We have built models at some point in our life, as kids while playing, or as students at school or college and sometimes at work. Models help us understand the dynamics and mechanics of large scale processes that cannot be replicated. We all agree that modeling is fun.

Chanchal Gupta, our next pathbreaker, models the processes of nature using GIS tools, trying to understand the complex interrelationships among the cryosphere, hydrology and climate change to assess the impact on the delicate environmental balance.

Chanchal talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about her special interest in understanding the earth, environmental systems, natural resources and interactions among them which led her to study Geography in order to make a career in the same domain.

For students, modeling nature using the tools of Geography can be fun, challenging and tremendously impactful to the society as well !

Chanchal, tell us about your background?

This is Chanchal Gupta, born and brought up in New Delhi. I am from a middle-class family. My father is a medical practitioner and my mother is a fine housewife, who is taking care of my family very well. I did my entire studies from school till masters from New Delhi. I always had a special interest in understanding the earth, environment systems, natural resources and interactions among them and wanted to make a career in the same domain so that I could contribute to the best of my knowledge and skill set in making the environment sustainable. That is how I landed up in Geography and Geoinformation science, also known as Geo-informatics. I always enjoy every moment that comes into my life. I like to travel, be around nature and observe the behaviors of nature. Apart from this, I love reading books, playing outdoor games and doing art & craftwork in my free time.

My family has always supported me in shaping my career and my brother always stood behind me and supported me in every step of my life. Now, he is an Art Director in one of the most reputed firms in New Delhi.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my graduation in Geography (Hons.) from Delhi University in 2014. I always wanted to be a Research Scientist in my subject domain. Further, being from a Geography background, I decided to pursue M.Sc. Geo-informatics (Geo-information Science) and completed the same from TERI School of Advanced Studies, New Delhi in 2016.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

During my bachelors, I got a chance to know/learn about the importance and applicability of Geospatial Sciences and Satellite imaging systems, which made me curious to know more about it. I wanted to deep dive into the subject and make a career in this domain. My Professors, Dr. Niranjani Dwivedi, Dr. Swati Thakur and one of my senior friends Mr. Vikash Shivhare, working as Geospatial Data Scientist, were the ones to see my potential and help me get acquainted with the subject. They motivated me to enhance my horizons and skills in the subject and make a career in the Geospatial domain.

I would say that personally, my family, especially my brother supported me in all aspects mentally and financially, and professionally, the people mentioned above were key influencers in my life because of whom I am here today.

I started learning and enjoying the subject more and more, knowing about Satellite Imaging, GIS and its applicability in various domains. The major turning point came when I joined the National Institute of Hydrology for my summer internship during Masters. There, I understood the real applicability of the subject and successfully did my first research project on hydrological modeling of the Himalayan river basin.

This project was a study conducted in 2015, of the glacier changes in the Parvati river basin using remote sensing. In this project, I had to quantify the glacier changes with respect to slope and direction, basically in simple words, to identify the slope range where glacier retreat is more and in which direction is the shrinking rate high with overall change over space and time and how climate change is responsible for these changes in the basin. The satellite imageries obtained from multiple sources such as NASA USGS portal and some belonging to NRSC-ISRO were used in this study.

This experience gave me the confidence to go to the next level. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path.

As I said above, during my masters, I realized the potential of Geospatial technologies and how these techniques can be leveraged to understand the complex interactions between earth and the environment. I did projects and internships at National Institute of Hydrology, there I got an opportunity to work under Dr. Sanjay K Jain, Scientist “G” and great Hydrologist. Here I gained the quantitative and analytical skills needed to excel while working on a variety of water-related issues such as glacier change dynamics, Streamflow modeling and impact assessment of climate change on water resources. This gave me a taste of real-life and exposed me to work in various research laboratories and organizations.

Stream flow hydrological modelling and impact assessment of climate change on water resources using SWAT Model for Beas River Basin was a project that I carried out in 2015 and 2016 as a part of my academic projects. The specific aim was to compute the stream/river flow (The amount of water  that falls as rain within the area will either flow as surface runoff or sink in to the ground) and water balance (computation of amount of water from rain to runoff with consideration of all environmental mechanisms which can be understood from water cycle) at the specified outlet (location where stream/river exit the basin and meet with other river) of the basin and to test the SWAT (Soil and Water Assessment tool) Model Performance on the Beas river basin (A basin or watershed  is an area of land where precipitation collects and drains off in to a common outlet such as river and other waterbody) . GIS (Geographical information system) helps to process and analyse all the physically realistic datasets with a spatial attribute (in nature) that comes from remote sensing (Active & Passive) and other sources such as satellite image that extract surface information i.e. topographic and land use and land cover information, soil and its physical characteristics, weather/ climatic parameters and other location based datasets etc.

SWAT is an acronym for Soil and Water Assessment Tool, a basin/watershed modeling system that works in the GIS environment which requires a diversity of information and represents the spatial variability. The model simulates a range of hydrological processes that include evapotranspiration, snow and glacier melt, accumulation, infiltration, and generation of surface and subsurface flow. This model is useful in a range of climactic, topographic, soil and management conditions to investigate a broad range of hydrological and environmental aspects including snow and glacier hydrological studies.

Remote sensing and GIS have vast applicability and are evolving fields which bring meaningful insights into solve real-world problems by bringing together technologies and tools required for the acquisition, exploration, analyses, visualisation, and integration of various spatial data.

After the successful completion of internships and Masters, I started looking at research positions in various research laboratories and organizations.  After a few attempts, I got an offer/opportunity from the Center for Sustainable Technology (CST), IISc Bangalore in 2016. There I worked on a research project- streamflow modelling and climate change vulnerability and adaptation assessment for the Himalayan region. Apart from this, I was involved in various other research activities including forest visits to take field measurements. I was also invited and visited ASEAN countries to provide hands-on training on hydrological modelling in a workshop organised by universities in their respective departments and research laboratories. After completing the project in IISc, I joined Indian Institute Of Technology, Madras (IIT-Madras) in 2017. There I worked in a NRSC-ISRO research project titled- Development of a near real-time hydrological system where I set up a SWAT model for Pan India River basins. Then again,  I came back to IISc in 2019 and joined a research lab where I focus on cryospheric investigations and climate change. One thing that is similar everywhere which  is most important to me is what I learned during my masters and internships which is always helpful in my work. I update myself through various modes of learning. The advancements in geospatial technologies help me apply the same in various fields with diverse applications.

How did you get your first break?

I got my first break when I finished my first project with CST, IISc. The professor, under whom I was working, was going to retire from his service. So, I needed to switch from there but didn’t want to join the corporate sector. I decided to enhance my knowledge and skill set in hydrological modeling and climate change applications using geospatial techniques. Later, I joined IIT-Madras to enhance my horizon in water resource simulation and modeling.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

As I said earlier, since I come from a middle-class family, deciding to go for higher studies was itself a big challenge for me. However, I convinced my parents to allow me to go outside and make a career in my domain. Next, keeping myself updated is a big and challenging task in the geospatial technology domain as various technological advancements come at a rapid pace and one needs to align with those changes, understand them and try to get hands-on in implementing them in real-world applications. But I enjoy challenges that come my way.

Where do you work now? What problem do you solve? Skills set needed for this job and how did you acquire the skills? What is it you love about this job?

Currently, I work as a Research Fellow at Divecha Center for Climate Change, Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, with a major focus on Cryospheric Investigation of the Himalayan Region, hydrological modeling, understanding climate variability, climate change and its impact on the environment using remote sensing and GIS technology. 

Cryosphere, hydrology, and climate are interlinked with each other and GIS plays a major role in understanding the relationships among them. Cryosphere is all about the mechanism of snow and glaciers (accumulation and melt) with respect to climate variability as these aspects are very sensitive to climate change and significantly contribute to the hydrological budget, meaning water budget (availability) and water cycle of a region or basin. Cryosphere constitutes an important subset of the hydrosphere, and climate is the main driving agent of this system. For example, many rivers, springs, and lakes in the Himalayan region are fed by snow and glacier melt runoff. As we observe climate changing with time, we can see the impact of climate on snow and glaciers as they are melting and shrinking in size and hence increasing the meltwater volume in the basin. Now, one needs to understand that if this continuous change happens it will affect the water ecosystem. So, the quantification and assessment of this entire ecosystem is important for better management of the resources. As I said, GIS and its advanced techniques help to assess the spatial and temporal variability and quantify the relationships among them.

The main skill set needed for this job is to understand the cryosphere, mechanism of snow and glaciers and its properties and the various responses over space and time. I also need to have a clear understanding of the geospatial techniques and its applicability on how these techniques can be leveraged in simulation and modelling to analyse the surface condition over space and time. I have experience in remote sensing and GIS and a good understanding of its applicability in diverse areas. All my learning about water resource and hydrological modelling, climate change and cryosphere has come while working at the different research laboratories and organisations. I always try new things and implement them in my workflow.

The best thing about this field is, you can see or feel or experience the surface as well as environmental dynamism over time. You can relate things to the actual ground condition and understand the causal behavior of it. It is an interdisciplinary domain with a real influence on everybody’s life. Your small research contributes to the real world.

How does your work benefit society? 

As we all know, an investigation on water resource management and development, simulation and modeling of the river systems originating from the Himalayas are important because it affects our social life in many ways. Many people who reside in the region mainly depend on the freshwater of this river system for many purposes such as drinking, agriculture, and industrial use. There is also a huge hydro-power potential whose exploitation requires a sound understanding of hydrologic response mechanisms. Other water triggered disasters like floods are also frequent in these regions. The investigation of these river systems and mountainous environments helps minimize the sustainable water management issues, enables harnessing hydropower potential and also assess climate change risk and impact on water resources in the region.

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

When I was associated with CST, IISc in 2016, I got an opportunity/invitation to visit South East Asian countries to conduct a training session on hydrological modeling using SWAT and impact assessment of climate change on water resources. I conducted this training for water professionals, working in various departments in their respective countries under the ASEAN- India Green Program. This visit was memorable and very close to me.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I would only say that everyone should invest in themselves and set up a timeline for effective career management to achieve the milestones that they decide and should create a powerful belief system to get success in life.

Future Plans?

I would prefer to do relevant research in my domain and contribute my best of knowledge in making the environment sustainable.