Being amidst nature and witnessing it in its raw form can take your breath away, not just for its sheer beauty, but also due to the unforgivingly hostile environment.

Anirudha Mahagaonkar, our next pathbreaker, works as doctoral researcher at the Norwegian Polar Institute (www.npolar.no), Tromsø, Norway, studying the changing features in the Antarctic Ice Sheets and trying to understand their evolution using satellite based optical, microwave and altimetry products.

Anirudha talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about preparing himself for the physical rigors of being a Glaciologist by undertaking a 28 day long, rigorous, mountaineering course with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling.

For students, very few have the privilege of exploring one of the harshest and most extreme terrains in the world, not for fun but for the benefit of our environment. Take up a career in Glaciology if you want to be one of them !

Anirudha, tell us about your background?

Born in an extremely middle-class family, I grew up and undertook my education in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. My father, who was a businessman and my mother, who was a full-time caretaker of 3 notorious kids, made sure we got good quality education, irrespective of our financial conditions and other struggles. 

As a child I never had any specific hobbies as such, and was highly influenced by external elements such as movies, magazines and newspaper articles about what I was interested in or what I wanted to become after growing old. But, the science exhibitions that happened in our school were of great interest to me, and I always thought it would be nice to become a scientist. It would be fair to mention – there were also oscillating thoughts of getting into creative designing or journalism at times.  

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

For reasons that remain personal, I decided not to pursue engineering and decided to take up a graduation in one of the science subjects. I did my under-graduation in Biochemistry. During my final year of under-grad – when we were submitting our final project reports – I had an opportunity to volunteer for the Tiger Census program at KMTR Tiger Reserve, Tirunelveli Dist, TN. That’s where my current desire was born – to be an environmental conservationist. I started this journey with a Master’s in Ecology and Environmental Sciences with a desire to get into wildlife conservation.  

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

But now I am a glaciologist, and a scientist of-course, by profession. We study the dynamics of glaciers, their characteristics and their evolution as a part of our work. While we have field-glaciologists who physically measure, assess and observe changes; I specialize with remote sensing based glaciology where we study changes to the cryosphere with the help of satellite products. 

It was a newspaper article that appeared in ‘The Hindu’ in around May 2014, that ignited my interest and curiosity to work on glaciers in the Himalayas. I got selected for a PhD program at IIT Guwahati, which unfortunately didn’t specialize with wildlife and ecology based research. That gave me an opportunity to delve deeper into the newly-developed-interest of glaciology, and I decided to take it up as a part of my research.  

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

As I started my glaciological research at IIT Guwahati, I realized I was not equipped with the knowledge required to undertake a PhD level research. I started looking for training and workshops that would offer any kind of glaciological knowledge. I got selected for the Indo-Swiss capacity building programme in Himalayan Glaciology, that was organized by the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) and Department of Science and Technology, Govt. of India. That is the foundation to what I am today. That intensive training program gave me the confidence to become a glaciologist and pursue the career that I am standing with right now!

The training programme was an initiative by DST, Govt of India towards training researchers towards becoming glaciologists, primarily for studying Himalayas. Starting from what glaciers are to their physics, processes and evolution, we were taught almost everything that a glaciologist should know over 4 months of time. We were also taken on a 22day field expedition to the Chhota Shigri Glacier in the Western Himalayan region to demonstrate and equip us with the required field skills that would help us understand these critical elements and their processes practically. 

Since then, there have been several training programmes that I have participated in to equip myself with the required knowledge and expertise. Half-way-through my research, I realized the importance of satellite remote sensing in modern glaciology, and decided to pursue a second master’s in a related subject. 

I applied to the prestigious remote sensing institute of India, the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS-ISRO) which is run by the Indian Space Research Organization and was fortunate to be selected as one of the few students of that batch. But as I was in middle of my research at IIT Guwahati, I had to quit the program to pursue this course which I understood was very, very important. After 3 years today, I have only realized how important that decision has been to my career. 

The master’s course was a joint education programme between IIRS, Dehradun and ITC, University of Twente, The Netherlands. It helped me gain expertise over using satellite images for different applications of Earth and Earth processes, and I specialized with glaciological applications due to my existing interests. This I would call the turning point that gave me everything that I wanted to become a glaciological scientist. 

Soon after completing the 2nd master’s I got an opportunity to work with CSRE, IIT Bombay as a research fellow on a DST sponsored project to understand glaciers in the Himalayas using Microwave Remote Sensing (a skill that I had recently learned). 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

The biggest challenge was my technical ability to take up a research that I was not specialized in. I managed to overcome this by extensive reading of scientific literature and attending training programs from experts. I also went to the extent of writing an email to a scientist requesting him to train me on a few things – and yes – he agreed! My realization about importance of satellite remote sensing in modern glaciology came a little late, and that put me in a really tough spot of deciding ‘continue my existing research, or pause everything for a couple of years and come back stronger (with more skills) to continue the research’. I decided the latter, and this was probably one of the toughest decisions of my life. 

Another challenge was my physical ability to be in the field for surveys, measurements and sampling. To overcome this, I undertook a 28 day long, rigorous, mountaineering course with the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, Darjeeling. This course was so harsh that I lost 10kgs of my weight in 28 days, but I am now aware of rock and ice craft, emergency survival and rescue techniques – which are very important when on scientific glacial expeditions into the mighty Himalayas.

Where do you work now? 

I now work as a doctoral researcher with the Norwegian Polar Institute (www.npolar.no), Tromsø, Norway and we here are trying to study the changing features in the Antarctic Ice Sheets and understand their evolution using satellite based optical, microwave and altimetry products. Our studies help other researchers estimate mass losses and sea-level rise, and also model future conditions of ice sheets, weather and global-climate. 

How does your work benefit society? 

With the work we as glaciologists do, the world gets to know about the changes that are happening at the most inaccessible corners (glaciers and ice-sheets) of the world due to our everyday actions (in the form of causing pollution and unsustainable living). We and climate modelers exchange data to gain a better understanding, and policy and lawmakers can, essentially, make use of these findings to draft sustainable and good-for-the-future-world policies. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Pursue your dreams, however crazy they are. Don’t fall for peer pressure and always remember – you are running your own race. Don’t look around about how others are doing in life. 

And, most importantly, believe in yourself! 

Future Plans

Continue my glaciology journey as long as I can. Also, start educating children right from tender-ages about environmental sustainability – which our education system unfortunately fails doing!

Note: 

In case you wish to pursue a similar career, or want to get to know anything about our work, please feel free to write back at anirudha.vm@gmail.com. It will be more than a pleasure to let you know what opportunities exist!