Ecological Inspirations: Deepak Barua

Screen Shot 2019-02-26 at 18.13.03.pngDeepak Barua is an Associate Professor at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, India. The overarching goals of Deepak’s work are to understand how interactions between traits translate to plant performance, and test how variation in performance influences adaptation and persistence in complex ecological environments. This work spans levels of biological organization: examining how the integration of anatomical, morphological, and physiological traits result in variation in organismal growth, survival and reproduction; understanding how organismal performance mediated by underlying traits vary as a function of environmental conditions; and ultimately, how such variation in performance mediates species interactions and distribution across environmental gradients. Deepak’s current work is primarily focused on tropical forests in Peninsular India.

The long and winding road

An aunt of mine would joke that she always knew I would become an Ecologist, because unlike most 7-8 year old boys she knew, I would spend hours watching caterpillars, ants, and beetles in her garden. However, though I flirted with many career options, from the obligatory astronaut and aerospace engineer as a young boy, to a doctor through my teens (thus, from rocket science to neurosurgery!), I never really considered Ecology as a profession at that time.

I discovered Biology with the help of some wonderful teachers while pursuing my Bachelor’s degree at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai. I was however, seduced by the ‘dark side’ at that time, and fascinated by Molecular and Cellular Biology, and after completing my degree I worked for a couple of years in a biotechnology firm. While this experience helped confirm my desire to pursue Biology, it also helped me realize that I did not enjoy the corporate industrial environment, and that I would like to concentrate on an academic career.

It was only during the second semester as a PhD. student at Syracuse University that I finally ‘saw the light’, and fell in love with Ecology. I was enrolled as a student for Cell and Molecular Biology, but a course in Plant Eco-physiology taught by Jim Coleman helped change my mind and commit to Ecology for my PhD. During my PhD and subsequent post-doctoral stints, the teaching and mentorship of several inspirational scientists, including William Starmer, Sam McNaughton, Larry Wolf, Scott Heckathorn, Elly Spijkerman and Kathleen Donohue has helped form the foundations on which my thinking and functioning as an Ecologist are based. My growth as an Ecologist also benefitted greatly from discussions, feedback, help and support from a wonderful, diverse and dynamic group of peers.

Over the years my work has spanned many levels of biological organization – from quantifying gene expression and protein accumulation, to examining species interactions and community assembly. This breadth stems from the many opportunities that I was able to take advantage of, from studying algal stress response in acid-mining lakes in Germany, to evolution of developmental pathways in the model plant Arabidopsis, and more recently from examining color preference in foraging bees, to functional traits in tropical woody plant communities. Working with these different systems and questions has given me a unique perspective that allows me to see the bigger picture across levels of biological organization, but has also been very important in keeping me interested and involved in my science.

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I was born and grew up in Assam, a state in the North-eastern region of India, famous for its strong-bodied tea and the great one-horned rhinoceros. This state lies in a valley that is carved out of the Eastern Himalayas by the river Brahmaputra. Going from the river valleys and rich tropical rainforests to snow-capped peaks, this region is extraordinarily diverse. I cannot emphasize enough the importance of this backdrop that framed my early life, in driving my decisions that resulted in my choice of careers. I have been back in India for the last 10 years now, and it is a wonderful time to be an ecologist in India! Increased and improved funding, manpower and infrastructure has resulted in an increase in quality ecological research in recent years, and I am excited to be part of this change. It has been a long journey with many twists and turns that lead up to my choice of pursuing an academic career in Ecology, but now that I am here, I cannot imagine any other place where I would rather be.

Note: References to the molecular biology being the ‘dark side’, and ‘seeing the light’ in ecology are purely in jest with no offence intended to my colleagues who practice the ‘dark arts’!

Deepak Barua, Associate Editor of Journal of Ecology

[Picture credits: Dr. Ullasa Kodandaramaiah]

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