What started as a fascination for Aswatha Biju after seeing a picture of an ammonite fossil in encyclopedia soon turned into a passion that had no plans of dying done.
Though 12-year-old Aswatha Biju is like every other preteen whose world revolved around school, friends and favourite hobbies, this young girl from Chennai is India’s youngest paleontologist, with a collection of 74 fossil specimens that makes her home nothing less than a mini museum.
Also, she conducts seminars for not just school or college students, but also for researchers at geology and paleontology institutes. Pretty amazing, right!
Speaking to The Better India, Aswatha, who had just returned home after conducting a seminar at Zoological Survey of India (ZSI), shares that her interest in fossils first sprung from the encyclopedia at home when she was barely two or three years old.
Her mother, KT Vijayarani, corroborates this fact with pride as she talks about the young prodigy.
“Right from the time she was two or three years old, she was fascinated with shells and would often collect these. She also loved reading books and her favourite was the encyclopedia. Even though, she wouldn’t understand much, she’d always flip through the pages. It was one of those times when she came across an ammonite and told me that she wanted that ‘shell’. After telling her that it was a fossil, I told her that it wasn’t possible to own them as they are under the government protection. But I didn’t want to break her heart and took her to the Egmore Museum,” she says.
That’s how it all began. The five-year-old Aswatha was so fascinated by the ammonite, she requested her mother to take her to the museum some 10-12 times after the first visit, just to see that one fossil. Slowly, she started gathering more knowledge on fossils and began travelling to nearby places with her in search of fossils.
“She had collected many, which she recognised purely based on self research. Unlike the museum specimens, these weren’t millions of years old. Perhaps, a 100 or 200 years,” Vijayarani explains.
When she was in class 5, Aswatha ended up calling the HOD of Marine Sciences of Bharathidasan University in Trichy. “Because of her age, the HOD couldn’t believe the extent of knowledge she had, all from just reading and researching. She told him that she has few fossils that she’ll bring to the university to know more about their origins. Amused and slightly dubious, the professor asked her to come,” Vijayarani says.
The very next day, the mother-daughter duo headed to the university after travelling for seven hours, only to find that the HOD wasn’t there.
“She was a little disappointed, but the twist in our lives was just going to happen. We ran into Dr Ramkumar from Periyar University, who was there for some work. Upon seeing a little girl carrying so many fossils, he was intrigued and spent the next three hours giving a lecture to Aswatha. At the end of it, he was absolutely delighted with her ability to not just listen but also grasp everything rather quickly. He was the one who called her a prodigy,” she remembers.
After giving her blessings and guidance, Dr Ramkumar parted but not before giving Aswatha a route map to Ariyalur bed, a paleontological site where one can find fossils that are millions of years old and asking her to collect whatever specimens she would come across there.
“Both my husband and I have negligible knowledge in the area, let alone fossils. But it beats us to see how she has all this knowledge. When we came to Ariyalur, she already knew about the specimens that she was collecting in the field. She managed to collect roughly about 26 specimens and identified them all correctly. Now, she has 79 specimens,” Vijayarani adds.
Later on, she came in touch with Dr Nagendra, Geology head at Anna University, who had mentored her further. It was during this time that she realised how underexplored paleontology as a field was in India and she wanted to raise awareness about fossils at school and college levels.
A rather motivated Aswatha wrote to the headmistress of a nearby local school requesting to hold a session of fossils for students last year and upon seeing her enthusiasm, the latter agreed.
And thus, her foray into conducting seminars on fossils started and till date, has taken 15 such sessions. She has even visited renowned research institutes, where her audience included doctorate holders as well.
“She told me that while these people were researching in the field, their knowledge on fossils in India is rather limited. It gives her immense happiness that every person she has held a seminar for, can easily differentiate between a normal rock and a fossil,” she laughs.
Both her parents are extremely proud of their daughter and go to any extent to fulfil her wishes. “As much as she is passionate about paleontology, she is equally brilliant in studies and has won many awards in science and maths olympiads. Because she is so passionate about fossils, we feel that as parents, if we don’t support her dreams then who will. That is why we take her to every fossil site or institutes for seminars, no matter how far it is,” Vijayarani happily adds.
Her exceptional contribution to the field of paleontology was recently honoured at FICCI FLO event, where she received a special mention award by none other than the state governor.
As of her future plans, Aswatha hopes to pursue paleontology in India itself. “But the field is not really well-established here. So, if that doesn’t work, I’d like to pursue youth science or become an IFS officer,” the class 7 student shares.
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We wish the young prodigy best and are positive that one day, she’ll become one of India’s renowned experts in the field of paleontology.
You can follow Aswatha’s work on fossils on Facebook here.
All photo courtesy: KT Vijayarani.
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)