Five Indians are among 83 students chosen for the prestigious Rhodes scholarship for the year 2012. Nikita was one of them.

Nikita Kaushal completed her Master’s in Geology in 2010, specialising in Quaternary Geology and Climate Change.Her fascination with the beauty of nature, and consequent love of Earth Sciences, led to her travelling across India as an instructor for a wildlife and trekking organisation

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Please tell us about yourself. How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Hey I am Nikita Kaushal and I have been traveling with family and friends and camping since I was 6 years old. I always wanted to do something with the environment: Botany, Zoology or Geology. But I noticed that every time I asked a question on the field, the answer always came down to Geology. It seemed to be the ‘Once upon a time…’ of all stories. And then I attended my first Geology lecture at Fergusson College and I knew I would be graduating in it.

What did you study?

I have since completed my Bachelors in Geology (B.Sc.) from Fergusson College, University of Pune, India and  Masters in Geology from Department of Geology, University of Pune, India focusing on groundwater, paleoclimate and environment.

I also got a chance to work with an NGO called ACWADAM that works with groundwater. And I could travel to places that are not on any camping list: small villages in Jharkhand and Andhra and Maharashtra.

I will be starting with my PhD in Earth Sciences/Paleoclimate at Oxford this year, studying records of past climate. I will be looking at speleothems (stalactites and stalagmites) and tree rings for those records.

The Earth is about 4 billion years old and nobody was around to see how it all started so Geology is a very imaginative science. You wonder what could have happened when it happened to result in the world that we see today.

Tell us about your work

I am a graduate student in the ‘Isotopes and Climate’ group lead by Prof. Henderson group at the Department of Earth Sciences.

Broadly speaking, researchers in this group seek to understand processes that affect climate change using information about climate from the past (paleoclimate). Within this group, my area of focus is the Indian monsoon system.

In my research, I use geochemical proxies to understand paleoclimate. These proxies include radioactive isotopes of uranium series for age dating, stable isotopes (oxygen and carbon) and trace element ratios from stalagmites as proxies for climate and environment.

What surprised you most about Oxford?

It’s been a lot better than I expected.  My department is like a candy shop – I can pick whatever I want to do, and all the instruments and expertise are available, and I don’t need to fill in a hundred forms to justify anything before I do it, I just get an idea and follow it through.  That has been the best surprise.

When did you first become passionate about climate change?

I’ve been camping since I was a kid so I was always sure I’d do something involving the environment, but regarding climate itself, I remember a lecture that a professor had given during my undergraduate degree.  He asked, ‘What could have happened, when it happened, to result in the world that we see today?’  It was a great question and really inspired me to think more about climate change, which is just one area that has created the world we live in today.

Can you tell me about a favourite past project?

I worked with an NGO during my undergrad and Masters degrees, looking at ground water.  In India ground water is important for agriculture, and the less dependable the monsoon is, the more people rely on ground water instead.  There is a lot of funding available to help farmers drill wells, and then electricity to draw out water, things like that.  However, there is no policy in place for questions such as where the funding should go, how much water should be drawn out for what kind of crop, and how your regulate the quantity and quality of water being drawn out.  That was a project I began during my undergrad, and it was difficult to leave it to switch to straight research.

Can you tell me a little bit about your research?

I work on stalagmites and stalactites from caves – these are calcium carbonate deposits, and the oxygen from them stores the information of the rainfall at the time when they were first created.  So, as long as I know how old my stalagmite is, I can tell something about the rainfall of that time.  It’s fascinating!

What is the most challenging part of researching climate change?

I think the most challenging part is coming to terms with the sheer scope of it. I remember as a kid wondering how climate has affected the distribution of plants and animals, the rise and fall of civilizations, our eating habits even our religion. I never thought there would be a day when I would study the effect that we are having on climate.

What is the most rewarding part of researching climate change?

It is being able to understand more about the subjects I raised above. The second part is that academically it is so vibrant! There are so many researchers from so many different fields trying to understand the same thing.

What do you plan to do in the next few years?

I’m going to return to India.  All my research is focused there, and I want to stay in academia, whether in research or teaching, but I’d also like to continue working with NGOs and perhaps policy someday.  I don’t want to see it as either/or, I want to continue in both worlds.

What brings you the most joy in life?

Everything!  I just have so much fun living and trying things, and meeting people, I can’t pick out one single thing!