The real world teaches us a lot more than what formal education does, because books can never fully capture the complexities of the real world !

Rubini Santha Mahalingam, our next pathbreaker, applies spatial data and geohazard models to perform disaster (landslides/floods) mapping and analysis using GIS and remote sensing.

Rubini talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about growing up being fascinated by Rainforests and never wavering from her goal of working on natural hazard mitigation techniques inspite of interim hurdles in her career path.

For students, always remember that the real world poses challenging and unforeseen problems. Identify the problems you want to solve and seek out the solutions from formal education and experience.

Rubini, tell us about your background?

I grew up in a town 30 kms from Madurai city. My father worked for the southern railways, so I had several chances to visit the rainforest in the western ghats. My numerous visits to the interiors of the rain forest made me fall in love with the western ghats. During my high school I studied about climate change and its impact on the western ghats. 

During one such visit, I heard about the frequent landslides in the western ghats and how it impacts the local community. I heard a boy of my age (in the home stay we stayed) saying that the natural disasters such as landslides impact the poor people the most, and as a result, they are stuck in the poverty cycle for long. He mentioned about how he could not go to school because he had to help his father rebuild his house which was damaged due to monsoons. That statement stuck with me for long time, but I did not know what I could do about it. I was determined to do something, but was clueless back then. 

What did you study?

Due to lack of right guidance I did my undergraduate in Civil Engineering which did not resonate with my interests and goals that I wanted to achieve. Fortunately, I had a choice to align with my interests during my master’s and the awareness I gained during my UG helped me make right career choices after that. 

I have a UG degree in Civil Engineering. Masters in GIS and remote sensing and PhD in Geomatics engineering (Oregon State University). My focus during my PhD was on choosing the optimum spatial resolution for landslide modeling. I think the impact of the home stay experience during the monsoon in my school days directed me to the end goal of working with natural hazard mitigation techniques using remote sensing and GIS.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I knew I had that “one” interest in me that I want to be associated with the rain forests and natural hazards. I was determined to have a professional career close to it. Unfortunately, I lacked access to information which would take me closer to my goal. Only during the third year of my engineering I realized I should have taken environmental studies and focused on my thesis in rainforests. This was a crucial point where I had to make a choice whether to continue my engineering and then move to masters or let go of three years of engineering and start a fresh UG degree in environmental studies. 

By this time, I had made an inventory of the best colleges which offered courses matching my interests. I realized it was late to go back and waste three years, so I decided to finish my engineering degree and took a master’s degree in GIS and remote sensing. 

I had plenty of opportunities to study rainforests and make several field trips to the interiors of the western Ghats during my master’s degree. I understood that landslides are the most common natural hazard in that area during every monsoon and it can be mitigated to an extent.  I combined GIS and remote sensing tools to learn more about the landslides during my PhD.

In a nutshell, I did make wrong choices when I started my education journey due to lack of awareness and right guidance. I was fortunate enough to understand that I was in the track that would not take me to my goal in the early years of my engineering. I quickly sought guidance and approached experts in environmental studies on how I can align my career track without losing the years of studies. That helped me clear the blurry vision.

My mentors and my advisers also helped me connect the dots of from what I learnt in my UG degree to my PhD.

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

Disasters management was the best choice which would help me weave my engineering studies and GIS tools perfectly to have a career in disaster management and mitigation. 

So, I had to make another choice during the end of my masters whether to focus on a science-based or engineering based career while keeping my ultimate goal constant.

I had assessed the pros and cons of both the areas, and I felt using my engineering background and GIS expertise, I can be a part of the corporate and research world as well. Therefore, I decided to pursue my doctorate under the civil engineering department, but majoring in Geomatics engineering. My major gave me the flexibility to use my engineering background and GIS to assess the landslide impacts using GIS and remote sensing.

I think it is important to change the minor goal posts in order to reach the major goal. As much as I wanted to be a scientist, researching the rain forests in India, it was not straight forward to achieve it. There are other factors like getting the right opportunities, funding, a etc. We cannot rule out the crucial variable -family goals, and as a matter of fact, we also want to assure our parents that our career is solid ☺ and will have less dependency on them. So, all these contributed to changing my minor goal posts.

It worked out for me to an extent because I was flexible to change my minor goal posts here and there. For instance, although I did not get a chance to work directly with rain forests and western ghats in India, I attended workshops and conferences related to it and did some pro-bono assignments. This way I had kept my focus on the major goal. 

Teaching experience

As a part of my PhD, my adviser gave me opportunities to teach GIS to undergraduate students as a teaching assistant. So, that was another experience I cherished and fortunately, I was given an opportunity as Erasmus Teaching fellow where I exchanged industry and academic knowledge with graduate students in NOVA, IMS.

What was your key research in landslides?

Coastal communities in Oregon are highly dependent on only a few lifeline highway and utility corridors that locally route across the Coastal Range, connecting the coast with the Willamette Valley and the Interstate 5 lifeline corridor. However, these routes are frequently threatened by landslides, which can damage the roadway, block traffic, and threaten life safety. Understanding how landslides can impact these routes is important for planning, preparation, and resilience purposes. To this end, I analyzed the contribution of numerous factors to triggering landslide using multiple linear regression analysis. The key was, we used multiple input datasets for such analysis where I proposed on using LiDAR derived datasets to replace multiple datasets from various sources in order to reduce time involved in data collection and processing. This also reduces data uncertainty which is introduced in the source data which comes from various places. It is like “One ring to rule them all”, LiDAR derived key variables can substitute many variables used for landslide predictive mapping.

How did you get your first break?

I do not think there is something like first break. The journey has been rewarding and I believe it is going as intended. I started as a modeler in RMS where I worked solely on what I had learnt in my PhD, but I knew that was not enough to thrive in the industry. So, I moved as a data modeler where my work profile involved researching the data required for the Insurance sector.

I felt the need for landslides research is relatively less compared to the other hazards. So I decided to switch to Flood hazard. Interestingly that’s when we had so many flood related disasters and the ghats were heavily impacted by floods in that year. So, I took that change happily as I felt it is important to develop expertise in more than one hazard to understand how one hazard impacts the other.

All this while, although the decision was mine, the support system I had, helped me navigate through the decisions. My mentors, my managers, and advisers gave me the pros and cons of each decision and helped me in the transition. 

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

The major challenge I had was internal. I always kept asking if I am in the right track towards my goal. I addressed it purely by trial and error method and I think I have finally settled in the field where I want to be for the next few years. It took a while for me to admit the fact that it is okay to change fields. The day I admitted to myself, I think I started enjoying my work more.

How does your work benefit society? 

It is important to have purpose and meaning in what we do. Even if we can improve understanding and communication of flood risk by one percent, that is an extremely valuable contribution indeed – Dr. Butler from Ambiental had quoted this. I think this summarises the impacts of our work towards society.

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

I took some time off in 2016 to figure out what I exactly wanted to do as I was unsure. During those four months, my friend and I developed a mobile application to predict hotspots for Malaria and Dengue for few districts in South India. We showed it our civil servant friends and it was well received, and they were keen on taking it to the next level. The idea was to implement in the villages in the Western ghats. That’s when I felt I have done some bit towards the rainforest. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

It is okay to make wrong choices and realign the career when you find the existing one not working for you. 

Future Plans?

I recently applied for Exceptional Talent visa which I was granted. I think of this as a major milestone. The endorsement reassured that the journey I had taken in the professional front is meaningful so far. I felt the dots were connecting well and forming the desired big picture. At this moment, I want to continue learning the field I have chosen and excel in it. As I see it, floods and landslides are still major threats to the western ghats and occur very frequently. 

I want to continue doing what I am doing now and develop some useful and impactful tools which can be used to mitigate floods and landslides disasters using GIS.