Dr Shannon Olsson: naturalism, chemistry and neuroscience

Dr. Shannon Olsson

Dr. Shannon Olsson, a chemical ecologist from Bangalore, first realized her love for the subject, when she isolated a pheromone mimic in her undergraduate chemistry class. From then on began her rare and exciting journey into the world of naturalism, chemistry and neuroscience, which she has used to understand the world around us a bit better. While she has studied and worked in labs all over the world conducting research that cuts across the fine lines between disciplines, she is currently positioned in the NICE lab at NCBS Bangalore as a Principal Investigator, working on deciphering the chemical basis of complex ecological interactions.

The NICE lab at NCBS, Bangalore. Photo credit-NICE

I had the privilege to speak to Dr Olsson and interview her about her research, multidimensional science and all things NICE!

What does NICE actually stand for and how nice is the NICE lab?

NICE stands for Naturalist Inspired Chemical Ecology. There’s a lot of meaning in those four words with each word having its own specific background. The first and most important, actually, is the naturalist part. A naturalist is not just someone who studies nature because arguably all biologists study nature in some respect. Being a naturalist involves a specific way of thinking about science and it influences the way you go about doing science. So naturalists are very interested in the natural world for its own sake. You can study science to answer a particular question about how biology works. Naturalism is the idea that you study an organism just to understand it.

Scientists from the NICE lab  studying hoverfly pollination on rhododendrons in Chopta Valley, Sikkim. Photo credit-NICE

So you look at a flower and try to understand that flower for the flower’s sake or you try to understand a leopard for its own sake. Not because the leopard has a specific hunting technique that you want to understand. You want to understand the organism. So that changes the way you want to do biology because you end up doing a lot of observation, a very open minded sort of study of the natural world. It is a very top-down approach, a very conceptual approach. It’s not that we think it is better than any other approach but it is the kind of approach that we like to take for our group.

So that’s where naturalist inspired comes from.

On the other hand, chemical ecology is a relatively new field. The term was first coined in the 1950’s. But the concept of chemical ecology is  a very old one. It is very dear to the hearts of the people in this country (India) because all the history here of medicinal plants and spices, using things in the environment and using the chemicals around you, that really is chemical ecology.

How interdisciplinary is the research conducted in your lab?

Since we study how organisms use chemicals to  communicate and interact with their environment, this study can be looked from so many different angles. You can look at it from the perspective of curing disease, which is the biomedical standpoint or approach it as a means of protecting crops, which is an agricultural motive. Chemical ecology can also enable you devise new and more effective biosensors, which is a very engineering approach.

So there really isn’t any particular field we come from to do this kind of research and in our own group, we have people from all kinds of backgrounds-chemists, bioinfomaticians, animal behaviourists, microbiologists etc.

It was recently reported that your lab was working with the coffee planters in Coorg to try and understand the coffee stem borer pest from a ‘naturalist’ point of view. Could you shed some light on this project?

Sure, we are actually working quite closely with the Coffee Board on this. The scientists at the Board have been studying this borer, a beetle, for a number of years now and were looking for ways to tackle it.

However, our role was to understand what the borer was doing. Was it really a “coffee” borer? This is what we sought to find out because coffee is not even from India. It’s from Ethiopia and was brought here 400-500 years ago. So, was it a coffee borer just because it was lying around or was there a particular thing in coffee that attracted? Was there an alternate host they could be possibly interested in that could drive them away from the coffee?

Dr.Shannon Olsson speaking about her research at the India International Coffee Festival in Mumbai (January 2016). Photo credit-NICE 

These are the questions we are interested in answering and we are approaching this project by getting to know better their natural ecology and evolutionary history rather than just trying to find a way of repelling them.

Lots of people look at insects as pests and do not see why we should not just kill or eradicate them instead of understanding them. How do you, as chemical ecologists in the field, manage to achieve this balance between this fascination you have for the natural behavior of this insect and the hate you might probably have for the widespread damage that they do?

My feeling is that we should never try to get rid of the beetle but learn how to live with the beetle. So I do not think it needs to be a love-hate relationship. I do not see any hate. We obviously need to prevent it from infesting the coffee. Our goal is to find an ecological means of helping the coffee planters but the idea is not to get rid or it or eradicate it. We want to find a way to live with it and turn it away from coffee without having to kill it.

NICE lab members at the Coffee Plantations in Coorg. Photo credit-NICE

One of the earliest advances in agricultural biotechnology, Bt cotton, would have been impossible if one had not understood the natural behavior of cotton pests and the mechanism behind Bt toxin’s effect on its physiology.  Do you think chemical ecology is, in a way, contributing to the development of biotechnology?

Absolutely. Being able to understand how a pest or a vector ,such as a malarial mosquito, interacts with it’s environment and with human beings could lead to all sorts of advances. And it has done so, as well.

How important do you think  is teaching children about chemical ecology from a young age ?

Children love to look at the world around them. They are inherently curious. I do a lot of work with children in schools. We’ve even been to a local school in Sikkim where we spoke to them about the work we have been doing in the Himalayas.

I think the most important thing to instil in them, in my opinion is, curiosity and confidence that their questions matter. I somehow do not think that everyone has to learn chemical ecology because there are so many things in this world they could study- they could cure cancer, fix a broken bone, become a lawyer, they can do many things and they are all equally important.

Dr. Shannon Olsson with students at a school in Sweden. Photo credit-NICE

We should just focus on creating people that are willing to ask questions pertaining to  the field they are passionate about and are not afraid to acknowledge how important their questions are.