Research can be truly enriching when the results from the lab trickle into society in the form of innovations that drive economic and social development.

Chaitanya Giri, our next pathbreaker, works as a technostrategic analyst, monitoring the impact of cutting-edge technologies on various governments, and the way these technologies percolate into military and civilian sectors.

Chaitanya talks to  Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his inter-disciplinary experience as an Astrochemistry researcher and then transitioning to technostrategic analysis to ensure that the industry, government and the society on the whole reap the benefit of research and innovation.

For students, research is no longer about working in a bubble, its about understanding different perspectives and looking at the bigger picture !

Chaitanya, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Mumbai as a kid immersed in picture books on outer space, science fiction movies, and a lot of extracurricular activities particularly scholastic science projects and a lot of cricket. I used to write a lot, my own science-fiction, for my own consumption.

My family had subscribed to numerous science magazines, seeing my fascination for outer space, geology and evolutionary science. I remember, there was a National Geographic issue, from August 1998, with a cover photo that spoke Return to Mars. It was a special issue on the NASA Sojourner mission, and the images in that issue were 3D, a novelty in those times. That issue got me tremendously fascinated. I began to understand the nitty-gritties of a spacecraft and their payloads. This was something never taught in any of the schools. Looking back, I now realize that my self-learning began there. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I completed my Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry, Microbiology and Life Sciences from Ramnarain Ruia College in Mumbai. Those were some of the most wonderful times, reminiscing back. I learnt diligently what my teacher’s taught, as well as participating in extracurricular activities, be it performing arts or science projects. My college and my teachers taught me the virtue of extending their training into the real world, particularly into astrochemistry.

After studying an interdisciplinary subject known as Biophysics for my Master’s degree from University of Mumbai, I later on secured a PhD position in France at the University of Nice. I put all my under-graduate training to good use during my PhD in astrochemistry. 

My PhD was more or less like an industrial experience as I was always based remotely, not in France, but in Germany at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research. My PhD advisors gave me time-bound targets, my work was evaluated at regular intervals, I had to proactively steer my project with minimum advice, and bring in novelty to the project, which was actually a space mission to a comet – known as Rosetta. 

As a PhD student, I was managing a major instrument on the lander of the Rosetta mission. With this mission, we, for the very first time, landed on a comet. The instrument that I worked on, COSAC, discovered numerous molecules on the comet, many of which play a role in the origin of life on Earth.

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

I think, the exposure that I received through scientific books, at a very young age, allowed me to think freely about the mysteries of nature. Space being humanity’s next frontier, and the immense mysteries it holds only intrigued me. A genuine intrigue is enough to make one impassioned. 

I am also indebted to my grandparents, who through the stories of Indian epics, the fabled and ancient history of India, taught me many aspects which are never taught in any school curriculum. I used to attend sermon sessions of Ramayana, Vishnu Purana, Bhagavad Gita, Savitri – the epic poem of Sri Aurobindo Ghosh, and the history of Chatrapati Shivaji Maharaj, Maharana Pratap, Guru Gobind Singh, and many other Indian legends shaped my choice of career. 

These learnings indirectly contributed to my curiosity of nature, and also to converting that curiosity into a full-fledged profession.

Typically professionals pursue their Bachelor’s, Master’s and PhD, in the same discipline. I was also told of not moving into Biophysics, if I was intending to do a PhD in Chemistry. But, I took that decision because modern science is trans-disciplinary. The wider range of subjects one learns, the more enriched scientific experience he/she gets. I abided by that common sense. None of the Indian courses were tuned to space sciences. But since I wanted to study astrochemistry, i knew that a subject like biophysics, which includes gravitational biophysics (effect of micro-gravity on biology) or radiation biophysics (effect of radiation on biology) would give me a better perspective. The topics that I learned during my Master’s, helped me bridge the gap between conventional – organic, inorganic, physical and analytical – chemistry that I learned during my Bachelor’s and the chemistry (astrochemistry) and biology (astrobiology) of astronomical sciences. 

Here again, I will suggest, that if you are clear in your mind – you will be able to sail through some tough and off-beat education streams too. 

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

While I was doing my PhD, I came across numerous scientific societies and industry bodies that widened my horizon about how these institutions perceive scientific research done in universities. I realized that a scientist does not work in seclusion. He/She has to consider what would the industry, government, municipal corporation, start-ups, or the wider academia, unrelated to your research get from your research. I realized that thanks to the wonderful exposure that I received in Germany. 

I was part of Germany’s prestigious Gottingen Academy of Science & Humanities” on “Origins of Life”. The academy had biochemists, geologists, physicists, all looking at origin of life from different perspectives. This too was a learning experience, where I realized that scientists do not always sit in their own little cubby-holes, they do come out and do some wonderful deliberation and transdisciplinary research. 

I was lucky to move to my next position as a Astromaterials Scientist as ELSI Origins Network (EON) Research Fellow at Tokyo Institute of Technology for 2 years. This position allowed me to undertake research at Carnegie Institution for Science and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. I transformed the research I did on comets with Rosetta, into the research on the earliest materials formed in our solar system. This too was an enriching experience, as I met numerous transdisciplinary scientists, learnt how financial institutions are involved in funding cutting-edge science and what technologies like machine learning, Artificial Intelligence could do to origin of life. I was part of teams, where we were laying the foundation for next-generation space missions where space-crafts would be designed to mine asteroids. 

This vastly diverse experience shaped my next decision – to move from laboratory-based astromaterials science to technostrategic analysis. 

Although I am trained in astrochemistry, with 8 years of career experience in this scientific domain, I have now made a concerted effort to move into a related but rarely explored area known as technostrategic analyses.

One reason for this transition is my continuous comprehension that high-technology is beneficial only to a few tenacious societies and what should be done so that India becomes a high-technology innovator and a global leader. 

After my working hours as a scientist, I began analyzing my own professional sector for its political, military and strategic implications. I realized that although it is a vocation of great importance, it does not have job opportunities nor does it have an ear-marked career progression. 

However, a good formal education, a strong early-career experience, academic laurels and a supportive family and friend circle helps me overcome all these odds. 

How did you get your first break?

When I decided to take the plunge into a new area as a professional technostrategic analyst, the first institution that understood the value of my vocation was Gateway House. I have been working with them for more than eight years. We began slow and steady, after a sincere mutual admiration, but subsequently the analysis that I generated for them started gathering traction with numerous stakeholders, be it the space technology industry, venture capitalists, foreign space agencies, as well as the Indian government. 

My first break came from a nice email and my relentless attitude to reach out to new people and set new collaborations.

I will suggest to my dear young friends that hesitation often inhibits your vast potential. Learn to overcome hesitation and you will unleash all that you are capable of. 

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

Challenges come daily. A professional life is all about overcoming the roadblocks, challenges and bringing back the ‘car’ of your aspiration on the road and making progress. 

Comprehending science in today’s times, when technology is evolving at break-neck speeds, is a major challenge. 

Maintaining a work-life balance and good health while pursuing a demanding career is another challenge. 

Adapting to newer working environments, collaborating with people of varied sensibilities, and yet attaining success with such cross-cultural teams is another challenge.

But, most of these challenges can be easily overcome if one is passionate enough. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

As mentioned earlier, I work as a technostrategic analyst, monitor the impact of cutting-edge technologies on various governments, the way they perceive and approach them, the way these technologies shape their national policies and strategies, and the way these technologies percolate into military and civilian sectors.

I don’t solve problems per se, but I foresee problems before they arise and alert many stakeholders much before the problem comes knocking on their doors. Some may think I am a sooth-sayer or a palm-reader, but that is not the case.

Such a proficiency demands one to be a thorough subject-matter expert, one needs to study their study area day in and day out. We need to keep a tab on recent scientific developments, keep an eye on various projects, understand their market, their commercial value so on and so forth. It demands me to think like a scientist, a management guru, a politician, an entrepreneur and a common man at the same time. No school, college or university teaches these skills, the only teacher is your own experience. 

Just to give away a typical day, my task is to meet professionals from the space industry, from foreign embassies/consulates, visit space technology factories, space agencies, and make a frank analysis that helps the government and various independent companies and bodies, update them if things in the technology and space industry sectors are working favorably for our national interests.

My job allows me to meet a diverse group of people, all coming from different professions, cultures, and ideological backgrounds. My job is not monotonous and I love it that way. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My analyses are entirely in India’s national interests. It benefits our academia, our industry, our policy makers, our government equally. They benefit often from my forecasts as their problems are tackled much before they arise.

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

The five years that I dedicated to the Rosetta mission, during my PhD and postdoctoral days, are very close to me. I acquired skills, honed my temperament, my world-view matured and I experienced a truly multinational professional experience. The experience gave me my first prestigious award, the Dieter Rampacher Prize of Max Planck Society, Germany, and I made many friends and mentors. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I have three suggestions. Number one be respectful to those who teach you. Number two extend what they teach and connect those teachings with your own passions. And number three, keep honing your hands-on technical and soft skills every 2-3 years and self-learn new ones.

Future Plans?

I plan to expand my proficiency as a technostrategic analyst and keep doing good work.