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Please tell us about yourself
I grew up partly in England (1993-2000) and mostly in the state of Kerala, on the coconut tree covered southwest coast of India. My parents are both doctors of the medical sort and my younger brother is studying Computer Science (when he’s not up to something else interesting). I came to Austin by way of four years in Singapore, where I graduated from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) with a Bachelor’s degree in Aerospace Engineering. As luck would have it, on the flight to Singapore I met the irreplaceable Anindya Dutta, whom I married in December 2013.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
I chose to study Engineering because learning to build things seemed like a singularly worthwhile thing to do; Aerospace Engineering, because of a Physics class in school in which we learned about Bernoulli’s equation and airfoils – I was captivated by the notion that the rush of air over the curve of a wing was all it took to be able to fly, that most surreally beautiful of human accomplishments. After four years at NTU, including a semester spent at TU Delft in the Netherlands, I knew that I wanted to learn more, and to go through the discipline of choosing an interesting question and investigating it in depth – so graduate school it was. The only trouble was that there were so many interesting questions being investigated – people were up to wonderful things with kites, studying the aerodynamics of birds, bats, dragonflies and jellyfish… and at UT Austin, some group was simulating volcanoes on a distant moon.
What was your career path after graduation?
So, of course, I came to Austin, where I discovered Planetary Science, and was completely hooked. To give you some idea of why; the 2013 Planetary Science Decadal Survey begins thus:
In recent years, planetary science has seen a tremendous growth in new knowledge. Deposits of water ice exist at the Moon’s poles. Discoveries on the surface of Mars point to an early warm wet climate, and perhaps conditions under which life could have emerged. Liquid methane rain falls on Saturn’s moon Titan, creating rivers, lakes, and geologic landscapes with uncanny resemblances to Earth’s. Comets impact Jupiter, producing Earth-sized scars in the planet’s atmosphere. Saturn’s poles exhibit bizarre geometric cloud patterns and changes; its rings show processes that may help us understand the nature of planetary accretion. Venus may be volcanically active. Jupiter’s icy moons harbor oceans below their ice shells: conceivably Europa’s ocean could support life. Saturn’s tiny moon Enceladus has enough geothermal energy to drive plumes of ice and vapor from its south pole. Dust from comets shows the nature of the primitive materials from which the planets and life arose. And hundreds of new planets discovered around nearby stars have begun to reveal how our solar system fits into a vast collection of others.
I’m fascinated by these strange, beautiful stories and the ways in which they are constructed – carefully pieced together from mission data, and rounded out by field, lab, and computational work. I enjoy working on a small section of a vast tapestry and would like to continue the storytelling in some capacity or the other after I graduate through some mixture of research, writing and education.
Other than research, signing up for as many of the geology department’s planetary science classes as I can, and learning about the solar system, I’m always on the lookout for ways to get involved in science education and outreach. I love the work of Carl Sagan and David Attenborough,and think that finding ways to get people, particularly kids, to look around them with curiosity and a sense of wonder is a great thing. I also recognize how privileged I am to have had the education I have, when both access to and quality of education remain far from assured in India, and in different ways, in the United States – I think I owe it to give back in whatever ways I can.
What do you do now?