We need robust data driven models to understand future scenarios with respect to flood risk assessment which helps in development of adaptation and mitigation measures.

Prakat Modi, our next pathbreaker, Project Researcher at the Global Hydrodynamics Lab, University of Tokyo, works on large scale hydrodynamic modelling to understand and represent water movement on land, in a mathematical form.

Prakat talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about always wanting to understand the bigger picture of how rivers are getting affected by climate and socioeconomic changes and vice versa, which led him to a career in modelling of natural systems based on remote sensing techniques.

For students, with more than 70% of earth’s surface covered by water, it is a no-brainer that the field of hydrology is key to mitigating environmental risks !

Prakat, can you tell us about your background?

I was born and brought up in a small-town Mau in the state of Uttar Pradesh, India. My mother is a homemaker, and my father is a banker. I have two older sisters.

As extracurricular activities in childhood, I used to play cricket, badminton, flying kites and some video games for entertainment. 

I always had a keen interest in science. As a kid, I participated in many quizzes and watched many TV programs on the discovery channel. Among many of the programs, I was most impacted by “Ecopolis”, where they discussed the impact of technology on mega-cities and their environment. The curiosity to know more and understand natural and manmade systems made me pursue my science career.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

For my graduation thesis, I designed the plumbing system for new upcoming buildings, whereas, for my post-graduation, I worked on pesticide effluent treatment using bacteria and microalgae as the final thesis project.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I have had an affection towards science since my childhood. Among many subjects in science, I grew interested in chemistry in high school due to the continuous support and guidance from Mr Sunil K Singh (PGTE Chemistry, KV Mau). 

I took civil engineering as a major for my graduation since I knew I could be involved with environment and chemistry by opting this stream. In my 2nd year, I started preparing for the GATE by self-study. 

I qualified for the GATE and got admission to the department of civil engineering with specialization in Environmental and Water resources engineering to pursue MTech.

I wanted to be an Environmental Engineer, so I chose Environmental and Water Resources engineering (EWRE) for my MTech. EWRE stream helped me to gain knowledge of both environmental and water engineering. Later I wanted to involve myself in mathematical modelling and decided to pursue my PhD in Hydrology. 

Tell us about your career path

After my post-graduation, I wanted to explore the consultancy field to understand applications of science in the actual field. As a post-graduate trainee engineer, I joined Aarvee Associates Architects Engineers & Consultants Pvt Ltd and was later promoted to Assistant Manager. I worked there for two years on various smart city projects, greenfield projects and EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) of various projects. Meanwhile, I realized I wanted to learn more about the modelling of natural systems and remote sensing techniques. So, I applied for the PhD program in Japan. I successfully got admission to the PhD program and completed my PhD in Hydrology in due time of 3 years. 

As a prerequisite to applying for PhD in Japan, we should have the required degree (MTech in my case) and an English language proficiency certificate (a certificate from a previous institute stating the medium of instruction was English was adequate for my scenario). 

I didn’t apply for the MEXT scholarship, but got the JICA-FRIENDSHIP scholarship, which is only for IIT-Hyderabad students.  

My PhD thesis was “Multidimensional Uncertainty Comprehension for Improvement of Hydrological Prediction”. Here I tried to understand and quantify the various sources of uncertainty with respect to land water flow for future prediction and risk assessment. I also developed a novel framework to reduce the model uncertainty (mainly model parameter uncertainty).

After my PhD, I continued to work as Project Researcher and enjoyed the continuous process of learning and growing. 

How did you get your first break?

As a first break I would say I got admission in IIT-Hyderabad after qualifying for the GATE exam.  

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

Challenge 1:

I changed my school from Saraswati Vidya Mandir to Kendriya Vidyalaya in Class 8th.The sudden change of medium of instruction from Hindi to English was a challenge for me. The support of my parents and my mentor (Mr. Sunil K Singh) helped me to overcome this challenge. Consistency was the key to perform better and improve my understanding.

Challenge 2:

I grew up in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, and moving to Bengaluru for my B.E. was the 2nd challenge I faced. In this metropolitan city, I had to do all the work by myself. My knowledge of English was not sound enough, and I did not know the local language i.e., Kannada. I sustained and performed well due to my strong fundamentals in science. At the same time, over that period, I improved my communication in English due to necessity.

Challenge 3:

After joining PhD, keeping myself motivated and maintaining consistency was challenging. My supervisor Dr. Dai Yamazaki helped me to achieve my goal and helped me to remain motivated towards my work. Other than my supervisor, my friends and parents provided me with continuous mental support to achieve my goals. 

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

Currently, I work as a Project Researcher at the Global Hydrodynamics Lab, Institute of Industrial Science, The University of Tokyo, Japan.

My research group (Global Hydrodynamics Lab) deals with Large-scale Hydrodynamic modelling, where we try to understand and represent movement of water on land into a mathematical form. We try to understand river flow system and model the system at global and continental scale. For example, we can predict river discharge, and flood inundation at global scale for all the rivers at the same time. 

We also try to understand how rivers are getting affected by difference climate and socioeconomic changes and the vice versa. 

We use our models and data to understand future scenarios for risk assessment due to flooding for development of adaptation and mitigation measures.

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

One needs coding skills, fundamental and advanced knowledge of Hydrology and logical ability to solve the problem.

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day starts around 9:00 to 10:00 AM in the lab, and you perform your research work based on your project. We try to solve the part of the problem to achieve the target. Meanwhile, we attend group meetings and personal meetings with PI as scheduled. Usually, we work till 6:00 PM or later, depending upon our daily goal. The work timing is flexible; we work from home a few days a week. The main reason for attending the lab is to increase our discussion with colleagues.

What is it you love about this job? 

We always work to solve problems related to society, and we have to improve our understanding and knowledge while challenging ourselves to learn new things. This continuous process of challenging my ability to solve problems and learn new things is the most exciting part of my work.

How does your work benefit society? 

Our research group models the hydrological systems and anthropogenic systems affecting them. Our work helps to understand the natural system, the effect of climate change and human interaction on the system, and this helps to plan adaptation and mitigation measures for future risks effectively. 

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

I think my PhD itself is quite memorable. My master’s thesis was pure experimental work where I worked on wastewater treatment. I joined PhD in hydrology, where I had to perform model simulation and do a lot of coding to achieve my goals. The system and working environment were very different compared to the system in India, but completing my PhD in due time was a big achievement. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

1. Be consistent with your work; slowly, you will see improvements. 

2. Don’t fear failure. The most important thing to be successful is to try. 

3. Your success depends on the efforts of many people, so be kind to people. Always try to help others who need it. 

Future Plans?

I would be looking for a faculty position where I pursue my career as a researcher; at the same time, I can mentor students to achieve their goals.