Staff Spotlight: Dr Mahasweta Saha - Marine Chemical Ecologist
20 March 2023Dr Mahasweta Saha, Marine Chemical Ecologist, joined Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) back in 2019. She kindly took some time to tell us a little more about her work in the Marine Ecology and Biodiversity team, and to tell us about her passion for equality in the science sector.
We first asked about her background in chemical ecology and how she came to join PML.
“So, I completed my PhD in Algal Chemical Ecology at the Helmholtz Centre of Ocean Research - more commonly known as GEOMAR - based in Kiel, Germany.”
“I was awarded an international research grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG) excellence cluster ‘Future Ocean’ to work on chemical ecology of invasive seaweeds at GEOMAR. And, during that time, I was awarded an international research fellowship to pursue my next research project on volatile info-chemistry of seaweeds at the University of Essex, United Kingdom. This was followed by a short one-year research scientist position at GEOMAR, before then joining PML.”
“I made the move to PML as I’d heard good things about the positive work culture, which is of course important for the wellbeing of any scientist. But also, PML gave me the opportunity and freedom to establish a chemical ecology facility, and to form my own team while collaborating with the other disciplines.”
Above: Dr Saha in the laboratory
We then asked Dr Saha what she especially enjoys about her job as a Marine Chemical Ecologist.
“Little is known about the application potential of marine chemical ecology, especially when compared to terrestrial chemical ecology. So, I love exploring and testing ideas that utilize chemical ecology-based approaches for sustainable and healthier oceans.”
Dr Saha is known for her passion to investigate the ‘language of life’ in our oceans, we asked her to explain what she means by this.
“Communication is not limited to humans. Chemical cues and signals, collectively called ‘infochemicals’ (known as language of the sea), are widely used by organisms living on land and sea to communicate between individuals within a species or between different species. Chemical ecology is about investigating these infochemicals that are responsible for mediating communication.”
Above: Algae cells under the microscope
In addition to the typical duties involved in the ‘day job’, Dr Saha is passionate about supporting the next generation of scientists. She is currently supporting two PhD students, two Masters students, and one Undergraduate student, in addition to welcoming two new PhD students in the autumn. She has supervised and co-supervised over 35 students to date. We asked her about her motivation for this.
“I believe the job of a scientist is not just to do the ‘cool science’, but also to responsibly nurture the next generation of scientists and invest time in capacity building. I have taken my supervision job very seriously, and I try my best to nurture future scientists, and help them in every possible way I can.”
Above: Mahasweta and the team
“We need a more humane, empathetic way of working in academia, and to invest in the “making”, not the “breaking”, of tomorrow’s scientific generation.”
If she wasn’t busy enough, Mahasweta has two events coming up, one being the Climate LinkUP webinar: ‘Nature Positive Solutions for Climate Resilience’, which aims to showcase the innovative work of early career researchers from across the globe, who are developing nature positive solutions to build environmental resilience to mitigate the impacts of climate change. The event is free to attend, more information here >>
The other, of which Mahasweta is the lead organiser, is a Royal Society Theo Murphy Scientific Meeting: ‘Algal holobionts: challenges and opportunities’, which focuses on being a ‘diverse, inclusive meeting ensuring gender, balance, ECR participation and including both EU, non-EU and other non-algal holobiont researchers’. This event is also free to attend, find out more and register here >>
We asked Mahasweta to tell us a little about why she is so passionate about making science as inclusive as possible, and to tell us more about her work in ‘equity, diversity and inclusion’.
“Following my PhD, as I progressed in my own career, I started noticing gender imbalance in office meetings, among representatives within research departments, selection/evaluation committees, panels (rather Manels!) and conferences – it seemed that more male speakers were invited than females! This also includes questions from audience; it seemed to be mostly men asking questions.”
“I come from an under-privileged background and have faced numerous challenges along the way. So, I know how it feels to be excluded and discriminated against. But I have turned every challenge into an opportunity for me to grow and become stronger. My goal was to become a role model for other women who face difficulties or hurdles.”
“Inclusion and diversity are crucial for science to make true progress and I believe very much in the phrase: ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. We need to be united if we want to achieve anything great in science.”
“I want to help support a fair and inclusive culture which treats women equally and also all others from non-privileged backgrounds. I strongly believe that for a healthier research ambience, we must foster a research culture of humility over egotism, integrity over nepotism, and compassion over competition.”
Above: Mahasweta and the team
“To address issues such as gender imbalance and inequality, I have always taken up opportunities that promote, support and retain women in science. For this, I have volunteered my time to deliver invited talks in schools both inside and outside the UK, delivered talks to encourage girls to consider careers in science, supported career events, and written blog posts and articles on the issues. I’ve also proactively reached out to younger female academics in meetings and conferences, to offer advice and suggestions to issues they have been facing."
“I am also currently one of the core committee members of the ECR network in PML, where we aim to provide training courses and organise career specific seminars. I currently lead a group of young female scientists and arrange weekly team chats over coffee to discuss science specific and gender specific issues to raise awareness among my female students.”
To expand upon our last question, we asked Mahasweta what advice she would give to someone considering pursuing a career in her field or in STEM more generally?
“My advice: Never ever listen to nay sayers and never ever give up. Pursue your career dreams and you will reach your desired destination one day!”
Above: Mahasweta with her child by the coast