When you want to seek out inspiration momentarily, all you need to do is look up towards the night sky to admire the vastness of the universe including countless twinkling stars and endless galaxies.

Our next pathbreaker, Abhijeet Anand’s momentary inspiration turned into a lifelong fascination for the universe. As an Astrophysicist, Abhijeet explores the processes involved in galaxy formation and evolution.

Abhijeet talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about several eye-opening experiences that inspired him to choose observational Astronomy.

A great career for students interested in using science as a tool to explore and investigate the hidden mysteries of the universe and beyond.

Abhijeet, tell us about your initial years?

I was born in a small village in West Champaran, Bihar. I did my primary schooling in Bettiah and then we shifted to Patna where I finished my matriculation and 10+2. I studied up to 10th in Hindi but changed to CBSE in 10+2. It was not an easy transition, however, with the help of siblings and teachers, I managed it. I would say you don’t have a choice in that situation. You have to prepare yourself for English as it is the only common language that connects all Indians and also the sole medium of instruction at all top institutes. My father is a state government employee and mother is a housewife. My father’s job was transferable, so we (me and my two elder siblings) stayed in Patna with our mother. I was very lucky in the sense that my parents never forced any particular choice of career. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I qualified in IIT-JEE and AIEEE along with many other engineering entrance exams. Though most of the people around me wanted me to go for IITs, I wasnt too keen on engineering. A ‘little bit background here, I didn’t have much idea about IISc, I just had heard its name because a Bihar genius named Tathagat was pursuing a PhD there, and he was always in the news. I always wanted to join IISc for my postgraduate studies as they didn’t offer any undergraduate programme. I consider myself lucky that IISc started a UG programme the year I finished my 10+2 in 2011. They were accepting students through IIT, AIEEE, KVPY and AIPMT, but the cutoff was high, and I hadn’t even qualified for the IIT in 2011. After another year of good preparation at Resonance, Kota, I qualified in the IIT JEE exam in 2012 with a very good rank and got an offer letter from IISc. 

I joined IISc in Aug 2012 for a four year Bachelor of Science programme and finished my studies in 2016 majoring in Physics. I also stayed for one more year and finished my masters in Physics in 2017.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional nd fascinating career?

Though I was always interested in doing science rather than engineering from my childhood, I wasn’t aware of how to pursue it as everyone around me was mostly aware of either engineering or medical. I used to watch TV shows on Discovery and NatGeo mostly about science because it always fascinated me. There was a science centre near my school where they performed interesting science demonstrations sometimes. The biggest turning point came after joining IISc. I consider it to be one of the best events of my life. This place taught me so many things and I’ll always be grateful to this campus. Initially, I was interested in Chemistry as I had been good at it from school days. In our second semester our Physics instructor was Prof. Arnab Rai Choudhuri, who is one of the finest astrophysicists in India. I was lucky to read a few chapters from his book “Astrophysics for Physicists” and discuss some aspects of astronomy with him. It was a revealing and life-changing experience. I decided to explore this field and make a career in it. 

In the summer of 2013, I got an opportunity to visit Aryabhatta Research Institute of Observational Sciences (ARIES), Nainital for a project. This was a unique experience that made me fall in love with astronomy. I chose Physics as my major and continued my studies. However, I also tried to explore some other aspects of physics such as particle and condensed matter physics, but nothing could change my mind. This was all possible because of diversity in the department at IISc. I did many short and long term projects in different branches of astronomy to enhance my understanding. I did my bachelor’s and master’s projects in optical and radio astronomy respectively. The decision to pursue a PhD also stemmed from here. I met many researchers and realized that PhD is not just a degree , but a path of learning and developing a strong and rational thought process. It doesn’t matter what subject you pursue in PhD, but the common thing is that you learn a very important aspect of life and that is framing/reframing a problem and come up with a solution, Never give up, even if it is just incremental and not very significant.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

IISc is unique in the sense that it never forces people to excel. However, doing well in your studies and courses is always a plus point in any field. At IISc more focus is on developing a strong and robust thought process of doing something good and new. It doesn’t matter if you want to continue in science or not, whatever you choose, don’t stop for something small, go for something big and work hard to achieve it. 

I spent my summer of 2013 in Nainital at ARIES working on an observational astronomy project. I observed a young open star cluster (an open cluster is a group of stars with a few thousand stars of roughly the same age) and computed its distance and age. This was an awesome learning experience for me. I learned the intricacies of observational astronomy and working of a big telescope. The next summer I spent at IISc working in particle physics under Prof. Rohini Godbole (she’s one of the few great physicists in India) to explore other aspects of Physics. I did learn a lot but I couldn’t sustain my interest. 

I again shifted to astronomy and did my summer and long term bachelor’s project at Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIA), Bangalore. It is an institute completely devoted to astronomy and operates telescopes in Hanle, Ooty and Gauribidnaur. I worked again on peculiar stars, known as Hydrogen deficient stars. Hydrogen is the most abundant element in the universe. It is also the lightest element. It is well established that stars shine because they are fueled by nuclear fusion of hydrogen into higher elements. When the fuel gets over, stars die (novae or supernovae). If we measure the fraction of elements in stellar atmosphere (known as abundance) it is dominated by hydrogen, but there are stars which are almost devoid of hydrogen and dominated by helium or carbon. How do these stars lose their hydrogen apart from consumption in nuclear fusion is not very well understood. R Coronae Borealis (RCrB) is a variable star in the constellation Corona Borealis. A variable star is a star whose light intensity changes irregularly with time. Say you can see a star with naked eye at night but it becomes several times fainter over the course of several months or years that you don’t see it, then again it is visible after sometime. It has nothing to do with its position in the sky or rotation of earth. I really liked the topic as it was very new for me and wanted to explore more about it. I decided to continue my summer project as a long term bachelor’s project. I did the abundance analysis of a set of RCrBs.

Many of my batchmates at this point (July 2016) left after bachelors for PhD or masters abroad. I continued for master’s as I wasn’t sure of getting a good PhD position. I did my master’s project at IISc in radio astronomy where I worked on something called radio galaxies. I started working in radio astronomy in the summer of 2016 at IISc. I took archival data of supernova remnant 3C391 from a Very Large Array (radio telescope in New Mexico, USA). A supernova remnant is a diffuse expanding gas that travels with about ~10% of the speed of light. It results from supernova when a massive star dies. They are a powerful source of X-rays and radio waves because of their interaction with interstellar medium (ISM, medium between the stars). I analysed its radio continuum data to learn radio data. I learned Common Astronomy Software Applications (CASA) software which is a radio data analysis software developed in Python. I liked the subject and continued working for my master’s project. For my master’s project  I worked on radio galaxies (they are active galaxy nuclei (AGNs) that are powerful source of radio waves. Their radio luminosity varies from 10^36 – 10^39 W (sun’s total luminosity is ~10^26 W) at radio wavelengths (10MHz-100GHz). Though they are very distant (~Giga light years) they can be observed with radio telescopes because of their brightness. They have an active black hole in the centre which accretes material from surroundings and gives rise to very powerful jets almost perpendicular to the plane of galaxy. These jets are hot ionised materials that travel close to the speed of light. They can go up to several kiloparsecs in some cases even Megaparsecs before they are stopped by intergalactic medium (medium between galaxies). Some radio observations have indicated that these galaxies are embedded in a giant gas disks which are known as superdisks because of their very big sizes (several kiloparsecs). My project was to detect radio emission from these gas disks. I published a research paper based on this project.

After finishing my masters at IISc in July 2017, my life was really tough and I had never expected that. I’ve written about it in detail on Quora as well:

https://www.quora.com/How-is-life-after-graduating-from-IISC-Bangalore?share=1

In short, I didn’t have any PhD position in hand and was very depressed but I worked hard to come out of it. I secured a Junior Research Fellowship (JRF) in Bangalore that helped me become financially stable. The topic was miles apart from my interest but I focused as I wanted to continue in research. I also worked as an online intern as a part of the Young Scientist Programme (YSP) of Blue Marble Space Institute of Science (BMSIS). It is a US based institute particularly focusing on astrobiology research.  

Astrobiology is a branch of astronomy that combines astronomy and biology. The main focus here is to understand the origin of life and its evolution in the universe. It also tries to find if there are any extraterrestrial lifeforms and how to detect them. It is quite a fascinating subject. I worked on a project that involved studying radiation effects on the human body in outer space. The outer space is always bombarded by powerful radiation which we usually don’t receive because our atmosphere blocks most of them. My project was to compute doses of radiation on different parts of the body via computer models. I had applied to BMSIS’ YSP and got a position. In the meantime, I polished my CV, added my publications and wrote to many potential supervisors in a few institutes in Europe. I applied to US and European universities and got interview calls. By the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018, I had some good PhD offers. I felt revived and much more confident. This was all due to my “never give up” attitude fueled by love and support of my family that helped me make it to one of the finest places to do astronomy in the world.

How did you get your first break?

The normal way is to write several emails for an internship to faculties all over the country and then wait for their response. This is an exhausting exercise but you’ve to be patient. I wrote to one young faculty in ARIES about my interests and wish to explore this field through a short project. The institute was suggested by Prof. Arnab Rai Choudhuri, so yes, he was very helpful.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

As I said there were many setbacks and failures and I managed to address them with the help of people around me. During my course I applied for many summer programmes but didn’t get any position. Though it was very painful, I never thought of discontinuing my interests. I tried to read more and kept searching for opportunities. Finally, I got a position at IIA through their summer programme. When applying for PhD after masters, I appeared for GRE General and Physics, though Physics was not an issue, GRE general was very difficult for me. I did my schooling in Hindi and did not have a good command in English. I had to spend time on learning new words and grammar. I tried improving my essay writing and did fairly well in GRE and TOEFL. 

After masters, I applied to several places in the USA for a PhD. I got several rejections and got depressed. I was so doubtful of myself that I didn’t even appear for interviews in India though I had qualified all the PhD entrance exams with very good ranks. My first research paper was in review and it was quite painful. I had to work continuously for months to improve it and wait for another round of review. In the meantime, I was again applying for a PhD which was difficult mentally as well as financially. Ultimately everything turned out well, and I got a position that I always wished for.

In my experience, all the challenges that I faced made me stronger to continue my search. My family, especially my elder brother, was extremely helpful and funded most of my applications. I had a JRF position in Bangalore that made my life much easier financially. My sister was in Bangalore and I got all emotional support. In a sense, I could only get out of that bad phase because of my family and friends. My mother and father have always been a constant source of energy. They always got my back.

Where do you work now? 

Currently, I am working as a PhD researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics, Garching, Germany. I started my PhD as IMPRS Fellow in Sept 2018. The topic of my research is to understand the processes involved in galaxy formation and evolution. Galaxies are very complex objects and very difficult to study. Observational astronomy from the ground is not an easy task, because the light coming from a distant object gets dimmer due to many things between us and the objects. The space is not empty, though you cannot see them. I work with Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS) which is an optical telescope based in New Mexico, USA. It has been surveying the entire sky for the last 20 years and accumulated a large number of images of the sky. I work with spectra of an object called Quasi-Stellar Objects (they are galaxies so distant, that they appear like stars hence the name derives as this). They are known to have very characteristic spectra with several emission lines originating near the centre of the QSOs. When the light coming from QSOs passes through the medium between us and them they can get absorbed by the particles present in the medium in the line of sight according to quantum mechanics principles, and this can be seen as dips in the measured flux of the QSO. This is called QSO absorption lines. This helps us study the properties of those absorber particles. My work is to detect these absorption lines in QSO spectra and extract physical properties out of it.

What skills are needed for job? How did you acquire the skills?

I analyse large astronomical datasets (several hundred GBs) almost daily. I write large chunks of scripts in python to analyse and visualize my dataset. In addition to a working module, everything should be very efficient and fast, otherwise, the analysis will take forever. The most important part is to interpret data and extract physical information from them. Many times I work with other people’s codes (maybe in a different language), which is not easy and takes some time to understand them properly. I also need to present my work in conferences and seminars which sometimes is tough.

What’s a typical day like?

I take a train to my workplace. I read my emails and make a plan for the day. We also have a common coffee hour where everyone meets to discuss science or any interesting event. I try to finish some work before I go for lunch with my group. Usually, there are some interesting talks in the afternoon which I attend. I always try to finish my goal for the day before leaving. If I have any issues I meet my supervisors and discuss with them. Every fortnight we meet for a general discussion about the project and set the goals for the next meeting. Every Friday we have a weekly beer after work. I just hang out with my colleagues, I don’t drink any kind of alcohol but we have many other soft drinks.

What is it you love about this job? 

People are very smart and hardworking at my workplace, and talking to them is always great. They can help me if I’m stuck at something. Many times I learn new ways to do some part of my work.  There are frequent visitors and I can listen to their talks and have a discussion. There is no funding crunch if I want to buy a new system or visit a conference. It is a very diverse institute and I meet many people from all over the world. I also learn German which is a whole different experience. The most important aspect of my work that keeps me motivated that I will always be at the forefront of the field. It is a lifelong learning exercise. I find that most of the top scientists are very modest and they are always eager to learn.

How does your work benefit the society? 

This is a difficult question in the sense that astronomy is a fundamental science, it is usually very hard to see or assess its direct impact on society. It’s like in the 1920s, 30s when quantum mechanics was in a nascent phase, nobody thought there would be a quantum device in everyone’s hand in the future or I would write this answer with a quantum device. When Einstein came up with the theory of general relativity nobody imagined that it would help people finding their locations on Google map. CCD was designed purely for astronomical imaging purposes but now we all have it in our hands to use it on a daily basis. These are some technical things but there is a lot more more beyond them. Fundamental science or philosophy paves a disruptively new path for our enhanced thought process. We start appreciating nature in an unprecedented way. We all now appreciate the beauty and complexity of our solar system much more than our ancestors did. The same is true for our body and brain. They are much more beautiful and complex than we think. For astronomy, I’d just quote Carl Sagan: “Astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known”. 

On the other hand several technologies developed for astronomy that have widely impacted our society are WLAN (developed to sharpen radio images), X-ray based techniques applied to medical imaging and several imaging software such as IDL and IRAF used by General Motors to analyse car crash data and AT&T labs for image reductions. For more details, you can have a look at the International Astronomical Union (IAU) website. 

As far as my work is concerned I develop efficient tools to analyze very large datasets like images and spectra. My module may be used for detecting abnormalities or peculiarities in specific kinds of images or chemical spectra.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

I love my work and I enjoy meeting smart people who’ve done some amazing research work. Honestly, every day is a memorable and full of new learning experiences for me. In terms of science, I published my master’s project in a reputed international peer-reviewed journal. That was my first scientific publication, though I’ve not done something very big yet, still publishing my first research paper is very close to my heart.

Apart from research work, I was involved in a free online teaching platform with my friend where we taught school children science and math in innovative ways. That was an amazing learning experience for me. Unfortunately, we couldn’t continue because of our different time zones, but I hope to start it again.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I come from a very modest family background and small town. However, one thing that kept me motivated and pushed me to do something good was the freedom that my parents gave me to choose my career path. I have had many setbacks and failures at all stages of my life and some of them were very unexpected and excruciating but I managed to defeat all of them with the help of my family and some really good friends. In my experience, nothing is permanent. Bad times, frustrations, depression will be there and you can not avoid them if you are human, but the most important part is how you fight them. They taught me to deal with hard times and make decisions properly. 

Another thing that I’d like to say is that being in a good institute is great, but what is helpful in the long-term is your commitment and hard work. Nothing can beat hard work in the long term. Even being a genius is helpful only if you work hard, otherwise, you’ll fall apart. I can say one thing with almost certainty that all the great people in this world are also the hardest working people. 

In addition to all, doing well in your studies (getting good marks is important, of course, you’ve to have a proper understanding of the subject), will always be very helpful at all stages of your career.  

There is one more aspect of life I’d like to bring here is that choose your career wisely, you should work for your interests though always be careful and aware of the difficulties in its path because survival is also important.

DO NOT GIVE UP and TALK TO YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS.

Future Plans?

I’d love to continue in academia after my PhD and will go for a postdoc. I’ll try to go back to India and get a good faculty position and work with young people and spread awareness about astronomy among common people. I’d also like to teach school kids, that has always been an important goal in my life. 

These are my plans, but who knows what next does life throw at you.