About 70 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by water, of which oceans hold about 95 percent. Technologies such as remote sensing are making it possible to monitor large water bodies regularly for environmental hazards, ecological issues and water quality !

Srinivas Kolluru (PhD), our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at FAU’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, works on improving the accuracy of water quality parameters of different aquatic environments, using satellite data.

Srinivas talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being very much inspired by the work carried out at INCOIS, Hyderabad (Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services) and deciding to continue research in the field of Oceanography.

For students, you have read about oceans and water bodies in your geography class. Here is a chance to analyze them deeper to understand how biogeochemical cycles and water quality have a direct impact on ecology.

Srinivas, can you tell us about your background?

I grew up in Vizianagaram district of Andhra Pradesh and completed my schooling in the same district. I studied MPC (Mathematics, Physics and Chemistry) in intermediate (+2) in Narayana Junior College. I used to participate in quiz competitions and play volleyball in school. My father pursued B.Sc., B. Ed., and worked in Saakshar Bharat, Education Department, Andhra Pradesh state government until he retired in 2019. My mother used to work as a schoolteacher during my childhood. She finished her B.Com. My initial interest was to become a teacher. 

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I pursued my Bachelors in Civil Engineering from Gayatri Vidya Parishad College of Engineering, Visakhapatnam (2010-2014) and Master of Technology in Remote Sensing & Geographic Information Systems from the National Institute of Technology Karnataka, Surathkal (2014-2016). I recently completed my PhD from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (2016-2021) with a focus on water quality parameter retrieval from satellite remote sensing data of coastal and inland waters. Now, I work as a postdoctoral research scholar at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute, Florida Atlantic University, USA.

Tell us, how did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

After enrolling for my Master’s (Remote Sensing & GIS) at NITK Surathkal, I decided to pursue my career in research. I have been very much inspired by the work carried out at INCOIS, Hyderabad (Indian National Centre for Ocean Information Services) and hence decided to continue research in the field of Oceanography. The research work carried out at INCOIS, and the services that they provide to the nation related to potential fishing zones, tsunami warning and flood inundation warning services inspired me to continue in the field of water quality.

Remote sensing images acquired through sensors installed on earth observation satellites/aerial vehicles cover large areas on the earth’s surface. They are useful for deriving biophysical parameters crucial to understanding various physical processes on the earth’s surface. Hyperspectral Imager for Coastal Ocean (HICO) is a sensor installed on International Space Station that collects Hyperspectral imagery from selected coastal areas all over the world. My master’s thesis was focused on utilization of hyperspectral remote sensing data to derive water quality parameters in Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) estuary and Indus River estuary. I used HICO data to observe changes in sediment plumes such as their spatial distribution and changes in the concentration of suspended sediments over a short period of time. Suspended sediment concentration is a widely used and derived water quality parameter for monitoring sediment plumes and in tracking pollutants.

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Tell us about your career path

A key influencer in my career has been Dr. N. Srinivasa Rao, under whom I pursued my master’s thesis at Indian National Center for Ocean Information Services, Hyderabad. 

A few turning points in my life are admission into the master’s program at NITK Surathkal, acceptance for my master’s thesis at INCOIS, admission into the PhD program at IIT Bombay and attending IOCCG summer school in France (2018). My PhD supervisors Prof. Shirishkumar Gedam and Prof. Arun B. Inamdar, provided a great working environment with freedom to explore different ideas. They supported me in every event that would help my research career and provided me with different opportunities. 

My PhD thesis work dealt with retrieval of water quality parameters that are useful in understanding the water quality in aquatic environments especially in inland, coastal and estuarine waters using remote sensing data. The objective of my work involves implementing different empirical and semi-analytical approaches to improve the accuracy of the derived water quality parameters. Concentration of Chlorophyll-a pigment in phytoplankton, colored dissolved organic matter and suspended particulate matter concentrations are the widely derived water quality parameters across all aquatic environments. I implemented machine learning techniques as well in my study as a part of my thesis. Understanding water quality of different aquatic environments is crucial to assess seasonal and yearly changes and impact on ecology. Also, these water quality parameters are useful to assess the spatial and temporal distribution of various pollutants in water. 

At the IOCCG summer school, I met other research scholars working in the field of ocean color. The summer school provided me an opportunity to listen to the lectures delivered by experts in the field of ocean color. Attendance at this summer school helped me meet my present supervisor Prof. Michael S. Twardowski, who is another key influencer in my career. Another event of great importance is the Ocean Optics conference held in Croatia (2018). I started working with Mike and Prof. Timothy S. Moore on a research project for which the initial discussion took place at the Ocean Optics Conference. I continued working with them for three years remotely, and now, I work with them at Harbor Branch. 

Another key influencer is my brother Venkatesh Kolluru, who always encouraged me to pursue research of my interest. He is currently a first-year PhD student at the University of South Dakota. He garnered research interest during his master’s degree at NITK Surathkal and published a few research papers in high-impact journals before completion of his degree. We regularly have discussions about various conferences, opportunities and difficulties in our respective fields of research.

I strongly believe that attending conferences, summer schools and training programs in the initial stages of a career will open up different opportunities. Networking with peers and obtaining exposure through event participation is crucial. 

How did you get your first break? 

My first break was getting an opportunity to pursue a master’s thesis at INCOIS. I got this opportunity through Dr. P. S. Roy, under whom I pursued my internship at Hyderabad Central University. He advised me to contact INCOIS and provided support for the same. 

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

One of the challenges that I faced during the initial years of my PhD was in coding. It took me a while to learn to code and start building my own models and codes required for my work. I obtained a few inputs from my seniors and peers during that time. I overcame this challenge through continuous and everyday effort in writing and modifying the codes. It is a slow process, but I am confident now. 

The second challenge that I faced was to be open to collaborative work. During my initial years, I seldom shared my research methods with other peers. I overcame this challenge through communication, interaction and changing my perspective on collaborative research.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work in Oceanography

I work on improving the accuracy of water quality parameters of different aquatic environments which are derivable from satellite data. This work is crucial in understanding biogeochemical cycles, water quality and has a direct impact on ecology. For this work, an understanding of bio-optics and remote-sensing is required, along with a good coding background. I acquired an interest in problem-solving while pursuing my master’s degree and coding during the first year of my PhD. I read many research journal papers, textbooks and white papers to acquire base knowledge in the field of ocean color. It is a continuous process, and I still read the research papers to stay up-to-date on the current research.

A typical day involves writing or modifying codes for the models that I work on, spending some time on writing and reading research papers, working on preparation for weekly meetings and discussions about future projects and proposals with supervisors and peers. I love working with the present research group and discussions with peers. I also love the brainstorming discussions in identifying/inventing methods for solving the problems during weekly meetings. I enjoy the work environment and the open-to-discuss attitude of my colleagues. I also highly appreciate the support that each of my colleagues provides to one another.

How does your work benefit society? 

I work on improving the accuracy of water quality parameters derived from remote sensing. The water quality of inland water bodies like reservoirs, lakes, ponds and rivers directly impacts human health, ecology and environment. Using remote sensing, it is possible to monitor large water bodies regularly. From my perspective, using technology to improve or support the environment is crucial. 

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

I recently worked on a project with my colleague Prof. Moore at Harbor Branch. It is a memorable one owing to the discussions that we had regularly. I learned a lot of new things in the project within a short span of time. I also understood various aspects of the project, different time scales and timelines involved, perspectives of a research area. This project will always be a special and memorable one.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

I strongly encourage and advise the students to talk with people pursuing different careers and work on their areas of interest. It is the continuous effort and perseverance that are required to achieve one’s goals. Although there may be some setbacks in the process, it is crucial to keep in mind the overall goal all the time. Communication is the key, and everyone needs to work on it. Always write down the things that you want to pursue in the next few years and see them once in a while. Believe in yourself.

Future Plans?

I want to continue in the research field that I am currently working in and join as an assistant professor soon. I always have an interest in teaching and would like to transition partially into teaching in the next few years.