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We have a young scientist from the United Nations University (UNU) in Tokyo, Japan at the end of her postdoc tenure. Koel Roychowdhury, an alumnus of the University of Calcutta, uses remote sensing technology to look at environmental and agricultural sustainability. Koel says the fascinating opportunity of doing science for social good is what keeps her going.

Why did you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

After completing my M.Sc in Geography from the University of Calcutta and working as a part-time lecturer in a reputed college in Kolkata, I chose to travel away from home aspiring for higher education. I was awarded the DFID Commonwealth Scholarship which tool me to the University of Leicester, UK for an M.Sc in GIS and Human Geography. I was fascinated to find the immense scope of combining social studies and remote sensing. I continued my research during a PhD from Australia with the Australian Leadership Award Scholarship.

What did you do after that?

Now I am in Japan as a JSPS postdoctoral fellow. The fellowship is officially with the University of Tokyo, but I am based in the Institute of Advanced Studies for Sustainability at the United Nations University. This has been an amazing opportunity for me. I was working with sustainability groups looking mainly at policies and international peace and security. Simultaneously, I could also apply satellite images to a variety of projects looking at sustainability.

I have been part of the University Network for Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research (UN-CECAR) projects and was fortunate to be associated with eminent professors in the areas of both remote sensing and sustainability. During my Ph.D days in Australia under Prof. Simon Jones, I got the opportunity to meet Dr. Navalgund, the then director of Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). For my postdoc at UNU, I am working with Dr. Srikantha Herath and Prof. Kazuhiko Takeuchi, whose contribution to the field of sustainability science are globally recognised.

How was the UN experience?

Being a part of the UN has been a great advantage for my postdoc. The most important part of being associated with an international organisation is that, it gives me a great opportunity to learn from people working directly with ‘sustainability’ and its applications. There are regular lectures and public discussions from ambassadors, policymakers and government personnel. These clue me into the on-the-ground scenarios of development in various countries.

Secondly, being part of the CECAR–Asia projects gave me the opportunity to travel to countries such as China and Sri Lanka. I could see how traditional agricultural communities sustain production and livelihoods in the remote Hani rice terraces in Kunming, China. I had the opportunity to visit the landslide sites of Sri Lanka and have a look at the different sustainable measures undertaken to mitigate landslides. All this gave me first hand experience of the practical aspects of sustainability measures and helped me explore the application of remote sensing in this area.

How was Japan?

Everyone moving to a foreign country faces a culture shock in some degree. This is very normal, for every country is different. I lived abroad a few years before moving to Japan. When I first reached Japan, what I faced was not a culture shock but a ‘culture awe’. This beautiful country and its people amazed me. Their hospitality, politeness, helpfulness, dedication, punctuality, cleanliness, discipline and unity as a nation were astonishing. It didn’t take me long to respect the country and its people. I fell in love with their culture and their cuisine.

During holidays, I travelled far and wide in Japan. I was spellbound in every season, be it the koyo in autumn, the sakuras in spring or the snow in winter. I did not know Japanese but I never felt uncomfortable dealing with people here. Perhaps being part of an international organisation made it easier for me. My day-to-day work-related conversation was in English. But outside the work place, I really enjoyed every bit of Japan. As they say “be a Roman when in Rome”, it is important to be open minded and accepting of the uniqueness of every culture. To me, Japan is one of the most beautiful countries with a lot of things to learn from.

What next?

There are a number of career options on completion of a postdoc. And being associated with the UN makes these options wider. After the postdoc, most people take up either the academic career and move on to other universities while others prefer the research career. Being part of the UN makes it easier to look for openings in the United Nations as well. However, I am more passionate about teaching and prefer the academic path as a career.

After all those stressful years of PhD, the postdoc definitely offers a relatively relaxed pace to carry on research. These are the years to invest in further research and publications. These years pave the way for a better future in academics or research or sometimes even in industries and as consultants. The years invested in postdoctoral research prepare the base and offer the time to choose the most suitable career option.

Regarding doing a postdoc in Japan, I would strongly encourage researchers to give it a go. If one can overcome the language barrier, it is a country worth living in and working. The opportunities are increasing for foreigners in Japan. Also, the quality of research is undoubtedly world class. Postdoc is a phase where we get to learn more about our passions, career choices as well as other people. So, I would definitely suggest postdoc aspirants to keep up the hard work and passion for research and also to enjoy life during these years before you start on with a more serious work life.