31 May 2023
Interview with Prof. Dr. Harini Nagendra—Winner of the Land 2022 Influential Female Research in Land System Science Award

We are pleased to announce the winner of the Land 2022 Influential Female Research in Land System Science Award—Prof. Dr. Harini Nagendra.

Name: Prof. Dr. Harini Nagendra
Affiliation: Azim Premji University, India
Research interests: urban ecology and sustainability; land change science; remote sensing for ecology and conservation

We acknowledge that scientific progress is a collaborative and inclusive effort that necessitates gender equality and equity in access to publishing across the Global North and South. This award aims to encourage female scholars to continue to advance the field of land science, and we will continue to reward those female scholars who have made noteworthy contributions to it. We wish them every success in their careers.

We hope you enjoy the interview.

1. Can you provide a brief summary of your current research activities?

I'm the director of the Research Centre at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore in India, which is equivalent to a dean or coordinator of research activities at the university. And I also directly lead the Center for Climate Change and Sustainability at the university, which means that we are a larger center looking at issues of climate change and sustainability that are largely affecting India, but also affecting the world.

As part of this, my own research is on cities in environmental change and land change in cities, and how India should adapt to the climate crisis. My teaching also revolves around these areas. I teach and have created courses on GIS, remote sensing, land change science, sustainability and planetary boundaries; of course, land change is one of the very important planetary boundaries that we're dealing with.

I also do a lot of work on biodiversity and the interconnection between land cover change, landscape ecology and biodiversity.

2. What sparked your initial interest in land science and which aspects of research do you find most satisfying?

I started with my undergraduate degree in microbiology, chemistry and zoology, and my master's degree was in biological sciences, but largely molecular biology. I came into land change science relatively late, during my master’s, just prior to my Ph.D. That is because I did not find molecular biology very appealing, but I loved looking at landscapes and the spatial connections that influence ecology, people and sustainability.

I did my Ph.D. at the Center for Ecological Sciences at the Indian Institute of Science, and my focus was on understanding ecological patterns at a large scale in the Western Ghats (India), and for that you need to understand how these landscapes related to each other in terms of spatial pattern and movements between them. So I started using remote sensing satellite image data—that was my introduction to the world of land change science.
What I find most fascinating is understanding the pattern, process and interplay between patterns of land change and the human processes that drive these changes. It's a feedback process. People influence landscapes—and landscapes influence, in turn, the way people think and behave, shaping landscapes again. I find these feedback loops very interesting to understand, especially to compare cases to see how people in different parts of the world interact with landscapes differently. In India you might have a different way of interacting with landscapes; in mountain areas people think differently from the coast, and in cities people think and behave differently with landscapes as compared to people in rural areas. That kind of comparison is something that fascinates me.

3. As a woman working in the field of land science, how do you perceive your role and what were the main challenges you faced?

I didn't realize it when I started working in the field of landscape ecology and land change science in 1993, but I was actually one of the first few people to use digital and computer methods for land change science in India. Later I realized that I was one of the few women globally too who was doing this at that time. In 1993, there weren't too many women in this field. There were many researchers doing this, but they were mostly men.
I didn't come in with that understanding, I just came in as somebody who liked this and started work.

So, I would say I've been fortunate not to have faced too many obstacles for being a woman in the field myself. But a lot of my Ph.D. students, and master’s and undergraduate students have been women who do a great deal of fieldwork. While it depends on the landscape you select, safety is always a preoccupation. When you go into the field and do field research, whether I do it myself or plan for my students, it's something we must be very aware of and plan very carefully.

But I would say that there is also quite a bit of unstated bias that women have to fight, especially the presumption that women can't do well at certain kinds of things, such as computer processing, digital processing, the kinds of mathematical or engineering understanding of the big data challenges.

Then again, I've been very pleased to always work with women, younger women and to mentor them. So I would also say that while I witness how challenging it is for them in multiple ways, I am also deeply satisfied to see how much the field has advanced. Now you find as many women in the field of land change science as men, even in leadership positions. If you look at the cutting-edge research in land change science, a lot of it is being done by women. So, I would say that this aspect really feels satisfying to me, looking back at the last 30 years in the field.

4. What are the current opportunities and challenges facing women in science, and what message would you like to convey to young women pursuing a career in this field?

I think the world is open like never before. It's not equal yet, but we're much closer to an equal footing than we were before. So, my one message would be to embrace the opportunity.

I think what happens is that women are sometimes very sensitive to unspoken societal expectations. If society, or their lab environment, or their home environment is disapproving, not all women, but some women do tend to give in to that pressure and agree to select another field of work, or even quit science altogether.

My message to women would be to just push ahead and persist, because at some point the boundaries will give way. Take the support from as many women mentors as you can find, whether in your direct area or an allied area, and find supportive male mentors and colleagues as well. But do always look for supportive women mentorship. If you don't find it at your place of work, you can find it elsewhere. I've had a lot of women reach out to me from different parts of the world, and with the increasing inter-connectedness of the world, you can now be connected to mentors and find collaborations online, which can also be of great help.

So, I would say push ahead, find your mentors, find your tribe and keep working as a community.

5. What is your aspiration for gender equality in science in the future?

My aspiration would be for a world where the unspoken bias in school environments—where young women are often told to stay away from STEM subjects and move towards social science subjects—changes across the world.

A time when women can be encouraged to take up professional careers in mathematics and science as often as they are in biology and social science, where essentially, they can do what they want to do without feeling that these are subjects suited for women, and those are subjects more suited for men. Unfortunately, you still find areas like engineering, physics and mathematics that are really male-dominated. I would like to see those societal barriers dissolve and break down. That has to be done, like I said, at an earlier level, at the high school and undergraduate levels, which is when many girls and young women drop out of STEM subjects.

6. Can you share your thoughts on the development of open access in the publishing industry?

Speaking as a researcher from the Global South, open access has many benefits, but it also has a lot of potential disadvantages. I'd like to speak of both. The big benefit for us is that open access allows people from the Global South who may not have money to access the publications of journals that you otherwise might not have because they're behind a paywall, and that kind of access to data is really important.

The challenge is the publication costs. Because at most open access journals you pay for publication, and the costs are steep and that sets up another disparity—some people have grants to support these publications, and benefit from them, others lack grants to support this research, especially academics in the Global South. Even if journals offer discounts, the amount to be paid remains very high. I see many young early career researchers who want to publish in an open access journal putting their own money into paying the Article Processing Charges. Sometimes, this could be as much as their salary for a year, because the salary disparities in the Global South are so high. So this is something that I really wonder about, because if you can't afford to publish in the open access journals, where does that leave you as a young scholar? I can also see it from the journals’ point of view, that each journal must sustain its finances. I don't really know what the solution is. But we must find a way to support more scholars from the Global South, especially young scholars, with complete waivers.

Overall, open access is both a blessing and a challenge, especially since it is setting up a different kind of inequity—and we have to find ways to deal with that.

7. What are your long-term research goals?

I want to start a systematic study of cities across the world. The world is going to see a huge growth in cities—people who live in cities are supposed to increase from 50% to about 80% in the next 30 years or so. This means that a lot of the future urban areas of the world are yet to be built. How can we build them more sustainably? And how are they being built now? I’m especially interested in the pattern-process linkage that I was talking about earlier. What are the spatial patterns of these cities that will be built? How will those patterns of urban growth impact water, biodiversity, other kinds of land change parameters, and how can we use this knowledge to design future cities in a better way? That's something that I really want to study in the next few years, looking specifically for insights that can hopefully drive policy.

8. Do you have any recommendations for the Land journal?

I think it is important to have a greater focus on promoting participation from the Global South on an equal footing, encouraging ways in which people can contribute without these payments. It would be especially useful to have a specific program for early career researchers, which could include possibilities for full waivers for their papers. Those kinds of grants would be very helpful for academics at the early stages of their career, especially for Ph.D. students and postdocs, because that's the stage at which they need to really publish and also the stage at which they often face strong financial constraints of different kinds. An expansion of grants and fee waivers for these researchers would be especially important and useful.

In terms of areas to focus on, I think studies of urbanization in the Global South would be something that Land could emphasize, as it remains a knowledge gap.

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