Saturday, February 25, 2017

Doing ecological research in a time of genocide

Water fleas, aka Daphnia
Image credit: ScienceCodex

I have always found other life forms to be significantly more interesting than humans (myself included). One of my most cherished childhood memories is holding newly hatched geckos (the feared chipkali) in my hand; small greenish-greyish balls, with tiny cumin seed eyes, pieces of the shell still attached. My dad had found them behind our water pump and excitedly called me out, promising me that it would be worth it. And it was.

I don't know when my love affair with non-human organisms began. Maybe it was time my father allowed me to skip school so that we could go see the carcass of a Blue Whale that had washed up on shore. Or the countless time we went to the Mangopir shrine just to see the sacred crocodiles. This fascination has been a constant in my life even as the places, cultures, languages, food and people around me have changed. When people ask me why I decided to pursue a PhD examining the impact of behaviour on zooplankton communities of all things, it's extremely embarrassing to say that it's my childhood dream.

I am increasingly wondering if this lifelong fascination with non-human organisms is a selfish decision. The "reviled religious minority" that I belong to is currently undergoing genocide. In the face of violent persecution, I am struggling to understand what is the value of my scientific research to my community at this point. Why do my scientific contributions matter in a world that is actively trying to erase my existence? How can I justify spending my efforts understanding how ecological communities operate when the weekly murders of tens and hundreds of people from my community goes without comment from Pakistan's Sunni majority and the rest of the world?  I think of community activists who are risking their lives to remind our fellow citizens that we too are human. That when we are gunned down on our way to work, blown up in market places or attacked in our houses of worship, our blood should be valued. My life choices are cowardly in comparison.

I would like to believe the little knowledge that I contribute to this world about ecological communities matters. But any contributions I make will not stop someone from murdering me in my home, workplace or house of worship. I won't pretend that my research is an act of defiance or rebellion. It is a deeply selfish act. But it is also a necessary one. Researching how zooplankton communities operate reminds me that beyond all of this violence exists another world, one where tiny animals in the water column have the ability to change the way lakes and oceans function. When I am immersed in this world, questions about my humanity cease to matter.