Glaciers hold not only about three-quarters of Earth’s freshwater but also the key to addressing challenges of climate change and sea level rise.

Ankit Paramik, our next pathbreaker, Postdoctoral Researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Belgium, works on subglacial hydrology, which plays a crucial role in controlling ice motion which is important for sea-level rise.

Ankit talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his doctoral research at the Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsø, where he investigated how glaciers are losing mass and how much meltwater has been added to the ocean over the period 1980-2016, using physics based numerical models.

For students, there is so much unknown about glaciers. Glaciology is a new field of study that is underexplored, but highly important from the present climate change perspective. 

Ankit, tell us about your growing up years?

I grew up in a lower-middle class family in a village in West Bengal. My father is a businessman, and my mother is a housewife. My mother used to run a small business from home selling sarees, as my father’s business was not doing well for a long time. I was good at studies since my childhood and did quite well in secondary and higher secondary school that made me eligible to pursue my bachelor’s degree in Physics from Ramakrishna Mission Vidayamandira, Belur Math, under the University of Calcutta. Thereafter, I did my master’s in Physics from IIT Madras. After completing my master’s, I took a job as a lecturer to teach Physics at Rajiv Gandhi University of Knowledge Technologies (RGUKT), Andhra Pradesh. After one year of work, I was not enjoying it anymore, and therefore, started looking for a PhD abroad. At that time, a joint PhD program between India and Norway on glaciology research had just begun, funded by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Govt. of India. My qualification matched the eligibility criteria. I applied, got the interview call, and was selected to pursue PhD from University of Oslo, Norway.

So, honestly, I never thought that I’d become a glaciologist. At an early age, I wanted to become an engineer. But then one thing led to another, and I ended up doing a PhD in glaciology. It was difficult in the initial years, but now I very much enjoy this field of research. It is a relatively new field of study, especially in India, but very important in the climate change context and highly underexplored. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I did my bachelor’s and master’s in Physics from the University of Calcutta and Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Madras, respectively. I then did my PhD in Glaciology, Geosciences from the University of Oslo.

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

I never thought of becoming a glaciologist. I was looking for a PhD abroad, probably in Physics. At that time, I came across an opportunity to pursue a PhD in glaciology from Norway, and that was funded by the Ministry of Earth Sciences (MoES), Govt. of India. I applied as I was eligible, but didn’t have any expectations. I was called for the interview. I went for the interview without any expectation, but I very much enjoyed the interview. I did not have much prior knowledge about glaciers.  I was asked some basic questions about glaciers, and I tried to address them from a Physics perspective. I believe the interviewers liked my approach and were satisfied.  So, yes, my Physics background helped me there. I ended up doing quite well in the interview. Even after a good interview, I didn’t have any expectations as there were many candidates who had some prior knowledge and work experience on glacier research. Around a month later, I received an email about my selection for the position. I immediately accepted the position, although I was not clear about the type of work I would be doing. I desperately wanted to do a PhD and didn’t want to let go of this opportunity. I think I believed in myself and was ready to face the uncertainties. So, that was the turning point. That was the beginning and since then I have been working in this field. My PhD supervisor was patient and helpful enough to make me feel comfortable in this field of research. The initial one and half years were difficult as I was new to this field. However, after one and half years, I started to feel comfortable and from there on, my interest in this field has grown. 

Tell us about your career path.

With a PhD degree and few years of post-PhD experience in glaciology, I can now call myself a glaciologist. It was not planned. It was very much a coincidence. I was desperate to do a PhD and was looking for opportunities. The rest fell into place. I was lucky. The way it worked out for me is that I started loving what I was doing, and not the other way around.   

However, I strongly feel that my Physics background, IIT degree and overall good track record helped me in getting that position. My Physics background helped further in surviving in this field as well. What I do is very much Physics based. Although I didn’t have any prior knowledge of glaciers, having a physics background helped me immensely in understanding the earth system process quickly. 

This is how my career in glaciology started. I worked mostly at Norwegian Polar Institute, Tromsø, for my PhD and obtained my PhD degree from the University of Oslo, Norway. In my PhD, I worked on glaciers in Svalbard in the Arctic. 

I investigated how glaciers are losing mass and how much meltwater has been added to the ocean over the period 1980-2016. As glaciers melt and meltwater is added to the ocean/fjord, it not only increases sea level, but also affects the ecosystem and circulation of ocean/fjord, and subsequently climate. So, it is important to know how all these will evolve as the global temperature rises. I investigate some of these problems with numerical models. Numerical models are built based on Physics of earth system processes. All the earth system processes can be expressed through Physics and Mathematics- some of these processes are known and some are unknown. We try to better understand the known processes and discover the unknowns. 

After my PhD, I worked at National Centre for Polar and Ocean Research (NCPOR), India, as Project Scientist where I worked on Himalayan glaciers. 

It was basically an extension of my PhD work, but for Himalayan glaciers. Underlying processes for glaciers in Himalaya and Arctic are same, however, there are some differences – some of the processes are dominant in one region and less dominant in other region and vice-versa. 

After my PhD, I wanted to work on a specific topic, subglacial hydrology, and was looking for a postdoc in the same field. Then a postdoc position on subglacial hydrology modelling at Université Libre de Bruxelles, (ULB), Belgium, was advertised – I applied and got the job. That is how I got into ULB where I am working on subglacial hydrology. 

How did you get your first break?

I would say I got my first break by getting the fellowship from Ministry of Earth Science (MoES), Govt. of India to pursue PhD in Arctic glaciology in Norway. 

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

Challenge 1: First challenge was to be comfortable in this field. I overcame that through patience and perseverance, even if it was difficult, and by not giving up. Gradually, I started thinking independently and that is when I felt I could survive here.

Challenge 2: Second was getting better at scientific writing. As a researcher, we need to publish articles on what we are doing. As a non-native English speaker, it was not easy to write scientific articles. So, my first article took a long time as there were several exchanges of manuscripts for correction, between me and my supervisors. It was difficult to see a lot of corrections on what I wrote. But it helped immensely in making me a better writer. My PhD supervisor was an American. He was extremely patient with my writing and ‘big thanks’ to him for all the help. Over time, as I read more and wrote more, I got better at writing. I am still learning. I believe patience and practice are the key in getting better at anything. 

Challenge 3: Have the guts to face rejections and failures. I faced many failures in publishing and proposal submissions. It is difficult to face those situations. I would not say I have overcome those, but I now accept failures and learn from them. I use the lesson learnt from my failure to be better next time. 

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

I work as a Postdoctoral Researcher at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Belgium. I work on subglacial hydrology, which plays a crucial role in controlling ice motion which is important for sea-level rise. Subglacial hydrology also controls sediment transport and biogeochemistry which affect ecosystems of rivers/ocean and climate. I investigate the interplay between subglacial hydrology and other associated processes. 

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

For this work, I need knowledge of glacier basal processes and numerical modelling. I mostly learned them during my PhD, but I am learning them more in detail as I work on this topic. 

What’s a typical day like?

My typical day is like this: Wake up around 6 am. Do mediation for 15 minutes. Work 1.5 -2 hours, mostly writing of any kind, such as proposals, any thought, journaling, etc. Then have breakfast and cycle to the university. I stay at the university from 9 am to 5:30 pm. There, I work on my research, like numerical modelling, manuscript writing, and discussions with my colleagues. One or two days a week, after work, I play tennis for around 2 hours. Otherwise, I get back home around 6:30 pm, talk with my family and prepare dinner. I usually have dinner around 9 pm. From 10 pm, I read books, mostly on habits, productivity, psychology related stuff. I like this genre very much. I try to go to bed between 10:30 and 11 pm. 

What is it you love about this job? 

There is so much unknown about glaciers. I try to understand them through physics and mathematics. I love to explore this field of research and understand processes that help us address climate change related problems. 

How does your work benefit society? 

My work is closely related to society. The broader goal of my research is to address climate change and sea level rise. As temperature rises, glaciers melt, and more water is produced which leads to sea level rise when added to the ocean. It also affects hydrology which further affects several other processes such as biogeochemistry of ocean, circulation of ocean, sediment transport, and these processes can affect the climate directly and indirectly. 

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

I have investigated the interplay between hydrology and biogeochemistry by developing a process-based numerical model. This model will help us understand how hydrology and biogeochemistry will change due to the future climate change. This can be done for the entire Greenland and can have a big impact on global climate. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Look for opportunities. Have good basic knowledge on whatever you are doing. Have patience and perseverance. Be flexible. Try to build a habit. Focus more on input than on output. 

Future Plans?

I love my research. I want to continue my research on glaciers and sea level rise, form a research group to address climate change related problems in the Arctic, Antarctic and Himalaya, and train students in this field of research. Glaciology is a new field of study that is underexplored, but highly important from the present climate change perspective.