The journey from watching the majestic Himalayas on TV while growing up, to studying how mountains originated, by exploring them on the field, is one hell of a climb !

Vinee Srivastava, our next pathbreaker, Field Geologist, researches how mountains have formed and evolved as a result of natural forces such as big earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or the effect of wind, water and glaciers that have been active over millions of years.

Vinee talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about watching Earth documentaries on the National Geographic and Discovery channels that influenced her to learn more about our beautiful blue planet and its intricacies.

For students, if you are avid nature lovers, there is nothing better than having the opportunity to be amidst nature, make it your career in the process, and relive every moment understanding why our natural world is the way it is !

Vinee, tell us about Your background? 

I grew up in Allahabad (now Prayagraj). My father was in service and my mother was a homemaker who later became a dress-designer. My extended family consists of IAS and PCS Officers, lawyers and judges. Therefore, I was expected to prepare for competitive exams and follow their example. However, I always wanted to do something unconventional. My parents had always kept my wings unclipped and encouraged me to explore the sky. I was actively involved in theatre, did several plays, and visited new places that gave me an opportunity to learn and appreciate new locations, culture, people, cuisine and several other things. I always had an inquisitive nature and a range of interests while growing up. It ranged from being a dancer, sketch artist, stargazer; the love of nature was utmost. I was extremely enthusiastic and fascinated by the Universe and nature. The best part of being a kid is that you are free to dream. Initially I wanted to learn about the Universe, fueled by my several visits to the Nehru Planetarium, Prayagraj. However, I did not know how to pursue that interest due to lack of guidance as no one had a science background in my family. I also used to watch documentaries on the National Geographic and the Discovery channels. Two things happened because of this. First, being a nature lover, I got interested in the intricacies of the Earth and the processes associated with earthquakes, volcanoes, and mountains around the world. Second, I was in awe of these documentaries. The photography, extensive research on each topic, travel to access remote parts of the world be it peaks of huge mountain ranges or diving deep into the oceans really resonated with me. All this touched me deeply and motivated me to begin the journey that put me on the path to a career in field-based Earth Sciences.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I did BSc in Physics, Chemistry and Mathematics and a 1-year postgraduate diploma in Photojournalism and Visual Communications. This was followed by postgraduate degrees in M.Sc., Applied Geology and M.Tech., Geoexploration that led me to earn a doctoral degree in Earth Sciences with specialization in field-based structural geology. 

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

Key influencers: Watching Earth documentaries on the National Geographic and Discovery channels influenced me to learn more about our beautiful blue planet and its intricacies. I used to think how deadly and beautiful our planet Earth is. Seeing beautiful and huge mountains and landscapes around me intrigued me to learn about their origin and led me to study structural geology. 

People/Mentor: My father always had a key role in shaping my life by supporting and giving me freedom to make unconventional choices and provided unconditional support. During my post-graduation in M.Sc. Applied Geology at Allahabad University, my advisor Prof J. K. Pati and my friend and batch mate Mr. Atul Kr. Anurag helped me a lot to learn about the subject. They encouraged me, motivated me, and made sure that I stayed in geology although I did not have a background in geology. Their faith in me encouraged me to reach where I am today. My doctoral advisor Prof Malay Mukul, was an integral part of my successful doctoral journey. He not only taught me the subject but also emphasized the importance of constant learning, thinking and generating new ideas. Their collective, constant, and unconditional support and faith in my abilities has led to my unconventional thought process and career. 

Turning point: I visited the Nehru Science Center, Allahabad University as a part of one of my short-film making assignments during my Photojournalism and Visual Communication course. There I happened to visit the Earth and Planetary Science Department. The corridor of the department had various rock-samples on display and wall mounted maps with various topographical features. I felt as if the Universe showed me the next step towards my dream of combining my interests in visual communication and Earth Sciences. That led me to decide against accepting a job offer at ETV, Hyderabad and join the M.Sc. (Applied Geology) program at Earth and Planetary Science Department, Allahabad University. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? 

Today we are much more technologically advanced and it is easy to explore career options online. In the days when I was a student, we mostly relied on parental and family guidance. Being the eldest and in a family of administrative background, I did not get proper guidance to explore unconventional careers. Therefore, I took a break for a year and prepared for several engineering entrance exams after my Class 12, following the usual tradition in India. However, I was unsuccessful in this pursuit. This taught me that although failure is very disheartening it teaches you more than success. Maybe I lacked the real motivation needed to become an engineer. However, this failure kept my thirst alive for an unconventional, but satisfying career. I finished my graduation with physics, chemistry and mathematics to keep multiple options alive. However, by the time I finished my graduation, I was more mature and could explore the available options better. My fascination for making documentaries on the Earth and Earth processes was still alive inside me and that led me to a diploma in Photojournalism and Visual Communications. I learned various aspects of media techniques. I learned photography, the methodology to research a topic and the various aspects involved in making documentaries. I was aiming to join National Geographic and be part of their documentaries on the Earth. I was, however, still far away from my goal as I did not have a formal education in the Earth Sciences. Therefore, I applied for admission into the M.Sc. (Applied Geology) program at Allahabad University and fortunately was successful even though I did not study geology in my graduation. I finished my post-graduation in Applied Geology from the Allahabad University but only after a struggle as it was an advanced degree and I did not have a formal geology background. However, I realized that the subject was extremely interesting. I realized by the end of my M.Sc. that what I have learned about the Earth is barely adequate and i needed to learn more. However, I did feel a resonance with Earth Sciences. Consequently, I appeared for the GATE exam and joined the M. Tech. Geoexploration program at IIT Bombay with Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD) fellowship. This eventually led me to do a PhD. in structural geology from IIT Bombay.

How did you get your first break?

After my post-graduate diploma in Photojournalism and Visual communications, I got a job offer with ETV, Hyderabad. However, I decided to pursue higher education at that point and joined M.Sc. in Applied Geology at Allahabad University. I visited various parts of India during geological field trips during my M.Sc. and I got an opportunity to be close to nature during these trips. These field trips were about learning and understanding various geological structures as folds, faults, and joints that had formed over millions and even billions of years. It was indeed intriguing and amazing to know how various internal processes such as earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and external processes involving wind, water, glacier and meteoritic impacts have left imprints behind even after billions of years. Studies on mountain belts like the Himalaya and Vindhyans made me eager to study further and I joined the M.Tech. Geoexploration program at IITB. I also had a job opportunity from the Geological Survey of India (GSI) after completion of my M. Tech. However, I got fascinated by mountain belts and wanted to learn how they form and evolve. This led me to join the PhD program at IITB through a Ministry of Human Resources and Development (MHRD) fellowship and I worked on the frontal part of the Himalayas adjacent to Indo-Gangetic Plain in Dehradun and Darjeeling-Sikkim Himalayas. Right after I completed my PhD. I got my real first break into an unconventional career that I am passionate about and joined the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER) Bhopal as an Assistant Professor with a research interest in understanding the deformation and evolution of mountain belts like the Himalayas. 

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

Women & Geology: In India, that too in North India, it is not very easy for a woman to choose the career of a field geologist. Particularly as this involves rigorous fieldwork in the sun, storms, snow or rain. It is assumed to be an essential qualification for a girl to be presentable in terms of complexion, exquisiteness and fragility. However, geology does not discriminate between men or women. They both need to be tough, risk takers, tolerant and capable of handling challenging weather and field conditions. Despite various questions on my unconventional choices, I have chosen the career of a women field geologist accepting all challenges that come with it. This would not have been possible without the support of my parents.

Social Pressure: Being the eldest girl child in the family, the biggest challenge was to face the question of marriage. Fortunately, my parents have always supported me on this, although they have faced this question from friends and family. I have kept working towards my goals without paying much attention to social pressure as my parents have been supportive throughout. I could not have continued without the support of my parents as they have pretty much absorbed all the social pressure associated with my unconventional choices.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am a field geologist and an Assistant Professor with the responsibility primarily of research and teaching. My work involves studying how mountains formed and evolved over millions of years. All the mountains we see around us are the result of natural forces such as big earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, or the effect of wind, water and glaciers that have been active over millions of years. I have learned various aspects of conventional structural geology along with modern technologies like the Real Time Kinematic Global Navigation Satellite System (RTK-GNSS) system and have worked on integrating them. I have worked on the application of modern technological tools in structural geology to understand the formation and evolution of the Himalayan mountain belt during my PhD. My work involves going to the field in the Himalayas to collect structural data of the present-day orientation of deformed rocks. I also digitally quantify the present-day topography using the high precision RTK-GNSS tool and satellite based digital data. These data are processed, analyzed and visualized in the laboratory to understand the present-day geometry of the part of the mountain belt. I am interested to understand the mountain-building processes involved in more detail. If I am working in the field, my day starts around 7 am and continues till dusk and I spend the day collecting rocks samples for analysis in the laboratory, running GPS surveys and collecting structural data. In the lab, the day begins at 9 am mentoring students on processing field data and looking at thin-sections of rock samples under the microscope to seek signatures of deformation left in the rocks by the deformation that accompanied the mountain building process. In addition, I teach undergraduate students and try to inspire them to pursue a career in Earth Sciences.  As an avid nature lover, my work gives me an opportunity to work on my passion and earn my livelihood in the process. This is what I love about it! 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work involves studying the Earth on which we all live. Specifically, I look for signatures of past earthquakes that leave clues about the mountain building process and help to understand where future earthquakes might occur. In addition, my work also relates to understanding of landslides and response of rivers to the deformation accompanying the mountain building process that may trigger floods. The local governing bodies can use this information to assess the hazard and mitigation measures associated with them to minimize the damage to life and property in the communities living in these regions. 

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

I particularly remember a specific piece of work done during my PhD. We were able to identify signatures of multiple earthquakes in the frontal part of the Mohand Range southeast of Dehradun town. This work led to the discovery of the detailed geometry of the frontal fault in the Himalaya for the first time and helped provide significant new insights into a debate that had raged in the region for the last 25 years. The work on the frontal fault was also cited as a type example in a world-wide review published by a Norwegian scientist. I was quite thrilled about that!     

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  • “Dare to dream!” You can always have multiple dreams and can integrate them into one.  You have just this one beautiful life to live your dream(s). 
  • Do not be afraid to go for an unconventional path or into the unknown. The path less trodden is the most exciting!
  • Do not be afraid of having doubts. It is very natural and helps you to face challenges and grow. 
  • Do not get discouraged if things take time. Multiple attempts may be required to reach your destination. 
  • No matter how straight or tortuous path you might have to take to reach your final destination, it is the journey that is interesting and full of valuable experiences. 
  • Finally, yet importantly, never let anyone tell you “You Cannot!” 

Future Plans?

I am planning to continue using my skills in structural geology and combine it with modern technological tools to understand natural disasters better. I aim to help the communities living in susceptible regions by sharing my learning with them and through government bodies. I am still looking forward positively to combine my interest in documentary making and Earth Sciences and create something memorable in the future. That goal remains alive!