08/04/2020

Interview with Charuta Kulkarni, MSCA-Individual Fellow, The Open University, UK


 

How did you get to know about the MSCA Individual Fellowship and what motivated you to apply?

While in the United States, my doctoral work actually involved studying history of European landscapes located in the Danube valley. So I always saw Europe as a natural place to seek prospective opportunities. Meanwhile, environmental history and policy landscape in India never left my mind and personal motivation to utilise interdisciplinary knowledge towards a policy relevant work in my homeland never diminished. The key promise of the MSCA Individual Fellowship (MSCA-IF) is unprecedented freedom in terms of project design, collaboration and travel, and it is this – the freedom – that drew me to it. The MSCA-IF offered me space and time to build excellent science with sincere policy implications for one of the key societal challenges in India and steered geographical diversification of my career trajectory in the direction I wished for.

What have been the benefits of your MSCA Individual Fellowship?

Again, the answer would be freedom! And, it indeed came in various shapes and forms. Firstly, I was free to choose my collaborators from Europe and I chose to build a team of forest ecologists, fire paleoecologists and policy experts, who are equally invested in exploring long-term interactions among climate, landscapes, and people with a broader goal of understanding sustainability and policymaking. A multitude of collaborations emerged out of my MSCA-IF experience, which will continue to benefit my career for years. Secondly, the MSCA-IF offers substantial bottom-up funding in the form of exceptional personal living, family, mobility allowances and research, training and networking funds. In the era where academics are expected to be ‘productive’ with inadequate salaries and scarce research funds, I appreciate H2020’s approach in delivering a ‘fair share’ to researchers, so they can focus on diversifying their competencies through advanced training, international mobility, and independence in communicating science with peers and public alike.

What would you say the biggest challenge in the application process was? How did you overcome it?

For me, undoubtedly the strict ten-page limit for the proposal! Frankly speaking, brevity is not my forte (Can’t you see already?:)) but with years of training in scientific writing, I am now able to judge when and where to cut. Another important sub-element of the MSCA-IF proposal is that the proposal has to be written in a jargon-free manner, in a language understood by a layperson. This often comes as a challenge as scientists are largely trained in technical writing and it often takes practice and personal inclination to ‘unpack’ science without losing its essence. In my case, what came in handy is the experience I gathered from participating and organising science communication and outreach events and from multilingual ‘scientific storytelling’ with Marathi and English media over the years.

From your experiences, how does the research environment in the UK and France differ from that in India?

More than anything, the differences lie in the approach and vision with which research is conducted. While the Indian research landscape is taking baby steps towards interdisciplinarity, it often has strong disciplinary walls when it comes to designing and implementing research projects. I found the research environment in the UK and France is more open to experimenting with multi- and interdisciplinary approaches to a problem. This reflects in the vision and the structure of research institutes across Europe, which purposefully recruit scientists from varied natural and social science backgrounds under the single roof. This approach creates inherent spaces for dialogues among and across disciplines.

What were the most important experiences that you draw from your time in Europe? And why would you recommend Europe as a research and study destination?

It is hardly a secret that Europe has a lot to offer both in terms of work and life, and also a healthy balance between the two. Personally speaking, growing up in a geographically and culturally diverse country like India has instilled deep love for nature and cultures within me; the love which only grew with my time in Europe. Amid recollecting countless productive professional activities over the two years, I find them inseparable from extremely diverse social-cultural experiences I had at each place – watching classic Shakespearean plays in Britain, sunbathing on bright, sunny Mediterranean beaches, wine tasting at a 1,000 year-old Swiss vineyard, visiting prehistoric settlements in Irish bogs to name a few. So to my prospective colleagues I would say, while globe-trotting becomes a part and parcel of a researcher’s life, one could start to do so from Europe, which has immense opportunities for personal and professional growth.

How do you think EURAXESS India can further promote research collaborations between Europe and India?

Oh, there are current EURAXESS India activities like European Information Days, European Research Days and Science Slams doing a great job of promoting a wide range of funding opportunities to various corners of India. So I would rather comment on strengthening prospective research collaborations starting from fellows. Hailing from personal experiences, the process of settling in Europe is often overwhelming with multiple lines of bureaucracy from visas to pension plans, with each host country and institution quite different. So I suggest newly funded Indian fellows would benefit from a day-long ‘sensitisation’ workshop with official representatives of host countries laying out a loose roadmap for ‘what comes next’. This could also be an occasion for fellows to connect with one another and eventually form a stronger network boosting MCAA Indian Chapter. Importantly, unavailability of long-term Schengen and other European country visas for third-country nationals are a serious issue – as an MSCA-fellow, I found myself trapped with a generous mobility allowance without actual mobility within Europe! This will indeed require multi-level diplomacy and policy changes between European countries and third countries. However, with Indian nationals among the highest in third-country MSCA researchers, I think EURAXESS India should stand as a strong advocate for this cause. After all, strengthening fellows means promoting and strengthening research collaborations between Europe and India.

Europe is striving for gender equality in universities and research environments. What has been your experience as an international female researcher in Europe?

I would say the experience has been quite pleasant, overall. All the European institutions I conducted MSCA-IF work at seem to offer an equitable work environment, which, I trust, would positively impact research practices for male-female researchers alike. However, one cannot overlook that the degree of ‘equitability’ varies from institution to institution, and discipline to discipline. For example, in my field of research in geological-agricultural sciences, female representation has been historically low and female voices had not been sincerely heard in the past. With this background, I found myself giving a keynote at the 4th World Congress on Agroforestry based on my MSCA-IF work! It was a positive, stimulating experience as an early career female researcher and I would surely replicate it for my fellow female and other historically under-represented researchers.

Could you kindly share some tip to future applicants to the MSCA-IF?

Oh absolutely! I would rather present a bulleted list for my so-called words of wisdom!

  • It takes time in building working relationships especially when one doesn't already know the people s/he wants to work with. Start early on in finding your host institution and in communicating your project ideas with your supervisors. There are tons of calls available on EURAXESS India website for you to choose from. Alternatively, be resourceful in networking among your existing network via platforms like ResearchGate, Academia, etc.
  • Same tips for proposal writing – first, writing takes time and especially when it comes to a very tight ten-page proposal such as MSCA-IF, and remember it is to be written in a clear, jargon-free manner. Start early on, pore over and make use of existing resources available in the MSCA-IF funding call. Studying writing guides like this are of serious help!
  • Get involved in social media communities including Marie Curie Fellows Association to learn more from existing MSCA-IFs and alumni. Also, I am happy to chat about MSCA-IF and reachable at ckulkarni@gradcenter.cuny.edu.

 

About the Researcher:

Charuta is a trained earth scientist with academic background in geology, archaeology, and paleo-environment. Integrating knowledge-techniques from natural and social science disciplines, her interests lies in exploring how landscapes transform across time and what roles climate and societies play in such transformations. The key idea is to bring quantitative narratives from the past, which help us envision better policies for the future in the wake of global climate change. Under the MSCA, her exploration is on Western Ghats of India, under project EARNEST, where she investigates how people have used fires historically to shape tropical rainforests and what impact this has had on biodiversity.