Season 2, Episode 33
Understanding monkeys to understand society
Primatologist Sana Saiyed
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In today’s episode I am speaking with Primatologist Sana Saiyed.
Sana Saiyed is a PhD student at the University of Notre Dame studying human-monkey relationships in India.
She is interested in the various ways humans and animals shape each others lives.
Sana is a former high school science teacher and is passionate about science education that challenges Western notions of science and nature.
If you love the show please leave a rating or a review here.
If you have a comment or question please reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Instagram @gladiatrixpodcast.
Malini Sarma 0:01
Hi, Sana, thank you so much for joining the show. I'm really, really looking forward to talking to you today.
Thanks for having me. I'm really looking forward to it as
Malini Sarma 0:10
well. Awesome. So let's jump right into it. Your parents came to the US from India. And you, you pretty much grow born brought up here. So what was it like? growing up? You know, what did you based on how your parents, you know, immigrant parents? And I know how that is? What was their influence on what you wanted to be to grow when you grew up?
so both of my parents were born and raised in India in Gujrat. And they came in late 70s and early 80s. And so I'm the youngest before I have three older sisters. And so that also influenced my, my growing up. Um, so my parents were like, very typical immigrants, Indian parents. They didn't really allow us to do much of anything. I mean, like, if it was school related, like anything, when right I was like, very actively involved in different like, clubs, organizations, and that kind of thing throughout school, just because it was the only thing that we were allowed to do. But because I had my older sisters, we, you know, hung out a lot together. And so, I guess I like I'd never necessarily felt like lonely, which was really nice, given how strict my parents were. Like, I feel like when I do talk to my American friends, or, or, you know, I don't know, people who didn't have as strict parents, a lot of what like shaped their upbringing were like their different experiences, kind of like out and about. Whereas like, I didn't really have that. I hung out with my family all the time, which is just like expected for Indian, Indian kids right now, especially Indian girls, right.
we weren't really allowed to do much of anything. But one thing that my parents really kind of drilled into me and all of my sisters was not just the pursuit of knowledge, but kind of like pursuing your dreams, whatever they may be. And so none of my sisters like none of us have really followed the the more typical, like Doctor engineer path
Unknown Speaker 2:42
just because of that.
So my mom, she really wanted to be a doctor to grow up and be a doctor, but like, that was never in the cards for her just because she was a woman and was expected to just get married and have kids and that be her life. And so she really kind of was like, No, like, I want you all to pursue what you want to pursue, right? Like, that's why your dad and I are here. And so we were all kind of encouraged to do that. And so we all spent a lot of time like reading and really figuring out what our interests were when we were younger. But a lot of the reason so I I am a primatologist, and I study ecology and a lot of the reason that I'm really into like animal behavior, ecosystems and all that is because growing up since we weren't allowed to do anything, I spent a lot of time outside and just like hanging out and playing in the woods in my backyard. And that really shaped a lot of like what interested me because it's like kind of the only thing I was allowed to do when I was younger. And growing up in a place like rural Kentucky, you get exposed to a lot of different types of animals and plants and you get to see a lot of things that you know, if you grew up in it in a city, or maybe in the suburbs, you don't get to see as much. So I was always really fascinated by the different animals that would be in my backyard, we'd get deer and we get turtles and like bunnies and just a bunch of different types of animals that were like pretty close to us. And so we'd like run around catching different animals when we were younger. And I really loved that. And I think that that is probably like the most influential thing that I would do when I was a kid and I just like loved it so much. And so that is kind of why I decided what I wanted to do.
Malini Sarma 4:45
Was that something because you being a primatologist is not, you know, we seen like Jane Goodall and we've seen you know on National Geographic and so a lot of us get influenced by watching all these movies. And, you know, exciting, adventurous stuff. And so is that how you decided that that's what you were going to? Do? You know? Or was it something that just kind of morphed as you started? You know, as you grew up and started learning more about science? And?
Um, yeah, I think so.
So specifically with primatology, I think actually came about because of the stories my parents would tell. Because obviously, like, I didn't see monkeys when I was growing up, right, like, that's not an animal you see in Kentucky, um,
my parents would just tell us, like, such fascinating stories when we were younger, about like, their experiences with monkeys, but also like, a lot of the like, Gujrati folktales. And, you know, like, nursery stories and stuff that they would tell us when we were younger featured monkeys. And so I was always really into them. And I like was really fascinated about the different, like, interactions that they personally would have with monkeys when they were growing up, or just the different stories that they would tell. And that was definitely reinforced by like, what I would watch on TV, I watched a bunch of different negative nature documentaries when I was growing up. And I loved learning about like, the different female primatologists for sure. And so I think, like, it was kind of a combination of a lot of things, like what I would see on TV, but then also, just like, growing up with really awesome, fascinating tales of, of, like monkeys from, I mean, because they're pretty important in Indian culture more broadly, as well, right. And so they're incorporated in all of these really cool stories. And, you know, my parents had awesome stories about monkeys. And then when I finally like, went to India, because we didn't go that often when I was younger, I went once when I was like, four. And then again, when I was 12, I don't remember anything. When I was four, I was just, I was too young to really remember anything, but um, I remember going when I was 12. And just like I some of the most vivid memories I have of that trip, or just like waking up to the sounds of like monkeys jumping on the roof. And like all of the stories that like family members, and everyone around the house would tell us about like, Oh, you can't, can't go outside at these times. Because then like the monkeys will attack you or, you know, I would hear they like didn't respect women and all events, all these things like really fascinated me. But I don't think that I knew I wanted to be a primatologist until I like finally started working with primates. Okay, I'm at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, which wasn't until I was like 25 or 26.
Malini Sarma 8:01
How did you how did you? So from, you know, when you were 12? We went to India, you got to see monkeys, but then you're in high school. And then when you decide to go to college, what were you studying? You weren't studying? What were you studying science? Were you in education? How did that journey from, you know, from the 12 years old and seeing monkeys to Lincoln Park Zoo and actually working with primates? What happened from enjoying that time? Yeah,
so I so when I was younger, I like I knew that I wanted to study animals like that was always like, very obvious to me. Um, and so and I learned about so I actually majored in anthropology. I'm a PhD student in psychology now. I majored in anthropology in college. Oh, yeah. And so and the reason that that was is because I took biology courses, like ecology courses in college as well. But I didn't really feel connected to the way that like, the hard sciences, about the environment or studied the environment, more like animals. And then I took an anthropology course, and there was a, there was actually a primatology section in my intro to anthro class. And I think that's when I really realized like, Okay, this is the field that seems to be describing animals in the way that
I understand them. Because it's not that it was necessarily human focused, but but just the way that they described the interactions that we would have with different animals and kind of the the importance that animals have beyond just like What, I don't know what role they may play in their specific ecosystem that really fascinated me. And so that's what got me interested in anthropology. But I, for some reason, I don't know why, like, I actually, like, look back on this a lot. I still wasn't sold on primatology at that point, because I took a whole bunch of different anthropology courses while I was at Wellesley, and just like, loved them all, and was just so interested in in everything. And I also majored in history and I loved all of all of that. And I think I, I had the the problem that a lot of people talk about about, like having a lack of focus, everything, whether you're a college student, yeah. Yeah, everything was super interesting. And I loved it. And I still wasn't like, okay, animal behavior is something that I like can do as a as a job, right. But I wasn't sold on that yet. And so because of that, because I didn't know what I wanted to do. I decided to teach after college, I did teach for america for three years after I graduated, and two of my older sisters had also done Teach for America, which is how I knew about it.
And because I had taken several science courses, throughout college, I was placed as a high school science teacher, okay. Um, and during my second year, I taught biology, ninth grade biology, okay. And I loved it. Like I loved teaching, it was so much fun. I had a phenomenal experience with that. But when I got to the ecology unit, when I was teaching my students about ecology, I remembered how much I loved it. And so it was so much fun for me to teach ecology, like it was also my students favorite unit, because they could see how passionate I was about it. And we had, I mean, I feel like I extended that unit far beyond what what they needed to know. Okay. Just because it was, it was so much fun. And that's kind of that's what made me realize that I
wasn't done with school yet, because I was just so fascinated by the things that I was learning and by the things that I was teaching, and by the things that, you know, might the questions that my students would have about different, like ecological relationships, and the stories that they would bring in and tell in class and stuff. And so that's what really got me really interested in like, what I loved when I was a kid. Mm hmm. And so, finally, like, I decided that was when I decided, alright, I'm going to go back to school, and I'm going to, I'm going to actually pursue ecology and animal behavior. And so then I applied for master's programs. And I did a Master's at University of Chicago. and studied squirrels, I was looking at how, essentially how climate change is impacting demographics, and a squirrel population in California. Mm hmm. And then from there, went to
the Lincoln Park Zoo, where I started working with the Japanese macaques at the zoo, and just doing observations, collecting data, looking at different things there, but realized how like, fascinated I was with how
those monkeys interacted with Zoo guests. Because you could kind of see how their interactions with the guests then kind of like bled into their interactions with each other. And I found that really cool.
Malini Sarma 14:08
That's, that's actually quite fascinating. So depending on which environment you're in, or, you know, when you when you say, because you're working at the Lincoln Park Zoo, that means they are very controlled, right. So it's not like you have monkeys roaming around outside, unlike India, where you find them on the roads, and, you know, so their interactions must be very different from, you know, the ones that you find in India, probably very different from the ones that you find in the zoo. Right?
Yeah, no, I mean, that's definitely the case. And I mean, monkeys are all non human primates are primates in general, including humans are really good at adapting to, to their environment. And absolutely, you see, you see behavioral differences, like depending on the environment, They're in. And the Lincoln Park Zoo does a really good job of not being too. I don't know how to say this is too obtrusive, I guess.
But at the end of the day, like, they are captive animals, right there are, there's only a specific area they can go there are only specific, you know, individuals that they can interact with, right? Like one group of monkeys is never going to come across another group of monkeys, you know, which is something that happens in the wild all the time. And the ways that they're interacting with people is completely different than how they do in India. Right, there's a, there is glass between them, and the people. They can't like steal food from people like a good idea or anything like that, right. And so, there, yeah, there's definitely like a differences, there's a difference in behavior. And there's so much there's, there's less outside, for them to get influenced by, in India, their their behaviors are absolutely influenced by the people that, that they interact with constantly, or the, you know, the human modified environments that they're,
that they're living in and exposed to, and, and everything. And so that's why actually, because when I would see them interact with people, I was reminded of, like, the stories that my parents would tell when I was younger, and just like the, the, what I observed when I was in India when I was 12. I hadn't been back since then. Right? And, and so that's kind of where, where I realized, like, that is what I want to study. You know, just like having all of these stories in the back of my mind and thinking like, this is such an interesting area of research. And it's something that I'm really interested in myself. And I at that point, right, I was 25 or 26. And I realized, you know,
there's a reason my first year in college, I was like, called to anthropology and it was because of the way that, you know, animals were studied within that field. And at that point, I had been in the biology ecology realm for enough time that it didn't study animals and the world as I thought it would sense. Right. Right, you know? And so, that's kind of what led me to being like, Alright, I'm gonna apply to PhD programs in anthropology. That's like, the theoretical way that I want to approach animals.
Malini Sarma 17:55
So have you have you seen now anthropology is, you know, basically a study of cultures, but it could be in in any, in any environment? Could be linguistic? Or, you know, like archaeology or like, primatology? or biological anthropology? I mean, there's so many different branches, right. So in your experience, you know, being a, you're currently a PhD student that is getting ready to write her dissertation or in the process of writing dissertation. Have you? Have you seen that there is a disconnect, you know, between what is currently around you and how they are teaching it? Maybe it's because it's, you know, it's probably started by, you know, was it's a very, what do you call, like, the institutionalized way of learning, right? Because it's, it's, it's not it's not exactly reality, but you know, they're pushing these ideas, and they haven't updated the books, or anything. Have you noticed that?
Yeah, I mean, I think that Well, I think I noticed that more within the fields of like, evolutionary ecology and biology, where everything just seemed seem to vary. Very Western. Okay. And it? Yeah, I mean, those fields like absolutely are informed by like, Western notions of what, what science should be what like knowledge production within science should be and just like the way that the way that you relate to the world,
Malini Sarma 19:35
give me an example.
So So, in the western mindset, there's a divide between nature and culture, right, humans and nonhumans. They're, they're separated. They are within their own realms, like yes, they interact, but not in the ways that I felt made sense For like, for example, like being an Indian person, right, so if you think about, we think about the way if we're talking about monkeys, specifically if we're thinking about the ways that people interact with and understand and relate to non human primates in India,
those relationships are informed by centuries and centuries of like cohabitation, right. And centuries of significance, religious significance for, you know, monkeys are associated with worshipping the god Hanuman one, right. And so all of these, these factors play into a relationship that is not defined by a separation, right? Like, right, interacting with a monkey, for example, is part of the way that you worship a God right, like, that's, that's not a separation that is directly related to your own, like, well, being your own salvation, your you know, your, your own religiosity.
And so that
can't ever be defined by a divide between nature and culture, right? Like, you cannot understand anything about monkeys or anything about people or anything about the relationships between monkeys and people, if you're just if, if you consider them necessarily divided, right. And so, you have to go beyond that, and recognize that that's not how everyone sees the world, right? Like, if you talk to people in India, about their relationships with monkeys or with nature, it's very easy to see that people there don't see it that way. They don't think that they're divided necessarily, from
Malini Sarma 21:56
they just learn to live with it, I think, I don't know if it's more of a culture thing, you know, because they, they're not about, you know, building walls and, you know, enclosures in you know, dart guns or whatever, to keep them away, just kind of kind of everyone just kind of lives with it. Right? And they just figure it out kind of Yeah, yeah, sort of calling animal control, because then they would never have time for anything else.
Yeah, no, exactly like you it at some point the the animals become part of your society, right, your, your social world, your, your religious world, your political world, you know, whatever it may be. And I think that that is like overwhelmingly the case in in a place like India, and not just India, right? This is in a lot of the non Western world. Right. And, and this kind of so like, my research projects, kind of, you know, explores that aspect of the relationships between monkeys and, and humans in India, where there's this, there should be this recognition that, you know, monkeys are part of the social world and the other part of the political world, religious world, etc. But that people are also part of the social world of monkeys, right? It doesn't, it's not just one way, it's not. Right, right? us that sees the monkeys in a particular way, but they also see us in a certain way as well, right? Because we're cohabitating, it's not just that, you know, people are adjusting by maybe incorporating them into like, folklore or religion, or whatever else. But, you know, the monkeys are also used to having us around, and they're used to us feeding them, and, you know, protecting them and, and being there for them, and, you know, whatever else. So, yeah, and so that So, one of the reasons that I love anthropology as much as I do is because it, it allows me to do my research in a way that is more true to the Indian experience and the the, in the Indian, like, understanding of the world.
that, that's really great. But that doesn't mean that I haven't come into obstacles within anthropology. I think that my department is really great at Notre Dame and have wonderful advisors that are like well aware of the situation. But across the board and anthropology. I definitely have received like pushback from white anthropologists.
Malini Sarma 24:40
Because it doesn't meet their
you know, wouldyou say a world of how, you know, humans versus non humans?
I mean, there's definitely that aspect where they they may not agree that that they're really Chips are the way that I'm describing them to be. Or, you know, they, they kind of see it more as like, okay, so you're describing a relationship, but that doesn't mean that it's like the way that it should be. If that makes sense, right? So it's, it's like very other Ising in the sense that like, okay, yeah, like you can use these theoretical frameworks, or you can, you know, use whatever to describe the relationship that you're seeing. Because that's how Sure, like how the people are seeing it. But that's that, right? It's not, it's not real, or maybe it's not, as it should be. Where the situation is just kind of like meant to be observed and described, and that's it, right? It doesn't have any, like, maybe deeper meaning or, you know, there may not be an understanding of like, hey, maybe that's how things should be. Maybe that's how things are here, too. And you're just like, not acknowledging it, right. Oh,
Unknown Speaker 26:00
Malini Sarma 26:01
So let me let me ask you a question. And, you know, we were talking about monkeys and people, if you had to, if you had to compare bears, you know, like, in the US, especially when you're talking about in the mountains in the mountain regions, where there are bears and how they're like, Oh, don't feed the bears? Would you? Would you say that, that that relationship, you know, with how bears are with, especially in places where there are numerous bears in, you know, like the Smokies and whatever. Is that similar to how would be how it would be? And to the monkeys in India? Of course, the numbers are much different, you know, but would you consider that similar? In a similar kind of an aspect? Because they're also like free roaming? It's not like, you know, their cage or anything, they're wild out there in the wild? Or would you consider it more controlled here, because of the numbers? And because the number of people are less? And it's easier to do that? What are your thoughts on that?
I think that the situation
here is, is drastically more controlled. And, I mean, it's a result of the Western, like, dualism that I was talking about, about dividing nature and culture, right, it's a result of, of hundreds of years of that being the case. You know, since since America was colonized, that, that framework of understanding that people and nature are separate entities has has led to this, like more controlled situation where, you know, nature, and that, that includes animals that are that are living within nature are meant to be controlled by us. And, I mean, it's interesting, because if you're considering it from the bears perspective, right there, they're not interested in adhering to whatever might control that, you know, we're we're placing on them, but I mean, a lot of ways they, they're still confined to it. But yeah, I think that, that the US is, is certainly an interesting place. Because there are really interesting ways that we do relate to animals in different ways. I mean, when you think about like, pets, for example, or horses, or, you know, domesticated animals, there are these like, very strong kin relationships that we have with our pets, right. And they that like completely, like, blurs the line that that nature culture divide, you know, and so you certainly have examples of that here. But then you have the differences. Is that, like, you're bringing those animals into your home. Right, gotcha.
Malini Sarma 29:10
Whereas you are controlling the environment? Mm hmm.
Yeah. And there are definitely like, you know, groups in the in the US where, where the cases are different for sure. But, like, if we're talking about the US at large and like places like the national parks where everything is like, very controlled, and, you know, if you're talking about the Smokies where everything is managed, or attempted to be managed. It's certainly a different situation. And I think a lot of it is really just that. People want to separate themselves from nature. And I am not saying it's like a conscious decision, or anything.
Malini Sarma 29:58
I think it's just a survival right?
And it's like, but then it's you know, but that's just not how it works, right? Because that's, you know, being a person being people being humans, like, our relationships with the natural world are like, so important for who we are. That's why, you know, we have there are American, like folklore and all of that, that incorporate different animals, and we put all of our different beliefs on animals, it dictates like how we relate to some, you know, you know, you have like cultural perceptions of some animals as being like, dirty or bad, or, you know, whatever it may be, and it impacts how you treat that animal if you ever see it. Right. Oh, and then that goes the other way to where you can have some positive perceptions that impact the way that we treat them, too. And it's, I mean, that's just part of being human. Right. But I think that in, you know, in India, I think we're a lot more aware of it. Like, it was an Indian culture that like, yeah, these animals do shape our understandings of the world. And they're part of our, our lives in very important ways that I think people here don't recognize as
Malini Sarma 31:16
much. True. True. And I totally, I totally get that. So in your show you were talking about, you know, in anthropology that you get a lot of pushback from a lot of, especially in your field, have you have you? Did that come as a surprise? Or was there anything else that you did? That kind of took you by surprise, because you didn't expect? You know, as you study in the field of anthropology, it was someone walks that kind of like, Wow, I didn't think that would happen.
Yeah, I don't know about,
I don't know, if they were necessarily surprising to me. Um, but yeah, you know, one thing within, like, the field of primatology that I encounter a lot is people that really ignored humans. Mm hmm. And, and not even just in like, okay, we're gonna study this, this, you know, primate population and ignore the impacts of people. But I mean, like, they'll, they'll form these, like, really intense conservation management strategies and just like, completely ignore the human element in such a way, that it's clear that they prioritize the lives of the primates more than the lives of like local communities.
And it certainly doesn't surprise me, but it's very frustrating. Right, where, you know, they're, they try so hard to get these, like, conservation strategies
Unknown Speaker 32:59
then like, you know, completely ignore what, what impacts that may have on the local communities. And a lot of that is because there's that, you know, lack of understanding of like, how local communities may be relating to the nonhuman primate populations that are around, you know, why? Why might the people be interacting with monkeys in this way? Or, you know, those deeper questions aren't does
as addressed, I think,
okay, that's, that's definitely frustrating to me. Okay.
Malini Sarma 33:36
What do they ignore the human element, and they only focus on one thing?
Mm hmm. Yeah. Yeah, definitely. Um, and I think something else that I guess this was, this was definitely a bit surprising to me is the idea that like, because I am Indian, I can't like, I can't study India in the way that they feel that one should be able
Unknown Speaker 34:06
to study India, does it because I'm not biased.
Yeah. Because I'm not far removed.
Because I can't, I can't other eyes. If I'm part of, Okay, and so, yes, I've definitely experienced some of that, within the field where, you know, people are like, oh, like, do you really think that you can be objective enough to, like research this or, you know, whatever else, which, of course, is is a ridiculous notion because there is no objectivity in science anyway, right? Like, they're bringing in their own biases, if they're trying to study like, Indians, right? And, and, and in such a way that's harmful.
Malini Sarma 34:48
In your case, you're actually you're actually beneficial. It's a benefit for you because you can actually you would understand it better because, you know, the culture. So instead of coming in with a bias For somebody who's not from there, right, exactly,
yeah. Um, and so that's, that's certainly frustrating. And I think the first couple of years of my program, I think when I would like go to conferences and kind of talk to people about it, that would really frustrate me. And kind of like, I was definitely taken aback, but it made me realize how important it was for me to be doing this work as well. Because it is our story to tell right like, and, and I think that the Indian government very recently also has kind of, like, tried to restrict who does research within the country. But I found this in India, as well as that a lot of the science that happens in the country is informed by Western science, right? Which is certainly disappointing. But
Malini Sarma 36:05
you would think, in all these years of independence, they would have figured it out. But I guess that's the generation that's still growing. So
yeah, definitely. And the the environmental movement there, like the national environmental movement, there is definitely informed by like, pretty classist Western ideas of what you know, science should be and kind of like, you know, the displacement of, of indigenous populations to create, like, nature preserves and natural parks, which is what happened here is right, and it's continuing to happen here is also happening in India. Right. And, until you definitely see the parallels there, which is certainly a shame. But I think that, you know, being somebody who is Indian and, you know, grew up with certain ideas about nature that perhaps,
are more in line with, you know, with what they believe in India, right, from my parents has definitely informed my studies in ways that I think, is really beneficial. You know, regardless of, of what other anthropologists
Malini Sarma 37:22
write, yeah. So you, you're surrounded by very strong women, your mother, your sisters, you went to Wellesley, which is, you know, girls, only college artists, some very prominent alumni. And you're a feminist. And yet you are in a university that doesn't encourage or from at least from what I know, you know, diversity and inclusion are, it's kind of old fashioned. Let's put it that way.
So how do you, you as a young, minority woman of color studying primatology, how do you get your point across, so they will listen to you?
I think that
one thing that I really learned from my mom, my dad, as well as my older sisters is kind of an offensive like, like, I'm not here, for white people, or for men to listen to me. Right? I am going to do what I need to and what I want to and if they have a problem with it, that's on them. Mm hmm. And so it's a very useful way to navigate the world. I agree. Yeah. Because I feel like I don't regularly get bogged down by by just like the sense of needing to be heard, I guess.
Malini Sarma 39:00
Okay. Um, so when do something when you have to get something done? You just get it done. So when you get pushed back, how do you deal with that?
Yeah, so that's definitely one thing that I just I do, and then I might get the pushback, but then I'll do it anyway. So I very I'm like very firm in pretty much all of my like, you know, if I'm trying to, I don't talk to, I don't know, I feel like my advisors are a different situation because they're, you know, I don't really get pushback from them very often.
Malini Sarma 39:40
I think they have learned
I think I think it's a question of teaching them how to how to react, right? I mean, cuz I think it's human nature, if you allow them to think that they are in control. Then they will take control when you say no this is how it's going to get done. Yeah, it will learn at its at once again, it's a relationship that you have to, you have to know, you know, create a nurture, and you have to come to an understanding, there are certain things that you will not do. And then there are certain things that maybe you will do
this. And I think that that's exactly what it is. And I think that, and this is true for women across the board, I feel like, so many of us have a problem with saying no, yes. And that, and I do not have that problem.
Malini Sarma 40:34
I think that's a great problem not to have.
Exactly. And it's definitely like my parents, like absolutely taught us that when we were growing up, like saying no, you know, there's there's nothing wrong with it, you don't have to
Malini Sarma 40:52
you don't have to apologize, you don't have to do something just because it's expected of you or, you know, whatever, whatever else reason. And I think you're right, like people have learned that about me, like, if I don't, if, if I don't want to do something I'm not going to. And also if I want to do something, I will do it without asking permission.
Malini Sarma 41:14
And I think that is key. I think that's key you have to ask for there's a difference between telling somebody and asking somebody, he was like, exactly, right. Yeah, exactly.
And especially like, at this point in my life, like I am 30, like, Yes, I am a student, right. But like, I'm an adult who can make decisions for myself. And you know, nobody is going to know better than me what I need to do to get to where I want to be right.
And so if I think something is worthwhile, like, I will absolutely ask for advice, if I'm unsure if it's something that I should do. You know, like, that's, I know, my mentors, and my friends and my family are all there to guide me when I'm when I want it and when I need it. But like, if it's something that I recognize, I need to do, I'm going to do it. You know, and I'm not interested in your reasons why I shouldn't if I've already made up my mind, right, yeah,
Malini Sarma 42:15
yeah. And even if it doesn't work, well, then you figure out another way. Or maybe I find something else, whatever it needs to be done. Now, I think that's great. And I think a lot of I think a lot of us women, I think a lot of women in the, you know, older women, and I would say that is in my age group meaning like, you know, 50s and whatever are brought up in a different way. Were asking permission was kind of like, you know, the norm, unlike the millennial and you know, the younger generation right now is like, I don't need to ask anybody's permission, and making mistakes is, is acceptable versus trying to be perfect. So there's definitely a mindset and, you know, upbringing, environmental kind of a definitely makes a difference. Yeah,
I think so. And I think that a lot of it is is, I mean, I said that my parents kind of raised that way. And that's, it is a product of Indian culture. And that like my, at raising four daughters, right, and especially within a culture, Indian culture is very, very patriarchal. Oh. And so, my parents were like, absolutely, like, you say, No, when you want to say, No, you do what you want, it's fine. At least within the realms of like education and career. They might not agree when it comes to like, other things that I'm telling us to do. But yeah, so yeah, I think that my dad was probably like, one of the the stronger feminist characters actually, that I, that I knew growing up. That's awesome. That's really cool.
Malini Sarma 43:57
Yeah. Kudos to your parents, you know, bringing up like four very strong daughters who have no qualms about telling people what they need to hear.
Yeah, that's definitely true. And I'm like, I'm very fortunate. And also like, being the youngest of four, I like, got to see my older sisters, you know, progress throughout their careers and their education and their lives as very, like, strong people. And that has like, definitely shaped who I am. I mean, my oldest sister is nine years older than me. So I like was very young when she was going through a lot of like, career movements and education movements and everything. And I'm, like, very fortunate that I got to get to experience that as a kid. Because, yeah, I like never. I don't know, I never really felt like I needed to, like come into being a strong woman or like, come into being a certain type of person. I feel like I just always had that. Yeah, right.
Malini Sarma 45:00
Huh, if you if it was anything else, it would have been kind of surprised. Because like, Wait, how could you be anything else? So you're just surrounded by women who are like that. So you should be that way too. Right?
Malini Sarma 45:11
That's awesome. So now Well, once you defend your PhD, what are your plans? What do you plan to do in the future? Um,
so I really love teaching. And so I would love to, like, teach at a at a smaller like liberal arts school. That would be, that'd be wonderful. I also am considering working for the National Park Service. Awesome. So I feel like
Malini Sarma 45:42
nature and nurture,
yes, we were talking about the whole management situation that I feel like is occurring in the parks. And I think that the Park Service now is doing better with like, working with local communities about like managing wildlife and, and I think that I can bring in an important perspective to that. Yeah, so. So that would be great. But I really love teaching and I can't wait to teach again in the future. And so I hope to definitely do that more.
Malini Sarma 46:20
Awesome. So now you are a primatologist, your minority is a woman minority primatologist. What would you want to tell other women of color? Who want to go into this field? What kind of advice would you give them?
Yeah, um, so. So primatology at large is a female dominated field.
Malini Sarma 46:41
No Kidding, I hadn't read it yet.
It's white females. Okay. Yeah. And so. So yeah, like, definitely struggles with a lot of the same issues because of the, the dominant whiteness, for sure. Um, and I think that that the thing that I would tell other women of color who are interested in pursuing primatology, is to, like, trust your instincts. Because this is something that I think that I would have pursued animal behavior and pursued ecology. In college, if I had really recognized like, the, the way that I grew up to understand nature and relationships with nature, are valid. You know, they were so at odds with this, like Western idea of like, how science is taught and how we relate to the world. And so I always struggled with that when I was, you know, when I started getting higher up into the sciences, and like, took a few classes in college. And I think that a lot of us would really benefit from the recognition that Western science is not the only type of science that should be valued. And if I had known that, when I was younger, I think that,
Malini Sarma 48:20
but how would you have known that? If I mean, you know, I mean, there's nobody else telling them that means, you know, somebody listening to you like, okay, that's really cool. But if they went into would if they went into a university, and at the ask that question, everybody's like, what would you talk about? So yeah, absolutely.
Yeah. And that's why
like, I mean, having mentors that are also women of color is like, so important for that reason, right? Because you need someone to tell you like, Yes, your instincts are valid the way that, you know, you understand the world is a valid viewpoint. And, and, you know, this isn't the only way and like, this is something that you should pursue if you're interested in pursuing it. And it's, I mean, it's very important to have that type of mentorship. And it's hard to get it, especially now, you know, I think that that is definitely changing places are trying, I'm not saying that they're necessarily doing it well. Or universities are like trying to hire more people of color, and maybe aren't doing the best at retaining them. But I think that the internet is a great place where you can kind of like delve into, into these kinds of things, but
Malini Sarma 49:44
good mentorship, really, really important for especially for women of color because you don't find others who look like you, or, you know, have that same background, or who could at least point you in the right direction, right to say, like, go talk to this person because we know that you know, they're there. guide you on the right put you on the right path. Yeah,
yeah. And so part of is just like seeking that out, right. Like, if you're in a university where that doesn't exist. It's and it, like, sucks that it's on, It's on us to seek that out ourselves, right? Because you know, you're a college student and you're still fit, you're figuring out who you are, right. And then on top of that, you have to, like seek out mentors that are, you know, the type of people that you really want to be connected with. But it is so important to have that in your life to guide you because I mean, so much of our educational system, and especially, like academic institutions, really just like, try to squash any, any, like, non Western ideology, huh? Um, and, I mean, it's very, it's, it's an intentional thing for sure. But, you know, when you're 17 1819, and in college, you don't recognize that right? Like, you might, like I, I felt it, but I didn't recognize it. That's what it was. Right. Like, I
Malini Sarma 51:15
knew I didn't know, I know, it was. Yeah, you didn't know if it was like, oh, okay, well, yeah, you're right. Yeah, you see it, but you don't realize that you can, you should be raising a stink about it, because nobody else was saying anything about it. Yeah.
Yeah. And like, now I'm, like, you know, I'm 30. And I'm, I'm learning so much more about my culture than I have before. Because I wasn't taught these ways of knowing, right, like I was, I was, you know, given the these, like, stories as I was growing up, and, you know, my parents and I, they, my parents have always been very, like, open and honest about, like, pretty much everything. And so I, I certainly grew up with a specific understanding. But then at the same time, you know, I would go to school five days a week and learn cycle a particular type of science and, you know, they're, they're at odds with each other, and one ends up taking over when, you know, you're trying to make a career out of something, right? Like that, right? You're gonna, you're gonna place more value on what's going to get you ahead, right, you know, at the end of the day. And when we don't have like, the institutions in place here that that value, you know, our cultural, cultural upbringings and understandings then what can you do? Um, and so I'm learning so much right now. And I'm, like, really fortunate, and I love it. And, you know, I, the more I read about Indian, like, conceptions of nature and relationships with, with non non human animals I, like so much, it's just clicking for me, right? Where I'm like, Yes, like, this makes so much sense. And this is how, you know, this is why I had such wonderful experiences growing up, and like playing out in the woods and that kind of thing. And it's because, like, that's how I related to the world around me. And, and so I'm like, I feel very grateful now that I that I'm able to experience that, but I don't think that that's something that we all get to experience. True. You know, and so, yeah, I mean, I think that I would just tell, tell other girls who are like me to, to, like, bring, bring your authentic self into whatever space is that you're occupying? And like, don't, don't second guess, based on our institutions that are so like seeped in whiteness,
Malini Sarma 53:58
don't let somebody else tell you what you should be thinking, you know, trust your gut. Right, exactly.
So looking back, you know, knowing what you like you said, You're 30 now, but looking back, the oldest, you know, all what you've gone through, in knowing what you know, now, is there anything you would have changed? Or is there anything you would have told you younger self? Um,
I mean, I'm very, like, glad and proud of the journey that I've had and that I've taken. Um, but I think that I definitely wish that I had been more aware of, like, my Indian culture, when I was younger, I think that that's something that like a lot of us struggle with, at least like, you know, those of us who grew up in the 90s in the early 2000s, I think it's getting a bit better now because of like social media. stuff, but, um, there's always that struggle of like, wanting to push down your Indian, this or you know, whatever, whatever non whiteness that you may have for immigrant communities and like trying to assimilate. Um, and I wish that fat were less the case. And I think that that kind of goes back to what I would like, tell younger people is to like, you know, be true to yourself and like don't try to try to squash certain parts of you to fit into that, you know, the dominant mainstream when we really are, it's like so much more interesting and, and authentic and real. And,
Malini Sarma 55:49
you know, Absolutely! I think we have so much to offer, right?
Yeah, yes, exactly. Um, and I'm, yeah, I'm, like, very glad that I am where I am now. But definitely, like, you know, how many middle school girls or like, you know, Middle School in general, you struggle with who you are, and you want to fit in and that kind of thing, but when you add the extra layer of like trying to fit into whiteness, it's or Americanness, you know, whatever that may be. It's, it's an added struggle that, like shouldn't be there, you know? Yeah. And so, yeah, I think that that's certainly one thing that I would maybe not have liked, you know?
Malini Sarma 56:40
Yeah. Awesome. Thank you. So I really appreciate you taking the time. I know you're in the middle of getting ready for your prospectus, and you just finished your comp. So thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. And I'm sure there are lots of young girls, you know, who I hope will be inspired by your story, and will stay authentic and will chase their dreams. So thank you for taking the time.
Yeah, thank you so much for having me.
Malini Sarma 57:07
You're very welcome.
Transcribed by https://otter.ai
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