Trees shelter us not only from the heat of the sun but also from the harmful effects of global warming. Quantifying the extent of their role in climate change is a scientific question that needs to be answered.

Swati Unyal, our next pathbreaker, Remote Sensing and GIS expert, extrapolates information about urban trees, particularly in arid regions of the country, to understand how much they contribute to the climate in terms of carbon sequestration, using various modelling approaches based on satellite data.

Swati talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to explore forests deeper, along with cutting-edge remote sensing techniques, to quantify the role of forests/trees in maintaining carbon balance and addressing environmental issues.

For students, studying the role of nature in healing the environment by understanding the dynamics of carbon stocks contained in trees could help us make educated decisions for our future. Take it upon yourself to find the answers !

Swati, tell us about your background?

My early childhood was spent in the hilly areas of India. I was born in the foothills of the Himalayas in the city of Haridwar, Uttarakhand. My dad was transferred to the Kullu district of Himachal Pradesh only after a few months of my birth. We shifted to Haridwar again to complete my early schooling in Haridwar. I went to the Dehradun hostel for my 10th and 12th and then completed my graduation and post-graduation from Haridwar and M.Tech from Dehradun, Uttarakhand. I’ve always been active in many academic and extracurricular activities, such as debate, dancing, singing, music, designing, and drawing as well.  I used to participate in many different sports while attending college and also got numerous awards. 

My parents are in the medical field, and my mother served as a medical officer. She is no longer with us. My father is from the pharmaceutical industry, so the medical culture was always at home. Additionally, my sister is a doctor and brother is a software engineer. I always aspired to be a doctor, but circumstances steered me in a different direction

What is your educational qualification?

As a person from a medical family, I had previously decided that I want to become a doctor, but destiny chose something else for me. After my 12th   grade I appeared for medical entrance exams, but did not get in because of poor test scores. I wanted to take a year off to study for medical examinations, but my parents asked me not to spoil a year and told me to join B.Sc. I chose chemical, botanical and zoological sciences as my specialization so I could cover two topics of medicine, even though I was unable to crack the medical exam. After graduation, my father wanted me to opt for chemistry as a subject for post-graduation, but I wanted to pursue environmental studies. So i appeared for Gurukul Kangri University entrance exam for both the subjects, but as God had preordained, my name was on the waiting list for chemistry and i got admission for a masters degree in environmental sciences. After M.Sc, I did a post-graduate diploma course in Natural Resource Management from Forest Research Institute. Following that, I did an M.Tech in Remote Sensing and GIS from Indian Institute of Remote Sensing, Dehradun and am now pursuing PhD from Andhra University, Visakhapatnam.

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

In every step of my education, I’ve always had a question about what to do next? But I’ve always had the blessings and suggestions of great mentors or supervisors in my life. Ever since I graduated, I’ve been hearing about how NASA launched satellites and how ISRO is making a dent in the universe. Having heard the launch of so many satellites, I was intrigued to learn more about what happens to the satellites once they enter the sky? What is their function? What kind of information do they provide? So, when I started my first Master’s degree, I had a subject called “Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems”. I once attended a guest lecture on Remote Sensing and GIS, and I believe that this lecture changed the course of my career. The subject taught by the professor gave me goosebumps, and that was the point when many of my questions about satellite data were answered. But there were still a lot of things I wanted to learn, so I chose to focus solely on remote sensing. I had a conversation with a guest lecturer about the nature of this area and how to move forward in it. His recommendation was to pursue an M.Tech degree in Remote Sensing and GIS from the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS). I went to the IIRS in my final year of post-graduation to inquire about the admission process and form. I found out that I had skipped that year’s admission because I didn’t have my post-graduate degree at the time, so the team at IIRS advised me to apply for the next year’s admission after obtaining my degree. Now there was an 8-month wait to take the M.Tech admissions exam, so as I mentioned earlier, I was still curious about what would happen next. So I chose to apply for a PG diploma course in Natural Resource Management at Forest Research Institute, and I was fortunate enough to pass the exam and be accepted. This course also had a Remote Sensing component, and the professor who taught us was a pioneer in the field, so he addressed and cleared up many of my doubts with the help of practical experiments. After a few months, the IIRS M.Tech exam and interview took place, and the teachings and knowledge I learned from FRI proved to be a blessing as I was chosen for the course. Now, fate had planned something else, something better, for me. During my 14 months of M.Tech research, I was given the opportunity to work with one of the greatest pioneers in the field of forests, and it was only under his supervision that I have picked up a vast amount of knowledge about forest landscapes, their role in carbon storage, and carbon assessment using remote sensing techniques. I’ve developed a lot of interest in this field and found out that I have ways to go far deeper, using my knowledge of forests, along with cutting-edge remote sensing techniques to explore the role of forests/trees in maintaining carbon balance, and how this can contribute to real world issues.

Tell us about your career path

I began my career in the field of Remote Sensing and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) about 8 years ago, when I enrolled in the Indian Institute of Remote Sensing (IIRS) M.Tech programme in RS/GIS with applications in forestry. During my first year of M.Tech, I was awarded a student teaching assistantship to teach CSSTEAP (Center for Space Science and Technology Education in Asia Pacific) participants. For my M.Tech dissertation, I was chosen to work on the National Carbon Pool project (under the ISRO geosphere biosphere programme) for almost 14 months and received a fellowship grant. Following my M.Tech, I was hired as a researcher at the State Remote Application Center, where I worked on major projects such as NATCOM and  land use cover mapping. After working for a while in the state remote application centre, fate led me back to IIRS, Dehradun for the national Carbon Pool Project. So I returned and worked for the entire India’s vegetation carbon pool. After working for a while, I was offered a position as a research scientist at the National Remote sensing Center (NRSC),Hyderabad for another project, which focused on decentralised planning from the village level to the district level using geospatial data. During my work for NRSC I have been given the opportunity to join the Ph.D program and to continue my passion for carbon science. I have chosen my thesis title on urban forests and carbon quantification in these forests. Over the course of these eight years, I’ve gained experience working with a variety of scientific research teams, developed strong demonstration skills, learned how to train and lead teams as well as ability to plan projects from conception to completion. I have had the opportunity to present my research at international level, including in the United States and Japan, and was awarded a travel grant by the organising committees to visit and present my work.

How did you get your first break?

At various stages of my life, I have always been fortunate to have excellent mentors, and it is only because of them that I am able to make major career decisions. One of my mentors told me a few months ago that you can never be frustrated by a “no”; instead, keep learning from them. All you need is one “yes” and after so many “no”s the importance of that “yes” would be far higher. I realised now how true he was, and I can easily relate this to my experiences in the past. So I started searching for a job after completing M.Tech, I continued to explore newspapers, internet websites for opportunities. Then I waited for a “yes” after getting rejected from so many places and finally had my first job as a research fellow at State Remote Sensing Center

What were the challenges you faced in your career?

Working as a researcher is difficult enough, as you must conquer several obstacles. I too faced many obstacles, such as the fact that as a newcomer, you would have few opportunities for employment due to your lack of experience. Societal fear was another challenge. Even though I wanted to pursue a PhD, we in Indian society are still afraid of what people would think if we say that we also want to pursue a PhD in spite of having two master’s degrees. So, just after masters, I began exploring areas to take up a job. I kept interviewing and finally got the job. Another challenge I faced, and I think most of us do, is the fear of  failure. Even when failures affected me during my initial days, over time, it became my strength, and I learned a lot and developed a great deal of strength to face problems after every failure. Last but not the least, job security is a challenge when you are new to an organisation. Though you work as a researcher for many years, it never gives employment security and it is sometimes a great challenge even for many experienced applicants. To overcome this, I’d like to say, keep on exploring and continuing to update your knowledge, sometimes things will happen contrary to your wish, but life gives us a lot of opportunities; so we should be ready for them in advance.

Here I would like to say “ manzil unhi ko milti hai jinko sapno mai jan hoti hai pankho se kuch nahi hota hausalon mai udan hoti hai”

Tell us about your current research

I am a Remote Sensing and GIS expert who is currently pursuing PhD and working on Urban forests of arid regions using remote sensing and GIS techniques. We often discuss the importance of forests and their role in the climate, yet there is a lack of information and knowledge about urban trees, as their role is very important in terms of climate related issues. They can be found growing along roads, canals, in villages, or in block plantations as orchards etc. The aim of this study is to extrapolate information about urban trees, particularly in arid regions of the country, and understand how much they contribute to the climate, particularly in terms of carbon sequestration, using various modelling approaches based on satellite data. As I have always been fascinated to learn the facts behind climate change and how trees contribute to our environment, I also have a special interest in image processing as well. I first got the taste of this during my M.Tech research where I was assigned to work on a project related to assessment of carbon for Indian forests using cutting edge remote sensing techniques and as I developed a lot of interest in this field, i decided to make it my goal to research this topic for further study and to extend and extrapolate knowledge to fill gaps in understanding the dynamics of carbon stocks contained in trees.

Usually my day starts with morning workouts that mostly include yoga and stretching, followed by a glass of warm water. I keep myself busy with my research work most of the time throughout the day, and I enjoy learning new things. When I’m bored throughout the day, I like to listen to music

How does your work benefit the community?

Plantation of trees in the urban environment can be considered as an important climate change mitigation option. Urban forests also have a major role to play in terms of social benefits and their study with integration of satellite data can be a useful source for educating local people about the importance of every tree and their expansion and their role in reducing global warming. There are various scientific and social questions which exist. I believe that the use of remote sensing will make it easier to answer climate change related questions by providing data and facts which are needed to make educated decisions.

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

I believe that my M.Tech dissertation is the work that is most memorable and personal to me because it was during that period that I first looked into the role of forests, or more specifically trees, in carbon sequestration and how remote sensing would help with this prediction. Throughout the project, I visited a variety of forest types, ranging from dense to open/scrub, and had the opportunity to experience these forests more closely. This research work was a turning point in my life, as after doing this, an idea has been generated within me to work further in the same field, and I feel that my Ph.D. research is the output of my M.Tech research.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Fix a target and stick to it, think positive, keep inspiring yourself through every medium (movies, books, good quotes), and remember that everything happens for a reason, so learn from your failures. Keep working hard; it is the most important factor in any progress. Work smartly by determining the situation first and then working accordingly. Never, ever give up. While book knowledge is the best knowledge, practical knowledge is more useful, so keep learning. Over time, keep your experience and skills up to date.

Dream big, I’d like to quote a few lines here to encourage you to dream big “Shoot for the moon even if you miss you’ll land among stars”

Future plans?

First and foremost, I must complete my PhD. After I finish my PhD, I’d like to continue it at an international level. I’ve always believed that studying in a new environment and stepping outside of our comfort zone is beneficial because it can inspire us to try new things and broaden our research horizons. I want to work for an organisation that will allow me to upgrade my knowledge and skills in accordance with current trends, an organisation that will allow me to see beyond one box of thought, and I believe that this will contribute to my personal, national, or continental growth.