It would not be an exaggeration to say that the greatest challenges facing humanity today is the catastrophic effect on all life forms of our planet due to climate change and increasing pollution. There is an urgent need for action to at least reduce, if not stop it from getting worse. Shannon Olsson’s work is a step in that direction.
Shannon is a Faculty at the Naturalist-Inspired Chemical Ecology (NICE) group of National Center for Biological Science (NCBS) in Bangalore, India. Her group works on Chemical Ecology, a field examining the role of chemical interactions between living organisms and their environment. The extraordinary growth in the development of urbanized cities of the past century has also brought an unprecedented loss of flora & fauna that now threatens to disrupt the ecosystem. Shannon aims to uncover the chemical language in which nature communicates such that steps can be taken to maintain the homeostasis of all life forms in nature.
“Our currency may be knowledge, but our product is the future of this planet.”
Shannon has a very holistic approach. Her work is a combination of the classical naturalist approach and modern scientific tools. ‘Naturalism’ is the study of an organism just to understand it. But, since the discovery of DNA structure in the 1950’s gave birth to the field of molecular biology, looking at the molecular detail became the primary concern of scientists. This reductionist view has created a disconnect from the surrounding environmental context. This view needs to be changed and Shannon wants to look at nature in its entirety, understanding how the tiniest microbes to the biggest mammals interact with the vast environment around them. These cross talks involve extensive communications via visual, tactic, & odorant sensory channels.
To address this complexity, her work involves a multidisciplinary approach combining expertise from diverse specialization such as chemistry, neurobiology, evolutionary biology & engineering. One of her lab’s projects aims to understand how a pest finds food crops. This utilizes a virtual reality (VR) based module attached to an apple fly, simulating the stages of finding an apple tree. In a first of its kind quantitative and field-based study, her group looked at the co-relation between honeybee behavior in the wild and air pollution. They observed striking affects in the survival, behavior and physiology of pollinating honeybees in a clean environment (outskirts of the city) versus in polluted air (center of Bangalore city). They have also studied the coffee stem borer beetle, a pest of coffee (Coffea arabica) plant in the Coorg region. After carefully studying the ecological behavior of these insects in their natural habitat they found that the insect prefers a different plant, Coffea robusta more, and also identified other cues that act as attractants. These observations led to devising improved natural ways of pest management.
“In the spirit of Naturalists, we observe the world around us for its own sake. We observe an organism’s place in its ecology and consider how and what it is doing at that moment, and how these actions fit with the organisms around it. Love, Hunger, and Fear unite all of us.”
Although it might seem a problem of great magnitude, but tackling challenges in unchartered territory is not new to Shannon. She has an incredible journey from growing up in rural St. Lawrence Valley of New York State, to crossing three continents and setting up lab in a foreign land like India. Her parents were her earliest teachers who encouraged her to be inquisitive and explore the flora and fauna around her. Her real interest in science as a profession came during one of her chemistry experiments in her B.S. program at Nazareth College, leading her to pursue research. After receiving her Ph.D. in Neurobiology and Behavior from Cornell University, and a postdoc from the University of California, Los Angeles, she moved to the Max Planck Institute of Chemical Ecology in Germany to lead her own group. In 2014 she moved her lab to NCBS in India to apply chemical ecology to preserve the biodiversity and ecosystems of the country.
Courage and communication have been the key to her success, despite being an outsider in many contexts. She was the only chemist in a biology lab, the only neurophysiologist in an entomology lab, the only terrestrial ecologist in a marine biology group and now the only American in an Indian institution. But bringing people and ideas together to achieve the bigger goal is the way to move forward. For her the courage to be vulnerable is just as important, as the courage to face challenges. Because by admitting to lack of one’s knowledge, one can be open to ask questions and seek answers.
“The wisest people I know are those who realize how little they do know, and are willing to learn, and listen to others.”
Empathy is another attribute that Shannon champions in all aspects of her profession. Its application to scientific research or “Empathic Science” is when scientists think as ‘naturalists’ and have a deeper connection with the organisms they study. It is an understanding that just like humans, even a tiny insect faces the same basic instincts of survival- love, fear and hunger. Experiments in her lab are designed taking into account these considerations. She exhibits empathy in her personal interactions as well, and advocates for a good work life balance for scientist parents. According to her doing science is more a ‘lifestyle’ than a profession, and one should not forget to make time for oneself.
“Respect is the single most important thing you need, and it goes both ways. And respect is not always a matter of hard work or achievements, sometimes it must be insisted on.”
Shannon is a brilliant communicator, if you hear her talking once you cannot help but feel inspired to look closely at the surrounding natural beauty, asking yourself what can you do to preserve it! “You cannot spend five minutes with Shannon and leave empty handed, or empty headed”, say Mahinn Ali Khan, Head of Communications at BLiSc (comprising of NCBS, the Institute for Stem Cell Biology and Regenerative Medicine (inStem), and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Platforms (CCAMP)). Mahinn adds that, “Shannon has a unique gift to be able to reach people beyond science and touch them with the wonder and brilliance of what we call science and what is really nothing short of miraculous”. She is a champion for science communication and promotes it in her lab where one member of her group publishes a blog post every week about the work they do.
Shannon aims her research will impact the betterment of Indian society. India has 17% of world’s biodiversity hotspots and about 20% of world’s population, posing a unique challenge of utilizing resources in a populous country while minimizing disruption to the surrounding ecosystem. Through her work she wants to help address these problems and hopes it will aid the formulation of strategies for a more inclusive and sustainable model of development.
“Success is not as a finish line, but rather the point in your life where you have all the tools, intellectually and emotionally, to really make a difference.”
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Dr. Sumbul Jawed Khan, Content Editor & Writer at Sci-Illustrate Spotlight
Dr. Khan received her Ph. D. in Biological Sciences and Bioengineering from the Indian Institute of Technology Kanpur, where she studied the role of microenvironment in cancer progression and tumor formation. During her post-doctoral research at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Dr. Khan investigated the gene regulatory networks that are important for tissue regeneration after damage or wounding. Dr. Khan is committed to science outreach activities, to make scientific research understandable and relatable to the non-scientific community. She believes it is essential to inspire young people to apply scientific methods to tackle the current challenges faced by humanity.
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