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Ananya S. Rao, is currently doing her PhD at the center for atmospheric and oceanic sciences from the Indian Institute of Science(IISc), Bangalore. She completed her schooling from 12 different schools, last one being Kendriya Vidyalaya, Coimbatore. She pursued Electrical and Electronics Engineering (EEE) for her under graduation. After working in the field of climate and environment for a couple of years, she is currently doing her PhD on land carbon. She studies how the carbon in the soil and forests has changed over the years in India and how they might change in the future. This has important policy implications in terms of the need for afforestation efforts in India based on the intrinsic capacity of forests to take up the carbon released from the usage of fossil fuels, etc.
Q.Can you tell us about your work? – Mango Team
I am looking at how the change in climate over the past hundred years has affected the carbon content of the trees (biomass carbon) and the carbon content in soil, especially in India. I also look at what the effect of climate change would be on land carbon in the coming hundred years. As you know, you and I and most things around us are made of carbon and so it is one of the most important elements on earth. It’s the 6th most abundant as well. Trees take in carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen through photosynthesis. This is the essential process for taking up carbon from the atmosphere (CO2 emitted by us has reached startling levels). Hence, it is essential to know how the process of taking up this carbon has been earlier and how it would be in the future.
Q: Can you tell us about your lab? – Mango Team
I work with Prof Govindasamy Bala, and I am his first PhD student in this institute. My lab works on geo-engineering and the terrestrial carbon cycle. We mainly do computer simulation. So the lab does have a lot of computers and books.
Q: I remember when we were in school, you used to take part in a lot of extra-curricular activities and co-curricular activities. Have they helped you in your work in some way or the other? – Mango Team
Of course! I feel to be a scientist it is essential to have an inquisitive attitude about everything. Including activities other than conventional ‘studies’. Overall exposure to various things like literature, music, dance keeps giving you an overall development. This then gives you more confidence and an out of the box thinking while solving questions of science that you are interested in. As Elon Musk said in an interview I was lucky to be a part of – kids these days need to know software, physics, literature and critical thinking – critical thinking develops with exposure to all fields.
Q: Thanks for quoting Elon Musk. I remember him telling how Failing and learning from it is important as an Entrepreneur. How important is ‘Trying and Failing’ in a life of a Scientist. How important is it to embrace failure as a Scientist? – Mango Team
Oh failures are definitely a part of anything to do with being a Scientist. It’s because nothing is planned in science, nothing is determined and nothing is certain. Science is ever changing and hence failures in your theory/experiment/work are just to be taken as tools to learn and go ahead. Only when one learns to fall and get up after the fall can one do science. Great scientists failed most of their life, and it’s always one moment of clarity, one moment of ‘eureka’ that gets them the answer and helps add to science. Learning from our mistakes and taking failures as mere steps to progress is very important!
Q: Is learning Science only for people aspiring to be scientists? How important is learning Science for the society at large – Mango Team
As I quoted Mr. Musk earlier, I also feel it is important for every individual to know how things work around them. And that Science i.e. physics, biology and chemistry is all around us. Science hence is for everyone who is inquisitive, who wants to know the why and how. It impacts the individual by bringing growth in their thinking, his/her understanding of himself/herself and the world around them. Science is essential for bringing open-mindedness and acceptance of the world around us. And thus, the society needs science and scientists who work for deeper understanding of science. The skill of observing things grows with science. Science is a world encompassing a huge gamut of things.
Q: You grew up in forest College when you were in Coimbatore as your father was working there. Did that inspire you to study trees and soil? Is that how you ended up in an offbeat , unconventional and interesting career such as this?– Mango Team
Yes it did. Thanks to my father, I have always been associated with forests and the only aspiration I had as a kid was to work on something related to forests and animals. They help us stay alive on this planet. However, I pursued electrical and electronics engineering as my bachelor degree as at that time I did not find a good college for studying anything related to the environment (in Bangalore was the constraint too). After I finished the engineering degree, I started working with a professor in IISc on climate change and 2 years later had experience and knowledge enough to crack the entrance into a completely different field of science. And now I am here working on climate science and forests. It was only through the everyday walks in the green campuses I was lucky to stay in, that I always wanted to pay back to nature in some way for all the wonderful things it does for us. I want to do good to the environment in whatever way I can.
Q: Now that you were talking about climate change. what can these future aspiring Scientist (kids) can do right now? How can they contribute? do they have to become Scientist to do something about it? – Mango Team
Each of us can contribute and must contribute to make this place we call Earth a better home. Irrespective of whether you are an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or a working on pure science we are the only ones responsible for the current state of the planet and hence it is in our hands to leave this a better place. Climate change and global warming are big terms which seem to bother us less, but it is only when we see the weather around us turning extreme – too much rain or drought for continuous years – that we start getting a little worried. So to start with, individually do everything we can to reduce the adverse effects on the environment – reduce the usage of plastic! Cut it out completely and use cloth bags for buying fruits, vegetables. Tell your friends in school and your neighbors to do the same. Reduce wastage of water, use only the minimum amount required. Don’t stand under the shower for half an hour … Reduce electricity usage. Switch off lights when not in use. Recycle things whenever possible. Plant trees around your school and your houses. Think these days most schools concert the above to students but it is about how much it is implemented. We cannot wait for tomorrow. We need to act now. Also, raise your voice against cutting trees, tell strangers politely not to throw plastic away. These are the small steps that will make a great difference. Waste segregation is one thing I missed above.
Q: Were you always curious about science during the school life? How did you sustain this interest? – Mango Team
It wasn’t always science that I was curious about. I was curious about everything and science was one subject in school that I liked. Like I said being inquisitive is all it takes to be a scientist and as I was interested in forests and the environment I ended up as a scientist here. Also it is important to not push away the inquisitiveness for the sake of society or earning something. Nor are competitive exams a benchmark for your intelligence or knowledge. It is most important to do what you like and are genuinely interested in.
Q: 5 books that inspired you the most (not necessarily science related) that you would like to recommend to others and kids especially. – Mango Team
Books -1.”Surely You Are Joking” by Richard Feynman. 2. “Autobiography of a Yogi”- Paramahamsa Yogananda. I would say these two books that I read in school inspired me for everything I do in life. Others, I shall share shortly.
Q: What’s the best thing about being a scientist? – Mango Team
You have the freedom to work on what is interesting to you. And each day is a new beginning, each day I look forward to learning something new. That way I’m always a student.