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Can you describe your work?

In the laboratory, Bhattacharya uses analytical chemistry to probe residues that became buried by dust storms 400 to 500 years ago. These studies let her combine her passions for Earth’s history and current events.

She started by compiling a 300-year-long record of dust storms. Her data suggested that the amount of dust in today’s atmosphere is influenced by the amount of rain that fell tens — and possibly hundreds — of years ago.

Using advanced chemistry techniques, she searched for clues to the history of desert dust in the atmosphere. She found evidence by measuring the amount of dust caught in old corals living in ocean waters near the desert.

Corals have annual growth bands similar to tree rings. Each band marks a year of the coral’s life. And a coral’s porous structure acts like a natural sieve, collecting dust every year, Bhattacharya explains. In this way, corals are similar to instruments that can be used to estimate dust from desert regions over the past few centuries. As dust from a desert storm blows over the ocean, some falls down into the water column and becomes trapped in a coral’s skeleton.

What did you study?

I did my graduation from Presidency college, Calcutta (Geology) followed by a Masters in Applied Geosciences from IIT Kharagpur. I also did a PHD in Philosophy from Harvard (Earth and Planetary Sciences)

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

Even in middle school, Bhattacharya, now 30, loved chemistry. But, encouraged by her father, she initially studied geology. “My dad was a famous geologist in India where I grew up and I was a big fan of National Geographic magazine,” she says. Her dad was fascinated by the history of Earth and suggested she might like it too.

After college, Bhattacharya says she “wanted to get into a career in which I could use science as a tool to study issues that are affecting people today.” So she began focusing on the planet’s changing climate.


What are benefits of your research?

Bhattacharya’s research now indicates that long-running drought sends clouds of dust into the atmosphere. The dust changes cloud properties in ways that can largely prevent them from raining out moisture. So the warming temperatures associated with climate change can create dry conditions that lead to drought. Such findings might provide useful planning information to help people in arid parts of the world who depend on sufficient rain for drinking water and crops.

Bhattacharya enjoys investigating the lessons about how storms’ movement of dust can affect climate. She says it “has given me a pretty exciting life.”