If anything has driven home the point that humans need to listen to nature, the current pandemic has done so. That’s why our interest in talking to Prof.Shannon B. Olsson for this episode of Spotlight with Sandhya. She is an authority on chemical ecology, and she listens to nature’s chemical conversations across India’s diverse ecosystems.

woman scientist

Prof.Shannon Olsson,
Chemical Ecologist & Director, Echo Network

Prof. Olsson is Co- PI of the National Mission for Biodiversity and Human Well Being to help sustain India’s biodiversity. She currently heads the  Echo Network in Bangalore. She was one of the most popular speakers at the Science Cafe  event at the Under The Raintree women’s cultural festival last November.The fact that India has nearly 17% of the world’s biodiversity hotspots is of interest to this chemical ecologist who has travelled across the country and has made her home here for the last six years.

Below is a gist of Sandhya Mendonca’s interview with Prof. Olsson in Episode 16 of Spotlight with SandhyaYou can also watch the interview or listen to the podcast.

 

What are chemical conversations and what made you choose this subject as your specialisation?
I have always been fascinated by nature.  I grew up in Northern New York State catching fireflies and climbing trees. I used to imagine that I could speak with the squirrels, rabbits, and turtles in my yard. In high school, I became interested in the molecular basis of our universe so I decided to major in chemistry. I fell in love with the chemical language of nature. It is this remarkable field that in some small way helps me to live my childhood dream of “speaking” with our natural world.
 I’m sure our viewers would like to know what brought you to India in the first place. How long have you lived and worked in India?
I am in India because of India. I have been at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Tata Institute of Fundamental Research since 2014. The first time I ever visited India I had the chance to visit the Agumbe Rainforest station in the Western Ghats .  I had never seen so much biodiversity in one place before, and I realized – what better place to study nature’s communication than in a country with SO much biodiversity? India has nearly 17% of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Now I am a co-PI to develop the National Mission for Biodiversity and Human Well Being to help sustain this amazing biodiversity that India has.  Our hope is that we all work together to preserve India’s most precious resource – it’s natural resources!
You are currently leading a remarkable initiative you are currently leading, the Echo Network. How did it come about ? What are its goals and how does it function?
As a chemical ecologist and field biologist in India for the past 6 years, I have witnessed first hand the enormous impacts of human activity on the climate and the environment with changing use of land. I have also met and worked with countless scientists, NGOs, students, governments, and others who are each working to address these issues. Yet these efforts are largely performed in isolation, without coordination of objectives, impacts, or learnings from their experiences. 
In 2018, I had the chance to sit down with the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Government of India (PSA), the highest ranking scientific position in the country. I raised these issues to him and he responded with “I agree, let’s see what you can do”. This was the birth of the Echo Network. Through the support and guidance of the PSA, we have worked to gather key stakeholders in industry, academia, government, service and the private sector who can help us develop a network of individuals who use scientific research and communication for a better tomorrow. 
The Echo Network connects science more deeply with our human experiences. We intend to establish empathic science, a science that listens to the world around us. We scientists have tricked ourselves into thinking that unbiased scientific objectivity means ignoring our humanity. But science exists because of our humanity. We scientists must learn to listen to our world not just with our minds, but with our hearts. That’s what I want to bring to this world.
What is the “One Health Approach” that you propagate?
So, this is not an approach that I directly propagate, because I am not an expert in this.  However, OneHealth is defined as an integrative approach that simultaneously addresses human, animal, and environmental health to prevent, detect, and respond to infectious disease and other health issues. The approach uses tools such as surveillance and reporting to improve health security and achieve gains in development. Essentially, it is that we are all connected. The One Health Approach considers human, animal & environmental health as one. Disease just doesn’t come out of the air. This pandemic is borne by animals and those animals are coming in more and more contact with humans and livestock by the change in our environment. We have to balance ourselves with nature.
 
For the benefit of the general public, please tell us 5 things that we can do to preserve nature and 5 things we should stop doing to harm nature.

It’s not that we need to save nature. We need to save ourselves. Nature will go on. It’s shown over and over again in the history of the planet that there have been these mass extinctions that have happened and the earth has gone on, but it’s gone on in a very different way than before, so the earth will continue but we just might not continue with it.

 

We need nature to have certain conditions of air, water, and soil in order to breathe, eat and grow.  And we are rapidly changing those conditions.  In the end, the loser will not be nature but us. So rather than discuss preserving nature as a burden we must bear, I like to consider the role nature plays in our lives.  Living better with nature has enormous benefits, and in terms of the 5 things we can do, I see:

  1. Sustainable agriculture
  2. Climate smart energy systems
  3. Eco-friendly waste management and sanitation
  4. One Health
  5. Public Awareness and Engagement with our Ecosystems
Each citizen can help realise these by:
1) Buying local and ecologically grown food wherever possible. 
2) Using solar power and other renewable energy systems and conserving energy and reducing carbo footprint.
3) Reducing, reusing, recycling and refusing waste  
4) Seeking ways to encourage our balance with nature through preservation of biodiversity and promotion of wildlife areas 
5) Engaging with science and eduction and promoting this in our schools.
As all of us are interested in encouraging more women to take careers in STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering & Maths, could you share with us how you overcame obstacles, if any, in being a woman scientist and being a woman leading organisations.
There are so many things I would have told my younger self that might have made things a bit easier for me.  Perhaps the main thing I would have needed to hear is to “Learn your Place”.  This is often used as an admonition to someone who thinks a bit too highly of themselves. But, I think it means to learn to respect your value. Several times during my career I was undervalued, and I grew to accept it as “my place”. Looking back now, I would have told myself that it’s ok to demand respect from others, and to stop interacting with those who will not give you respect.  Realizing your own contributions to society can help you to see when they are not being recognized.  Even more importantly, understanding your unique strengths can help you to seek out those who will help you develop them further.Everyone on this planet has value. We just need to recognize it in ourselves. 

 

We need more women in science. Women bring unique experiences that are extremely valuable to science. Science is shaped by who does the science ; we need more women, farmers and people from different backgrounds in science. Diversity is essential for scientific progress. 

 


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