We have come a long way in the field of Astronomy, from telescopes that captured blurry images of distant planets, to more sophisticated ones that provide sharper images with greater detail and lesser distortion, creating a magical moment for astronomers!

Ananya Sahoo, our next pathbreaker, Optical Scientist at Space Telescope Science Institute, develops technologies based on Adaptive Optics, related to direct imaging of planets existing beyond our Solar System, by improving the sharpness of an image taken by a telescope.

Ananya talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about pursuing a PhD in Astronomical Optics & Instrumentation, an overlap of Astronomy and Optics, driven by her interest in both areas.

For students, planning very far ahead into the future doesn’t help much, because you might stumble onto something that you never knew. Instead, have a broad vision for your career rather than fussing on the details.

Ananya, what can you tell us about yourself?

I grew up in the coastal regions of Odisha, a state in the eastern part of India where I completed my schooling. Since Odisha is prone to tropical cyclones and frequent power cuts, especially in summer days, I often got a chance to enjoy the twinkling night sky.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After completing my 12th grade from DAV Public School, I joined the Integrated BSc – MSc programme in Physics at the National Institute of Science Education and Research (NISER), Bhubaneswar. NISER is a premier research institution under the government of India. After graduating from NISER in 2017, I joined SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies) in Japan as a PhD student. Simultaneously, I was also a Research Intern at the Subaru Telescope in Hawaii, US. It was at the Subaru Telescope facility that I carried out most of my PhD research work.

Since my primary work-site was in Hawaii, I wasn’t eligible for MEXT scholarship. However, qualifying for the SOKENDAI’s graduate entrance examination made me eligible to avail the institution’s fellowship. The exam had two parts: for the first part I had to solve subjective Physics questions and the second part required me to give a presentation on my Master’s thesis. 

I was interested in a career in Astronomical Instrumentation and had applied to a few places including Japan. Subaru is one rare place which offered the unique option to work full time in an observatory while being enrolled in a university. Moreover, I really wanted to work with Prof. Olivier Guyon who is a renowned researcher in the field who was working at Subaru. 

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

From a very young age, I enjoyed learning Mathematics and Science. My father always encouraged me to do well in school and helped me with my school work and other activities despite his busy schedule. Being a bank manager, he is good with numbers and always gave me intriguing puzzles and problems to solve. This early encouragement motivated me to pursue science as a career. 

Qualifying the National Entrance Screening Test (NEST) to study at NISER was definitely a crucial moment in my career. I was a recipient of the prestigious INSPIRE fellowship, which gave me a lot of financial independence. The rigorous curriculum at NISER exposed me to a wide array of topics in Physics and I took a keen interest in both Astronomy and Optics. To explore these topics beyond what was taught in the courses and labs at NISER, I carried out summer internships at IISER Kolkata, Institute of Mathematical Sciences (IMSc), Chennai and Laboratoire d’Astrophysique de Marseille (LAM) in France. Carrying out these internships gave me a flavour of what actual research looks like and gave me a glimpse of what to expect if I go for a PhD.

To secure an internship, I used to identify researchers I wanted to work with and read about their research work. After this, I sent them an email elaborating my interest and the general direction I wanted to work in while I interned. I also mentioned how my skills would help me do so. Note that these weren’t generic emails and it took a few weeks to do the relevant reading and come up with a direction that I wanted to work in with my prospective supervisors. 

Tell us about your career path

After my 10th board exam, I enrolled in the science stream. During those days engineering and medicine seemed to be the two popular choices among many students. I chose to pursue basic sciences instead, after meeting with a few students who were pursuing a similar degree at that time. This does not mean that I didn’t appear for any competitive exams for engineering, I just kept an open mind and decided to take up any good opportunity that came my way without worrying too much about the details. This has been a general theme throughout my career. However, my choices were not random, I made sure they were aligned in a general direction that I wanted to head in.

Pursuing a PhD in astronomical instrumentation was an overlap of both my key  interests i.e. Astronomy and Optics. I got admitted to the Astronomy graduate program of SOKENDAI (The Graduate University for Advanced Studies) in Japan. This in turn gave me an opportunity to carry out my research work in alliance with the Subaru Telescope, National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ). Subaru is one of the largest ground based telescopes in the world situated in Hawaii, US. I was fortunate enough to be a part of the instrument development team and experienced first hand how instruments are built, commissioned and used to observe the night sky. These opportunities are hard to come by in any PhD program. The PhD scholarship covered my living expenses in Hawaii and also helped me attend a lot of conferences.

My PhD studies dealt with detection and precise measurement of light from planets outside the Solar system known as exoplanets. Based on this information, we can infer their physical and chemical properties and also determine if they are habitable. The light from an exoplanet is overshadowed by the glare of the star it orbits. We use several lenses, special kinds of mirror (with flexible surfaces) and physical masks to block the bright glare of the star. We then take several photographs of this blocked star using sensitive cameras. Subsequently, advanced image processing software is used to isolate the faint signal (reflected light or heat radiated) of the planet hidden in these images. 

How did you get your first break? 

During the last six months of my PhD, I started looking for the next opportunity. To do so, I used to go through job ads posted on websites relevant to astronomy (aas.org, euraxess.ec.europa.eu) and see if the job description interested me. If I liked a particular job, I followed the application process outlined. Because of the COVID outbreak the number of jobs advertised was significantly less than the previous years and there were also constraints regarding relocating. I tried my best to not pay attention to these hurdles and concentrated only on preparing the application material diligently. I also applied to multiple positions, like I did while looking for a PhD. I always ensured that my application was not generic and tailored to the job I was applying for. 

For the job at STScI in particular, I was asked to submit an overview of my current research, a proposal highlighting my future plans and a list of potential referees.  My application material was reviewed by a committee of experts, following which, they called me in for an online interview. The interview went on for nearly an hour and I was asked multiple questions related to my PhD research. A few days after that, I was offered the position. 

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

The cultural shock after coming to the United States, living alone and far away from India were the main challenges I faced during the initial days of my stay in the US. Routinely keeping in touch with my family and friends in India, limiting time I spent on social media, developing new hobbies and a fondness to know more about the local culture were some of the things that helped me overcome these challenges.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your research

I am an Astronomical Staff Scientist at the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI). As a scientist, I develop technology for NASA, related to direct imaging of planets existing beyond our Solar system. For this job, one needs to be well versed in Optics, Astronomy, Mathematics as well as Computer programming in Python, and C++. My PhD training, academic discussions with colleagues, keeping up to date with current research by reading a lot of articles and books helped me in acquiring these skills. I joined this new position in the beginning of 2021 and since then have been mostly working remotely. A typical day for me includes attending meetings, science seminars at the institute and spending the rest of the day on software development. Occasionally, I work in the optics laboratory at the institute. 

Exploring unknown frontiers, tackling new problems and finding solutions consistent with both theory and experiment is something which satisfies me immensely and I get to do that everyday in my current job. 

How does your work benefit society?

My research is broadly focused on Adaptive Optics which deals with improving the sharpness of an image taken by a telescope. A lot of techniques developed in this field are also used in medical sciences particularly in microscopy and vision improvement. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to the students would be to try and build a career in what they love doing the most, and not to be stressed out by the hype around engineering and medicine. There are a lot of opportunities outside these two choices. Do find a hobby to recreate yourself (preferably something which involves some physical activity), because it helps with the creative process. It is a good idea to learn how to code, at least the basics. Every opportunity today is competitive, so it is good to apply to as many places as you can. Having a broad vision for your career trajectory is fine, but one should not obsess a lot on the details. Planning very far ahead into the future doesn’t help much, focus on doing what you are currently doing to the best of your capacity.