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I am a scientist and this is where I work: Sushmitha and Ramanathan Baskar

Sushmitha and Ramanathan Baskar collecting samples in a cave in Sahastradhara, Uttarakhand, India. Credit: Siddharth Baskar.

The Baskars take us into dark and damp subterranean caves that offer important clues to the planet's past and present

When we speak of scientists, what comes to mind? Test tubes, petri dishes, boring white lab coats in a boring old lab? How about mountain tops or the depths of the ocean, astrophysics observatories or remote wildlife sanctuaries? In this series called “I am a scientist and this is where I work”, we introduce you to the lives of scientists who work in diverse and unique settings – far removed from the popular stereotypes. Over the next few episodes, we will shadow such scientists in their unconventional workplaces.

In this episode, we hear from cave geomicrobiologists Ramanathan Baskar and Sushmitha Baskar, the couple exploring subterranean caves to look for signatures that might help better define earth's past and future.

Host: Subhra Priyadarshini, production: Jinoy Jose P, script: Amrita Gupta Nambiar, sound editing: Prince George.



The Baskars take us into dark and damp subterranean caves that offer important clues to the planet's past and present

(Lightly edited for readability)

Speakers: Ramanathan Baskar, Sushmitha Baskar, Subhra Priyadarshini

00:01 Sponsor announcement: This episode is produced with support from DBT Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

00:25 Subhra Priyadarshini: Welcome back to the Nature India podcast! After a long hiatus, we’re pleased to be back with a brand new series around science in India.

When we speak of scientists, what comes to mind? Test tubes, petri dishes, boring white lab coats in a boring old lab?

How about mountain tops or the depths of the ocean, astrophysics observatories or remote wildlife sanctuaries?!

In this series called “I am a scientist and this is where I work”, we want to introduce you to the lives of scientists who work in diverse and unique settings – far removed from the popular stereotypes.

Over the next few episodes, we’ll be shadowing scientists in their unconventional workplaces and we’ll try to make sense of their science by learning what a day out in the field looks like for them.

First up, we hear from Ramanathan Baskar and Sushmitha Baskar, India’s modern caveman (and woman), if you will. The scientist couple spend much of their time exploring miles and miles of subterranean caves.

02:01 Ramanathan Baskar: If you love caves… caves, once you are inside that it will spark your attention and this would elevate your adrenaline and stir your soul.

02:14 Sushmitha Baskar: Stepping into a cave is like entering a completely different world.

02:19 Subhra Priyadarshini: Ramanathan is a professor in the School of Sciences at the Indira Gandhi National Open University in New Delhi. His wife Sushmitha works as a faculty member in the Environmental Studies department at the School of Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary studies, in the same institution.

Together, they work in a little known discipline of science called cave geomicrobiology, right at the intersection of geology and microbiology,

We asked them to take us on a journey into the mysterious world of caves. Join us, please. I’m Subhra Priyadarshini, and this is the Nature India podcast.

03:08 Ramanathan Baskar: We surveyed the literature on this interdisciplinary field, we realized that there are 1545 caves in India, but none of them have been studied from a geo microbiological point of view. I always believe that we should not take the beaten path, but try something outside the box. Now, geologists are not trained in microbiology and microbiologist are not trained in geology. This was the challenge and this excited us, we had a strong gut feeling that this is an area where we could make new and interesting contributions, we could be pioneers in India in this scientific domain.

03:57 Subhra Priyadarshini: Before we really dive in, think about how many caves you can name. Ajanta Ellora? Badami? Elephanta? Imagine 1500 more you may not have even heard of. Besides the tourist destinations, you and I probably know very little about cave environments: deep, dark, damp, even eerie. They hold a lot of mystery within their depths. what does it feel like to be in there?

04:32 Sushmitha Baskar: So we are entering this cave, and then we have all our, you know, our head gear, that is we need to have our head helmet with the torch lights on because inside the cave, it may be totally dark, it may be damp and you may not be even able to see each other. So that is the environment that you're going to face.

04:53 Ramanathan Baskar: The most difficult part is to plan and enter the caves sometimes we have to use ropes to scale cliffs or waterfalls. Then we may get soaked.

05:06 Sushmitha Baskar: And then you need to wear a very comfortable and breathable attire, because you need to crawl and you need to, you can even skide and fall inside the cave because of these slimy rock surfaces. So the first place where you're entering, there may be a little bit of light. After that you're falling, I mean, you're actually going deeper into the cave. So all these boulders very carefully, you're keeping your leg on one of the stones, and then another they may be big ones. Finally, you land deeper into the cave, which is down, then there, you're opening yourself to small passages.

05:47 Subhra Priyadarshini: Yes, I can imagine that must be pretty scary for most people, those who have a fear of tight spaces, and the dark.

05:56 Sushmitha Baskar: After crawling and trekking you go into these tiny passages, you're entering one area which is quite big, it looks like a hole and that hole is actually articulated with beautiful decorations, I would say with the draperies in geological terms, we say draperies but these are actually folded like curtains. When you fold the curtains at home in a specific design going up and up like in the theaters -- it looks just like that. And so, these are really very artistic formations again, you find them with different colors, it could be light brown, then there are creamy colors, they could have shades of gray and green and so on. So then that interests you -- how did these colors come from? Is it due to the living organisms or is due to something else. And then later on, you find the other features like the argonite and the crystals. And these crystals when you put your torch light on, they shine in those dark environments

07:02 Subhra Priyadarshini: That sounds beautiful. Tell us a bit about the different zones in a cave. So when you first enter, it's the light zone. And as you go deeper and it gets dimmer, it's called the Twilight Zone, because that is an area where there's partial light entry into the cave, then of course comes the Dark Zone, no light penetrates at all.

07:25 Sushmitha Baskar: We enter deeper into the cave and it is totally aphotic. There is totally no light at all. That is the dark zone. It is quiet and you can hear the sounds of dripping water. Tak tak tak. There may be some water passages which are coming through. And then you get the sounds of some unique creatures that are really endemic for the caves. That is the bats which hangs upside down. So that was actually scary. For the first time when I entered the cave, it was scary that I saw a lot of bats. And then they also give you those sounds and just like you're watching a ghost, or you know a movie that is quite scary. And it's dark inside.

08:31 Subhra Priyadarshini: And was there a time that was particularly challenging, or scary?

08:37 Ramanathan Baskar: One of the experiences I had, was very difficult, because the cave entrance was very small, and it was very long. So you had to get up and crawl, and you had to jump a certain height, that was scary. if you do not have a local guide, or you are not familiar, you can be lost and you can be terrified. Going alone is always risky.

09:06 Sushmitha Baskar: In one of the cases, I also skid from the top. I just skid down. My heart was beating fast. And so that was a time I felt a bit scared and I thought, “Oh my god, we shouldn't break our bones.” Sampling has its own fun. But it is also to be done very carefully so that you don't get injured in the process.

09:33 Subhra Priyadarshini: As cave geomicrobiologists, what the Bhaskars are doing is collecting rock samples, extracting DNA from them and culturing microbes that thrive in these "geologically isolated, always dark, nutrient-limited" ecosystems. What can we learn from these microbes? Quite a lot, as it turns out!

09:57 Ramanathan Baskar: Today after the involvement of geo microbiologists from caves all over including India, we know that it is not only the inorganic processes. It is the micro-organisms, they can be as subtle as generation of carbon dioxide, which can become carbonic acid and is responsible for formation of caves. In fact, understanding of banded iron formation, dolomite formation, cave formation and weathering processes have been altered after seeing these processes through the microbial lens. Because these caves are not subject to weathering process, most of the actions – the microbial interactions which take place – are preserved. And since they are preserved, they are the historical records. If we collect the rocks with these microbes, we can tell a lot many things about these caves. In fact, in some caves, you could also tell about the past history of those caves and these are the things we look for.

11:08 Subhra Priyadarshini: Cave geomicrobiology research offers practical applications in medicine, human health and industry, and more.

11:17 Sushmita Baskar: Because, caves especially, are starved environments, and low nutrient conditions are present, as compared to the terrestrial systems. So, these cave ecosystems are valuable for astrobiology studies, especially, let me tell you the example of the planet Mars. Here the surface is inhospitable. And therefore, if you want to understand how the life evolved, and how microorganisms can be crucial for the evolution of life, the subsurface may be the only place for these extant life forms to survive with access to recognisable bio signatures.

12:03 Ramanathan Baskar: In fact, the cave bio signatures are very significant, because for all space explorations, like for example, Sushmitha mentioned about Mars, we may find cryptic life that is hidden in the subsurface.

12:21 Subhra Priyadarshini: And of course, I had to ask, what is it like being a married couple who live and work together? What are the perks? What is the downside?

12:31 Ramanathan Baskar: It provides us moral and professional support, and it boosts both of us professionally. And then if you have your spouse as your co-worker, then she will be honest with you, and she knows your strengths and limitations, she can criticize you. Two heads are better than one. And we use the power of teamwork to put larger ideas into action. No doubt. throughout the journey, it is friendship and companionship. In fact, I am reminded of Henry Ford's quote, coming together is beginning, staying together is progress. And working together is success. Of course, there are one or two disadvantages in the sense that you need to set boundaries at work as well as at home, then you need to prioritise your tasks and divide them so that no partner is overburdened because of the work.

13:26 Sushmita Baskar: Sometimes when we are writing a paper, it even goes up to 2 am or 3 am in the morning, and we don't realise that it is morning. But basically, life has been really good. And I'm grateful to the Almighty that I have a partner who is able to understand and we are able to research together in this exciting field.

13:47 Subhra Priyadarshini: The Bhaskars are proof that a career in science can be far more uncharted and adventurous than other pursuits. Beats a desk job any day, right?

We’ll be exploring another fascinating workplace on the next episode of the Nature India podcast. If you liked what you heard, be sure to share with friends and colleagues, and check out our archives for more in both English and Hindi. Thanks for tuning in! – I’m your host Subhra Priyadarshini.

14:40 Sponsor announcement: This episode was produced with support from DBT Wellcome Trust India Alliance.

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