Aswatha is a 15-year-old Indian paleontologist. She was five when her father gifted her an encyclopedia in which she saw a picture of a fossil. She was already fascinated with the marine kingdom and loved collecting sea shells. Looking similar to a shell, the photo piqued her interest in a new world of preserved remains and traces of organisms that inhabited the earth long ago. She visited the Government Museum with her mother where she spotted a huge fossil specimen outside the geological department. As rare and unbelievable as it may sound, Aswatha knew that she has found what she had been searching for.
The Inquisitive Mind
Once while returning from her native village, Aswatha’s uncle told her about Ariyalur, a district in Tamil Nadu. Aware of her love for sea shells, he told Aswatha that she’d find them there. Until now, she had only collected sea shells from the beach. She was surprised to know that a dry region like Ariyalur could’ve anything to do with oceanic habitats. Upon returning home, she ‘googled’ Ariyalur and learned that it was submerged in water millions of years ago and when the water receded, many species that lived in the sea, and on the seashore, became fossils. Amazed by the geological history of the place, Aswatha felt as if there are many unknown truths and facts about the earth that are waiting to be discovered. She wanted to solve the riddle and put all the pieces of a puzzle together. Inspired by the mysteries of earth, Aswatha chose Paleontology as her field of interest and research at the age of ten.
Law of Attraction
Excited to take a plunge into the study of fossils, Aswatha looked up all the academic institutions that offered courses in paleontology. She visited the Bharathidasan University in Tiruchirappalli to meet the Head of the Department of Geology. But by the time she reached, he had already left for Chennai. Aswatha knew that something would turn out to be in her favour and it did! Incidentally, at the same time, Dr. M U Ram Kumar walked onto the campus with her daughter for some work. He was the HOD of the Geology Department of Periyar University, Salem. He was astounded to see a ten-year-old waiting to meet the HOD to study fossils! Impressed by her dedication, Dr. Ram Kumar introduced her to paleontology. And that’s how Aswatha found her first mentor in the field study!
Let’s talk about the ‘field’
During holidays, Aswatha spends her time doing field visits to study and collect fossil specimens. She has a museum of her own that has 136 specimens including vertebrates, invertebrates, chordates, flora, and microfossils!
Such field visits are carefully planned and assigned a specific agenda. The schedule is generally split into one or two field visits in a day, depending upon the area of sample collection. The Geological Survey of India (GSI) holds all records of marked fields that are highly rich in fossils. Before the visit, the documents have to be thoroughly perused and the areas to be covered are identified. Sometimes she is assisted by her mentors from GSI to identify the areas.
It was Aswatha’s dream to collect all the recorded specimens in Ariyalur. She has visited the field more than twenty times and has collected 120 samples! To spot one rare specimen that can only be found in Ladakh and Ariyalur, Aswatha didn’t lose hope and finally found it after ten long attempts!
Aswatha has already visited fossil sites at Ariyalur and Gunduperumbedu in Tamil Nadu, and Sironcha, the remotest tehsil of Gadchilroli district in Maharashtra. Her knowledge of fossils is remarkable and she knows the geological timescales like the back of her hand.
Like any kid her age, Aswatha is accompanied by her parents on all field visits. They’re fully supportive of her passion and dreams.
Age no bar!
Aswatha celebrates International Fossil Day and the birth anniversary of Mary Anning every year to raise awareness of the conservation and preservation of fossils. She has educated more than 12000 students globally in the field of Paleontology. She organizes various activities and programs, travels to many cities, and has delivered numerous lectures on the subject. She reaches out to her international audience through webinars, and on her 12th birthday, Aswatha addressed the students of a school in the Philippines!
In her talks, Aswatha explains how paleontology helps connect the history of the earth to its present state. She emphasizes why it’s important to know what happened millions of years ago so that we can understand what happens today, and what may happen a million years later. She finds fossils to be great evidence and example to understand the present ecological system and its subsequent transformations.
A Paleontologist, A Prodigy
Aswatha was doing wonders even before she became a Paleontologist. She has secured many Golds in Science Olympiads and won a Gold Medal in Asian School Chess Championship at the age of 5.
As the youngest paleontologist in India, Aswatha has made the nation proud. She has participated in courses conducted by international universities and her story has been covered by all distinguished media agencies. She is also the youngest recipient of the FICCI-FLO (Chennai) – Special Mention Award by the Governor. Among innumerable others, Aswatha bagged the Young Paleontologist Award from the India Book of Records (IBR), the Youngest Paleontologist Award from “Universal Achievers Book of Records” and “Wonder Book of Records”. She has also been awarded the prestigious ‘Pradhan Mantri Rashtriya Bal Puruskar’ in 2022.
She’s contributed as an editor and writer in many e-magazines and has authored a book entitled ‘A Journey with Fossils.
Committed to her calling, Aswatha continues to inspire people across ages and continents.
She highlights the importance of fossils as a key resource to decode our history and decide future actions. Fossils help us understand the conditions that led to mass extinctions of dominant organisms. Since we’re presently undergoing the sixth mass extinction, Aswatha insists on understanding the role of fossils in learning our lessons from history.
Aswatha believes that irrespective of the field or subject, we have to pursue it more than just a passion. It has to become a ‘Tapasya’ for us to delve into its deepest secrets. She further adds that the desire to seek details separates us from the crowd. With new ideas, we can breathe life into the old and forgotten.
We hope Aswatha marches on and leaves her imprint in the field of Paleontology.