Observing Galaxy Clusters and trying to understand their structure could provide significant clues to understanding the evolution of the universe and answering the basic question, “Where did we come from?”.

Nikhel Gupta, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher and Observational Cosmologist at the School of Physics, University of Melbourne, researches data collected from telescopes and satellites, to carry out simulations of the structures in the universe.

Nikhel talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being hooked onto Astronomy while analysing images of galaxy clusters, and developing techniques to detect anomalous signals in sky maps.

For students, Milky Way is one of the most well known galaxies known to us. There are many more waiting to be discovered. Take up Observational Astronomy to uncover and study newer galaxies !

Nikhel, tell us about your background?

I grew up in Pathankot, Punjab where I studied until my high school. Initially, my amateur wish was to become a heart surgeon, but I soon realized that my true interests are different. My background is as ordinary as any student studying in an affordable small city school.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I went to Panjab University, Chandigarh for my bachelor’s in Physics. While in Panjab University, I developed an initial interest in the field of astronomy. It was more like an extracurricular activity at that time as astronomy/astrophysics was not an elective that one could choose. Nevertheless, I decided to take on Astrophysics for my master’s studies in Germany.

I did my masters in Astrophysics/Cosmology from Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn / University of Bonn and PhD in Astrophysics from Ludwig-Maximilians Universität München

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

My career choice is a result of a lot of factors. My advisors in the bachelor’s course were keen on motivating students, and they encouraged me to pursue several things including possible career paths in Physics.

I think one of the events that motivated me to choose Astrophysics was a summer school I attended in IISER, Mohali. A series of lectures about Astronomy made me think about several problems that scientists were trying to solve at that time.

By the beginning of the final year of my bachelor’s program, I made up my mind to give Astronomy a try. At that time, there were not many opportunities in the Northern India to pursue a career in Astronomy research. In addition, I wanted to try my luck with the reputed institutions in the field in Germany. I chose Germany due to free education system of the country (I could not afford education in countries like US/UK although there are excellent institutions there as well). I had good grades and with the support of my advisors I had a good record of extra-curricular activities. For instance, I worked on a couple of experimental physics projects, and I was able to publish/present my work at the Chandigarh Science Congress (not sure if that was impressive to selectors though). A major turning point was my acceptance in master’s programs at three major universities in Germany. 

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

During my master’s studies I grew a strong interest in the science of the evolution of the Universe i.e. Cosmology. After finishing my first-year course work, I started my master’s thesis work in the field of Cosmology. This is when I was sure that I want to pursue this field of research. My masters in Astrophysics subsequently led to PhD studies jointly at Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich (LMU) and Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics (MPIfR), Garching. During my PhD, I continued working in the field of Cosmology using the data from world class facilities like the South Pole Telescope (SPT) and the Dark Energy Survey (DES). With the help of my supervisors and global collaborations I worked towards understanding the statistical properties of the galaxy clusters that are the largest gravitationally bound structures in the Universe. The work done in Munich with collaborators across all continents (including the South Pole) led to about 10 peer reviewed scientific publications and a PhD thesis.

How did you get your first break? 

During the final year of my PhD studies, I started to look for Post-doctoral positions around the world. The process is generally hectic as the number of positions reduce as you move up the ladder in a research field. I was lucky to have offers from two Universities out of a total of five I had applied for. I accepted the postdoctoral research position at the School of Physics, University of Melbourne. Although Australia is known as a travel destination rather than a research center, it turned out to be a big misconception. I was intrigued by the amount and quality of research opportunities in the country. Another important reason to accept the position at the University of Melbourne was the opportunity to continue my research in the field of galaxy clusters in collaboration with SPT and DES research teams.

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

There are several challenges that one comes across in everyday research. The journey so far from being a school kid to this position has been super interesting with some regular setbacks.

Challenge 1: During my bachelor’s, one of the harshest challenges was to cope up with life away from family as well as the regular routine of University life. This along with identifying career options was challenging. I believe that both with the help of friends I made in the University and the genuine advice from the Professors helped me achieve my goals. I’d like to add that the time spent in Panjab University was among the happiest times of my life which reflected on my grades as well as career growth.

Challenge 2: During my master’s in Germany, though the challenges were similar, there was another big factor of adjustment to a different culture. Coming from a ordinary family, I was fortunate to have a living scholarship and the free education system in Germany helped me overcome financial hardship. This helped me focus on my studies and extracurricular activities throughout my masters. I was also fortunate to have excellent advisors who helped me to excel in my field of interest. I had no doubt that I wished to pursue my career as an Astrophysicist by the end of my master studies. I often joke that I haven’t learnt as much in my entire life prior to my masters compared to the first two years in Germany. I believe that the free education system is the basis of developing a scientific society and I will always be grateful to Germany for what I have or may achieve in the future.

Challenge 3: 

Life afterwards was easier when I was offered a PhD position in one of the highest ranked places for Astronomy on the planet. I was happy to have started paying taxes in Germany. From the beginning of my PhD studies at LMU/MPIfR, I was motivated to learn and offer my humble contribution in the field of research. I joined big collaborations like SPT and DES and had access to world class research around the world. In this long journey (3.5 years), I faced several challenges and one of them was to cope with the time that seemed to run faster than the speed of light. With some efficient day to day planning, I was able to overcome that challenge. With the support of my supervisors, I was confident that i would achieve my doctorate well within the time limits.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am currently working as a postdoctoral researcher at the School of Physics, University of Melbourne. I consider myself an Observational Cosmologist. My research is based on the data collected from telescopes and satellites, as well as the simulations of the structures in the universe.

I work towards understanding the evolution of the Universe from the so-called “Big Bang” to its present stage and the reasons behind the structures that we see in the Universe. More technically, I study the structures in galaxy clusters (like radio galaxies), the inhomogeneities in the cosmic microwave background (that resulted into galaxies that we see today), and develop machine learning techniques to solve problems in Cosmology etc.

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

One needs a PhD in Astronomy, excellent computer programming skills and an appetite to solve problems (latter is independent of the field though).

What is a typical day like?

My typical day is going to office (home office in COVID-19 times), making a plan for the day, working with Masters and PhD students, taking part in seminars and research talks, engaging in several discussions about the work, and most days, sitting on the desk and working on developing computer pipelines to solve problems. 

What is it you love about this job? 

There are several things. I feel fortunate that I am being paid for the work that I love to do. One special perk is the sponsored travel around the world. I have been fortunate to travel to more than twenty countries to take part in conferences and collaborative meetings in several corners of the planet.

How does your work benefit society? 

A basic question, “Where did we come from?”, is important to all human societies. The studies of the beginning and the evolution of the Universe contributes to the modern understanding of our origins. Such studies build the scientific basis of our societies (that is still superstitious about a simple phenomenon of solar eclipse). My research is a small contribution towards such a huge venture. 

In addition, astronomy research is known to benefit the economy by developing advanced scientific analysis skills for ‘Big Data’. Developing tools to handle Petabyte data sets are central to today’s economy. Application of techniques developed in Astronomy enhance the capacity for innovation in the fields of finance and technology. 

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

I enjoy working on several different things, so I do not have a one specific example. There are things like the first time I performed analysis with images of galaxy clusters, developing techniques to detect anomalous signals in the sky maps, etc. The list is technical and long so I would rather not bore the readers.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I usually have one simple advice for students. I think it’s important to identify the field that you are truly interested in. This comes with a lot of reading about exciting discoveries, discussions with professionals and taking part in the extra-curricular activities. Regardless of what you wish to do or are interested in doing with your life, I have always believed that the most important technique is to follow your instincts and do something that makes you happy.

Future Plans?

I am going to complete my research work at University of Melbourne and soon will be joining a CSIRO research team in Perth, Australia. My long-term plans include development of the research partnerships between the academia and the industry to support and benefit from the accelerated growth of technology.