The big picture is truly revealing, especially when you are talking about natural hazards, their impact and the destruction they cause.

Rohini Swaminathan, our next pathbreaker, Emergency Specialist (Risk Analysis and Monitoring), develops GIS/Satellite based analysis around complex emergencies and global problems using qualitative and quantitative indicators. 

Rohini talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being greatly influenced by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami in South India that saw its fair share of natural hazards and complex emergencies and turning to Geo-Informatics to find answers to unknown questions related to natural hazards.

For students, we cannot control nature’s fury, but we can use technologies such as GIS and Remote Sensing to map the impact of the disaster as fast and as accurately as possible to help emergency coordinators on the ground to plan their response and target the most affected areas.

Rohini, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a beautiful remote forest in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu. I enjoyed spending time in the midst of nature, climbing trees, watching monkeys, and falling asleep under a starry sky. Eventually, we moved to a rustic, small town where I went to high school.

Throughout my childhood, I remained a fan of all the science classes but struggled quite a bit with Maths and languages, especially English. But my biggest interests have always been around Maps. Ever since I was little, I would spend hours looking at an Atlas and would go around sketching countries with a stick.

My initial interests in what I wanted to be changed with every season – from an astronaut to a wildlife photographer, pilot, doctor, collector, volcanologist, scuba-diver and a huge list of other completely random professions held my attention at some point.

Both my parents come from remote villages in Tamil Nadu and were first time graduates in their respective families. And as most Indian parents, they gave utmost importance to education and in their dreams, I was either a Doctor or a Collector. I went on to become neither. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

Wading against most advice I received, I decided to pursue a lesser known major called Geoinformatics in Anna University, India. 

Eventually I went on to attend Purdue University in the US where I got my Masters in Geomatics. 

Currently I am working on my MBA online with University of People.

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

What I wanted to do was greatly influenced by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. South India saw its fair share of natural hazards and complex emergencies. Unconsciously, I started looking for answers to many questions around me –Why were the Gods so angry to create a Tsunami (so was I told)? Why do cyclones keep happening and the fishermen keep ignoring the warning and risk their lives? What can satellites do? Why were the Sri Lankan refugees stay in their own camps?

Geoinformatics brought it all together – mapping, spatial analysis, surveying, remote sensing – all the subjects that were exciting to the 16-year-old me. I remember walking to the nearest internet centre in my town to google about its applications and hadn’t looked back ever since on what I really wanted to do. 

Tell us about your career path

During both my bachelor’s and Master’s, I spent every summer doing an internship somewhere. 

The most influential of them was one in Germany with the DAAD Fellowship during my third year in college where I got an opportunity to work with LiDAR remote sensing at the Stuttgart University of applied sciences. It was my first time traveling to a foreign country and it opened my eyes to a whole new world of research and academic opportunities and way of life. Although none of what I had done until then would have qualified me to get the scholarship, aimlessly learning the German language paid off in a great way. 

Following my final year in college, I did another internship at the Indian Institute of science in Bangalore where I developed further interest in using satellite data for environmental monitoring, especially in using remote sensing for air quality monitoring. 

My continued passion for photography and writing enabled me to get a Graduate Assistantship at the office of Communication at Purdue – something totally unrelated to my field of study but was interesting and paid my tuition. 

During my Masters, I continued to gain more experience through additional internships – one in Germany in a private company called Beak Consultants GmBH using Geographic Information Systems for mining applications where i was involved in map production for mineral deposits in Rwanda.This was also enabled through another DAAD scholarship where my motivation was driven by my desire to pursue a PhD at that point. 

As I graduated, I took up another internship with the NASA DEVELOP program in the US which gave me incredible opportunities to grow personally and professionally. I was able to explore different application areas within geospatial science from mapping forest corridors in Rwanda so mountain Gorillas could move around, water resources management in Peru, environmental monitoring in the US to multi-hazard risk analysis in Mexico. I slowly grew in the team, first as a team member, then as a team lead and finally was promoted to be the Centre Lead. Despite my academic background, it is only at NASA DEVELOP I was able to truly realize the real-world applications of geomatics to study frequent flooding, develop different drought severity indices,  Identify renewable energy sites, monitor deforestation-reforestation efforts, environmental management and agricultural practices,  study insect affected forests and monitor mine land reclamation .

With a lack of visa to continue, I was left with no other option but to leave the US after serving for 2.5 years.

I moved back home and was unemployed for almost six months. During this period, I spent some time in Vietnam teaching English, volunteering with NGOs in India and taking online certificate courses in disaster management. And most importantly applying to dozens of jobs across the world. 

My first break with the UN came as a consultant opportunity with the United Nations Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR-UNOSAT) in Geneva, Switzerland and was later posted in Nairobi, Kenya. I learnt about the real-world hindrances in bringing technology into hands of the people who need it the most. From Bangladesh to Kenya, I delivered several training programs to government officials in geospatial science with a specific focus on disaster risk reduction and sustainable development. Supporting global emergency response gave me a solid understanding of the need for timely and efficient use of satellite technology and mapping. 

In 2017, I took up a short consultancy with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva where I developed a greater appreciation of the global communities’ effort in eradicating polio through micro-planning using satellite imagery analysis for vaccination campaigns. 

Late 2017, I moved to the UN Development Programme in New York as a UN Volunteer. I was introduced to the challenges in satellite-based monitoring of developmental projects at a country level and their implementation as well as the importance of coordination. 

In 2018, I took up a new position as a GIS Analyst with the World Food Programme in Rome. I was able to contribute and learn more about the importance of global risk analysis and emergency preparedness. I left WFP as a Geospatial project coordinator having been involved in improving communication, partnership and coordination. I currently work with UNICEF (New York). 

While working for the UN, I was able to undertake several work-related missions in South Sudan, Afghanistan, Eswatini, Djibouti, Bangladesh and several other countries. This experience gave me a chance to experience the humanitarian world and presented me with incredible opportunities to develop new skills.

How did you get your first break?

I constantly look for opportunities and apply for interesting positions relentlessly. I kept a folder in my Gmail called ‘their loss’ and added to it whenever I got a rejection. It has 162 emails today and those are the jobs where they sent a reject email.

My first break for a full-time job was neither through campus nor through networking but came through constant googling to find job openings and applying regularly. Internships played a key role in gaining the much-needed real world experience that most employers look for.

What were the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Overcoming self-doubt created by constant questioning of my life choices that are not following the norms. Through my undergraduate, I was crippled many times questioning my decision to denounce a medical seat and opting for a different, unknown trajectory. I motivated myself to read about the opportunities in the field and sought-after success stories to develop hope.

Challenge 2: Sustaining interest. I invested time and energy in learning new things to identify where my personal interests are. Undertaking internships in diverse entities gave me an opportunity to continue pursuing my goals.

Challenge 3: Saying no when it didn’t feel right. At every step of my way so far, there was an obvious choice and it took incredible effort to say no and pick the one I felt more intrigued about (even if it was a riskier one and not the safest option). Luckily, my personal background allowed me to take risks. I was (and still am) prepared to quit and relocate whenever needed.

Tell us Where do you work now and what you do? 

Currently I work as an Emergency Specialist (Risk Analysis and Monitoring) with UNICEF Headquarters in New York. My every day work involves developing analysis around complex emergencies using qualitative and quantitative indicators. 

Main skills needed for this job are good understanding of different hazards and vulnerabilities, technical skills in information management, GIS, and data visualization, communication skills (written and oral), and decent dose of enthusiasm to develop new solutions.

The thing I like the most about the job is to be part of a bigger picture addressing global problems. Combining geospatial skills and knowledge along with qualitative analysis presents a comprehensive picture on the need for disaster preparedness.

How does your work benefit society? 

Although it is not always possible to see how my little contribution makes a real difference, it is encouraging to belong to a community of humanitarians whose primary goal is to work towards a better world. 

Growing up in a rural area, I wouldn’t have gotten a fair chance in life without the major commitments of national and international institutions – and it is quite heart-warming to be part of that commitment now. 

In many instances, being able to use technology such as GIS and Remote Sensing has proven to be crucial to get the bigger picture that is often not visible from the field. Mapping the impact of disaster as fast and accurate as possible helps emergency coordinators on the ground to plan their response and target the most affected areas. I get to connect academic research to humanitarian applications, and this was only possible through continuously gaining optimum understanding of both worlds.

If you would like to learn more, here are some of my previous talks on the subject. 

There is nothing natural about disasters (TEDxPlaceDesNations)

We are the proof that the world is doing well (TEDxXIMEKochi)

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

I was deployed in Juba, South Sudan on a work mission to support an agency’s operations with geospatial mapping and analysis. I had an opportunity to sit with local women from a nearby refugee camp who made the best coffee I would ever taste, while sharing their life stories. With mounting uncertainties in every aspect of their lives, they remained cheerful and hopeful, but most importantly grateful for they believed they were still blessed to be alive and well. It is an experience that I hold dear, as it certainly changed the way I look at my own life.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • Instead of looking for a career option, look for the problems you want to solve
  • Take risks when you still can
  • Push your boundaries as far as you can – but know when you should give up and move on
  • Work will be a major part of your life so make sure you enjoy what you do and choose the one that excites you 
  • Devotion to duty is the highest form of worship. No matter what you do, work the hardest you can and with utmost passion
  • Never stop learning and 
  • Read as many books as you can 

Future Plans?

I don’t know what I want to be in the future (and I think it is okay not to know that). I do not have one specific goal, neither do I try to envision a single purpose in life, rather dream about several small things I might want to do. 

I might continue being in the UN world or move to an NGO or finally take the plunge and pursue a PhD. I might end up running a rural school or teaching in a community college. I might own a farm, grow a forest or build new things. Or I might hope to do a bit of all the above or take a detour and pursue something new that I don’t even know I want to do yet.

I do know I want to be useful to the community and society I live in, to be kind and lead a simple life, to cherish the little moments while holding the courage to face any challenges life might throw at me. 

No matter what the future holds in store, I remain excited to find out.