Zeeshan Mirza, a researcher at the NCBS, has over 35 discoveries to his name but says he’s always had trouble with academics.
Bengaluru: Zeeshan Mirza, 30, states outright that he’s had a troubled history with academics. It took him five years to complete a three-year undergraduate course and when he enrolled for a Master’s in conservation at the National Centre for Biological Sciences (NCBS) in Bengaluru, he dropped out because of poor performance.
That, however, is a minor aberration in the impressive resume that the researcher associate and visiting student at the NCBS holds. Mirza recently added one more to the 35 new species of animals that he has discovered in India and he has also published over 70 research papers.
He is also the recipient of several awards in zoology and conservation, including the Sanctuary Asia’s Young Naturalist Award twice.
The researcher has named his latest find, a ground-dwelling gecko that he found in northern Karnataka, the Hemidactylus vijayraghavani after the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Modi government, K. VijayRaghavan.
The finding has been published in the herpetology journal Phyllomedusa.
Mirza, a venomous animal expert, told ThePrint that he named the new lizard species after VijayRaghavan as gratitude for the latter’s help in providing him with a lab at the NCBS when he didn’t have a Master’s degree.
“He has been there for a lot of people, not just me. He is always encouraging of science and scientific communication,” said Mirza. “It is very comforting to know that someone of his calibre is in the government, helping with long-term decisions on science policy in the country.”
VijayRaghavan too is complementary of Mirza. “He’s a great scientist. He is a truly amazing young man and an inspiration to me and the others,” said VijayRaghavan.
“I’m deeply embarrassed, though, about the Hemidactylus. I’ve given him a gentle knock on the head for doing this and am currently pretending to be an ostrich.”
Initiation into wildlife
Mirza grew up at Andheri in Mumbai, very close to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park. He credits the park for being instrumental in shaping his interest in zoology and animals.
“In the natural shrub area around my house, I used to see snakes quite often as a child,” says Mirza. “But I was petrified of them.”
That was until he was in Class 5 when he suddenly realised he was only afraid of them because everybody else was. When he was in Class 8, he joined a nature club in his school and remembers being handed World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) pamphlets before a trip to a nearby forest.
“One of the pamphlets had information on the Russell’s viper and I devoured it,” he said. “It is not often that I had found information on Indian snakes. That’s when I realised that they could be identified and understood.”
It got Mirza hooked to snakes. He combed the internet, went out attempting to identify them in his neighbourhood and read all he could about them. Very quickly, Mirza became somewhat of a local expert in snakes while he was still in school.
Upon joining Bhavan’s College for a bachelor’s degree in zoology, he regularly travelled outside Mumbai to places known for their snake populations and educated the locals on how to identify the venomous varieties.
In the process, he began finding other venomous creatures and began meticulously documenting species. Before long, he was publishing research papers on the biodiversity in the Maharashtra region.
“That was the beginning for me and I did not stop,” Mirza said.
Academia and NCBS
Mirza, though, hasn’t had the best of times with academics. He said that his college professors would joke that he was “seen more in newspapers than in classes”. He is now attempting to obtain a Masters by Research from the University of Mumbai, the only university which offers it in India.
Mirza said he generally disliked the structure of college academics, especially on how it was not conducive to undergraduate students doing research. “I had learned everything on my own, without too much help,” he said. “I was keen on continuing that. So I approached VijayRaghavan for a lab to work out of.”
The professor immediately granted him a lab for research.
“I’ve long followed Zeeshan on social media and learnt a lot of our natural history from him,” said VijayRaghavan. “So, when he asked if he could use our resources for his work I was honoured and delighted.”
Mirza is almost the only person who works on venomous creatures in the lab, which is filled with students and researchers studying the famous model organism, Drosophila Melanogaster, commonly known as the fruit fly.
The vijayraghavani, which looks similar to other lizards of the genus Hemidactylus (such as the H. Sataraensis, H. Gracilis, H. albofasciatus), is actually a distinct species that is isolated by two rivers, the Krishna and the Tungabhadra.
In his recently published paper on the lizard, Mirza stated that one of the unique characteristics among ground-dwelling lizards was that they were unable to cross rivers. Because these lizards were unable to cross rivers, they developed independently and separately at some point between 22 and 15 million years ago.
“This kind of biodiversity in open scrub areas in India is simply not well-documented. In fact, there are very few people who go out and say they want to do research in taxonomic classification,” said Mirza. “It’s not a popular field.”
This lack of taxonomic documentation opened up a dedicated research niche for Mirza. By this time next year, the number of unique species he believes he would have single-handedly discovered will rise over 60, including lizards, tarantulas, and snakes.
Work on taxonomy and ecological distribution
Mirza’s work has ensured encounters with all sorts of animals and has taken him from Chhattisgarh to Tripura. He said he befriended locals who told him all he needed to know about local creatures as he worked alongside the forest department as well.
In his first paper about snakes, which was about the discovery of a new snake, it wasn’t merely a new snake species he discovered but a brand new genus. A genus is the parent group in taxonomic classification of species: The Panthera genus, for example, consists of all species of great cats such as tigers, lions, jaguars, and leopards.
He named this genus Wallaceophis, after the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace is a hero to Mirza. “Everyone knows Darwin, but no one knows his genius contemporary, Wallace,” he said.
“Wallace had arrived upon the ideas of evolution and natural selection independently and much faster than Darwin. He was much younger and much more talented than Darwin was.”
Future and funding
As a ‘visiting student’ who performs research, Mirza depends on grants. But most grant applications require researchers to be students or to have a master’s degree. Mirza’s grant has just run out.
“My grant was from the Rufford Foundation and I am hoping to apply to them again.” The Rufford Small Grants provides funding for the field of conservation.
The other problem Mirza faces is obtaining the Master’s degree by research. Every time he seemingly gets close to an approval, it is prevented by some sort of hiccup such as a project guide retiring.
“I found a new guide with much difficulty but now I’ve found out that he belongs to the life sciences field and can’t be my guide for conservation,” said Mirza.
“Our institutions are public efforts,” explained VijayRaghavan about research institutions, degrees, and Mirza’s work. “Core institutional programmes have their place, and lateral interactions, including the facilitating and informal, also have a critical place.”
“We don’t how and what efforts will succeed or stimulate,” said VijayRaghavan of Mirza working in his lab. “But open environments buy many lottery tickets and therefore do well and do well by its members too. Zeeshan has the energy and talent to use such environments to do single-handedly what usually is done by a group.”