Please tell us about yourself

Remember the girl who had a minor planet named after her at the age of 16? The Pune girl, Hamsa Padmanabhan.

Hamsa Padmanabhan’s (Intel ISEF 2006) work takes her all over the world. She’s an international physicist, from Pune, India, working as a Tomalla Fellow at the Institute for Particle Physics and Astrophysics at ETH Zurich in Switzerland. She graduated from The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) with a Ph.D. in physics in 2015.

Science is in Hamsa’s blood. Her father, Thanu Padmanabhan, an internationally acclaimed astrophysicist, encouraged her to study STEM fields and pursue learning outside of the classroom. Heeding her father’s advice and inspired by his work, she eventually earned her doctorate in physics from the Pune-based Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) in 2015.

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

In 2006, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Lincoln Lab in the USA had named an asteroid ‘Padmanabhan 21575’ in honour of Hamsa after she won a contest at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. She was then a class eleven student at the Kendriya Vidyalaya School in Pune.

Hamsa said her research project was inspired by the simple magnetic pen found in toy stores. The magnetic pen, suspended in mid-air and defying gravity made her wonder about its stable configuration.

“What looked relatively simple actually required a detailed theoretical analysis,” she recalls. Her 15 page research paper was titled Physics of a Simple Prototype for Static Magnetic Levitation and provides an understanding of the levitation of static extended bodies, by using the example of a simple prototype, viz. the toy pen.

Her mentor, father Thanu Padmanabhan is a professor and dean of academic programmes at the Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) and her mother has a PhD in physics.

However, it’s not the genes but the early academic influence that interested Hamsa in physics. “I was always at IUCAA in my childhood days around great scientists and exposed to scientific lectures, talks and debates. My parents encouraged me to do what I wanted to and didn’t push me to take up physics,” she says.

Hamsa had an interest in arts when she was younger and whiled away her spare time drawing or painting. An advanced maths class at the Bhaskacharya Institute of Maths when she was in class nine channelled her liking to physics. “It revealed the beauty in maths to me — of symbols, abstract equations — which led me to discover the joys of experiments and analysis,” she says.

Her passion has helped her win numerous awards like the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana Fellowship, an NTSE (National Talent Search Examination) Scholarship and most recently, the Goldman Sachs Global Leaders Award.

Tell us bout your work

These days, Hamsa can be found in the lab, keeping busy as a post-doctoral research fellow. She’s not only collaborating on several research projects such as the CO Mapping Array Pathfinder (COMAP), an experiment led out of Caltech, and the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument (DESI) survey, but she also shares her knowledge and love of astrophysics and cosmology at conferences spanning the globe.

Her current research focuses on unraveling the history of the universe. More specifically, she studies the physical processes involved during the universe’s reionization epoch. Studying reionization helps scientists understand the process by which structures formed in the universe, from smooth matter distribution in earlier periods to the highly structured galaxies that exist today.

Hamsa explained that in the universe’s beginnings, there wasn’t much dark energy but that dark matter was more abundant. Then, for several hundred million years following the period of recombination, the universe was “dark,” apart from the slowly fading glow of Cosmic Microwave Background.

“Soon after the Big Bang, the matter in the universe was a hot, ionized plasma of free electrons and protons,” Hamsa said. “This ionized plasma was tightly coupled to the radiation in the universe. About 300,000 years after the Big Bang, when the universe had expanded and cooled enough, the protons and electrons recombined to form neutral hydrogen atoms,” Hamsa continued.

Neutral hydrogen in the universe absorbs light from very distant sources, known as quasars, which are located billions of light-years away from Earth. “Studying the characteristic imprints of neutral hydrogen absorption in the spectra of quasars provides clues to the epoch and evolution of reionization,” Hamsa expounded. “Mapping the radiation of neutral hydrogen at radio frequencies also provides valuable information about the evolution of the majority of the baryons in the universe.”

Hamsa’s efforts in science have been recognized with the KVPY Science Fellowship, an award given annually to 100 pre-Ph.D. students in India. She received a scholarship, research grant, and opportunities to network with established physicists in research institutes. During her Ph.D. studies, Hamsa was also recognized with the Shyama Prasad Mukherjee Fellowship, which is given annually to the top four physics doctoral students in India.