Humankind has been mystified by life on Earth ever since the dawn of civilization. The relentless efforts of great minds throughout human history in understanding the intricacies of life has brought us this far in deciphering mysteries of life. We still have a long way to go in this journey of how and why. The aim of my life is to be a part of this venture. With this, I would like to state my purpose and credentials for studying Master of Science in Evolution, Ecology, and Systematics, at Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich.
I grew up in a village amidst nature on the banks of the river Tungabhadra interacting closely with myriad lifeforms. Life on Earth has always amazed me, and it makes me ask metaphysical questions regarding life. Though the complexity of life begins with defining life itself, I am intrigued by Carl Sagan’s simple yet thoughtful definition for life-“a self-sustaining chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.” While pursuing my Bachelor’s degree in Biotechnology, studying Cell Biology, Molecular Biology, Genetics, Biochemistry, etc., I learned what Sagan meant by ‘self-sustaining chemical system.’ On the other hand, apart from academics, inquisitiveness to comprehend the process of ‘Darwinian evolution’ I read Stephen Gould, Richard Dawkins, Charles Darwin and others. In this process, reading Dawkins “The Extended Phenotype” (the effect of genes on the environment of an organism beyond its phenotype through behaviour) had a significant impact on me, and I became increasingly passionate about learning the evolutionary and genetic aspects of the behaviour of an animal.
Therefore, after my Bachelor’s degree, due to my fascination for animal behaviour and strong urge to learn about research in behavioural ecology, I associated with Dr. Kavita Isvaran’s lab at the Centre for Ecological Sciences, Indian Institute of Science (IISc). Here, I studied the life-history in a wild population of Indian rock agamas (Psammophilus dorsalis). I developed scientific observation skills and got an insight into how researchers design experiments and implement it in the field. For seven months, I curiously observed the behaviour of agamas and other species in the wild. Based on observations I asked questions like Why there is variation in behaviour within a species? How do genes manifest the variation in behaviour among individuals? How do behavioural traits originate and evolve? As I posed these questions to fellow ecologists at IISc., I had invaluable conversations with them. Their suggestions and guidance gave an insight into the position of my questions in the contemporary research in ecology and evolution, and helped me to envision my research career.
Further, inquisitiveness to find answers to the questions that struck me during fieldwork led to explore principles of behavioural ecology and evolutionary biology. By reading textbooks, watching online lectures, and studying from online courses, I became familiar with concepts like evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), optimal foraging theory, life-history strategies, mating system and parental care, levels of selection, population genetics, phylogenetics, molecular and genome evolution, biotic and abiotic interaction, population dynamics, intra and inter-specific interaction etc. With this prior theoretical knowledge, I look forward to acquiring in-depth knowledge in specialised modules in evolutionary ecology, which is very crucial for my academic career. I sincerely believe that extensive coursework and practical activities like Individual Research Training and Excursion of the EES program will help me in achieving this goal.
In the long run, as a researcher in the field of evolutionary and behavioural ecology, I am broadly interested in answering Tinbergen’s ultimate reasoning evolutionary ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions regarding animal behaviour. For instance, I am keen on understanding why behavioural variation persists within a species? What are the adaptive advantages of these variations? What is the genetic architecture underlying behavioural variation? How do these behavioural traits originate and evolve? To answer these questions, along with in-depth theoretical knowledge in evolutionary ecology, I also need hands-on experience in skills involved in statistical modelling and sampling designs, and various molecular techniques employed in behavioural studies. To this end, I am keen to work with Prof. Dr. Niels Dingemanse research group involved in the study of adaptive evolution of behavioural strategies in genetic and ecological context. The fact that this group is at the forefront in developing statistical tools for data analysis will surely aid me imbibing skills involved in statistical analysis. By interacting with this and other evolutionary ecology research labs, I believe, I will get a boost of ideas and more importantly a platform to implement them.
To substantiate further credentials, along with work experience in the field, I also have experience working in the laboratory. For my Bachelor’s thesis I worked in a team on the comparative study of antimicrobial property of phytochemicals of tea and an invasive plant species Ageratum conyzoids. During the project, I learned to apply laboratory skills that I acquired during lab sessions to design experiments, conduct literature survey and experiments, record and analyse data, make inference, and write and present a report. Our dissertation was successful and appreciated with an ‘A’ grade in the final evaluation. We presented our scientific work before the Indian Institute of Chemical Engineers, where I got an exposure to develop my presentation skills.
Apart from academics, I love to quietly observe nature, photograph urban streets and people, and read books. I am a member at The Cornell lab of Ornithology’s eBird online birders community, where we birders contribute to research and conservation by updating global database of bird sightings.
With this academic credentials and motivation, I look forward to utilising the infrastructure and opportunities offered by the university to enhance essential skills to become a researcher in the field of evolutionary ecology. I am very excited about the prospect of studying in Ludwig-Maximilians University, Munich, and I am confident that my experience in this internationally renowned campus will be immensely exciting and rewarding, and will help me grow both academically and socially. With this I would like to thank the admission committee for considering my application.
Date:13/01/2018 Santhosh. H. Totagera Place: Bengaluru, India.