A sit down with herpetologist Sonali Garg
As I got off the bus to Harvard I was immediately hit with the freezing January air. As I walked up the street using Google Maps to find the place I was supposed to be, I realized that I was lost. After talking to a handful of college students I ended up going in a giant circle. I look at my phone and see that it is Sonali Garg calling me. I answer the phone with frozen fingertips and she helps me navigate my way through all the identical buildings of Harvard. Once I made it there she greeted me with one of the warmest smiles ever, and a nice firm handshake. She was wearing a long brownish color trench coat with a pair of jeans and some black boots. She led me to a place where I could put my bags and stuff away and gave me a tour of the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. As we went through cool and informative exhibits like the North American and the Insect exhibit. Garg was so nice to give me a free tour of this beautiful and informative place. Once we wrapped up the tour she brought me back to an office area to begin the interview.
Sonali Garg is a herpetologist (a person that studies amphibians/reptiles) that works at The Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology. Garg grew up in a very small village in northern India that had little to no frog diversity. When Garg was very young she always felt attached to nature in some way, but when she was young she never truly felt anything for amphibians, especially frogs. She saw them as slimy creatures that resided in roadside puddles. This mindset persisted until she began to explore nature. “When I went to these biodiversity hotspots in my country in the real rainforests I saw their amazing diversity and I was, I was just surrounded.” There she saw frogs with amazing biodiversity that she had never seen before and a spark of curiosity lit in her mind that would eventually turn into a career.
While at first glance herpetology may look like only a minor branch of zoology the study of amphibians/reptiles you see how important Herpetology is. It’s very important to learn everything about the animals that live here so we can do our very best to protect them and their beauty. Garg is dedicated to this and as a result, has earned her place as a great herpetologist.
Garg had worked tirelessly in her studies because frogs are nocturnal creatures meaning she had to be up and awake to capture them and their beauty. While Garg describes this as tiring, it is worth it when it results in you discovering 50 new species of frogs and describes each discovery as a new amazing story. While Garg loves her job there are some aspects of it that she doesn’t get super excited about. “I have to spend several days and weeks inside the museum studying preserved specimens as well.” Garg gives us the scoop on what it’s really like being a zoologist. There is a lot of office work and museum work she does to offset the cool DNA studies she does. “So I study the DNA of these species and try to understand the genetics and the evolution.” When it comes to Garg’s work she takes it very seriously and has a devotion that is truly apparent.
Garg and her team at one point had gone to a remote island on a one-way boat trip during COVID but due to COVID, there were some complications. “You have this group of islands in India, which are called the Andaman and Nicobar Islands in the Bay of Bengal (…) So there was this one time when we took a one-way ship, not knowing when we will get the ship back home.” Now that is devotion. The amount of time Garg and her team spent on that island was about four weeks. Garg and her team spent a full four weeks away from the comfort of their home. But if you think four weeks is long, you won’t believe her next adventure. “So I’m traveling. I’m spending a few days at one place and a few days at another place. Sometimes I’m getting outside the forest to get to another forest. But altogether my field trips can go as long as two to three months.”
The duration of the trip is intense enough but each day in itself is a unique experience. “I wake up late because I sleep well late… I have to work and search for amphibians somewhere in the late afternoon when the light is still there… we have torches and flashlights on our heads. We have flashlights in our hands. Of course, I’m all geared up for the field because this is the rainy season you have winter boots you have all the necessary gear and you start searching for amphibians and this can go up to two in the morning to am depending on how the night is if you’re lucky and get a lot of animals you know to just remain.” Garg and her team wake up late in the day and work late into the night just to see and learn more about the beauty and grace of frogs.
This work is not easy and requires high levels of devotion and persistence. As we wrapped up the interview I thanked Garg for her hospitality and her time. As I walked away from the building we exchanged waves and smiles of delight. The future of biodiversity is looking bright with herpetologists like Garg leading the charge.