for society at large in terms of finding solutions to these ongoing crises. 

There needs to be greater synergy between managers and researchers.  Managers need to better appreciate that an in-depth understanding of any ecosystem only comes from long-term sustained research and not short-term projects (which is how permissions are usually given) and that there is also a space and need for basic science that does not have immediate management implications. 

At the same time, researchers also need to better appreciate the constraints within which managers work, understand their need for solutions and applied science, and in general work towards better communicating their findings to managers.

The funding environment for ecology and conservation projects can also be better (again, unlike lab-based projects, field projects take much longer and so require longer-term sustained funding). Finally, there needs to be a more nurturing institutional environment for research and researchers in our country.  Barring a few places (I am lucky to be a part of one of them), most institutions in India are mired in red tape and bureaucracy, which is not conducive for great science.

Q: How has your personal philosophy changed, throughout your career, as you went from engineer to ecologist, from BITS to New York to Bengaluru? How do you deal with eco-anxiety? 

In terms of my personal philosophy (which I don’t think has changed much over the years), I believe that if you enjoy and have fun doing what you are doing, then the rest will follow.  I love being out in the field, and continue to get out there whenever I can – it fuels me for the rest of the time.  In terms of my research focus, I have gradually moved over the years from asking specific questions at the site level to addressing broader scale macroecological questions, and also leveraging science to find solutions to many of the ecological challenges facing us today.

As for eco-anxiety, you have to be an optimist to be an ecologist/conservation biologist!  So, I try not to dwell too much on the negative side of things, but try and do what little I can.

Q: If there was one thing you could change about your research and research journey, what would it be?

This is a tough one – it’s hard to say where any changes I might have made would have led me, but I know where I have been, and looking back, I don’t have too many complaints.  If there is anything I wish for, it would probably be greater exposure to the social sciences early on, and better taxonomic skills.

Q: The Infosys award is quite a prestigious one. What does it mean to you? 

I am both honoured and thrilled to be receiving the Infosys Prize and thank the Infosys Science Foundation and the jury for recognizing our work.  The ecological sciences are at the core of finding solutions to the climate and biodiversity crises and ensuring human wellbeing and quality of life. Despite this, this discipline remains a ‘niche’ field, when in fact, it needs to be mainstream. Hopefully, this award will draw the attention of more people to this discipline and is a sign of better things to come.

Q: Are there questions/issues that you feel young scientists should ask and talk about but aren't? 

There is a young cohort of amazing ecologists in India currently, scattered across academic institutions and conservation NGOs, who are doing great work at the population and community level.  However, I think we could do with greater representation at the whole ecosystem level, i.e. researchers studying ecosystem processes and their responses to climate change, and also those studying coupled human-natural systems.  

Personally, and this is my own bias speaking, I also think we need more researchers studying grasslands and open natural ecosystems.


About the award: The Infosys Science awards are given annually to honor outstanding achievements of contemporary researchers and scientists across six categories: Engineering and Computer Sciences, Humanities, Life Sciences, Mathematical Sciences, Physical Sciences and Social Sciences, each carrying a prize of a gold medal, a citation and a purse of USD 100,000 (or its equivalent in Rupees). 

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