The increasing frequency of Environmental Catastrophes on our planet can be attributed to landscape changes, rampant urbanization, climate change and many more factors. Remote sensing provides a lens into understanding these hazards in order to take preventive measures.

Rajchandar Padmanabhan, our next pathbreaker, Geospatial Information Scientist at University of Lisbon (ISA) (Instituto Superior de Agronomia), forecasts forest fires using satellite data.

Rajchandar talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about firming up his vision to pursue Geo-Informatics after being introduced to a module relating to the earth, space, and the world that we see every day.

For students, understanding our planet and taking corrective action is not just a career, its our obligation to future generations. Take up a career in Geo-Informatics to observe and track structural changes impacting our planet.

Rajchandar, tell us about your background?

I was born and raised in Kanyakumari district (Tamilnadu), in a small village called Suchindrum. My dad Mr. Padmanabhan Durairaj worked in the Tamilnadu Forest department and mom Ms. Muthulakshmi Padmanabhan worked in  State Bank of India (SBI). We were a middle-class family. My dad got an early retirement at the age of 40, due to health issues. Because of the debts and other family problems we were struggling to run our family in the early stages, it was a difficult endeavour. I had an undying love for marine engineering, but wasn’t sure if I wanted it as my career choice. I couldn’t secure high marks in high school, so I had to choose a private college in my district. And this later paved a way to mould my career as well.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I pursued my Bachelor of Engineering (B.E) in  Electronics and Communication from Cape Institute of Technology affiliated to Anna University, Chennai. Since my college couldn’t get the proper approval for the marine engineering stream, I chose Electronics and Communication Engineering and finished the course well and fine. Then, I started a software business (Krichez Technologies) with my friend B.M Krishna after my bachelor’s. We had nearly 30 people working in our company. I also pursued a Master in Business Administration (MBA) specialization in Human Resources at Madras University, Chennai in parallel. I wanted to concentrate more on my studies after completing my MBA, so I left business to my friend. I then did another master’s course (M.Tech) at the Anna University of Technology, Tirunelveli in Remote Sensing. Furthermore, I chose to pursue my Ph.D. and got admission into University College London (UCL), which is 4th in the world and 1st in London (in 2013). But due to high tuition fees, I was unable to pursue the course and hence chose to pursue another master’s. With proper guidance from foreign professors I opted to do another Master of Science (MS) in Geo-Informatics from the University of Muenster, Germany. Later, i finished my Ph.D. in Geographical Information System from the NOVA IMS, University of Lisbon, Portugal.

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

My mother has been my key influencer throughout my childhood. And she still is. From my preliminary phase, she often encouraged me. She taught me a lot and moulded me to become a better man. My pivotal moment is when I got the opportunity to do a Ph.D. in University College London. However, due to my family’s economic position, I didn’t do my Ph.D. I felt devastated because of this hindrance and it fuelled me to work hard.

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

My career had no proper direction in the beginning. My mother dreamt of me becoming a doctor, but I couldn’t pass the medical entrance exam. I intended to become a Marine Engineer but unfortunately, my college couldn’t get the proper marine engineering approval, thus I chose Electronics and Communication Engineering. I had no idea about my career even before the final semester of my bachelor’s degree. Then I started a business and ended up losing money. While managing my firm I pursued a management degree. Then I opted to work and eventually ended up in an American company in Chennai, Tamilnadu in a BPO (Voice Call), which typically operates night shifts. I just went there for 6 days because I couldn’t accustom myself to the graveyard shift.

Subsequently, i managed to get a job inside the IIT campus in the Bulk Messaging Service Unit, Chennai run by an IIT researcher. I got increasingly frustrated with that and decided to quit the job. I then appeared for the master’s entrance exam, TANCET and obtained a respectable score. I got a master’s degree in Remote Sensing branch from Anna University, Tirunelveli, which was a new topic to me. But I enjoyed the module relating to the earth, space, and the world that we see every day. That was the first time I got a perfect vision of what I would like to do for the rest of my life.

By doing a master’s thesis at the Central Marine Fishery Research Institute under the supervision of Assistant Professor Ms. Devi, I completed my Master’s with 90%. I gained admission into London University College (UCL), 4th in the world, and 1st in London (in 2013) to pursue my Ph.D. But I couldn’t pursue the course due to high tuition fees, and so decided to pursue another master course. I, therefore, chose to pursue another master’s degree in Geo-Informatics from the University of Münster, Germany, with the necessary guidance of foreign professors. 

Dr. Karuppasamy, the assistant professor from Anna University, Tirunelveli, was the key influencer who guided me in selecting Germany to attain a master’s degree. I worked for six months as an intern at the Spatio-Temporal Modelling Lab, IFGI, GMES4Mining, Germany, where i used array data to examine the growth of wetlands in post-mining regions, analyzing changes in vegetation and health using R programming, examining subsidence events in the mining area. Mapping Kirchheller Heide’s Landuse and Landcover were also some of my responsibilities. 

Then I worked as a GIS specialist trainee at Hansa Luftbild, German Air Surveys in Germany for 6 months. My responsibilities were Mobile Mapping with HLmap3D (Hansa Luftbild map 3 Dimension), Quality management and quality controls on the Berlin 3Dmap project, Digitization of street inventory on the basis of an object catalogue and Optimizing accuracy of 3D-video data on the basis of GCP. I did my final thesis at Hansa Luftbild under the supervision of Dr. Angela Schwering and developed a Navigation system for visually challenged people and now it’s a part of Berlin, Germany city project.

After finishing my third Master’s, under the supervision of Dr. Pedro Cabral, I was admitted to Ph.D. in Geographical Information Systems at NOVAIMS, the University of Lisbon. I completed my Ph.D. in 2 years with his excellent guidance and waited for another year to complete the minimum required completion years to defend my Ph.D. thesis (3 years). Meanwhile, I returned to India and worked at VOC College of Engineering (UVOCCET), Anna University, Thoothukudi Campus, as an assistant professor. Although I have teaching experience as an Assistant Professor before, the first day at UVOCCET is an unforgettable day. As my first subject for the 2017-2021 batch of geoinformatics engineering, I handled Geoinformatics with 47 students.

I defended my Ph.D. thesis “A remote sensing approach to the quantification of local to global scale social-ecological impacts of anthropogenic landscape changes” in 2019 with distinction. Then I applied for Post-Doc in many countries and got selected in Forest Research Centre, Institute for Agriculture, University of Lisbon. Now, as a Geospatial Information Scientist, I am analyzing the vegetation status in the spring of 2017 using vegetation indices to identify the factors contributing to the exceptionality of the fires of that year, developing a burned area classification algorithm to monitor the evolution of the burned area and fire severity throughout the fire season using Sentinel-2 imagery and obtaining maps of fire frequency and fire return interval for the period 1975-2017, with Landsat imagery.

How did you get your first break? 

I started my own business after I completed my bachelor’s degree. This gave me a little bit of encouragement to do my masters abroad 2 years later. I think this break is the turning point in my life because I wouldn’t have pursued my doctorate and my dreams if I had continued my business.

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

I’ve had so many challenges while doing masters. Economically, I’ve had to do a lot of part-time work like a delivery man, a cleaning boy, a Pizza baker, and the worst case is eating food improperly, sometimes when I was really tired and I can’t even go to the kitchen to have dinner or lunch. Another major challenge has been the weather conditions, there is a lot of difference between my native weather and European weather. At some point in the year, it was really cold, which is very difficult to cope with. Cultural transition was initially, one of the major challenges I had to endure.

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

I am currently working at the School of Agriculture, University of Lisbon (ISA) (Instituto Superior de Agronomia) as a Geospatial Information Scientist. My role is to forecast forest fire using satellite data from the last 30 years. There will often be forest fires in Portugal and many lands have been burned. So my job is to forecast  fire based on the main factors causing this environmental catastrophe. The skills you needed to do this job is to know a variety of language programs, handling satellite images and everything about computer models and forest land. Although you will be required to work on computers for more than 8 hours, eventually, because of its colourfulness, you will start to enjoy the job and learn innovative concepts every day, which will give you a lot of satisfaction.

How does your work benefit society? 

I help forecasting landscape changes, forest fire, urbanization, and climate changes. This will help prevent catastrophic events and avert significant losses. It’s beneficial for everyone.

We initiated an organization for students entitled Ekalaivan Tamil (https://www.ekalaivantamil.com) along with my friend Dr. Rubini from United Kingdom and my cousin Dharani. R from Thoothukudi. 

We teach science and conduct other exciting events free of charge to Tamilnadu high school students on weekends. It will help them learn a lot from us. We will teach them a lot about the weather pattern and recent changes over the years. We also guide them to saving environment. We consider that educating the students is the best way to make a positive contribution to society.

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

My most memorable work, close to my heart, was doing my Ph.D. While others have trouble finishing it in 3 or 4 years, I finished it in less than 2 years. I was praised by the Dean of the University and Professors, so this is very memorable and close to my heart.

Your advice to students based on your experience

My advice to students is to study well, don’t memorize the ideas. Try to understand the concepts and do deep learning in any concepts you study. Don’t feel sorry about poor results, reinforce the weak areas. Have a dream or vision and work hard to make it happen. Respect your parents and don’t get upset with someone just be happy and always smile as peace starts with a smile. Always have patience when doing your research so you won’t make many mistakes.

Future Plans?

Learning – Teaching – Helping 

To know more about my work – www.rajchandar.com