Fulbright and Hubert Humphrey fellow Shubhalaxmi Vaylure strives to raise environmental awareness through innovative educational programs.
Shubhalaxmi Vaylure is an entomologist by training and an environment educator by passion. She has worked with the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), a wildlife research organization that promotes the cause of nature conservation, in various positions for over 21 years. In 2014, Vaylure founded a Mumbai-based social enterprise, Ladybird Environmental Consulting, which specializes in environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) and nature conservation. A couple of years later, she founded iNaturewatch Foundation, a nonprofit trust in Mumbai that strives to educate people about urban biodiversity in India.
Vaylure has participated in two exchange programs sponsored by the U.S. State Department. In 2003, she went to the University of Montana as part of a Fulbright program on environmental leadership to study U.S. educational institutions that deal with the natural world. In 2010, Vaylure participated in the Hubert H. Humphrey program at Boston University, where she studied about nonprofit management and distance learning.
In an effort to bridge the natural world and the field of education, Vaylure has designed and implemented many educational programs, like the interactive “Breakfast with Butterflies,” at her home institution, Bombay Natural History Society. Her latest offerings are three mobile apps launched by her iNaturewatch Foundation—iTrees, iButterflies and iNaturewatch Birds. Through these nature-based apps, users can identify the trees, butterflies and birds they encounter in cities like Hyderabad, New Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai using their mobile devices.
Excerpts from an interview.
You are one of the first Indian female scientists to study moths. What inspired you to be an entomologist?
As a child, I was passionate about nature. A college project on insects helped me get more interested in the topic. However, it became a full-blown passion once I joined the BNHS and explored the natural world for real. I did my undergraduate degree in zoology and later pursued my master’s and doctoral studies on moths.
Insects continue to fascinate me. I see there are very few who spread awareness about them. There are so many misconceptions and phobias around insects. Someone should be decoding these and telling the world how fascinating these insects are, and I am glad I am doing it.
Not only has your interest in natural habitats led you to become an entomologist, but you are also very successful in bridging your scientific interest and education. Please tell us about your programs “Breakfast with Butterflies,” “Bash with Bugs” and “Meals with Moths.”
At the Bombay Natural History Society, I developed the knack of communicating science in a simple, engaging and innovative way. “Breakfast with Butterflies” was the precursor of all other special events I planned. This happened only after I visited the Bronx Zoo in New York City during my Fulbright fellowship in 2003. I realized glamorization of nature was required to create awareness and public support.
All these events target families and children. Each, as the names suggest, is a program module on a particular topic. The idea is to make learning about wildlife a fun-filled process.
In a similar vein, the three mobile apps that your iNaturewatch Foundation has launched—iTrees, iNaturewatch Birds, iButterflies—bring together science, education and technology. Please tell us more about these apps and their target users.
These three apps are targeted at students, teachers and common citizens. The aim is to provide expert knowledge on a mobile platform and make it accessible to all.
These apps were developed in such a way that anybody could identify city birds, trees and butterflies without an expert’s help or a field guide. Thus, I was able to launch a citizen science program, where users from all parts of India were able to send their sighting data to our portal www.inaturewatch.org.
You studied at the University of Montana while on the Fulbright fellowship and at Boston University for the Hubert H. Humphrey program. How did these experiences enrich your education and help you with your current plans?
My career and life have been influenced by two factors—my job at the BNHS and my fellowships in the United States. While the BNHS made me a strong person technically, my fellowship experiences polished me into a fine professional with a wide skill set. I developed a competitive edge in my profession, for I am knowledge-wise and skill-wise an accomplished person. So, I give credit for my success to the fellowship programs, which helped me challenge the status quo and made me into an entrepreneur.
Today, I am heading a social enterprise, Ladybird Environmental Consulting, and a nonprofit, iNaturewatch Foundation, and I am doing my dream job here. The consulting company works with corporations and governments on implementing CSR projects. We have established 12 butterfly sites—five butterfly gardens, four butterfly habitats, and three butterfly parks in Maharashtra, Karnataka and Uttar Pradesh, the latter being in progress. We have planted 31,350 butterfly plants and another 15,000 will soon be planted. Through the foundation, we have launched four online courses on bugs, birds, gardening for wildlife, and botany.
What would you say to other emerging women scientists in India to encourage and help them improve their status in this field?
Most women I meet lack the courage to think big. It is not only important to be well qualified, it is equally important to fight for the space that you wish to be in. I fought my entire life to be where I am today. Women need to fight for themselves, and nobody else can do that for them. Never settle for less. Always keep dreaming big enough to scare you and do not fear failure.
Also, women tend to be thorough planners. So rather than the goal, they keep focusing on the hurdles. My style of working has been, I plan 50 percent and then jump into it to figure out the remaining 50 percent. We women should stop thinking and start acting. Lastly, having a fire in the belly is always good; without the fire, one will never dump one’s comfort zone.
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.