Dr Nikhil Gaitonde, a Consultant in the Biodiversity and Ecosystems Technical Team at ERM, joined the organization four months ago. Here he discusses what sparked his interest in ecology, his transition from being an academic to a consultant and his hopes for his future career at ERM.  

My interest in nature started during my childhood. I was incredibly lucky to be raised near the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot. As a child, I was intrigued by the diverse plants and animals and, as I was exploring the tropical forests, I dreamt of becoming a naturalist just like my then hero, Alfred Russel Wallace, who discovered natural selection with Charles Darwin. Soon after I enrolled in a PhD program in ecology and evolution at the National Centre for Biological Sciences and never looked back.  

Although academia was enriching, character-building, and provided immense satisfaction, I was finding it somewhat restrictive. I wanted to gain different experiences and use the analytical and critical thinking skills I had gained to help solve some burning contemporary challenges such as climate change and biodiversity loss.  

I got a job at a conservation organization working towards ecological restoration and nature preservation, which involved engaging with people and required understanding and developing effective and impactful solutions that simultaneously benefited people, wildlife, and forests. This stint gave me a novel perspective on the social aspects of environmental issues and exposed me to the lack of sustainable solutions in the world. It made me realize that it was creativity as well as analytical frameworks that are core to making our ways of life more sustainable. Sustainability was at the heart of many problems, and this is what made me want to pursue it further in my career. 

While researching opportunities to pursue, I came across ERM, which has a rich history in the business of sustainability consultancy. Being in the sector since 1971 makes it a pioneer of sorts. Equally, the ERM Foundation proved to me that this was an organization that cared about social responsibility and awareness, working towards the environment, education, and social equality.   

What also struck me was the ERM logo - a frond yet to unfold into a leaf set on a background of a graph, and a line tracing the swirls of the frond mapping its development and trajectory. For me, this made me think of the golden ratio, which is ubiquitous across biology. The golden ratio produces a sequence of numbers which, when plotted graphically, creates the Fibonacci spiral. Several natural patterns such as seashells, branching of trees, DNA sequences, human anatomy, and even the fronds of the ferns depicted on the ERM logo follow the Fibonacci spiral. Therefore, the very essence of nature is at the heart of what ERM stands for, dealing with all aspects of nature and analyzing it in a prudent manner using sophisticated tools and human ingenuity. This very much appealed to the scientist, artist, and environmentalist in me.  

ERM logo

Of course, I did have my doubts and fears transitioning from academia to consultancy. Working in the corporate sector can be intimidating. However, I was fortunate to join a fantastic team of people with similar interests and approaches. ERM’s people first policy gave me the confidence of landing in the right place from the beginning. A Partner at the Mumbai office where I am based, Rutuja Tendolkar, has been tremendously supportive, and I have found ERM’s mentorship program immensely useful in transitioning into my role. A big shout out to my mentor Rebekka Drlik, Principal Consultant in North America, whose dedication, advice, guidance, and superb mentoring has been tremendously valuable to me. 

In my opinion, academia and consultancy are not dissimilar at their core. Consultancy involves identifying problems, studying possible mitigation measures, conducting surveys, generating and analyzing data, addressing the issue, and presenting it to the client in a satisfactory manner - like most aspects of research. In fact, my background in academia is proving invaluable my role. The holistic approach, critical thinking, and delivery of long-term solutions are well appreciated by clients.  

ERM is providing me with an excellent platform to develop management skills, soft skills and build a network of interesting people who are at the forefront of diverse expertise. Just interacting with colleagues provides me with immense education. This is helping me become a versatile personality and gain an all-round perspective to become a successful consultant. In the future, I see myself influencing policy and leading research and innovation in environment and sustainability solutions where collaborations with research institutions, NGOs, and policy makers will produce out-of-the-box solutions to contemporary problems. As my mentor says, “you yourself are the helm of your career at ERM”.  

Dr Nikhil Gaitonde is a Consultant in the Biodiversity and Ecosystem Technical Team at ERM, based in Mumbai, India. He holds a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology and specializes in conservation, ecological restoration and forest ecology. You can find out more about Nikhil’s previous research in this article