‘Science has to be for the masses’
Prof Gawsia Wahidunnessa Chowdhury has been on a lifelong journey of embracing scientific research focused on conservation education, plastic pollution, biomonitoring, and wetland ecology in Bangladesh. She is one of two Bangladeshis who were recently named among the top 100 Asian scientists. In an interview with Abida Rahman Chowdhury of The Daily Star, she talks about her current projects, the scope of Bangladesh's policies and why they do not work, and how to encourage more women to take up STEM.
How did you end up in the field of science?
For as long as I remember, I wanted to be of benefit to people and the planet. So, when the time came to pick a career, I thought medical science would be the best fit. But as luck would have it, I did not get accepted into any good programmes. Then some of my best friends told me to apply at Dhaka University back in 1997. I got accepted into the zoology programme and I realised I could focus on people and the planet by working for the environment. At the end of our four-year honours, we had to pick a field we were interested in specialising. For me, it was an easy pick – fisheries, something so deeply connected to Bangladesh's roots, which is how I ended up here.
Tell us a little about your first research project.
During my final years at DU, all students in my department were asked to conduct one research project each. My project was on the haematological aspects of Labeo rohita – a very small research looking at the components of the blood of Rui fish. I even published an article in the daily Janakantha on it. It was not much, but it did set me on a lifelong trail of scientific research.
What are some current research projects you are involved in? We know you have been working on plastic pollution, especially in the fishing communities in Bangladesh. Could you elaborate more on that?
Back in 2019, I received an email from my then examiner at Cambridge University, Dr Heather J Koldewey. She reached out to ask whether I would be interested in a research project funded by National Geographic. I obviously said yes, and hence began a new journey of learning. The National Geographic Society's "Sea to Source: Ganges" river expedition used rapid assessment methods to provide the first empirical baseline data on the source, quantities, and flow of plastic pollution along the length of the Ganges River system — from the Himalayas to the Bay of Bengal. I was the Bangladesh lead of a very talented international female-led team of scientists, researchers and storytellers who embarked on this river expedition through India and Bangladesh. Between May and December in 2019, we travelled 2,575 kilometres (1,600 miles) of the transboundary Ganges before and after the monsoon season. We wanted to fill in critical knowledge gaps, and found that discarded fishing gear such as fishing nets are a significant source of plastics in the Ganges.
We also identified research gaps in Bangladesh that we are trying to address now. One of them is research on the trophic transfer of microplastics in the Sundarbans, which is being financially supported by the Grants for Advanced Research in Education of the Bangladesh Bureau of Educational Information and Statistics (BANBEIS) and the Ministry of Education. The research looks at how organisms in the Sundarbans are contaminated by microplastics. As part of the work with National Geographic, I also made a pledge to ensure we beat the threat of plastic pollution. As such, my work now is largely focused on combating plastic pollution. I am also working with the fisherfolk – especially women in Bhola's Char Fasson upazila and fishing communities in Cox's Bazar – where we are encouraging women in the fishing communities to get involved in the reuse and upscale of discarded fishing gear to transform them into marketable products, and we are also working towards establishing a supply chain for such products. Through this project, we are also closely collaborating with the World Bank towards implementing a Plastic Action Plan, which will act as a guideline providing tangible steps that the government can take in the future. I am also involved in promoting citizen science and active learning-based conservation education, which I believe will go a long way in changing how we perceive and interact with nature, especially among the younger generations.
How bad exactly is our plastic pollution problem, and what changes are needed on the policy level?
Bangladesh ranks 10th globally in terms of the levels of mismanaged plastic waste. Yet, plastic pollution studies in the country are very limited and skewed towards just providing an overall observation or snapshot. In Bangladesh, waste generation is extremely mismanaged, with plastics travelling through the extensive river systems and entering the Bay of Bengal.
When it comes to policies, it is important to note that Bangladesh is the only country in the world to ban single-use plastic bags way back in 2002, yet do you see any change in reality? The issue here is not that the policy is flawed, but its implementation is. When we formulate a law or a policy, we need to consider how it will affect its stakeholders. If you do not provide a cheaper, easier and more accessible alternative to single-use plastic bags, how can everyone get on board? More often than not, policies formulated in the comforts of a boardroom affect the poor disproportionately. Take, for example, the fishing ban – when it was implemented, no one really took into consideration how it would affect the fishers. Lobbying and repeated conversations with stakeholders has helped change some of the narrative around fishers' plights during the bans. But more needs to be done in the coming years.
When you make a policy targeting fishers, you need to involve representatives from the fishing community. When you make a policy targeting plastic ban, you need to include relevant stakeholders before rolling out a policy or legal framework. This top-down approach just won't work otherwise. You see, science has to be for the masses; if it is not understandable or accessible to the public and relevant stakeholders, we cannot make informed decisions, nor can we steer policies or conversations in the right direction.
What should Bangladesh be worried about in the next 20 years in terms of climate change?
As someone working closely on environmental issues, the three major threats for Bangladesh in the coming years are climate change, plastic pollution, and biodiversity loss. Monumental on their own, they are also connected to one another. To address these issues, the country must focus on investing in more scientific research, make science understandable and accessible to all relevant stakeholders, incorporate active learning-based conservation education programmes into the school curricula, and, most importantly, engage and broaden our horizons by initiating more collaborative research. In a resource-starved nation like ours, it is not easy to ensure that all the resources are available to us at all times. So, say Dhaka University does not have a certain equipment needed for my research, I should be able to immediately connect to a colleague/student/resource person in a different university or research organisation who might have the equipment and get the job done. But unfortunately, in our country, that culture hasn't quite caught up yet. We must promote more public-public, public-private and private-private collaborative research in the coming days.
Will you share the challenges you faced as a woman in science? How do you think we can address gender disparity in STEM?
The truth is, for a woman, especially in our South Asian/Indian subcontinent context, there are many, many barriers to being in science. Access to education itself is very skewed. I was privileged that my father, late freedom fighter Shahadath Chowdhury, and my mother, Shirajunnessa Chowdhury, were my biggest champions. And I was also blessed with my husband AM Saifur Rahman's ultimate support in raising our child Abha. The reason I am mentioning this is because a woman faces many hurdles in the outside world as it is, but if she does not have a supportive family structure in place, the path to realising her dreams is that much harder. One of my students had to drop out of her PhD, even though she was extremely motivated and talented, because her husband was not supportive of her field work, which was a requirement towards the PhD. This is the story of so many women in our country. But I cannot let myself get disheartened, because the fight to ensure a level playing field for women in science is an ongoing one. One that I have pledged my allegiance to. As an Elsevier grant awardee, this is my official commitment as well. I always include and encourage more and more women to enter the field of STEM. If we do not go out there, we cannot break the existing systemic barriers.