A journey sparked by childhood fascination for the night sky, and that has paved the way for designing, fabricating and building antennas to study Solar Radiation, is one hell of an astronomical ride !

Hariharan Krishnan, our next pathbreaker, Post-Doctoral Research Scholar at Arizona State University (ASU), studies astronomical sources to better understand the nature of the radiation from these sources.

Hariharan talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his first solar observation using the first antenna he designed and fabricated, and the exhilarating feeling of applying his engineering skills to observe an astrophysical object.

For students, the only qualification that you need to pursue a career of your choice is, the relentlessness and determination to succeed in your life goals.

Hariharan, tell us about Your background?

I’m an Astronomer by profession. I was born and grew-up in Chennai city in a middle-class family, my parents had settled in Chennai because of their jobs. My father was born in Gudiyatham and grew up in Kanchipuram. He worked and retired as State govt. employee from the revenue department in Chennai. My mother was from Kumbakonam, worked and retired from BSNL in Chennai. Upto Xth grade I studied at St.John’s Senior Secondary School (CBSE) and later moved to Vidya Mandir Senior Secondary School (CBSE). I was interested in astronomy from a young age. So I took up science stream with computer science as major in XI & XII as I was not interested in biology / bio-tech options. I continue my hobby of collecting stamps, currency coins and old Indian rare currency notes. I play some sports like  badminton, table tennis, cricket and volleyball. I also pursue astro-photography using cheaper methods with small telescopes and mobile phone.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation ?

After school, I wanted to pursue a Bachelors degree course (B.Sc.) in physics but instead did my Bachelors degree (B.E.) in Electronics & Instrumentation Engineering at St.Joseph’s College of Engineering under Anna University in 2010. After that, I joined and completed an Integrated M.Tech.-PhD.(Tech) in Astronomical Instrumentation at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAp) in 2017. I later worked as a visiting Post-Doctoral Fellow at the National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) and am currently working as a Post-Doctoral Research Scholar at Arizona State University (ASU).

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

I was always interested in science from a young age. I used to ask the questions “Why/How ?”  to my parents and teachers, to understand things around me. Sometimes I got answers and sometimes I did not, but the motivation to know the answers never died. I used to spend hours looking at the sky, planets, stars and it was always interesting to me. Ironically, I did not have or develop the habit of reading books at any point (which I regret sometimes) and we did not have a computer at home until I was in the third year of my under-graduation. I guess the curiosity in me persisted and that was the prime driver. 

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

I was initially uninterested in Engineering, but later got excited while studying electronics and successfully completed the course. But I was very much interested in Astronomy and I started to think how I could use my engineering skills in Astronomy while in my third year of my under-graduate course. I decided to study further, but did not know how to transition from Engineering to Astronomy. We did not have a computer at home until my final year, so I used to visit browsing centers where I spent most of my time reading astronomy and climate science related articles. One fine day, I came across an advertisement for a job posting at the Indian Institute of Astrophysics (IIAp), Bangalore, in the newspaper. Since I was not very keen on studying abroad, I searched for research labs/institutes related to Astronomy all over India and post-graduate courses or jobs in Astronomy at those institutes. I found that IIAp had just started an Integrated M.Tech-PhD.(Tech.) program in Astronomical Instrumentation in collaboration with Calcutta University in 2008. Since I was graduating in 2010, at the start of my final year in 2009, I decided that this was the best option and started to look at the admission process. I had other choices like an M.Sc. Physics course at Pune University and some of the IITs. My other interest was climate science as I was interested in planetary astronomy then. I realized I had to take entrance examinations like Graduate Aptitude Test in Engineering (GATE), Joint Entrance Screening Test (JEST), Joint Admission Test (JAM for IITs) and other entrances for individual institutes like Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER). Towards the final year of my under-graduation I even tried for internships and jobs at many of the premier research institutes in Astronomy but failed to secure any position. IIAp had their own entrance exam which I failed to clear. Infact, I failed to clear all entrance exams except GATE and the entrance exam for M.Sc. Physics in Pune University. 

While “Astronomy” deals with the observational study of physical and chemical properties of objects in space, “Astrophysics” is the study that deals with understanding the nature and origin of these observed characteristics using theory and simulations. Students are mostly familiar with these two topics, but “Astronomical Instrumentation” is a rarely known subject but an important aspect that is intimately connected to the two. As one can see, we need observations of astronomical objects to study them, which requires specialized instruments. The research domain associated with development of new techniques and instruments for astronomy is called Astronomical Instrumentation. I saw this course as a way to use my engineering skills in the subject of my interest to pursue a career in Astronomy. My MTech topic was to build a low-cost antenna system for solar observations and subsequently continue that towards building digital hardware using Analog-to-Digital Converter (ADCs) and Field- Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) for processing the signals at radio frequencies to study the Sun. This was a new topic for me and was a feasibility study for a larger project to implement on the bigger telescope we were operating at the Gauribidanur Observatory. Using the data from these instruments I published several papers on the physical properties of solar radio radiation that are useful in understanding the nature of solar plasma that could potentially harm near-Earth environments. I completed my PhD in 2017. After PhD, we are required to go through short periods of training through Post-Doctoral Research positions at various universities or institutions before qualifying for a scientific/academic position in a research lab or a university. Following my PhD, I joined the NCRA(TIFR) (National Centre for Radio Astrophysics – Tata Institute of Fundamental Research), started by late Prof. Padma Shri Govind Swarup in Pune, which operates one of the largest radio telescopes in the world, the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT). Here, I pursued a different project where I started learning to use Graphical Processing Units (GPUs) hardware for radio astronomy signal processing for a new kind of antenna to be used with GMRT. After spending two and a half years at NCRA, I applied for various positions abroad and was offered a position for three years in 2019 at the School of Earth & Space Exploration (SESE) at ASU in Arizona, USA where I currently work. The experience and training through these short term positions will help us become independent researchers to secure academic positions in Indian research laboratories/ universities to work and contribute to the advancement of scientific research in India.

How did you get your first break?

Through my GATE qualification I managed to secure an interview spot for the Integrated M.Tech.-PhD. Program and had an interview for the M.S.(Eng.) Climate Science program at IISc, Bengaluru. Though this really boosted my confidence, I was afraid because these were my first interviews. I was riding an ordinary resume with no actual exposure in the domain but just the passion to work in the field. I performed reasonably well and managed to get selected for the program at IIAp and IISc. I also managed to secure a spot for the M.Sc. Physics course at Pune University (I later came to know that Pune University offered only one seat to other state candidates which I managed to secure). Through these sequence of events I started trusting myself and my abilities even more.

What were the challenges you faced in your career? How did you address them?

Fear was my only major challenge. Most children from middle-class backgrounds are always on the back-foot due to various reasons and I was no different. Low on confidence to try, the fear of loss, the fear of shame, fear for the future, and this only gets amplified when one is bullied/humiliated/not recognized. I went through all of the above, but the one support I always had like most children do, was my parents. But the one difference was they let me do what I wanted to after my under-graduation and supported my choice when I wanted to study further. I was never asked to get a job immediately after graduation, although our financial situation was not good. I had the habit of looking up at the sky all night and losing myself in it. I did this mostly to get over the fear of loss, I tried to forget my failures and tried to learn so that I did it better the next time. My fear of shame was the hardest to overcome, I never spoke out in public. I would start shivering even when I stood in front of the other students in my own classroom at school and this changed only gradually. I also wasn’t actively using social media except to connect with my lost friends from school. I did not own a smart-phone until 2016. I realized I had to speak more in public to get over this, and so I started teaching/explaining our instruments to school and college children visiting the observatory in Gauribidanur (Karnataka) where I did my PhD work. I think I’m over it now.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I’m currently employed at the ASU as a Post-Doctoral Research Scholar. Here I have been working on a new project to use GPUs to create sky images using the radio signals acquired from an antenna array called the Long Wavelength Array (LWA) located at New Mexico, USA. I work in specialized field called Radio Astronomy where we use antennas like those used in Dish-TV to capture radiation from astronomical sources to study them. I primarily work on new techniques for signal processing of the astronomy signals received from telescopes and use the processed data to study and understand the astrophysical object. I initially worked on the design and fabrication of antennas and analog radio receivers. Later I started to work on digital signal processing using FPGAs and GPUs. During my PhD I worked on the study of radio radiation from the Sun, and now I’m working on radio radiation from other stars. My typical day starts with reading research articles on the topics I work and spend time exploring new techniques to apply for processing radio astronomy signals that can help us better understand the nature of the object that radiates them.

How does your work benefit society? 

I use the study of radio radiation from the Sun to monitor its activity. The domain is referred to as space weather monitoring that can help us take preventive measures and to minimize the effects of solar activity on Earth and Near-Earth space (satellites that we send for communication and weather monitoring purposes)

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

The first solar observation I performed using the first antenna I designed and fabricated was the most memorable work for me. I had a feeling of achievement when I used my engineering skills to observe an astrophysical object.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

  1. Students should make efficient use of the easy-accessibility of internet and computing resources to search for opportunities in any field they are passionate about.
  2. Choose to study based on your interest and do not give-in to peer and parental pressure.
  3. Most often parents will not know or understand your choice, in fact they can be misguided. So educate yourself and try to make them understand your career choices.
  4. Never loose confidence because of multiple failures because success is not instant and it is not ultimate, you will appreciate success only when you experience failure.

Future Plans?

I enjoy my work and I wish to continue further to explore new aspects within my domain of work. Learning is a never ending process and I wish to continue doing that.