Conversations with entomologist and education intern, Shikha Nain
Kanha wears the monsoon beautifully. Everything seems to shimmer here – the stars, the fireflies, the mica-infused dirt. Shikha and I notice this as we walk across campus late in the evening. She is pulling me aside one second to save me from a black scorpion, stopping dead in her tracks the next to let an unusually large millipede pass.
For an hour after returning home, we stand in the doorway and watch a spider trap its prey. Caught in the web, the bug flails pointlessly for a few seconds. The spider then injects it with a paralyzing venom and wraps it in its threads… dinner!
Would I have noticed this if Shikha weren’t here? I imagine myself walking through the door and complaining about cobwebs in my hair. Now, I find myself enthralled by the brightly patterned arachnid. The zig-zag ‘X’ in the web’s hollow center is its ‘signature’, attracting insects and warning larger creatures, like Shikha and me, of its presence.
Shikha, my roommate and fellow intern, is a wonder. When I’m with her, the world feels alive and endlessly interesting, and I’m always learning. We move to the room for a chat.
Have you always loved insects? Since I was little, I was the kind of child who was fascinated rather than scared of cockroaches, and I was always catching butterflies. I got my Master’s degree in Zoology, where I majored in Entomology, and I’ve seen the life cycles of a stink bug, a hawk moth, and a plain tiger butterfly. I’m always checking under leaves to see if I’ll find eggs!
Few people care about bugs. People usually find them gross and stamp on them, which upsets me. In Kanha, the children in the school I’m teaching in used to break weaver ant nests because they didn’t know what they were. After I taught them, they stopped doing that. Now they’re aware of the life these nests support.
What kind of work were you involved in before Earth Focus? I volunteered at the Humane Society of India for ten months, teaching about animal rights and raising awareness about animal cruelty. I also worked at Skill Development India in government schools lacking teachers, where I used to give lectures.
How did you reach Earth Focus? I’m a free bird. I saw the post on Instagram and wrote an email, got through the rounds, and here I am!
What are you working on here? I’m developing activities for our Life Sciences curriculum and piloting them in classrooms. The curriculum is grounded in Kanha’s forest ecosystem and draws on science, community practices, and traditional ecological knowledge. By building environmental awareness through crafts, games, and song, the curriculum fosters curiosity and appreciation for Kanha’s rich ecosystems.
I’m also working with our education team and shiksha preraks to improve their grasp of Life Sciences concepts, because, after I leave, they’ll be the ones conducting these activities.
Why do you believe Life Sciences education is important? It’s important to introduce Life Sciences concepts at an early stage. Students are able to grasp science concepts much more easily at higher levels when they’re building on a strong foundation.
More specifically, children in Kanha are deeply connected with the forest because they’ve grown up in it. If we can help them put language around what they’re seeing, and nurture the curiosity they naturally have, that deepens their connections with the landscape and fosters a sense of pride in place. It can be really empowering.
The next day, early in the afternoon, Shikha and I walk to the Banjar. The sky is long and purple, warning of rain. Wild bamboo climbs over the river and a line of ants curves through the mud. Sunlight scatters through the canopies, warming our faces.
Butterflies are everywhere – blue-speckled purple and diaphanous yellow, grey with lime stripes and orange-bordered black, and mostly in pairs. Shikha is describing how they mate, “…like they’re stuck to each other,” she says, making a kissing gesture. She spots two mating metal-blue beetles. Shikha is always spotting things.
We continue walking, laughing, slipping in mud. Shikha tells me that she reared five caterpillars in her bedroom.
What was that like? Awesome, obviously. I used to stay up sometimes so I could see all of the stages, and once I carried leaves to my room at 4:30am to feed a hungry caterpillar.
I took the caterpillars to school when I was teaching the life cycle of a butterfly. Children gathered around and felt them. They thought caterpillars fall from the sky when it rains. In Lagma, Gaurav asked me, “How does a caterpillar know she will become a butterfly?”
My first butterfly emerged from her chrysalis at 5:30am. Her wings were wet, so I carried her outside. After a few hours, she took flight. It was bittersweet – I was glad that she’d returned to the wild, but also wished that I could keep her with me.
How did you enter education? I have a Bachelor’s degree in Education, and my mother is a teacher. My nana (maternal grandfather) and mama (maternal uncle) were also teachers, and I’ve been tutoring my younger brother since childhood. I build relationships with people quickly. I used to tell my nani (maternal grandmother) that I’ll open my own school one day, where students don’t wear backpacks but learn how to catch fish, study bugs, and love everyone.
I also feel strongly about children with special needs. I think more needs to be done to accommodate them.
What are some challenges you’ve faced? When I first got to Kanha, I struggled to connect with the children and educators. I eased into relationships by finding common ground. I also learnt how to build trust with children by observing the other educators, who taught me patience and sensitivity.
In terms of teaching, a particular incident comes to mind. I was teaching our education team about the ecological significance of the barasingha, a critically endangered, twelve-horned swamp deer that is endemic to Kanha. One of the educators asked, “What’s the big deal if all barasingha go extinct? Can’t the tiger just eat other deer?” I was stumped. I spent all evening thinking about how to answer his question.
The next day, I gathered all the educators and gave each person a picture of an abiotic or biotic ecosystem component – the sun, grass, rain, earthworms, mushrooms, barasingha, tiger, etc. We assembled in a circle. String was passed between interlinked components, creating a web of life.
Then I asked the educator holding the barasingha placard to drop his threads. A number of connections fell with it, demonstrating the dependence of other creatures on the barasingha. Later, when we debriefed this activity, everyone was convinced that if the barasingha were to go extinct, or any creature for that matter, the whole forest would suffer.
This is one of the reasons it’s effective to teach through activities, which is what the Life Sciences curriculum is all about. They’re engaging and they make an impression! It’s easier to understand abstract concepts when you learn by doing.
What’s your favourite book? Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka. My friend Sravanthi gave it to me. She thought I’d like it. First of all, I loved the name. Secondly, there was a beetle on the cover, so I judged it by its cover. Which is to say I loved it.
In Kanha, I formed a deep friendship with another intern – Ishaan Jhaveri. He is an avid birdwatcher and used to teach me about birds, and I would teach him about insects. Through these exchanges, which often took place on walks along the Banjar, I grew passionate about birds, and he about insects. I decided to give him my copy of Metamorphosis. The book reflects on changes in the human psyche as well as the ways in which we change one another. Ishaan and I learnt a lot from each other, so I was moved to share it with him. I think he will appreciate it.