For universal issues like plastic pollution, open access is vital to help scientists replicate research, says Prof Gawsia W Chowdhury of Bangladesh

A lifelong desire to improve the world has led Prof Gawsia Wahidunessa Chowdhury to embrace open access and its ability to extend the reach of her research.

Gawsia has nearly 15 years of experience in conservation education, biomonitoring and wetland ecology in Bangladesh. As a professor and researcher in the Department of Zoology at the University of Dhaka, she says she is delighted with the possibilities of the role:

"My dream has always been to make myself useful for the benefit of people and planet Earth. Teaching and doing research are both dreams come true for me."

Gawsia is committed to helping conserve the aquatic systems and threatened species of Bangladesh. She is a published author on these topics and has received many awards and grants, including a Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) Conservation Education Fellowship. Through her work, Gawsia collaborates with governments, NGOs and international organizations. She holds positions with various conservation and zoological groups, including being a board member of WildTeam, a member of the Zoological Society of Bangladesh and regional co-chair of the South Asian Invertebrate Specialist Group of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

Gawsia actually began her career as a volunteer for WildTeam (then known as the Wildlife Trust of Bangladesh), which pioneers novel, science-based conservation approaches in the Sundarbans linked to wetland conservation, human-wildlife conflict, species conservation and capacity building. The NGO now provides a platform for Gawsia to use her knowledge and skills to inspire more young conservationists.

"A teacher is like a magic guide ..."

Gawsia is also preparing the next generation of conservationists through higher education. She has taught at the University of Dhaka since 2013, covering animal diversity, wetland ecology and other zoology topics. She passionately believes in the importance of teaching and the impact a teacher can have on students' lives:

"Growing up, I was always inspired by my teachers. For me, a teacher is like a magic guide to show the right path for the students. They can contribute to building a nation and shaping the world for future generations."

Persevering through adversity

Gawsia's achievements in her field are impressive, but the path getting there has not been smooth. Her initial ambition was to become a doctor. This plan was derailed when a family crisis affected her preparations for the medical entrance exam.

Following this setback, Gawsia discovered zoology. She quickly realized this alternative path still fit with her vision of helping others:

"From day one, I accepted Zoology as learning about threatened species, the living world and habitats. Conservation is like a religious task for me (so we can) see a livable planet for our children."

She went on to gain a bachelor's and master's degree in Zoology from the University of Dhaka and joined the faculty of the Fisheries and Marine Science Department of Noakhali Science and Technology University in 2006. She received the prestigious Commonwealth Academic Staff Scholarship to study for her PhD in Zoology at the University of Cambridge, completing it in 2012. There, she specialized in wetlands ecology research with the Aquatic Ecology Group.

Gawsia attributes her continued tenacity to achieve and go further to the unwavering encouragement of her parents:

"For every single step in my life, from my school days, my college days, my university days, and when I was out of the country, my parents supported me like anything. They taught me nothing is impossible."

Documenting plastic river pollution from sea to source

Of all the research projects Gawsia has been involved with, one of the most astonishing in terms of findings has been the 2019-20 National Geographic "Sea to Source: Ganges" expedition. Gawsia was country lead, responsible for assembling an international research team and organizing all the stakeholder meetings.

The goal of the expedition was to document plastic waste in the Ganges watershed.

Plastic pollution in aquatic environments is a critical issue around the world. Its affects are keenly experienced in the Ganges, identified as one of 14 continental rivers into which over a quarter of global waste is discarded. More than 655 million people are sustained along the length of the river, including many inland fisheries.

Over the course of seven months, the expedition team traveled the 2,575 kilometer stretch of the river, running from the Bay of Bengal to its origin in the Himalaya in India. They analyzed data from 10 sampling locations and soon discovered the surprising truth about the key source of plastic pollution:

"We found plastic fishing nets abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded. Realizing fishing gear was the major source of plastic pollution in the river system was a big shock for us. We identified this as posing a significant risk to aquatic species."

During the expedition, the research team interviewed thousands of individuals living locally to the river. This helped them understand the behavioral drivers that led communities to dispose of fishing gear in the river. From here, they could start working towards solutions.

"I always want to make science open for all ..."

In light of the findings of the expedition, the next goal was to communicate these as widely and effectively as possible.

In February 2021, Gawsia and the research team published an article in Elsevier's journal Science of the Total Environment: Riverine plastic pollution from fisheries: Insights from the Ganges River system. They chose to publish open access so the findings could be accessed by as wide an audience as possible. Gawsia comments:

"Open access is like a window of knowledge. When I'm doing research, I always want to make the science open for all, so people in other parts of the world can replicate the research.

"Plastic pollution is a universal story, it is not just relevant in Bangladesh or India. This crisis connects all of us. It's my duty to make the science accessible and understandable for everyone."

The findings from this expedition have already been the inspiration for exploration across other rivers in Bangladesh. Gawsia is proud to share that one of her students is conducting similar research work in Bangladesh's largest mangrove forest.

While open access is the ideal, Gawsia notes the challenge it can present researchers when it comes to securing funding:

"We have limitations with resources that may not be the same for researchers in every country. But I love to do research to make it understandable, so I always try to accept the challenges that come with this mission."

Inspiring communities through relatable science

Alongside sharing the research with scientists around the world, Gawsia said it is vitally important to help the fishing communities running the breadth of the Ganges to understand the findings. This is the focus of the next phase of her work. To this end, making the science clear and simple is key, Gawsia explains:

"Our findings have to be understandable for people without strong scientific knowledge. This way, we can work together to find ways to tackle the problem."

In support, the World Bank has funded a pilot project allowing the research team to begin work on community-based solutions. Gawsia is particularly focused on educating the women in these communities:

"We are really trying to empower the women. Their role is not always well recognized in Bangladesh despite their contribution."

Together, the research teams and communities are exploring how discarded fishing nets could be turned into products such as carpets and clothing that can also create a source of income.

An award opens news possibilities

While being immersed in her teaching and research work, Gawsia has had cause to celebrate as one of the winners of the 2022 OWSD-Elsevier Foundation Award for Early-Career Women Scientists in the Developing World. The award has been extremely significant for her:

"My work was well known in my university but not so much outside of it. It was a big celebration when I received the award. Now, a lot of people know about my research and support my work. I feel like this win has created a new promise from me to continue my research.

"It has also been good to prove what women in science and conservation can achieve. Recognition inspires everyone - not only scientists like me but also my junior colleagues and students. They can see what scientific research can accomplish and how it can lead to global recognition."

Have big dreams - and never give up hope

It is safe to say Gawsia has not reached the limits of her scientific ambition or, more importantly, what she would like to contribute to science and conservation:

"As a scientist in Bangladesh, I have faced some challenges doing my research as I don't have a laboratory. I have to network every time I want to use one. So I have the big dream to lead an aquatic research laboratory here in Bangladesh. I would like to be able to offer equal opportunities for male and female researchers.

"I want to keep turning research findings into community-based solutions to bring sustainable changes. I would love to lead a scientific project and have the findings published in the journal Nature!"

For anyone else in the scientific field - or any field - her advice is to stay positive when it comes to reaching goals:

"It's important to never give up hope. I like to accept every obstacle as a positive challenge. We must try with true passion to reach our goals and dreams."

Milly Sell is a freelance content writer with a particular interest in science, horticulture, the natural world and people's stories. Now based in the UK, Milly has more than a decade of experience, including several years in the Netherlands. Her work includes print and digital work for businesses and charity.


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