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Spotlight Series: ForestGEO welcomes new Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Krishna Anujan

ForestGEO welcomed a new Postdoctoral Research Fellow in September, Krishna Anujan. Her research will combine ForestGEO’s long-term forest dynamics datasets with individual-based modelling to understand climate sensitivities of tree growth across diverse tropical species.  Read on to learn more about Krishna and her background.

Krishna with Terminalia sp. and Planchonia sp. seedlings in a shadehouse experiment in the Andaman Islands. Image credit: Sarah Tjossem


1. When did you realize you wanted to be a scientist/research tropical forests? How did you decide to go down this career path?

I think my career now is a series of happy accidents, which started coming together in early undergrad. I’ve always enjoyed equally the hard truths of mathematics and the chaos of biology, and tropical ecology research today allows me to work closely with both these worlds. I went to an interdisciplinary undergraduate college in India, which focused heavily on research experience for students. My first summer internship was working on various small projects across taxa in lush evergreen forests in the northeast of India. I was first exposed to ideas of field ecology and scientific rigor in these moss- and lichen-laden old-growth forests. There was no going back from there.


2. What is your education background? What led you to your current job?

I have a PhD in Ecology and Environmental Biology from Columbia University. For my thesis, advised by Prof Shahid Naeem, I worked on understanding the biodiversity-biomass production relationship in highly diverse tropical tree communities. My fieldwork was focused on the Andaman Islands, an archipelago in the Bay of Bengal, to the east of India. Before my PhD, I graduated with an Integrated BS/MS, majoring in Biology from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Pune, India. For my master’s thesis, I worked on understanding the effect of introduced spotted deer on forest vegetation in inland forests of the Andaman Islands.

Between my masters and PhD, I spent a year as a Field Coordinator for a long-term monitoring site in the Andaman Islands which followed ForestGEO protocols. This formative experience led me to ask questions about ecosystem-level process during my PhD. My PhD research focused on trying to understand dynamics through experiments at the small scale. However, I had trouble scaling up inferences to larger spatial and temporal scales. Working with ForestGEO allows me to collaborate with PIs working on long-term datasets and make predictions at scales relevant for management. I am also here to learn how to build lasting collaborations across a broad network.

Krishna leading an intertidal walk with young conservation professionals in the Andaman Islands. Image credit: Karishma Modi


3. How did you zero in on your specific research topic?

My postdoctoral research, advised by Kristina Anderson-Teixeira and Sean McMahon, is focused on understanding how interannual variation in tropical tree growth is influenced by climate. I hope to address this by combining multiple types of data used to measure tree growth – tree censuses, tree cores and dendrometer band measurements. Tropical forests are important carbon sinks and crucial for the natural solutions against climate change. Tree woody biomass remains in the biosphere for long timescales, and so annual woody growth is an important long-term sink for atmospheric carbon. However, tree growth could be changing with altered climate with important feedbacks on the carbon cycle. This gets further complicated when we consider multispecies communities with growth sensitivities that vary with species or functional types. A key functional difference in tropical forest trees is leaf phenology – broad-leaved evergreen and deciduous trees exist in the same stand. We know little of how tree growth across these types responds to climate and what this means for whole-community or regional responses to a changing climate. I will be working with data from the Huai Kha Khaeng plot in Thailand, which has an impressive data record and also has a diversity of tree species, both evergreen and deciduous. I hope that these analyses will contribute to a better understanding of the response of the Asian tropical forests to a changing climate.

Near Kanha National Park, Central Indis, during fieldwork for a NatGeo project “Soundscapes and Stories: a biocultural approach to monitoring forest health”


4. What are you most excited to take on in your new role with ForestGEO? What is your favorite part about your work?

 I am excited to be part of the ForestGEO community and to collaborate with this incredible global network of forest ecologists. Parts of my PhD were quite isolating, and I’m thrilled that this role allows me to participate in collaborative science. In the recent past, I’ve been involved with smaller collaborative teams. Funded through a NatGeo collaborative grant, in collaboration with Project Dhwani, I have been working on in two landscapes in India on a project called “Soundscapes and Stories: a biocultural approach to measuring forest health”. Over the last couple of years, I have also been a co-founder and part of the core team of INvenTree – the India tree inventory database – a project that is trying to identify geographic gaps in plot-based data and its access across India.

At the conceptual level, I am excited to learn and employ new analytical techniques on some of the best tropical forest dynamics datasets to date. As part of the postdoc, I have also proposed a data-based learning component that I hope to co-develop with plot-PIs that can be taught in conjunction with ecology courses in ForestGEO affiliated universities in Thailand. I am excited to explore Smithsonian resources towards this aim as well.

I care deeply about forests, and I feel very fortunate to be able to work towards understanding how and why they are changing and what we can do about this. I also love what I do in the day-to-day. The teams I work with are really inspiring and I also love looking at data about trees and getting to think deeply about problems.

Leading a session on basic ecology for young professionals during the Local Voices in Conservation Programme, Port Blair.


5. What are some of your personal hobbies/passions? Do these connect with your work in any way?

I have an annoying tendency to convert personal passions into large-scale “projects”. I really enjoy writing creative non-fiction – and so I have ended up contributing several articles, mostly about ecology, to online and offline magazines, both in English and in my mother tongue, Malayalam (for which I worked with my mother!). Through my PhD, my mother and I worked on an ecology/memoir column for a Malayalam literary magazine, Mathrubhumi weekly, which is now getting published as a book! I am now trying to cultivate hobbies that are not projects – last year’s successes include cyanotyping, art journalling and spending time with kids in nature. I am also very passionate about dancing, and I am trying to pick it up again after a field-intensive PhD.

Fun with art journalling and cyanotyping across forests and cities.


6. Is there anything else you want to share about yourself, your background, or your research?

I like to work on projects that create impact – I’ve been trying to frame my professional work around a driving question – “who is it serving”? Increasingly, it is also important for me to be locally relevant in the places that I work beyond speaking to a broad audience. After defending my PhD thesis, I had the rare fortune to take time to pursue a long-pending passion project. With an educator colleague, I co-founded the Local Voices in Conservation Programme, a summer school for conservation education for youth from the Andaman Islands. Through last year, we led the creation of a unique, contextual curriculum, raised funds and piloted the three-week programme Port Blair successfully for a graduating cohort of eight young conservation-curious islanders. We intend to continue these efforts annually.