In a world that is increasingly vulnerable to the severe consequences of global warming, the ability to accurately forecast and monitor weather is our first line of defense !

Sambit Kumar, our next pathbreaker, Scientist/Engineer-SD at Space Applications Centre, ISRO, works on developing innovative algorithms and procedures for the data processing and quality control of Doppler Weather Radars, for use in various meteorological applications.

Sambit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about field of Atmospheric Sciences and the significance of satellite and ground based data in understanding weather and climate processes.

For students, research in Astrophysics and Astronomy covers a wide range, from unlocking the mysteries of our universe, to impacting the daily aspects of our lives through mobile communication and internet, safer and faster transportation or disaster management.

Sambit, can you tell us about your background?

I belong to a middle-class family from Jajpur Town, Odisha. My father was central govt. employee, in the Dept. Of Post, and my mother was housewife. I was brought up in Cuttack, Odisha and this is where I did most of my studies, starting from schooling in Kendriya Vidyalaya (K.V.), Cuttack to my bachelors in Ravenshaw University, Cuttack. I was really fond of science, especially physics from my high school days (credit goes to my Physics Teachers and lot of science documentaries), and hence I chose to pursue BSc Physics after passing out from K.V. Cuttack. I wanted to do research in Astrophysics and Astronomy in the future and that was my main motivation for pursuing my undergraduate studies in Physics. Later on, I moved on to do my Masters in Astrophysics from Pondicherry University, which is a central university in Puducherry.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I pursued my Bachelors in Science with Physics Honors (BS, Physics) from Ravenshaw University, with Mathematics and Chemistry as my major electives, in which I got distinction. For my post-graduation, I did MSc in Astrophysics from Pondicherry University, where I got a Gold Medal and distinction. While the selection in Ravenshaw University for my bachelors was through merit-based selection process and counselling, for my masters at Pondicherry University, I had to clear a national level entrance exam conducted by the university itself.

What were some of the key influences that made you choose this career?

My main motivators and influencers were my Physics Teachers in my school, including the principal (at that time) who also happened to teach Physics. They were excellent teachers and the way they used to explain the concepts and theories in class, it was so clear and easy to understand, and relatable to real-world problems which made physics so exciting for me. Apart from that, I was very fond of watching scientific documentaries on Discovery Channel, which also ignited the curious child inside me. Apart from this, one of the main guiding forces and inspiration throughout my career (till date) is my Maths Teacher, who has been like a mother figure to me and has helped me through really tough times, both in-school and outside.

My Physics teacher, Shri. N. B. Das, my school principal, Shri. A. K. Mishra, my Maths Teacher Mrs. Basabi Sengupta and my Physics Tutor, Shri. S. K. Mohapatra were major mentor figures in my life, starting from my school till today. I am still in contact with them and all my teachers from school and college, and feel really blessed to have been their student.

Of course, apart from my teachers, my parents and my grandfather have been the strongest pillars in my life from childhood. My grandfather was a National Teacher’s Awardee and he really taught me a lot of life lessons and values from childhood, which I believe has helped me shape my character and persona. It is because of their blessings that I am what I am today.

There were couple of events, one good and one not-so-good during my school days that had a huge impact on my thought process and eventually my career. Coming to the “not-so-good” fact first, I had failed in Maths, in one of our quarterly examinations in class 10th, which was very close to the half-yearly and board exams. That was really shocking for me as well, as I remember vividly, I had excelled in every other subject except maths in that test. I can recall the panic in my mind during the exam, while I was trying to answer the questions on the test paper, and failing miserably at most of them, mainly because of the fact that I wasn’t feeling confident about most of the questions. Something was bothering me and I couldn’t figure out why I was committing so many blunders on the maths test paper. I was going completely blank on certain questions, even though I knew that subject/topic pretty well. Even after coming back home after the test, I immediately tried to solve the questions, which I had failed to answer in the exam, and I was shocked to notice that I had done so many silly mistakes during the exam itself, but there was no turning back from there. Eventually, when the results came after a few weeks, I faced my worst nightmare which had come true, and I had scored the lowest marks in the entire class. This was even more shocking to my maths teacher, Mrs. Basavi Sengupta, who couldn’t believe it either. It was so embarrassing for me, when she called me in front of the class and confronted me about my poor performance. Although, many students had performed poorly in that particular exam, I was one of the worst performers. That was a dark day for me, and fortunately/unfortunately, that was the first time the school principal, Shri A. K. Mishra came to know about me and had called me to his chamber. Sengupta madam had explained the situation to him prior to my arrival, and he had all my test papers in front of me. I couldn’t help myself and cried in front of him, when he and Sengupta madam started to console me and encourage me to do better next time. That was a turning point in my career, something had clicked inside me and it made me stronger and braver from that day onwards. I worked hard on my weak areas, and in the next exam and all the other exams, I was one of the highest scorers in Maths, and even during the 10th and 12th Board exams. It made my teachers very proud and I felt really positive too. 

Coming to the good incident afterwards, I had been doing good in Physics papers in school and college (bachelors) as well, thanks to my teachers for making the subject so enjoyable for me. But the best thing that happened to me was in the second year at Ravenshaw University.

How did you start building your career in the field of astronomy and astrophysics?

I always wanted to have first-hand research experience in the field of Astrophysics and Astronomy, and so I was constantly looking for opportunities throughout India. I always tried to keep myself updated regarding the advancements in this field, even though I didn’t have all the knowledge yet to understand the intricacies of the research in this field. Yet, the curiosity and passion towards the subject always drove me and I managed to get selected for one of the most prestigious summer research fellowships (internships) in India, offered by the Indian Academy of Sciences (IAS), Bangalore. Through this, I got the opportunity to carry out research for three months during the summer at IUCAA, Pune, which is one of the premier and reputed institutes in India and the world in the field of Astrophysics and Astronomy. I had the privilege to learn and work under the guidance of Prof. Dipankar Bhattacharya, on a project related to X-ray Binary stars and Pulsars. It was such an amazing and enlightening experiences for me, to be able to learn from these eminent scientists and professors, and to get first hand knowledge and experience of working on real astronomical data and software. I cherished each and every moment I spent there in IUCAA. The best part was that I was one of the youngest participants in that programme and in the institute. Sometimes, I couldn’t believe myself when I was amongst some of the brilliant minds in the country. It was an amazing feeling, and I learned a lot from this internship. I also made a lot of good friends during this time, all of whom were senior to me, and are now placed at very prestigious labs and universities across the world. After my return to Ravenshaw university from Pune, I managed to motivate and inspire my fellow batchmates and juniors to apply for these internships in future. I was happy to note that many of them did get to undertake such internships in the following year, while I chose to do another at NCRA, Pune. 

As I mentioned earlier, one of the key turning points in my career was my failure in one of the exams, which then made me push myself even harder and helped me learn one important life lesson: never to give up and always to learn from mistakes. The second driving force came in the form of my first internship at IUCAA, where I got excellent exposure to carrying out research in the field of Astrophysics and Astronomy. That drove my passion and motivated me to further explore this field, and that was one of the reasons why I chose to do my Masters in Astrophysics. The technical skills and knowledge that I learnt from those internships served as the foundations of my career.

As I mentioned earlier, I took internships and summer/winter fellowships at various institutes in India, like IUCAA, NCRA, IIA during my bachelors and masters studies. This helped me gain valuable insights and research skills for my future endeavors in my professional career. While doing each internship, I was getting some kind of fellowship from the host institute or the organizers. For example, IAS, Bangalore was paying us summer research fellowship grants for the 3 months when we doing our internships. Similarly, IIA, Bangalore had its own summer internship program, so we were getting our stipends from IIA directly. Apart from these, I was receiving merit-based Scholarships from the Dept. of Higher Education, Govt. of Odisha, and Pondicherry University during my bachelors and masters respectively. There is a huge scholarship grant from the INSPIRE program by the govt of India, which is offered by the Govt of India to students of natural sciences, based on certain criteria. Many of my friends were receiving that, and the best part is, it will continue till your masters and PhD (subject to additional selection criteria).  

Tell us about your internships

Coming to the internships, the first one which I did was at IUCAA, Pune where I worked on a project to estimate the magnetic field strength of a X-ray binary system. I performed data analysis and modeling/simulations using various software, which I was taught by my supervisor and his assistant in IUCAA. It was a really exciting project and I learned a lot. After the completion, I had to submit a report on my work and give a presentation. Next, I attended a Winter School on Radio Astronomy at NCRA, Pune, where we were taught the basics of Radio Astronomy and also performed various experiments in labs for gaining better insight into the actual science and technology behind the radio telescopes. It was an amazing experience, especially the field visits which we had to Khodad, Pune and the Telescope facility of IUCAA. Towards the end, we were assigned teams and given certain project topics on which we had to design and present posters on the final day of the winter school. It was a lot of fun. Then, during my masters, I attended the summer school on Astronomy and Astrophysics, at Kodaikanal Solar Observatory of IIA and then moved on to carry out a 2-month research internship at their main campus in Bangalore. Here I worked on a project on analysing the spectroscopic evolution of supernovae. This also helped me in learning a lot about scientific data analysis, modeling the data to deriving useful insights and understanding the theoretical reasoning behind it. Here also, we had to submit a final report and present our research results in front of a committee for evaluation. Later, I moved on to continue research on this topic in a more detailed and extended manner, and submitted this work as my Masters Thesis, towards completion of my MSc at Pondicherry University.

What was your career path after completing your masters?

Coming to my professional career after my masters, I joined BITS-Pilani as a JRF (Junior Research Fellow) to carry out research in the field of Cosmology. I had worked there for about 5-6 months, but due to some unforeseen circumstances and health reasons, I had to leave that position. Later, I joined CSIR-4PI, Bangalore, which is a national level research lab famous for its high-quality research on Weather, Climate, Modeling and Cyber-Security related research. I worked as a Project Assistant-II, in an Indo-French collaborative project on Carbon-Cycle modelling. I was involved in the setting up of few ground stations/labs for measuring green house gases and carrying our measurements along with my team members. I also worked on the calibration of the instruments used, during which I developed many computer programs in Fortran and Python. During that time, Space Applications Centre, ISRO, Ahmedabad had published vacancies for Scientist/Engineer posts, and I had applied for it. After clearing the initial screening round and interview, I finally joined SAC-ISRO in March, 2017. Since then, I have been working in the field of Atmospheric Sciences and carrying out research on clouds, rainfall, cyclones and lightning using radars and satellites. 

How did you get your first break?

My first break was getting JRF position at BITS-Pilani, which I had applied for after seeing the advertisement on their website. The selection process included initial application round and screening, followed by personal interview at BITS-Pilani campus in Rajasthan.

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

Exploring and getting information about summer research internships and identifying a proper path to a research career in India, while studying at a State University, was challenging during my time. I couldn’t get proper guidance or mentorship, and neither was there any source of motivation or inspiration from the university itself to do such things. That doesn’t mean the university was bad or the professors were not good, what I mean is these things are not included in the curriculum and not required as well. Hence, people generally don’t bother to take any extra efforts, since most people prepare for entrance exams and go for jobs after completing their bachelors. So overcoming this scenario, and finding opportunities on my own, was both challenging and exciting for me.

Another challenge was getting a job right after my masters. I initially wanted to go abroad for my PhD, but due to my family circumstances and financial challenges, I had to stop that pursuit and rather focus on getting a job quickly. Sadly, we still don’t have enough opportunities in our country for students from science background. The only options (at least during my time) were either to go for state and central govt jobs after clearing highly competitive exams, or else banking jobs, also after clearing really competitive exams. Another option, which some people generally take up is teaching positions in universities, coaching centers or colleges, which are typically of temporary nature. The salaries offered are not so great. Getting a research position was really difficult, it still is, and even if you find a JRF or project assistant position, the salaries/fellowships are extremely low, as compared to tech-based jobs or other similar jobs abroad. So, I also settled initially for a teaching job in one of the coaching institutes in Bhubaneswar, which I did for about 2-3 months right after my masters. Later, I moved on to join BITS-Pilani as a JRF and then to CSIR-4PI as a Project Assistant. I had to spend almost two years in such temporary positions, until I found the biggest break in my life, which was the Scientist Position in ISRO. 

Our government and other agencies are working towards providing better opportunities for students in our country, and I hope the situation improves in the future, for which cooperation between government, NGOs and the Industry is really essential.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your current role

I am currently working at Space Applications Centre, ISRO, Ahmedabad as a Scientist/Engineer. I am posted in the Atmospheric Sciences Division within SAC-ISRO.

What problems do you solve?

I am currently working on developing innovative algorithms and procedures for the data processing and quality control of Doppler Weather Radars, in order to use their data for various meteorological applications such as rainfall estimation, lightning prediction, studying weather extremes (viz. thunderstorms, cyclones, flash floods) etc.   

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

For my current position, the basic eligibility criteria is either BSc/MSc in Physics or Maths or equivalent disciplines; or BTech/MTech in either Engineering Physics, Mechanical, Electrical, Computer Science etc. You need a good academic career (minimum 7.5 CGPA or 80% and above throughout) and good technical and communication skills. 

Computer programming knowledge is desirable, which the interviewers look for in a candidate. So, I would suggest that all prospective candidates learn computer programming and basic data analysis. 

I had gained these skills through various coursework, internships, and through my own personal interests (by watching lot of tutorials on Youtube). 

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day at office starts by checking official emails once I reach my room and then preparing a to-do list for the day. If we have any meetings, then we generally prepare for them and attend the same as per the given schedule. Since I do a lot of data analysis and programming, I generally check for some previous experimental runs from programs that I had submitted for execution the previous day and see the results. We also discuss with our Supervisors or Division Heads regarding our current or future project work, which we might be working on, but that’s not every day. We generally have tea breaks twice a day, once in the morning and once after lunch. We also manage to find some time post lunch for a couple of games of Table Tennis or for a stroll in the campus with our colleagues. 

What is it you love about this job? 

I love that I get to learn so much from my incredibly talented and experienced colleagues and seniors, who are from diverse backgrounds and working on different projects. ISRO culture has always been based on team-work, where all individual contributions from different scientists and engineers come together to contribute towards building useful technologies and applications for the betterment of our society and the development of our nation. It’s like a giant machine running at different parts of the country and all in sync, working towards a common goal. You get to work on really interesting and challenging problems and projects, and that itself improves your skills and helps you in your professional and personal growth.

How does your work benefit the society?

ISRO has always worked towards developing technologies and applications, utilizing the space and ground based resources for the betterment of mankind. Our work and research directly or indirectly serves some or the other aspect of our daily lives, be it mobile communication and internet; be it health services; be it safer and faster transportation or supply chain; or be it weather forecasts and disaster management. In every sector of our society and our economy, ISRO’s contribution is indispensable and it will only increase in future. So, we do need young and brilliant minds to come and join this force, and serve the nation with their innovative ideas, and develop a never-give-up spirit and enthusiasm to achieve unremarkable heights in science and technology. This will be a noble contribution towards our nation building and humanity.

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

The first project which I got after joining SAC, ISRO was to develop data processing chains and applications for ISRO Doppler Weather Radars (DWRs). This was quite essential, since DWRs are very crucial and helpful for weather forecasting and monitoring. There were many challenges in utilizing the data to its full potential without proper quality control and data management. Hence, I started working on those aspects and managed to develop a very good and efficient data processing pipeline that could do necessary quality control and provide data to various numerical weather prediction models in the required format. Because of this, we could see 30-40% immediate improvements in cyclone tracking and intensity predictions and also good improvements in rainfall prediction. This work was much appreciated by the senior management at SAC, ISRO and IMD, New Delhi. We then developed and transferred a similar technology/procedure for the IMD DWRs, to the Weather Forecasting Division at New Delhi on their request, and it is currently operational for the entire North Indian region. I was and still am really proud of this work, as I spent a lot of time and effort on it. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

The most important thing for any student is to get the basics right, no matter which field you are in. Fundamental knowledge and understanding of core concepts would go a long way, rather than memorization of formulas to score marks. Apart from that, learning statistics and computer programming (especially Python) is really the need of the hour, whether you go for engineering or science disciplines in your higher studies. Taking internships or research fellowships would really help you a lot gain necessary skills and experience before moving to the industry or professional research.

Future Plans?

I am planning to register and start my PhD as soon as possible. I have had very good exposure towards usage of satellite and ground based data to understand various weather systems. But, I want to dig deeper and try solve some of the gap areas in weather and climate processes, and work on climate change related risk management and advisory.