13 Apr

Whatsapp Chat with Ananya, Scientist, IISc Bangalore

“Kids Ask Science” is a Whatsapp group which brings together experts in different fields and ever curious children through their parents. This platform was created by Mango as an effort to bring together a learning society.  The group has become an amazing platform where peer learning has known no leaps and bounds. On March 8th (women’s day), we organized an event in the group called ‘Ask Me Anything!’. We had invited Ananya S. Rao, a researcher from IISc, Bangalore to be available on the group for questions from parents and children. Here is a brief run through of the topics discussed.

Ananya S. Rao, is currently doing her PhD at the center for atmospheric and oceanic sciences from the Indian Institute of Science(IISc), Bangalore. She completed her schooling from 12 different schools, last one being Kendriya Vidyalaya, Coimbatore. She pursued Electrical and Electronics Engineering (EEE) for her under graduation.  After working in the field of climate and environment for a couple of years, she is currently doing her PhD on land carbon. She studies how the carbon in the soil and forests has changed over the years in India and how they might change in the future. This has important policy implications in terms of the need for afforestation efforts in India based on the intrinsic capacity of forests to take up the carbon released from the usage of fossil fuels, etc.

Q.Can you tell us about your work? – Mango Team

I am looking at how the change in climate over the past hundred years has affected the carbon content of the trees (biomass carbon) and the carbon content in soil, especially in India. I also look at what the effect of climate change would be on land carbon in the coming hundred years. As you know, you and I and most things around us are made of carbon and so it is one of the most important elements on earth. It’s the 6th most abundant as well. Trees take in carbon dioxide and convert it into oxygen through photosynthesis. This is the essential process for taking up carbon from the atmosphere (CO2 emitted by us has reached startling levels). Hence, it is essential to know how the process of taking up this carbon has been earlier and how it would be in the future.

Q: Can you tell us about your lab? – Mango Team

I work with Prof Govindasamy Bala, and I am his first PhD student in this institute. My lab works on geo-engineering and the terrestrial carbon cycle. We mainly do computer simulation. So the lab does have a lot of computers and books.

Q: I remember when we were in school, you used to take part in a lot of extra-curricular activities and co-curricular activities. Have they helped you in your work in some way or the other? – Mango Team

Of course! I feel to be a scientist it is essential to have an inquisitive attitude about everything. Including activities other than conventional ‘studies’. Overall exposure to various things like literature, music, dance keeps giving you an overall development. This then gives you more confidence and an out of the box thinking while solving questions of science that you are interested in. As Elon Musk said in an interview I was lucky to be a part of – kids these days need to know software, physics, literature and critical thinking – critical thinking develops with exposure to all fields.

Q: Thanks for quoting Elon Musk. I remember him telling how Failing and learning from it is important as an Entrepreneur.  How important is ‘Trying and Failing’ in a life of a Scientist. How important is it to embrace failure as a Scientist? – Mango Team

Oh failures are definitely a part of anything to do with being a Scientist. It’s because nothing is planned in science, nothing is determined and nothing is certain. Science is ever changing and hence failures in your theory/experiment/work are just to be taken as tools to learn and go ahead. Only when one learns to fall and get up after the fall can one do science. Great scientists failed most of their life, and it’s always one moment of clarity, one moment of ‘eureka’ that gets them the answer and helps add to science. Learning from our mistakes and taking failures as mere steps to progress is very important!

Q: Is learning Science only for people aspiring to be scientists? How important is learning Science for the society at large – Mango Team

As I quoted Mr. Musk earlier, I also feel it is important for every individual to know how things work around them. And that Science i.e. physics, biology and chemistry is all around us. Science hence is for everyone who is inquisitive, who wants to know the why and how. It impacts the individual by bringing growth in their thinking, his/her understanding of himself/herself and the world around them. Science is essential for bringing open-mindedness and acceptance of the world around us. And thus, the society needs science and scientists who work for deeper understanding of science. The skill of observing things grows with science. Science is a world encompassing a huge gamut of things.

Q: You grew up in forest College when you were in Coimbatore as your father was working there. Did that inspire you to study trees and soil? – Mango Team

Yes it did. Thanks to my father, I have always been associated with forests and the only aspiration I had as a kid was to work on something related to forests and animals. They help us stay alive on this planet. However, I pursued electrical and electronics engineering as my bachelor degree as at that time I did not find a good college for studying anything related to the environment (in Bangalore was the constraint too). After I finished the engineering degree, I started working with a professor in IISc on climate change and 2 years later had experience and knowledge enough to crack the entrance into a completely different field of science. And now I am here working on climate science and forests. It was only through the everyday walks in the green campuses I was lucky to stay in, that I always wanted to pay back to nature in some way for all the wonderful things it does for us. I want to do good to the environment in whatever way I can.

Q: Now that you were talking about climate change. what can these future aspiring Scientist (kids) can do right now? How can they contribute? do they have to become Scientist to do something about it? – Mango Team

Each of us can contribute and must contribute to make this place we call Earth a better home. Irrespective of whether you are an engineer or a doctor or a lawyer or a working on pure science we are the only ones responsible for the current state of the planet and hence it is in our hands to leave this a better place. Climate change and global warming are big terms which seem to bother us less, but it is only when we see the weather around us turning extreme – too much rain or drought for continuous years – that we start getting a little worried. So to start with, individually do everything we can to reduce the adverse effects on the environment – reduce the usage of plastic! Cut it out completely and use cloth bags for buying fruits, vegetables. Tell your friends in school and your neighbors to do the same. Reduce wastage of water, use only the minimum amount required. Don’t stand under the shower for half an hour … Reduce electricity usage. Switch off lights when not in use. Recycle things whenever possible. Plant trees around your school and your houses. Think these days most schools concert the above to students but it is about how much it is implemented. We cannot wait for tomorrow. We need to act now. Also, raise your voice against cutting trees, tell strangers politely not to throw plastic away. These are the small steps that will make a great difference. Waste segregation is one thing I missed above. 

Q: Were you always curious about science during the school life? How did you sustain this interest? – Mango Team

It wasn’t always science that I was curious about. I was curious about everything and science was one subject in school that I liked. Like I said being inquisitive is all it takes to be a scientist and as I was interested in forests and the environment I ended up as a scientist here. Also it is important to not push away the inquisitiveness for the sake of society or earning something. Nor are competitive exams a benchmark for your intelligence or knowledge. It is most important to do what you like and are genuinely interested in.

Q: 5 books that inspired you the most (not necessarily science related) that you would like to recommend to others and kids especially. – Mango Team

Books -1.”Surely You Are Joking” by Richard Feynman.  2. “Autobiography of a Yogi”- Paramahamsa Yogananda. I would say these two books that I read in school inspired me for everything I do in life. Others, I shall share shortly.

Q:  What’s the best thing about being a scientist? – Mango Team

You have the freedom to work on what is interesting to you. And each day is a new beginning, each day I look forward to learning something new. That way I’m always a student. 

Q: What are the criteria to enter IISC Bangalore? – Jeny, 14yr old

This should give a better idea.

IISc Bangalore Eligibility Criteria

Q: For the past 500-1000 years the carbon has green basically the same. Why do you expect it to change in the future? – Akash, 13yr old

Not true. CO2 in the atmosphere had been varying from 270-300ppm. (parts per million) for the past thousand years and it is only after the industrial revolution it had increased to current average of 400ppm. This sudden increase in atmospheric CO2 is unprecedented in the history of our planet. It is the extremely small amount of time taken for the change that is of major concern here. We don’t know how much of an impact this could have yet.

Q: What are some of the possible consequences? – Aakash, 13yr old

We already know that the heat content of the planet had inbred and is increasing because of the CO2 added by us. This is in turn causing variations in other variables such as rainfall and cloud cover, in turn affecting us. Consequences already visible include – increased frequency of extreme events like droughts and floods.

Q: Is there any tree(s) that might be harmful to our environment? – Brisly Priya, Parent of 8yr old

All trees are useful and are not harmful. However, planting natively available trees in that region is important for better growth and the other beings in the place like insects and birds.

Q: What are the measures being taken on a larger scale?  I mean are there any method to reverse it or are we looking at a prevent further damage situation here? – Rhea, 16yr old

Yes. Cutting down CO2 emissions is one of the many steps on a larger scale. These are country level changes. Also mitigative and adaptive strategies are being put in place to deal with these adverse changes. Mitigation involves – providing farmers with sustainable agricultural tools and practices, increasing solar power usage etc and adaption would be to change the growing cycle of a few crops according to the changes in the onset of monsoon etc.

Q: IISc is geared more towards Science. Is there UG engineering vertical as well? – Akshita, 13yr old

IISc UG is best suited for a career in research, they don’t focus on placements as I gather. At IISc we only provide a BS degree which is for 4 years. During the course students are exposed to both engineering as well as science fields and can take either a pure science or an engineering subject as specialization in the 3rd and 4th year.

Q: Will global warming affect the storage of carbon in trees. – Ilakkiya ,7th std

Yes and that is what I’m trying to find out. Initially with increasing temperature plants take up more carbon for a while, but they reach saturation also and then do not take up carbon further. We do not know for certain when our plants on this planet will saturate completely and not take up further carbon.

Q: What are other career options in the environmental arena.  Other than engineering? I mean career options not educational courses.  Let me put it better,  in what other professions, can one make a direct impact on bettering the planet. – Radhini, Parent of 15yr old

Bachelor’s in science is a good option but has to be coupled with a master’s from a good college in the field of interest. I think it is essential to check what interests the child rather than focus on which career option would be more lucrative. If the intentions are there I feel you can make an impact in any profession you choose. For example being a lawyer one can fight for strict environmental laws and fight against their violations. Also, being in journalism one can report on the big industries, institutions or individuals that are making a change and also the ones who are not abiding by the rules. I’d say climate change communication is an upcoming field and also working on climate change and public health would be a good option. So environmental law and journalism are two other fields I’d suggest.

Q: Are the scientists working on any new technology to make sea water as fresh water, will it be possible in future when underground water gets over? – Karan, 11yr old

There are two methods already in use for desalination, especially in the middle eastern countries where there is hardly any water. Distillation of salt water and reverse osmosis are the two widely used methods. But both are too expensive and the energy required for large scale conversion is too high! However, governments are considering this as a last resort.

Q: How were you when you were young and going to school? – Indraneel, 8yr old

As I briefly mentioned before I was surrounded by forests and wild animals most of my childhood and so felt an easy deep connect to them. I didn’t really know whether I wanted to be an engineer or lawyer or do pure science but always felt that I should be involved with the forests and environment in some way. As my dad was an IFS officer we had to keep shifting places and as a result both my brother and I hardly attended school. However, I always managed to stand one among to top 5 in the class mainly because of the exposure to all fields we got and my parents coaching. I was always curious to know more and our parents never curbed that curiosity.

Q: How the carbon content of the plants are measured – Kaviyazhlini, 12yr old

Carbon content of plants is measured by first finding out the dry mass, that which is left after removal of water content, and then multiplying that mass by 0.5. A scientist by name Schlesinger found that around 47-50% of the plant dry biomass is carbon and so this standard is used commonly for all plant types.

Q: Why we should not stand under the tree when there is lightning and also will it affect the carbon content of the tree – Saathvik, 9yr old?

When there is lightning, it will most likely strike the highest point in the area. So if the pointed top of the tree happens to be the highest spot in the area, it may strike the tree and if you are under the tree it may jump on to you as well! That is why it is advised to stay in a car or a house during lightning. Also carbon in the trees is not affected unless the tree is completely burnt. Then the carbon content decreases.

Q: Being a Scientist do you have time for your hobbies, if so, can you share with us – Saathvik, 9yr old?

I still do have enough time to pursue my hobbies. I feel it is very important to take creative breaks from work and focus on something else. With this the mind refreshes and feels better. I used to go for kathak (dance) classes until some time ago. Nowadays I play tennis, sketch sometimes, or go for a long walk in the evening.

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About samyuktha saravanan

self designed learner interested in facilitation with children, natural building and sustainable living.