Though Scientific Research can be Groundbreaking, Science Outreach has the potential to create greater impact by educating society about real world applications of Research.
Nirupama Sensharma, our next pathbreaker, plays the dual role of a Nuclear Physicist doing fundamental research and an Outreach Scientist helping the society understand Nuclear Energy by clearing any misconceptions, and communicating its benefits in the form of Nuclear Power production, Nuclear medicine, Food Irradiation and other applications.
Nirupama talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about her responsibility as a scientist committed to not only doing research but also bringing out scientific results that largely remain hidden from the general public.
For students, never limit yourself to only what you are expected to do. Instead, think about what you are capable of doing !
Nirupama, tell us about your background?
I grew up in a small town of Uttar Pradesh in India. With very limited educational facilities available, I did not get a lot of exposure in the field of science. However, my Physics teacher in school always motivated me to pursue higher studies in physics.
My parents did their graduation in the field of History and Political Science from the University of Delhi. Both my parents were very motivating and encouraged me to pursue higher studies. However since they were from an arts background, they could not guide me much about a career in physics. I therefore relied on my school teachers for guidelines on where and how to apply.
Other than physics, I was also interested in public speaking and won various awards in debates. These awards led to my appointment as the Head Girl of my school. This further helped in the shaping of my overall personality as a leader.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I completed B.Sc (Honors) Physics from Hindu College at the University of Delhi in 2012. After graduation, I got an M.Tech in Nuclear Science and Technology, also from University of Delhi.
After completing my masters, I moved to the United States and received an M.S. in Physics from the University of Notre Dame. Presently, I am working on my PhD in Nuclear Physics from the same university.
What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?
During the final year of my graduation at the University of Delhi, I applied for an internship with the Atomic Minerals Directorate (AMD) for Exploration and Research in Delhi. On receiving acceptance, I got an opportunity to work with Dr. B. K. Bhaumik who was the head of the Physics division at that time. During this internship, I utilized radiometric assay devices such as GM Counters and scintillometers to determine the equivalent uranium, thorium and potassium concentration in rock samples collected from various regions in India. Working on this project, I was introduced to the concepts of nuclear physics for the first time.
This internship marked a turning point in my life and Dr. B. K. Bhaumik acted as the most influential person who motivated me to pursue a career in the field of Nuclear Physics.
How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path
After my internship at AMD, I started looking for master degrees in the field of nuclear physics to increase my knowledge and get more exposure in this field.
Thereafter, I applied for M.Tech in Nuclear Science and Technology at the University of Delhi. This course was a highly specialized course run by the Department of Atomic Energy of India in collaboration with the University of Delhi. They only selected ten students from all over India and I was fortunate enough to be one of them. During the next three years of my M.Tech degree, I got the opportunity to work at various atomic energy institutions in India. The following gives a detailed list of all my internships:
a) Indira Gandhi Center for Atomic Research (IGCAR), Kalpakkam – This was my first experience working at the site of a Nuclear Power Plant. I worked with the Reactor Design Group of IGCAR on “Minor Actinide Incineration in Metal Fast Breeder Reactors”. I calculated the percentage of minor actinides that can be burnt in a 1000MWe Metal Fast Breeder Reactor. My work at this institution helped me understand the difficulties faced by our government when constructing a nuclear power plant. Also, it was at this internship that I realized how important it is to bridge the gap of knowledge between scientists and the general public.
b) Variable Energy Cyclotron Center (VECC), Kolkata – I was referred to VECC by one of my professors, to get exposure in the study of nuclear structure physics. At VECC, I conducted experiments with the Gas Electron Multiplier (GEM) detector and standardized its use as a triple-GEM detector by measuring the energy resolution and optimum working voltage using a 55Fe X-ray source. I loved the working culture of VECC and decided to come back for my master’s thesis work.
c) Bhabha Atomic Research Center (BARC), Mumbai – I went to BARC to further learn about the detectors used in the study of nuclear structure. I worked on assembling a hybrid detector including a CsI(Tl) scintillator coupled to a PIN diode followed by a silicon pad detector. This detector was then tested for alpha particles and fission fragments to be used for the Charged Particle Detector Array (CPDA) at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in Mumbai. At BARC, I made various contacts that helped me identify PhD opportunities in the United States.
d) Institute of Plasma Research (IPR), Ahmedabad – I was sent to IPR for a brief period by the University of Delhi to learn about nuclear fusion and India’s progress in this field. During this time, I attended various lectures on plasma physics and nuclear fusion. I also visited the office of ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) and got an inside view of how a fusion reactor would look.
e) Variable Energy Cyclotron Center (VECC), Kolkata – As I said before, I went back to VECC for my master’s thesis project and worked with the nuclear physics division to develop and standardize an angular correlation setup using multiple Lanthanum Bromide detectors. Using the assembled setup, I measured the Quadrupole Moments of the excited states of nuclei in the Z = 64 region using Perturbed Angular Correlation Techniques. It was during this internship that I started applying for PhD at universities in the US.
All these internships were extremely helpful in gaining experience in nuclear physics. Also, after having worked at all these different institutions, I got to narrow down my interests and decided to work in the field of nuclear structure physics.
Moreover, these internships were beneficial in networking and forming contacts within institutions. I also got my recommendations from some of these contacts when applying for my current PhD position.
How did you get your first break?
It was during my internship at the Bhabha Atomic Research Center in Mumbai that I first learnt about the University of Notre Dame (where I currently work). Also, all the knowledge I had gained in nuclear instrumentation was extremely helpful in preparing my applications for US universities.
Recommendations, which form a very important part of PhD applications, are easier to get from people you have already worked with. As mentioned earlier, networking helped me gain contacts and I got strong recommendations from them. All of this helped me in getting selected for a PhD position at the University of Notre Dame. I also received a complete scholarship for the same.
What were the challenges? How did you address them?
Challenge 1: The first challenge was to find the right people who could give me proper guidance on how to proceed in the field that I was interested in. To overcome this challenge, throughout my academic career, I did various internships and went to many different institutions to network and make contacts (in addition to research work). Many of these contacts acted as mentors to me and helped me select the right career path.
Challenge 2: The second challenge was to be able to live independently and make my own life decisions. I moved to Delhi for my graduation back in 2009. I lived in a girls’ hostel and learnt to take care of myself. Moreover, participating in various co-curricular and leadership activities helped me gain confidence in dealing with any crises. All these experiences were very helpful when I moved to the US, all by myself, in the year 2015. Living in an entirely new country with new people and new customs was difficult at first. But being able to adapt to different living conditions really help when you decide to move far away from home in order to pursue higher studies.
Where do you work now? Tell us about your research
Presently, I am a Graduate Research Assistant working in the area of experimental low energy nuclear structure physics, specializing in Gamma ray spectroscopy techniques. I perform experiments that are largely collaborative and have an international scope. Being a PhD student, I collaborate with the Argonne National Laboratory in the US and utilize the world’s largest gamma detector array, Gammasphere, to perform my experiments.
One gammasphere experiment leads to about 4 terabytes of data. I store all this data on hard disks and bring them back to my University where I analyze the data to achieve results. The usual data analysis of an experiment takes about a year.
As research in nuclear structure physics requires high-level programming skills, it is beneficial if we already have knowledge of C/C++/Python. Otherwise, the university also offers courses where you can learn and apply these skills.
The good thing about PhD life is that it is quite flexible. You don’t necessarily have a fixed routine and can work on your own schedule. This flexibility is my favorite part of the job.
In addition to research, I am an ardent supporter for the use of Nuclear Energy and am actively involved in a social movement to spread awareness about the benefits of Nuclear Energy within the society. I have founded an initiative, Nuclear Energy – The Better Energy (thebetterenergy.net), where I organize various informational campaigns and outreach events. I also supervise an international team of 9 members and we regularly write articles informing the general public about the peaceful uses of Nuclear Energy. We also publish a monthly newsletter and a bimonthly magazine for our 800+ subscribers.
How does your work benefit society?
As a scientist, I am committed to doing research that brings out scientific results hidden from the general public. As a nuclear physicist, I study the structure of the atomic nucleus by performing experiments and determine the shape, size and properties of different nuclei. This in turn helps us understand the origin of these nuclei and their formation in stars in the early universe that was created after the big bang.
Moreover, my work on Nuclear Energy – The Better Energy initiative aims to educate and inform the general public about the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The initiative reaches different parts of the society and creates awareness about high-end scientific techniques like nuclear power production, use of nuclear medicine, food irradiation and other applications of nuclear energy. The ultimate aim is to help the society understand these difficult processes, get rid of any misconceptions and accept nuclear energy for all the benefits it has to offer.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
One of the most memorable works that I have done as a part of my PhD program was to found Nuclear Energy – The Better Energy initiative. This started as a small individual project as part of a research ethics program funded by the National Science Foundation of the US. As a part of this program, I was supposed to do a project relating my research to my social responsibilities. I created the website thebetterenergy.net and started inviting people to collaborate with me. Today, this initiative has grown into an international collaboration with 800+ subscribers and a core team of 9 members from India, US, France, Germany and Spain.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
My first and foremost advice to students would be to not limit themselves to any particular field or institution. They should work with various different institutions, different projects and different people. Based on their experience with different kinds of work, they can then make a selection about which career path to pursue.
Also, networking is extremely important when pursuing higher studies. Oftentimes, students fail to understand its importance. But it is through proper networking practices that we can keep ourselves informed and obtain good job opportunities.
Another advice would be to participate in co-curricular activities (even during higher studies). Get involved in leadership and outreach activities. Both of these are extremely beneficial for our overall professional development.
As I am nearing the completion of my PhD, I am going to apply to postdoctoral positions in nuclear physics at national laboratories in the US.
I am also looking forward to continuing working on my Nuclear Energy – The Better Energy initiative and claiming non-profit status for the same. This would ensure that we have funding to continue to progress and get more and more people aware about the benefits of the use of nuclear energy within society.