It's amazing where science has brought me.
I don't mean to the moon or to the bottom of the ocean. But it did bring me to Mount Everest, to a forest of clouds, and to a place I never thought it could lead me--development.
When I was growing up in Canada, I dreamed of working in Africa as a doctor. This aspiration had nothing to do with an interest in medicine. I just thought that if I was ever going to make it to Africa, I would either have to be a teacher or a doctor.
In high school I worked with street children, and the thought of having a career that allowed me to interact with people interested me. However, like many young people, I was confused about how to reach my goal and instead opted to study science because it was one of my strongest subjects.
I chose Queen's University as the venue, the department of environmental science as the subject, and environmental biology as the specialization. The first year was filled with contemplation and turmoil. Was I really a biologist? Or was I a geographer? An economist? A teacher? A chemist? I was changing subjects every other day in an attempt to answer those questions.
It was the first year of courses and labs that lit a spark of genuine delight, inquiry, and enthusiasm in biology, which I decided to nurture. This was furthered by the chance to participate in a field biology course held in Costa Rica in my third year. The opportunity allowed me to increase my understanding of the connections within the living world. But although I enjoyed doing lab work and liked the fact that environmental biology allowed me to work outside, working with plants and animals just didn't hold the same kind of fascination that working with people did. It wasn't enough to keep me hooked.
I would sit in the library at school, read newspapers, and say to myself, "It's such a big world out there, and I'm seeing so little of it sitting here isolated in this library in Kingston." I knew I wanted to travel and see more of this world I was reading about.
My first experience in development came during the summer between the first and second years of my undergraduate degree. I spent 4 weeks in a small town in the eastern Czech Republic working on a development project being sponsored by the Canadian Federation of Students. There, I worked alongside Czech, British, French, American, Italian, and Danish youths to rebuild a community centre and establish a youth program. The experience was one of incredible challenge, joy, and learning. I met wonderful people and was exposed to a culture of which I had very little previous knowledge. It was the beginning of a love affair with the field of development.
I began to visit job fairs and career counsellors to try to find out how I could learn more about the opportunities available for someone with my interests and academic background. But it was in 1998, while visiting the International Centre at Queen's, that I saw a posting for a youth volunteer program being sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency and World Literacy of Canada. My interest piqued, I applied.
To my delight, I was offered the chance to participate, and immediately after finishing my degree I went to India, where for 2 months I worked with the nongovernmental organisation (NGO) World Literacy of Canada. My work in India consisted mainly of empowerment projects with Dalit women. Dalit are people who find themselves at the very bottom of India's rather complex caste system. Restricted by birth into a life of discrimination and social constraints, Dalits make up nearly 25% of India's population.
My education and language skills allowed me to form connections with the people and the culture that I had never imagined. Despite being of Indian descent (my parents immigrated to Canada in the 1970s), being able speak Hindi, and having visited the country on previous occasions, I wasn't spared a culture shock. I had never come into direct contact with the caste system and had a very difficult time coming to terms with it. Although I was born a Hindu and was therefore a part of the caste system, I found it to be oppressive and dehumanizing for those living within its confines.
Working with these women, I realized how lucky I am to have been born in Canada and therefore have so many opportunities, so many choices. I also hold so much respect and admiration for these women who have been handed such a hard lot in life but are determined to make the best of things. That experience strengthened my resolve to work with people and to travel. But it still wasn't clear to me how I could use my background in science to reach that goal.
While trying to figure it all out, I spent 4 months in Paraguay, where I was asked to be a part of an environmental NGO, Fundacion Moesis Bertoni (FMB), that had affiliations with the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union. Working with FMB allowed me to gain insight into conservation, not just as a biological issue but also a social issue that exists within the developing world. I worked alongside Paraguayan conservationists and biologists on critical issues that surround protected areas and their effects on rural communities. I saw firsthand how the North meets the South on issues of conservation and development.
It was the fact that social scientists and biologists were working together on the same project, and toward the same goal, that finally led me to see the link between biology and development. Until that point, I thought that development was separate from environment. I hadn't seen how natural resources and environment are vital components of any development program. When I came to understand the link, I realised that my education did have something to contribute to development.
After this revelation, I held nothing back. I took advantage of a backpacking trek through Argentina and Chile to talk to various NGOs, which led to me applying for, and landing, a position as field assistant for an Earth Watch project in Costa Rica studying the Long-Tailed Manakin. My education in biology, coupled with my development experience, clinched my employment.
We were in the Monte Verde region of Costa Rica, an area known as the cloud forest for its thick, low-lying clouds that often blanket the treetops. Some mornings when I opened the windows of my cabin at the top of a hill, clouds would literally roll into the room in gentle waves. It was breathtaking.
After all these amazing experiences, I decided that I wanted to pursue an education in the field, but I was sceptical that I'd be able to find a school that would allow me to couple science with development in a program of study. Ironically, I'd spent most of my life a stone's throw away from the ideal program but only found out about it while in Paraguay.
The master's degree programme in environmental studies at York University in Toronto was an obvious choice, as it allows students to explore development as part of their scientific studies. So I threw caution to the wind and applied only there; it was where I knew I wanted to be. Luckily, the gamble paid off.
It was in the course of doing my master's degree work that I discovered yet another link--the one between the social sciences and biology. Many of my courses were in sociology and anthropology, and I was able to delve into political ecology, taking biology one step further.
My master's degree work also offered me the once-in-a-lifetime experience of living and studying in Nepal, which had always fascinated me. I remember finding out that I had been awarded the Canadian International Development Agency's ( CIDA's) Innovative Research Award, which is available to master's degree students who are interested in carrying out their research in a developing country, and thinking: "I'm going to Nepal. I'm going to study in Nepal!" I was so happy and excited that I had to keep reminding myself that it was real.
I worked in Nepal for 5 months, carrying out my research project in two Sherpa communities in the region of Mount Everest, looking at the socio-economic factors related to community forestry. Once again, I was applying environmental biology to development. Now it seems so obvious that biology could have a role in development, but it didn't hit me until I had ventured into development through another route.
Since completing my master's degree I have been fortunate to find positions at Canada's top two development agencies: CIDA and the International Development Research Centre ( IDRC). I spent a year at CIDA as a junior environmental specialist for the Asia region. Since February I have been stationed at IDRC's South Asia Regional Office in New Delhi, India, as an intern. In August I leave for a 2 months' stay in Bangladesh, where I will be researching women's perspectives on natural resources and their uses in the Chittagong hill tracks. I'm expecting that it will be yet another unforgettable and incomparable experience in development.
I'm not saying it's all roses. I was recently evacuated from Delhi when a travel ban was imposed for all Canadian government employees. Being back in Canada for a month, I revelled in the fact that my morning consisted of a leisurely stroll to the office with a stop at Starbucks for a coffee. My days in Delhi often begin with a somewhat hazardous walk to the rickshaw stand, dodging oncoming traffic consisting of cows, stray dogs, cars, bicycles, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Once I arrive at the stand, I must barter the price of a ride with the rickshaw driver before setting off to the office.
Despite the craziness that surrounds me in Delhi, I now consider it home and love it! The challenges that I face every day invigorate me and build my resolve to continue in development. I love where I am and want to continue down this path.
I find I'm increasingly using social science principles in my work. I am now considering earning a Ph.D. in anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies in England and would love to find myself at an NGO or a research organization in 5 years' time. As for Africa, it's still a goal, only now it's one that seems that much closer.
Never think you're pigeonholed by what you studied at the undergrad or even graduate level. If there is something that interests you, there are plenty of roads to get you to your goal. And believe me, there are some pretty spectacular roads out there.
At Next Wave's behest, Nadine Robitaille, a writer in IDRC's media-relations group, spoke at length with intern Shilpa Tawari, whose comments during that conversation are given here.