MEET AN ASTROBIOLOGIST: DR MUKUND SHARMA


Prof. Mukund Sharma senior paleontologist and astrobiologist from Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (Lucknow, India) is renowned for his immense contribution in the field of Precambrian Palaeobiology in India. He has extensively worked on the Archaeans of the Dharwar Craton, the Proterozoic basins of peninsular India i.e., the Cuddapah, Kaladgi, Vindhyan, Chhattisgarh and, Marwar Supergroups, Kurnool, Bhima, and Indravati Groups. He has reported syngenetic fossil cyanobacteria from >2600 Ma Neoarchaean Iron Formation of Karnataka. His studies on 1600 Ma old Vindhyan Supergroup demonstrated that Grypanai spiralis considered to be a eukaryotic fossil is actually a coiled long sheath of prokaryotic cyanobacteria. Chuaria-Tawuia which were once considered as an independent life form for more than a century were shown by him as representing two stages of life cycles of the same organism. From Neoproterozoic Bhima Group, he reported multicellular organisms which show they evolved ca 720 Ma, much earlier than Ediacaran Period (635-541 Ma). Prof. Sharma has co-authored monographs on ‘Proterozoic Fossil Cyanobacteria’ and ‘Stromatolites of India and Russia’. He has edited a special volume of ‘Journal of Asian Earth Sciences on Proterozoic Basin of India’. Being a strong advocate of science outreach for the general public, he frequently delivers popular science talks and also has written two popular books on fossil plants. His research contributions have been well appreciated by the national and international scientific fraternity. Indian Science Congress Association conferred on him the Young Scientist Award in 1992, Iyengar-Sahni and Sharda Chandra Medals were bestowed on him in 2009. He received Chinese Government Fellowship in 1996, BOYSCAST Fellowship in 1997, ILTP Fellowship in 2000 and 2007 and Indo-Australian Senior Scientist Fellowship in 2013. Very recently Prof. Sharma received the prestigious L. Rama Rao Award (2018)which is given once in three years to the geologist who has made significant lifetime contribution to Indian Stratigraphy and/or Palaeontology by the Geological Society of India.

Prof. Mukund Sharma was conferred with Prof. L. Rama Rao Award 2018  in the Annual General Meeting of the Geological Society of India held on 19th September at Periyar University, Salem, Tamil Nadu. Some of the previous recipients are Padma Bhushan Prof. K. S. Valdiya, Prof. M. S. Srinivasan, Prof. Ashok Sahni, Prof. I. B. Singh, Dr. B. S. Venkatachala, Prof. Sankar Chatterjee, Prof. S. B. Bhatia, Prof. S. K. Shah, Prof. R. P. Tiwari.

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Interview transcript

Before we start this interview, I would like to tell the readers that this interview is being taken on the high roads of Ladakh. We are en route to Tsokar camp from Leh as members of NASA Spaceward Bound India 2016, the first Astrobiology field expedition held in India.

This interview was conducted by Dr Preeti Nema.

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  • Dr. Sharma, it is a privilege to meet you here in Ladakh, please share with us your story of becoming an Astrobiologist. To begin with, please tell our readers something about your educational background?

I was born in Lucknow, the capital city of State Uttar Pradesh, in Northern India. It is a vibrant city with a whole lot of academic institutions. I completed my schooling and college education in Lucknow. Geology, Botany, and Zoology were my subjects at graduation level and subsequently received Masters in Geology. I received education in a Catholic missionary school and college. I was fortunate enough to have very good science teachers at the school and college level who inculcated the spirit of inquiry into my nature. My studies in geology and botany landed me at the doorsteps of Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences (erstwhile Institute of Palaeobotany) that too at Lucknow to pursue my research career leading to an award of a doctorate degree. In 1926, addressing geologists, Prof. Birbal Sahni founder of a Palaeobotany institute in the country, mentioned that fossil plants represent the debt botany owes to geology. I found it true. I chose the research topic on Precambrian Palaeobiology which allowed me to investigate the earliest life forms which thrived on the earth during the early 3 billion years of the earth’s history before the advent of complex life forms. The University of Lucknow awarded me the Ph.D. degree on this topic. Later in life, I received a certificate in Science Journalism and Post Graduate Diploma in Human Resource Management too.

  • How come you were attracted to the field of geology, any family influence or was it personal interest?

Before me, none of my family members, including father and grandparents, pursued science although they were well educated but in the field of arts and law. I must admit that none of my family members were even aware of the subject of geology. So there was no family influence at all was free to choose my subjects and career. I pursued geology for higher studies for several reasons. First, of course, was personal interest, rocks and earth sciences intrigued me. Then, I figured good professional opportunities in the field of geology and eventually found a very well established Department of Geology at the University of Lucknow. Above all, I have a passion for traveling, and this was a field where I could do science as well as pursue my passion for traveling to new places and watch Nature unfolding its mysteries, simultaneously.

  • Could you please elaborate for our readers, how geology and paleontology connect to astrobiology.

Paleontology is one of the aspects of studies under geology. It gives you an opportunity to study very small microscopic organisms to as large as Dinosaurs to hominids which got preserved in rock succession after their natural death or due to some catastrophe or disaster. They may be as old as a few thousand years to three and a half billion years of age. These organisms thrived and occupied every possible niche on the earth. But the earth was not always similar as it is today. It was hot, anoxic, full of, blasting volcanoes with huge tectonic movements of the earth’s plates. Various gases, many of which are considered at present poisonous to living forms, enveloped the earth’s atmosphere. In such a scenario living forms that evolved must have different survival strategies. Today, we have fairly good knowledge and estimates about the evolution of lithosphere, atmosphere, and biosphere on the early earth. Our knowledge, estimates, and imagination about the possible life forms beyond the earth suggest considering harsh environments, atmosphere devoid of oxygen or full of CO2 and various other lethal gases on other planets of this solar system and beyond the solar system. Scientists know the places where rocks on earth which represent a similar history and also entomb early life forms (microfossils) which evolved during the early phases of earth’s evolution. If we want to study life forms on other planets we ought to study the rocks of early phases of the earth which are best possible analogues. Here paleontology, geology, and astrobiology have meeting grounds.

  • Please tell us how you got so deeply involved in the field of astrobiology which is not that common subject in India?

Roots of my fascination for astrobiology lie in my studies, training and research work. Geology as a subject offers you an opportunity to visit remote field areas to gain insights into earth processes. During graduate and postgraduate studies we were taken for four study tours and luckily all these visits were to Precambrian outcrops. We saw beautiful stromatolites, earliest shelly fossils, and microbial mats. Related stories were interesting. While on one such study tour in the Himalayas I decided if I would opt for higher studies and career in research I would opt Precambrian Palaeobiology. Fortunately, when I completed my Master’s degree there was a position of research scholar to investigate Archaean sediments of south India. I joined Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeobotany (BSIP) in 1986 to pursue Precambrian Palaeobiology in a multi-institutional project involving BSIP, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) and National Geophysical Research Institute (NGRI). The main objective was to document the Archaean Life forms and establish their existence. Finding Archaean fossils is very difficult and equally difficult it to establish their biogenicity, age, and syngenetic records of the objects. In the USA, Professor J. W. Schopf of the University of California runs an international project with the support of NASA, UCLA, ISSOL and many other organizations. The monumental contribution of his project’s participants was an edited book by Prof. Schopf “Earth’s Earliest Biosphere”. Prof. Schopf visited BSIP in 1986. It was barely a fortnight when I had joined BSIP. Meeting Prof. Schopf for any student of Precambrian Palaeobiology was a dream which came true for me so soon. His lecture was mesmerizing and electrifying. It had a lasting effect on me. My resolve got firm to study Precambrian Palaeobiology; may it be a very difficult area. Since then I am involved in the study of Precambrian life. I am still keeping very cordial and inspiring relations with Prof. Schopf. He visited us on three occasions and was happy to see the progress of Precambrian Palaeobiological studies in India.

Those who are engaged in Precambrian Palaeobiology are invariably involved in astrobiological studies. NASA has an ambitious programme on Astrobiology. Once again Prof. Schopf was involved with this programme in different capacities. NASA provided constant support for his studies. With this funding support, Prof. Schopf convened an International Meeting ‘World summit on ancient microscopic fossils’ at UCLA in 2008 where he invited leading Precambrian Palaeobiologists to discuss Precambrian Microfossil and their implications for understanding the origin of life and what yet to learn about life. Before this meeting, many leading paleontologists assembled in Frankfurt in 1997 for Senckenberg Conference and Workshop to discuss ‘Palaeontology in the 21st Century’. Meeting stressed on a study of new sub-discipline Astrobiology. These two events shaped my resolve for astrobiology.

Every year in the month of January, Indian Science Congress Association (ISCA) organizes its annual meeting which is inaugurated by the Indian Prime Minister. ISCA also holds a country-wide competition to recognize young scientists with potential and ideas. Six scientists in each discipline are selected to make a presentation before each sectional committee and one young scientist in each discipline of science gets awarded. In 1992, I was one of the six candidates who presented their research for the Earth System Sciences Section. I presented my results on the discovery of Archaean stromatolites which are organo-sedimentary structures formed by microbes on the early earth. My paper was not only appreciated but also I got ‘ISCA Young Scientist Award’ for my research work for the Earth System Sciences Section of 1992. I received the award by the hands of noted space scientist Prof. Vasant Rao Gowarikar, Scientific Advisor to the Prime Minister of India and Secretary Department of Science Technology, Government of India. Prof. Gowarikar was also the former Chief of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) who along with Dr. Vikram Sarabhai laid the foundation of India’s Space Programmes and Technologies.

ISRO organized a Space Science Congress to discuss various aspects of Space Research in the Country. I had an opportunity to present my work on earliest life forms and associated structures recovered from 3 billion years old sediments of south India. The presentation was not only well received among the scientific community but also won me the best paper prize and received the award by the hands of Dr. U. R. Rao, the then Chairman of the ISRO. This award gave me an impetus to get involved in the study of early life on earth with more vigor. These early recognitions were boosters. My studies took me to all the continents in pursuit of my journey in the search of early life. I got a prestigious BOYSCAST Post-Doctoral Fellowship to pursue research with Prof. Robert Riding. In 2015, Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences got an opportunity to hold NASA Spaceward Bound India2016 meeting. I was entrusted with the responsibility of its organization. As you know, after a series of discussions with Mr. Siddharth Pandey, Dr. Jonathan Clarke, of Mars Society of Australia and scientists from Blue Marble Space Institute of Science, we decided to hold this meeting in Ladakh in August 2016. It was expected that a large number of scientist, educationists and young researchers would participate in this meeting. We were successful in galvanizing many organization, institutions and agencies besides governmental department to help us organize this meeting. Secretary, Department of Science and Technology inaugurated our field workshop and gave us warm send-off in New Delhi and see, today we are here on our mission climbing hills and snow clad peaks of Mighty Himalayas to study the life found in extreme conditions such as hot acidic springs, permafrost, and cold deserts. I am sure this group would come up with fascinating results.

  • Could you kindly elaborate why did your team choose Ladakh as a destination for NASA Spaceward Bound India the first Astrobiology dedicated field expedition in India?

NASA Spaceward Bound programme is an education and research programme. Its main mission was to look for Mars Analogous areas on earth in search of life. In the past it was organized in Mohave Desert USA, North Dakota USA; Idaho USA, Western Australia, Namibian Desert, UAE, Antarctica; high Arctic regions, New Zealand. But all these areas were having only one specific type of environment and ecology. Ladakh offers all the peculiarities at one place which was otherwise found at so many different places. It is easily accessible and endowed with scenic beauty and loving people and population. BSIP has many other programmes related to palaeosciences for which a team of scientists every year used to visit this area. We were well accustomed to the area and acquainted with required logistics which is very important for the organization of such event. Therefore, Ladakh was our natural choice to hold this meeting.

Prof. Mukund Sharma with NASA Spaceward Bound India 2016team during their science outreach programme at remote schools of Ladakh

  • Which regions of India do you think can be further explored for newer discoveries in the field of palaeosciences?

From the Astrobiological perspective, I think saline soda Lonar Lake in Buldhana district of Maharashtra should be our next target for Spaceward Bound India. It is a meteoric lake which is the only meteoric lake in the Basaltic province in the world. For fossils records, I think three Cratonic parts found in India are best suitable for such studies. These are found in Karnataka, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Some of the rock repositories are as old as 3500 million years old, very recently some of the oldest zircon grains (4000 million years old) have been recorded in Jharkhand.

  • What do you think are the opportunities and challenges in India for pursuing research in this field as a paleontologist and astrobiologist?

From the Astrobiological perspective, I think saline soda Lonar Lake in Buldhana district of Maharashtra should be our next target for Spaceward Bound India. It is a meteoric lake which is the only meteoric lake in the Basaltic province in the world. For fossils records, I think three Cratonic parts found in India are best suitable for such studies. These are found in Karnataka, Jharkhand, and Chhattisgarh. Some of the rock repositories are as old as 3500 million years old, very recently some of the oldest zircon grains (4000 million years old) have been recorded in Jharkhand.

  • What do you think can be done to further enhance education and research in Astrobiology in India?

Nature has been favorable to us as we have some of the surviving chunks of older rocks which could be very rewarding from a palaeontological and astrobiological point of view. Scientists from various parts of the world visit India in search of the study of these rocks. Not only we have some of the oldest rocks but we also have one of the Largest Igneous Province (LIP) in the world in the form of Deccan Basalt; as I mentioned our country has cold desert, hot desert, hot water springs, permafrost lakes, saline and alkaline lakes, and high altitude lakes. Some of these could be very good analogues for Martian and Lunar surfaces.

  • Besides astrobiology and palaeontological research, what are your other passions and hobbies?

I am fond of reading literature, especially historical accounts. In the last two years, I have read the work of contemporary writers. I finished reading the books ‘Incarnations: India in 50 lives’ by Sunil Khilnani, ‘Not just an Accountant’ by Vinod Rai, ‘An Era of Darkness’ it is a story of British loots in India in the name of development particularly the Indian Railwaysand ‘Why I am Hindu’ both by Shashi Tharoor. Being geologists, I equally like travelogues and autobiography. Dream Chasing by S. B. Misra is a truly remarkable story of a village boy overcoming all the odds of life in studies and finally securing a PDF to study in Canada where he discovered earliest animal fossils on earth against all odds. His discovery is now declared as a UNESCO’s geo-heritage site. Currently, I am reading ‘Lab Girl’ by a geobiologist Hope Jahren. Photography is my other passion. I used to keep a camera with me whenever I am in the company of nature since school days.

  • What advice would you like to give to young students aspiring to be palaeobiologists and astrobiologists?

My only advice to young friends is to go out, spend time with nature, love it and explore it. We know very little about it. When you start loving nature your mind pushes you to eternal question ‘Are we alone in the Universe? Thus an astrobiologist will take birth in you.

Dr. Sharma, thank you so much for your precious time.