An Interview with Shagufta Ahmed

Some of us think of botany as one of few potential subjects to take up in B.Sc., a little dull, but relatively easy to pass. Well, a botany degree armed Shagufta Ahmed, a PhD student with ATREE, Bangalore, with the knowledge and confidence to take up a PhD in this field, working to conserve rare plants in India’s Northeast. Let’s find out what made her take up this unique career path!

What were your options to study in Bachelor’s? What made you take up Botany?

During my Bachelor’s, Chemistry, Physics, Mathematics, Statistics, Botany and Zoology were options to be studied as honours. I chose Botany at the first because there were not many people in my area who talked about plants and their importance. Secondly, most people were unaware of the vast diversity of plants and its significance. I always wanted to be a someone who would take part in conservation and knowing about the various fields of Botany such as plant breeding, ecology, taxonomy and medicine encouraged me to explore it. 

What do you find most fascinating about Botany?

The amazing systems of pollination and fertilization in plants which make the plants perform different activities, from producing colourful flowers to mimicking its pollinator to attract it, is what I find the most fascinating.

Describe what you can do with a Botany degree (and in your case, with a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in the subject!).

With a B.Sc  in Botany, one can pursue Masters in Botany, Bioinformatics, Biotechnology, Ecology and Environmental Science. One can also become a nursery manager or a plant explorer with B.Sc in Botany. With M.Sc in Botany one can go for further studies on the subject of their specialization and train to be a Plant Taxonomist, Molecular Biologist, Ecologist, Plant Physiologist, Ethnobotanist, Agricultural researcher, etc. One can also pursue career in teaching.

Take us through a day in your life as a PhD student studying plants in Northeast India. What are the cool things you get to see and do? What skills are the most useful to you? What do you enjoy most about your work?

I did my masters in Angiosperm Taxonomy and my work is based on the taxonomy and molecular studies of a plant group from North East India. I spend most of my research time in various Reserve forests, Wildlife Sanctuaries and National Parks of North East India documenting the flora of my study group. We travel to these places based on the information of their flowering time. Me and my field mates start early morning, walking on the trails of different forests, carefully observing each and every plant we come across. We carry field lenses, GPS device and cameras with us. We try to identify them, take pictures of those plants, noting down all the observables features from its flowers to the branches. We also crush the leaves and smell and make a note about that too. We collect few twigs for documenting them in the herbarium.  We had come across different birds and animals during our field work too. The coolest thing about my research is we get to interact with the different people of different communities of North East. Not only learning from different sources but we get to experience and learn their lifestyle in person. They also share their ethnobotanical ideas with us and how the Bio-resources are important to them. We also get to learn the names of the plants in their native language.

Once the collection and identification is done, we get back to our field stations and start curating our collected samples for making herbarium. We bring some samples to our lab to extract its DNA and do the molecular studies. But travelling to different places, learning and exploring the endless beauty of the biodiversity  of the region is what I love the most about my work.