Photo: Flickr / Muzaffar Bukhari

Research in a time of genocide

I have always found other life forms to be significantly more interesting than humans (myself included). One of my most cherished childhood memories is holding newly hatched geckos (the feared chipkali) in my hand; small grey-green balls, cumin-seed eyes with pieces of the shell still attached. My dad had found them behind our water pump and excitedly called me out, promising me that it would be worth it. And it was.

I don’t know when my love affair with non-human organisms began. Maybe it was after my father helped me skip school so that we could go and see the carcass of a Blue Whale that had washed up on shore. Or the countless times we went to the Mangupir Shrine in Karachi, just to see the sacred crocodiles. This fascination has been a constant in my life, even as the places, cultures, languages, food and people around me have changed. When people ask me why I decided to pursue a PhD examining how zooplankton behaviour influences lake ecosystems of all things, it’s extremely embarrassing to say that studying them was my childhood dream.

I am increasingly wondering if this lifelong fascination with non-human organisms is a selfish decision. Shi’a Muslims, the ‘reviled religious minority’ that I belong to are currently undergoing a genocide. In the face of violent persecution, I am struggling to understand the value my scientific research brings to my community at this point. What do my scientific contributions matter when my very existence is at stake? How can I justify spending my efforts understanding how ecological communities operate when the murders of tens of hundreds of people from my community passes without comment from Pakistan’s Sunni majority, not to mention the rest of the world?  Community activists are risking their lives to remind our fellow citizens that we, too, are human. To remind them when we are gunned down on our way to work, blown up in market places or attacked in our houses of worship, that our blood should be valued. My life choices seem cowardly in comparison.

I would like to believe that the little knowledge about how ecological communities function that I can contribute to this world matters. But any contributions I make will not stop someone from murdering me in my home, workplace or house of worship. I won’t pretend that my research is an act of defiance or rebellion. It is a deeply selfish act. But it is also a necessary one. Researching how zooplankton communities operate reminds me that beyond all of this violence exists another world, one where tiny animals in the water column have the ability to change the way lakes and oceans function.

When I am immersed in this world, questions about my humanity cease to matter.