None of us will forget the events of 26th Dec 2004 in a lifetime, when the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami occurred … But, there are some others who will remember this everyday !

Ananth Wuppukondur, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at The University of Queensland, tries to understand the risks due to climate change and cyclones on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR), the world’s largest reef system.

Ananth talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about taking up a career in fluid dynamics to analyze tsunami impacts along coastal river bodies, aiming to benefit disaster management and emergency preparedness strategies across the world.

For students, a rich, vibrant and calm ecosystem welcomes us whenever we go diving or snorkelling on the reefs. However, the current risks of the Great Barrier Reef cannot be addressed by researchers of one discipline, but a collaborative team of multi-disciplinary experts across universities and research institutions.

Ananth,  what were your growing up years like?

My childhood years were shared between Sri Kalahasthi and Tirupati, two towns famous for Hindu temples in the Southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. I vividly remember, during my early schooling days, being picked up in a cycle-rickshaw, that most of the young generation may not have heard of or seen. Primary schooling was a fun ride with friends at school, playful evenings with neighbors and with my loving brother Adi. Thanks to my Amma, who was an English teacher in our school, my brother and I were well taken care of by all the staff in the school. My father was an employee with the Life Insurance Corporation of India. The importance of education was seeded into our minds early on by my parents that both my brother and myself were one of the consistently top performing students in the class. Most of the primary school was joyful. 

It was in high school that I began to realize the hard work my parents were doing in their roles. The zeal to perform well and be in the top ranks continued and so did my participation in extracurricular activities. I topped annual elocution competitions at school level twice in a row. I was enthusiastic about participating in science exhibitions and displayed science art at many student shows at district level. I not only enjoyed academics, but sports as well. Though I did not compete at events, I enjoyed recreational sports every evening after school. 

As any parent who wants the best for their children, my parents also motivated us to study for IIT-JEE, one of the most competitive exams for entry into undergraduate programs with less than 5% success rate. The last two years of my high school (11th and 12th grade) were intense with just study sessions throughout the day (6am to 10pm!!). Many of us do not get to prioritize other interests over studies due to our financial background. So, I may not have necessarily spent time on an all-round development in those two years, but it did prepare me to be successful in competitive exams. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my BTech (Civil Engineering) from Sri Venkateswara University, MS (By Research, Hydraulics & Water Resource Engineering) from IIT Madras and PhD (Civil Engineering) from University of Queensland.

Were there any key influences that made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and rare career?

I find teachers are often a key influence in many students’ lives. My key influences have been my teachers at all levels of education. During my schooling, I was enthusiastic about science and mathematics because of my science teacher Hussain. 

Doing an under-graduation at one of the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) was a dream that did not come true. But, I was fortunate to finish my undergraduate studies at a well-equipped state university. My interests have always been in mathematics, physics and practical science. Having heard of different specializations in Engineering, I picked up Civil Engineering with a confidence that the world always needs builders, and I am not wrong in making that decision till date. The teachers I met there were passionate about not just molding us into Engineers, but also filling us with motivation and enthusiasm to continue in this field for a long time. Without this, I might have moved onto other fields that pay much more than Engineering. But, I knew from then that I wanted to be nothing but a Civil Engineer

During under-graduation, I was very deeply influenced by the knowledge, ethics, passion, and commitment of Prof. Mallikarjuna Perugu towards shaping young engineers. His classes were never missed and never forgotten. He definitely propelled me to pursue a career in fluids. I was also motivated to do research by observing Prof. Nagendra Prasad Kota, who was actively involved in several research projects in the university. His wisdom and international career inspired me to take up a research career. 

Among the various specializations in Civil Engineering, fluids was something I was very good at and scored highest in my class. In Civil Engineering, we are concerned about the flow of fluids, like a river, or a pipeline for example. Have you seen a bridge or a dam in the rivers? Yes, that’s designed and built by engineers like us. It is quite a vast research area that we can relate to in our everyday lives. So I made a choice to do an undergraduate thesis on a topic related to fluids. This helped me further in my post graduation as well. 

Our teachers kept reminding us that Civil Engineers should not be shy to feel the soil and water. Any Civil Engineering project is dependent on the properties of the soil and water. Fluids in Civil Engineering is perhaps the most practical topic as we can see the flow of water and understand the phenomenon without much difficulty. It was easily a subject that I was excelling and topping in my class. 

I am a person who likes to take the less travelled path so that I can explore and pioneer what others have not. Fluids is one such specialization that is known for a misconception of not being as lucrative as other fields. But any specialization is as good as the others. So I made a conscious decision to dive deep into this field and took up an undergraduate project where our team had to design a small hydro-power plant for a waterfalls close to Tirupati. A small hydro-power plant utilizes the energy in the flow of water to turn the vanes of the turbine. This mechanical energy is then converted to electrical energy. Many states in India are powered by large hydro power plants. If the power plant has less power generating capacity such as just enough to power a few hundred houses, then it is called a small hydro-power plant. It was a very enriching experience to design all the elements of the power plant, from intake canal and structure, penstock pipe that carries water to the turbine, and the outlet channel. 

For finding a job or for higher education, selecting a project based on a field of interest is highly recommended as the interviews would be based on the student’s thesis most of the times. So doing a project in fluids helped me in my interview later on.   

The dream of getting into an IIT did not wade off soon. There came an opportunity again, that I knew that if I utilized correctly, could lead me to a Masters program at an IIT. And I did not give up yet. So this time, I secured a good rank in the graduate entrance exam and was offered admission for Masters by Research at IIT Madras, the top ranking institute in India. Without any second thoughts, I took this up and that was my ticket to the research world. I knew I wanted to do further research in fluids, but this time at a bigger scale than my undergraduate thesis. So I spent three years researching soil erosion in rivers and its impacts. 

Getting into an IIT was my ticket to the research world, but studying at IIT was also my ticket to international opportunities. After spending years at IIT, I aimed for something higher both in terms of institute reputation as well as research. I was hungry to do research that has a huge impact, and at an international university. So I decided I wanted to research tsunami flows and with my background, I was granted an opportunity at my current university, The University of Queensland – Australia for a PhD. With this, I took up research on tsunami impacts along coastal rivers aiming that my contribution to this important problem would benefit disaster management and emergency preparedness across the world. I grabbed the opportunity and made use of it to the maximum extent not only to conduct research, but also to improve my personality in a diverse international setting. 

In research, my current role model is Prof. Tom Baldock who is a pioneer in my field. He was my academic supervisor for my PhD. If there is anything that I would remember throughout my career, it is to question the purpose of doing any research or project and quality over quantity. It does not matter how many articles one publishes, what matters is how good the published articles are.  

I also draw inspiration from my mentors at different stages of my career – A/Prof. Venu Chandra and Mr. Greg Stuart. I am always thankful to them.

I believe learning is a constant process. So I am always observant in order to learn from other teachers, researchers, colleagues and friends. 

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 strongly believe that undertaking a PhD is not only about good research, but also about enriching oneself with a vast repertoire of knowledge and skills. Doing a PhD is not for everyone. If you are keen on spending time not only reading but analyzing literature, are able to develop your own ideas in the chosen field, and can defend the purpose of doing research, then I would say you are ready to take this leap into a PhD. 

Any program undertaken should not be just for the sake of obtaining a degree, but to explore other extra-curricular activities that the university offers to shape oneself into a better version. And so, achieving success in a PhD application depends on the background work one does to support their candidature. During a Bachelors and Masters program, it is important that we excel not only in the coursework, but also participate in various workshops to learn research methods, familiarize with teaching and learning tools, participate in competitions to demonstrate technical and soft skill competence, volunteer at institute level as well as broad technical field level events, conferences etc. Publishing the technical work done during the Masters program is a strong indicator of a candidate’s interest in pursuing a career in research. 

All the above-mentioned aspects reflect in a candidate’s CV during assessment of the PhD application. Apart from the skills and knowledge that one gains, equally important criteria are what the candidate aspires to do during their PhD study. One such criteria is a strong research proposal outlining the motivation, overarching aim for the proposed study and a methodology to indicate the direction of the research. Through this proposal, one should defend the need and purpose as well as the novelty of the research. What problem are we trying to solve and how does this research contribute to the world at large and to the research community? 

The formal application for a PhD position is oftentimes quite simple, given the candidate has consistently thrived to succeed in their field, which is evident from the various activities undertaken during their previous studies. 

To be successful in this field, we should be competent in technical knowledge, comfortable with getting into the water, and proficient in mathematics such as solving differential equations and coding. All these play their roles in each project. Conducting laboratory experiments and computer modelling are a part of everyday work for engineers in fluids. We use computer controlled wave flumes where wave conditions from the oceans can be simulated at a small scale for understanding the various phenomenon we are interested in. For example, for my PhD thesis, to conduct experiments on tsunami, a special program to generate huge tsunami waves at small scales was used in the laboratory. Of course, the result is a simplified tsunami wave and it is perfectly ok. It is not always possible to simulate all the complex phenomenon we see in the rivers or oceans. So we always try to simplify the problem first, to conduct experiments. We then use computer models to simulate more complex scenarios such as a tsunami wave inundating a coastal city, which cannot be done in a laboratory. 

These techniques such as design of laboratory experiments and use of computer models are very useful for not just any specific project, but all the projects that we do. In my current research, I am working on understanding coral reefs from an engineering perspective (more details about this below) and the skills of designing experiments and computer models is essential. 

How did you get your first break?

I began my search for a university across the world by looking for researchers that are working in my field of interest, that is, tsunami flows. Once I made a list of such researchers, I contacted them with a personalized email for each of them highlighting who I was, what I wanted to do in their university, what was interesting about their research and how I could contribute to their research goals through my PhD. So it is important that we clearly indicate that joining a research group at a university is a win-win situation for both, not just one party. If satisfied with your background and approach, you will be offered advice on making a formal application to the university and fulfilling the related formalities. However, the path to success is a journey that continues. So, admission to a PhD program should only be a new beginning to learn many exciting things. 

I was granted an opportunity at my current university, The University of Queensland – Australia for  PhD on Tsunami Flows.

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

A consistent challenge in a fluids researcher or engineer’s career is to replicate the complex phenomenon such as flow in the vast oceans and rivers in a small laboratory model. This requires a good understanding of the processes that we want to investigate. There are many variables in the real world and not all of them can be reproduced or simulated in a laboratory. So making a decision on what variables to include and exclude is always a learning process where we use our knowledge and experience and come up with a valid procedure for including and excluding the variables. This has to be backed up with results that demonstrate the hypothesis we propose initially. Most importantly, one should accept criticism and feedback on the designs and try to revise the laboratory or computer models to improve the results. Most engineers may conduct laboratory experiments, but only a few can design and defend their laboratory models.  

Where do you work now? What problems do you address in your current research?

The skills such as developing physical and computer models for simulation of flows in rivers and oceans gave me an opportunity to work as a Postdoctoral researcher at The University of Queensland in understanding the risks due to climate change and cyclones on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef (GBR), the world’s largest reef system. Through my current research on the role of hydrodynamics in coral rubble stabilization, I contribute to large scale efforts in restoring the GBR from adverse climate impacts. It is a fulfilling experience to work amongst marine biologists, engineers and mathematicians to tackle this complex challenge of recovering the GBR.  

The Great Barrier Reef (GBR) is under tremendous stress due to climate change with increasing bleaching events and tropical cyclones that impact the reefs. GBR has lost half of its corals since 1995 due to ocean warming and three of those warming events occurred in the last five years. Reefs are an important ecosystem for both aquatic life as well as millions of people that depend on them for their livelihood. The physical environment responsible for the breakage of corals and formation of rubble is still largely unknown. Coral rubble on the reefs hinders new coral recruitment and recovery due to motion under waves. Sometimes, the rubble is unstable for even decades. The Rubble Stabilization sub-program within Reef Restoration and Adaptation Program, which includes multi-disciplinary researchers from marine biologists, engineers to geospatial experts, aims to identify locations of rubble formation and motion across GBR, to stabilize coral rubble so that it can provide a solid platform for natural coral recovery. The research also aims to identify sites where local interventions such as rubble stabilization might be useful so that it can provide a solid platform for natural coral recovery. Through this program, researchers also measure the rate of dead coral converting to rubble as a function of the physical environment and wave climate. This will involve field and laboratory measurements and include an assessment of the wave forces required to damage and break different types of corals, both live and dead. Computer models are being utilized to simulate every day, and cyclonic wave climates across GBR to predict rubble generation and to identify reefs at risk for active intervention to stabilize coral rubble to promote recovery.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day in my life involves tasks in many roles – a researcher, teacher, supervisor, consultant, and a volunteer to list a few. As a researcher, my task is to study and understand corals, and how they are impacted by cyclones. It is a common site in some of the Australian beaches to see white sand made of finely ground coral skeletons. This may be surprising to many, but one cyclone is enough to damage healthy corals and pulverize them to sand. But how this happens is still unknown. My task is to estimate these forces and be able to predict the damage risk from future cyclones. So I coordinate with people from different backgrounds in our project, from marine biologists, mathematicians, Geospatial experts to engineers. Some of our team members get to be in the field throughout the year to monitor coral reefs and gather field information as much as possible. When they bring back samples from the field, we then use the samples to do further testing in our laboratories. All of this information then goes into our computer models so we can use them for future prediction. My role is primarily based in laboratory and computer modelling, which I thoroughly enjoy.   

How does your work benefit society? 

This research aims to assist the stakeholders – the Australian Government, Traditional Owners, and the public to promote reef recovery. The outcomes of this project such as the computer model results, information on reefs at risk, rubble generation maps of GBR will be available for public access to promote environmental awareness and to encourage action against climate change. However, an important message to convey to the public in general is that “the Great Barrier Reef is not dead and that they do have a future, and it is absolutely within the power of people and society to decide”.

Often coral reef research is associated with biological and ecological research. However, the current risks of the Great Barrier Reef cannot be addressed by researchers of one discipline, but a collaborative team of multi-disciplinary experts across universities and research institutions. Huge efforts are underway to recover the GBR and this research also promotes awareness on climate change risks. 

Memorable work?

I am always fascinated looking at the ocean and the horizon. If I were to choose between mountains and oceans, I would say let us watch the waves from the mountain. To date, the current project is one memorable one where I am interacting with people from different disciplines and learning from them. This has been helpful in expanding my horizon as a research not just focused on Engineering. 

The most rewarding experience I would recommended anyone is to go for a dive or snorkel on the reefs wherever you are in the world. You will find a new world underwater. A rich and vibrant world that is calm yet compound to be amazed each time you take a look. And protecting such a world is everyone’s responsibility, not just professionals or researchers. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice is to excel in what you do and consistently seek opportunities to learn things beyond the classroom. Learning should not end or be constrained with the classroom environment. In this changing world, be hungry to improve yourself and opportunities will knock at your door. 

Future Plans?

In the short term, I want to focus on continuing my research in fluids broadly and publish my research so others can benefit from this work. In the long term, I aspire to make an impression in the profession I would be in – either academia or industry.