Understanding the radiative balance (the amount of energy coming into and reflected back from the earth) of the earth helps us improve the accuracy of global climate/chemistry models that can make better predictions about the climate and ultimately the weather.

Chiranjeevi Nalapalu, our next pathbreaker, PhD Candidate (Atmospheric Physics) at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research (Potsdam, Germany), works on determining the contribution of SO2 to the stratospheric aerosol layer using computational models.

Chiranjeevi talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his master’s thesis on monsoon rainfall over the Indian ocean which solidified his interest in atmospheric physics.

For students, climate research has far reaching consequences not just for our environment but also in the development of better warning systems for farmers and people who live in coastal areas !

Chiranjeevi, can you tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in Bangalore, Karnataka. I studied at the Frank Anthony Public School (ICSE) until the 10th standard and I studied at the St. Josephs Pre-University College (State Board) for my 11th and 12th. I participated in annual science competitions and quizzes. I played hockey and basketball. I was consistently among the top 20% of my class. My father was an engineer and my mother was a homemaker. 

What did you do for graduation/ post-graduation?

I graduated with an Integrated Bachelor and Master’s Degree (BS-MS) In Physics at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Tirupati. I got into this program by clearing the KVPY Scholarship exam and interview. The program was 5 years long and involved training and education in interdisciplinary science and research.   

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?

I was always interested in science from a young age, it was very intuitive and logical and I loved learning about how the world worked. Many visits to the planetarium and museums and interactions with scientists made me want to choose this career.

My math teacher in 11th standard Mr. Balakrishnan was the most supportive, he gave me tons of advice and tips. He provided me with books to prepare for competitive exams. He always encouraged me to be more than a doctor or an engineer.

There was no specific turning point. I feel like all the events in my life slowly nudged me in this direction as if this was what I was always meant to do. 

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

While I was in college I did numerous internships with my professors over the summers. I started with a couple of internships in ecology where I visited field sites in the Himalayas and the Western Ghats. I studied the wildlife and birds there and used numerous statistical and computational methods to model the data I had collected. I enjoyed the statistics and analysis part but I soon realized that field work was not for me and I could not do this for the rest of my life, and so I switched fields.

I then did an internship in nuclear physics. This was more computationally intensive and more of hardcore physics. I grew my knowledge of computer science here. I modelled nuclear collisions on my laptop, simulating what occurs in very large and powerful particle accelerators. It was fun and I saw myself choosing this as a career path but that was not to be. The advanced physics courses were too hard and I could not cope with the increasing difficulty. My classmates and teachers were not supportive enough and I decided to move to another field.

When I had my first course in atmospheric science I knew that this was the field for me. It was engaging, new and exciting. I knew that this was the field I would do my thesis on. I did an internship first followed by my master’s thesis. I worked on monsoon rainfall over the Indian ocean. It was intellectually challenging and very interesting. My thesis advisor was very supportive. I did well in my courses, and my thesis work turned into a scientific publication as well. This gave me the confidence to pursue a PhD.

I graduated the same year when the pandemic struck. The job market was down, most countries were closed for travel and colleges abroad were closed for admission. I therefore took up a temporary job as a school teacher until things became normal again. As much as I enjoyed teaching, I still wanted to pursue a PhD.

I started applying to PhD positions abroad a few months later. My professor from college recommended a few sites to look for open positions. Many applications later, I was selected for an interview for a PhD Position in Germany. It was quite tough as I had been out of touch from research for a few months while I was teaching. I successfully cleared the interview and got the position. This was expected as I had the adequate training and qualifications in my master’s course. I also had a good publication as well as very supportive references from my professors in college.   

How did you get your first break?

My first break would be cracking the KVPY exam which got me admission into an IISER. I felt like that really shaped the rest of my life as the training and research experience a student gets in IISERs is way ahead of any other college in India.  

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

Getting into IISER was the easy part, but the tough curriculum made me work harder than ever before. It raises you to meet a standard that requires long hours of studying and solving problems. I was also confused about which major to choose (In IISERs, you are free to choose which courses and subjects you would like to take). It took me a long time to explore all fields before I finally decided on atmospheric science. There were also personal problems with my classmates involving discrimination that made it hard to form lasting bonds with anyone.

My second challenge was finding a job after graduation. As mentioned before, I graduated in the pandemic year, when most offices, labs, and other research institutes were closed. It was difficult to find a job in an area that I wanted. I decided to branch out further and do some teaching instead. It set me back a year from a scientific career but it was a good break before I started my PhD.

My third challenge was moving to Germany. It was difficult to get used to the weather and the food. Making friends was difficult and participation in workplace events was hard as I did not know how to speak German. But living in this country for almost 1.5 years, things are looking better and I enjoy the work life balance and the standard of living here.   

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

I work at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Science, Potsdam (Germany) as a PhD candidate. I work in the field of Atmospheric Physics and Chemistry. My main research question is to determine the contribution of SO2 to the stratospheric aerosol layer using computational models.

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

The skills required include experience in programming languages, experience in specific operating systems, competence in the English language and of course having a Master’s degree in a related field (physics/ chemistry/ climate science). I acquired these skills during the numerous projects that I undertook in my degree and especially my thesis project in my final year. I also took many courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics and computational methods.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day starts at 9. The work includes coding scripts to run models and studying them. I read many research papers to get more insight into the topic. I have weekly meetings with my thesis advisor and the research group to discuss ideas and results. I also have lunch with my colleagues where we talk more science and just have some banter. There is also a seminar 2-3 times a month where we have a guest speaker give a talk about their research. And I end my day by 4:30-5:00 and leave.

What I love about this job is that I am working on something that interests me and inspires me. It teaches me to be independent and come up with my own ideas and explore them. I am not micromanaged and forced to meet tight deadlines. I work at my own pace and mostly by myself. The pay is good, the work life balance is great but the thing I love the most is the respect that your colleagues have for your time and you as a person.  

How does your work benefit society? 

My work contributes to expanding our understanding of the radiative balance of the earth (the amount of energy coming into and reflected back from the earth), stratospheric chemistry and geo-engineering. It indirectly helps improve the accuracy of global climate/chemistry models that help us make better predictions about the climate and ultimately the weather.    

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

In my master’s thesis, I worked on studying the characteristics of monsoon rainfall over the Indian ocean. My work resulted in a publication (my first) which makes me feel good to know that my work, in a small way, contributed to making better monsoon predictions. This would really help farmers in the fields and also develop better warning systems for people who live on the coasts and areas affected by monsoon rains.  

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students is to figure out what really matters to you before choosing a career path. You can always chase your dreams, but can you afford it? Can you afford the time, the money, the hard work that such a dream job demands? Would you be happy if your dream job doesn’t let you support your family or even yourself? So, think really hard about it before deciding. Don’t be afraid if you choose wrong, there will be many life changing decisions that will come around where you have a chance to choose again. Choose wisely.    

Future Plans?

I still have another year and a half to finish my PhD, following which I plan to move outside academia and pursue a career in industry. I plan to work in a job in a closely related field, or that requires my computational and research skill set. I plan to settle here in Germany.