Though Geology itself is a fascinating field that involves studying the Earth, Planetary Geology is truly out of this world !

Sourabh Shubham, our next pathbreaker, Doctoral Student at University of Maryland College Park, studies the geological processes of other planetary bodies to answer questions about past environments and to evaluate their habitation potential.

Sourabh talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his first internship at the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad, which was his first introduction to research in planetary geology.

For students, hyperspectral images from satellites are literally pushing our boundaries by enabling us to investigate the worlds beyond Earth. Be a part of these exciting developments !

Sourabh, Your background?

I was interested in science for as long as I can remember. I remember that I always wanted to be a scientist when I grew up. I used to watch a lot of National Geographic and Discovery documentaries and fantasize about being one of those scientists in the future. Over time, I felt my interests of becoming a scientist gradually faded away and I thought of choosing a more conventional career path, but as luck would have it, I got admitted in a course where I had the option of pursuing my interest as a career.

I grew up in a small town in Jharkhand called Bokaro Thermal. My father (Mr. Ratan Kumar Sinha) used to work in a thermal power plant called Damodar Valley Corporation and my mother (Mrs. Rina Sinha) supported us as a homemaker. I am the youngest among my siblings – an older brother and a sister. I did my primary schooling from a local school called Saint Paul’s Modern School, then I switched school to another town called Pitts Modern School. For my high schooling, I went to DAV Public School in Kota, Rajasthan. After graduating from my high school, I took 1 year off to prepare for the engineering entrance exam – JEE Advanced which I qualified in the year 2015 and got admitted in Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

In 2015, I got admitted to a 5-year integrated Bachelor’s+Master’s in Science (Int. MSc.) course in Applied Geology at the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur (IIT Kgp). I graduated in the year 2020. I am currently pursuing my PhD at the University of Maryland, College Park, in the United States and am a researcher in the field of planetary geology.

What were the influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and unusual career?

I feel that I was drawn towards research in space and planetary science because I was heavily influenced by the life stories of Dr. APJ Abdul Kalam and Dr. Vikram Sarabhai. I grew up idolizing Dr. Kalam and I am extremely inspired by his life-story which also resonates with the foundation of the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO).

Also, I am pretty sure that without the support of my family, I couldn’t have made much progress towards my career goals. My parents always cherished my career choice irrespective of the uncertainties of its scope. My elder brother (Rishabh Kumar Sinha) and sister (Surabhi Sinha) are both interested in science, and growing up with them was like being in an atmosphere in which we felt it was ‘cool’ to be interested in science. I learnt a lot from both of them.

During my undergraduate studies, I received constant guidance from my advisors, especially from a scientist in the US, Dr. Pascal Lee, with whom I have been working remotely for the past 3 years. He has been a mentor-figure for me and his regular guidance helped me progress further towards my research goal.

One of the most significant events in my career was that I messed up pretty badly in my engineering entrance exam, which acted more of a blessing in disguise for me. I did not have much of an option in choosing a traditional engineering course of my choice while taking admission, and I took Geology for my undergrads even though I was not entirely sure of the career prospects. Over time, I realized that this was a blessing in disguise and I became genuinely interested in the research aspect. Although I wanted to be a scientist ever since I was a kid, as I grew up, that dream gradually faded away. But getting into a geology course in my undergrad rekindled my excitement of becoming a scientist.

I did my first internship at the Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad which was a turning point for me for it was my first introduction to research in planetary geology.

There are several sub-fields of planetary geology. The ones I did can be classified under planetary remote sensing and spectroscopy. I did two summer internships with Prof. Amit Basu and Dr. Priyabrata Das at the Planetary Science Division (PlaneX) of PRL. In my first internship, the expected end-goal was for me to figure out how to analyze ‘hyperspectral images’ from Mars. I was analyzing images that are obtained via a NASA satellite called MRO (orbiting Mars since 2006), and by analyzing these images (called CRISM), I identified and mapped the surface chemical composition. Identifying the mineralogy of a location in conjunction with the geological features of that region can help us interpret how the past environment of that region could potentially have been like. This is how stories on the history of a planet (such as, whether Mars used to have liquid water billions of years ago) get hypothesised.    

Next year, I returned to PRL to work on another internship with my previous advisor. I continued working on my PRL project for over 2 months, in which I was working on understanding the analysis for an instrument onboard the Curiosity rover. The instrument, called Laser Induced Breakdown Spectrometer (LIBS), zaps laser beams on rocks and soil targets in Mars and the plasma which is generated via this laser-ablation emits a signature that is captured by the rover and sent back in digital format for us to analyze. My task was to figure out how to analyze these data in order to understand the hydrogen and trace-element abundance on the soil. In simple words, we were working on understanding if there is a possibility of liquid water interaction with the Martian soil in the present-day condition of Mars in the form of moisture in top soil layers. With this project, I supported an ongoing research of my advisors and we eventually decided to include my results into a research paper which is currently under review for publication. I continued working on this project on a remote basis in order to support the research paper that we were working on.

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 conduct research in the field of planetary geology – which, as the name clearly suggests, involves studying the geological processes of other planetary bodies. I have always been interested in space science, however at the time of choosing my undergraduate major in geology – I was not much aware about planetary geology. While browsing the internet, I stumbled upon the research profile of some of the alumni from my department who were working at NASA and then I realized that I could follow a similar career direction.

As a sophomore, I approached a few scientists seeking the possibility of an internship so as to get introduced to this field of research. I did not receive many positive responses, however one of the scientists at the Physical Research Laboratory (PRL) in Ahmedabad replied positively and invited me to work with him on one of his projects. It was unfunded research; however, I took the opportunity because I was receiving the INSPIRE scholarship under which I could get my summer internship expenses reimbursed. INSPIRE is offered by the Department of Science and Technology (DST) to students who have secured an All India Rank (AIR) within top 10,000 in JEE Advanced exam and are pursuing a science major in an institute of national importance such as IIT. I worked with my advisors at PRL, Dr. Amit Basu and Dr. Priyabrata Das, on a research project that involved analyzing remotely sensed data from one of the satellites orbiting Mars (MRO CRISM). It took me 1 month to get myself familiarized with the analytical aspects and to learn the basics of remote sensing. During this time, I also visited the Space Application Center (SAC) at ISRO, Ahmedabad for 1 week during which I interacted with a scientist (Mr. Satadru Bhattacharya) who was working on a similar research field and was involved in ISRO’s Mangalyaan mission.

After this initial experience, upon returning to my institute, I expressed my research interests to one of the professors (Prof. Saibal Gupta) who was also researching Mars. All throughout my coursework, I worked with him utilizing the skills that I learnt during my first internship to apply to his project. I took my time during the following year’s summer break to work on another project at PRL with my previous advisor. This time, I worked on a relatively more challenging project which involved working with the data from one of the instruments onboard the Curiosity rover. It was a 2-month long project during my summer break in 2018. I continued my collaboration with my advisors at PRL and we worked on a research paper to publish our findings (it’s under review currently).

I wanted to expand my experience by working abroad and so, I reached out to several researchers in the US, France, UK, and Japan. One of the researchers (Dr. Pascal Lee), who is a senior planetary scientist at the SETI Institute and NASA Ames Research Center, interviewed me for a position to work for his research institute (called Mars Institute) for a virtual internship. This was supposed to be a remote internship in which we discussed our research progress over regular skype meetings. The project was very cool in which we proposed a location on Mars as a target for the first (future) human mission. Over time, he offered me several other opportunities including a project on research of the Moon (which I carried out during my pre-final year summers).

This was a project that involved identifying certain features of the Moon which are called sinuous rilles. When lava flows on the surface of a planetary body, it migrates in a curved pattern through a conduit which is called a lava tube. When the roof of a lava tube collapses due to its own weight, a narrow-curved depression is left behind which is called sinuous rilles (looks similar to river channels). In some locations, the lava tube is partially collapsed, which means that they act as an opening to the partially collapsed lava tube (these openings are called “lava tube skylights” which I recommend the readers to google search to get an idea on how they might look like). They have implications on identifying future bases for human exploration, and since the underlying surface is shielded from direct sunlight, they can potentially ‘trap’ ice on Moon in near polar regions. These features have previously been identified in the equatorial regions using visible images of the Moon. We expanded the search to the near polar region and identified certain features that could likely resemble sinuous rilles. The entire task was performed by carefully looking into the visible high-resolution images that are obtained from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) – Narrow Angle Camera (NAC). The analytical technique is called photometry and morphometry, in which we try to identify the morphology of a geological feature by checking the images, the shadows emitted by certain raised features, and by visual (qualitative) assessment.  

We presented our research in conferences, and this short internship (which was supposed to last for 3-months) is currently active even after 3 years and we are still working together. I believe this project and guidance from Dr. Lee helped me in realizing my future goals in a much clearer sense.

My entire participation in the projects with Mars Institute have been carried out virtually, that is, I carried out my projects remotely from IIT Kharagpur (and now at University of Maryland). There are several things on which I worked on with Dr. Lee as a part of Mars Institute – all carried out with the major goal of identifying the targets on Moon and Mars for future human and robotic missions. The first 1.5 years of my Mars Institute collaboration was during my time at IIT Kharagpur, then for 1 year I worked on their projects without any other affiliation. For the past 6 months, I have been working on those projects after joining my PhD program at the University of Maryland (mostly during my free time on my weekends).

For my master’s thesis, I worked with Prof. Saibal Gupta of IIT Kharagpur on identifying the insights that can be drawn from hydrated minerals (the minerals that have water molecules attached to them) on Mars. For instance, what temperature, pressure, acidity, etc. of the water interaction are required for the formation of these minerals. For this, I used the MRO CRISM images (the ones that I learned how to analyze in my first internship) and after analyzing them, I identified the chemical composition of the minerals. Using the geological context in which these minerals are present, I interpreted the past climatic conditions in which the minerals were formed on Mars. For instance, there is a particular mineral on Mars called Jarosite, which can only develop when highly acidic water interacts with a volcanic rock (called basalt) in limited quantities. There are several hypotheses regarding their formation mechanisms, and I tried to judge which of those mechanisms could have been valid in the local region on Mars where I was making my analysis. I also compared their occurrences with their analogs on Earth in which similar minerals are observed. 

After graduating from IIT Kharagpur with a master’s degree in 2020, I did not take up any job and instead, I continued working with Dr. Lee while simultaneously making PhD applications. Since I was working from home throughout 2020, this collaboration was an unfunded project. However, I qualified for three PhD positions in the US and chose the University of Maryland, College Park to pursue my PhD (where I am currently enrolled in). It’s a fully funded PhD and I am earning my stipend as a research assistant (RA). As a part of my Ph.D., I am working on developing an instrument suite at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center as foreign national from UMD. To read more about my research, you can check out my website: www.sourabhshubham.com

How did you get your first break? 

I reached out to a bunch of scientists seeking the possibility of an internship. One of them replied back positively inviting me to work on his project which involved researching Martian geology.

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

There were several challenges, but the most significant ones would be the lack of proper initial guidance or examples (on whom to follow or reach out to) due to the very limited number of researchers working in this field. So, it was a bit difficult to get an idea of “how do I get started”. I believe that seeking guidance from any established researcher in this field would be the best way to get started. In my case, by working on internships and by reaching out to multiple researchers in the particular sub-discipline of my field of research helped me in coping up with this problem.

Also, securing a funded internship position in planetary science research is quite difficult, especially abroad, because most planetary science research projects are funded by NASA which prefers US citizens over foreign nationals (true for all other national space agencies in other countries too). It doesn’t mean that there are no funded opportunities, it’s simply limited. In my case I worked without any stipend via my research project for several of my research projects, including the ones that I did in India. Having any external scholarships (like DST-INPIRE in my case) definitely helps in this case.

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

I am working as a PhD student in the M-CLASS Lab (with Dr. Ricardo Arevalo Jr.) at the University of Maryland, College Park in the United States.

Part of my research involves working at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where I am developing an instrument suite that will be sent to the Moon, Mars, or to asteroids such as Vesta. My research also requires analysis of ‘spectral data’ that are sent via rovers and orbiters on Moon and Mars, in order to identify the locations where sending another rover could help in improving our understanding of the planetary body. More specifically, this research involves answering the questions like –  

Was Mars filled with liquid water in the past, or was it always cold and dry? Was there a period in distant history when Mars had earth-like conditions that were suitable enough for supporting life? What interesting sites on the Moon and Mars could be explored in future planetary missions by sending rovers and humans?  

What skills are needed in your role? How did you acquire the skills?

In general, a good overview of geological processes operating on Earth is important to translate similar processes happening on other planetary bodies. So, a degree in geology would definitely help. Other than that, having a decent coding background and knowledge of analytical techniques could be helpful too. One of my research involves analyzing images (called hyperspectral images) from satellites orbiting a planetary body to identify the chemical composition of the area covered by the image. If someone is interested in working on a similar field of research, knowledge of some specialized software such as ENVI and GIS could be helpful too. I acquired most of these skills while working on my research projects or during internships. I independently worked on improving my coding skills by following online courses and coding challenges in websites such as Kaggle and Codechef.

What’s a typical day like?

There are two possible schedules for any random day in a week. I usually wake up early in the morning and try to do some yoga. I cook my own breakfast and pack my lunch (usually, they taste awful). I reach my office at the university, where I read research papers to review some of the research topics that I am working on. This could go on for the entire day before I get back to my apartment after ~9-10 hours. Alternatively, I go to another town (Greenbelt) to reach my lab at NASA, where I work hands-on with the instrument that I am helping develop. I read novels or watch some random movies in my free time before sleeping.

What is it you love about this job?

It’s like living my childhood dream. I always admired scientists who were involved in fancy research. Getting a chance to become one of those people whom I admired as a child is the best I could’ve hoped for from myself. Additionally, the possibilities are unlimited – I could be involved in research on, say volcanoes, or glaciers, and tie this research to the observations on other planets – which I feel is a really cool thing to do.

How does your work benefit society?

One thing that keeps me motivated in my research is that the type of research that I pursue has direct implications on the future of humanity. I am working on identifying the regions where humans and rovers could be sent to other planetary bodies. All this research is carried out with the broader aim of understanding our planetary neighbors better. I can paint a dystopian scenario in which, in the far future, the possibility that the earth might face any sort of danger from things that we can’t control (such as an asteroid impact that wiped out dinosaurs) is never out of the question. Under such circumstances, the natural thing to do would be to leave the comfort of our home and find a second home to live in. But there is a tremendous knowledge gap about other planetary bodies that can only be fulfilled by continuous research. I’m contributing my bit in this process of bridging that knowledge gap.

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

I recently worked on a project in which I identified the scientific potential of a proposed landing site for future human exploration of Mars. What this means is, I identified some specific targets on Mars, where if humans are sent to in a future mission (tentatively planned by NASA for ~2030s), they could analyze the minerals present on the surface to interpret how the past environment of the planet used to be – specifically to identify if life was ever possible on Mars in that region. Additionally, they can also use those minerals to extract water as a resource! I presented the results of this research in a conference and we are building on this research to be published in a journal. The conference abstract can be read here: https://www.hou.usra.edu/meetings/lpsc2021/pdf/2591.pdf

Your advice to students based on your experience?

If anyone is interested in following a similar research trajectory, it is always important to reach out to seek guidance and advice. So, my advice would be to never hesitate about sending an email or a message to anyone who you feel might be able to give some guidance (If anyone is interested in reaching out to me, you can email me at sourabhshubham611@gmail.com ).

In order to build any research experience, try to participate in research projects or internships. This is the only way you will be able to realize what you are most interested in and develop new skills simultaneously.

Also, it is important to keep a track on the ‘why’ of your research. One should always keep their interests alive – be it via documentaries, reading articles, watching sci-fi movies or whatever source you find interesting.

Future Plans?

I see 2 potential possibilities for my future career – either I will continue as a researcher in an academic institution as a professor or a research scientist, or I will join a space agency such as ISRO (in India), or NASA (as a contractor which is likely the only available option for foreign nationals). I wish to contribute more towards the planning and development of future planetary missions by coming up with new research proposals.