Early Career Perspective: Prerita Agarwal

 Prerita is a first-year doctoral student in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the School of GeoSciences, The University of Edinburgh, UK. She has an MPhil in Environment Science & Sustainable Development from Banaras Hindu University and Master’s degree in Environment Management from IP University. She is motivated by her fascination for the tiny invisible particles in the atmosphere as a driver of global change.

Note: This is a guest blog and the piece has been lightly edited for brevity.


I am from New Delhi, and anyone reading this blog and working on air quality (just for a double whammy) would instantly understand when I say – I actively avoid going outdoors unless it’s absolutely necessary. This has been a firm rule of thumb for me for a few years now. The persistent air pollution in Delhi has transformed the norm for many people.

I am a first year PhD Candidate in Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences at the University of Edinburgh and I am an atmospheric chemistry modeller. I’d like to share my career journey and experiences so far.   

Naivety

Environment Management was a minor elective course I took in the third year of my undergraduate study in Botany Hons. at Delhi University. For all the inconsequential purposes of an elective course, I was still fascinated by the complex interdisciplinary nature and yet the simplicity of the subject.

It eventually led me to pursue a two-year post-graduation in Environment Management  in 2014 from Indraprastha University in Delhi. The course entailed a six-month dissertation training, and I decided to work on air quality at CSIR-National Physical Laboratory (CSIR-NPL). That was the year when the ‘odd-even’ vehicle rationing scheme was launched in New Delhi in the winter of 2015 and then again in summer. For my dissertation project, I assessed and compared the impact of this policy by analysing some of the key ambient atmospheric pollutants before, during and after both the implementation periods. Though the measurements carried out at a single monitoring station at CSIR-NPL weren’t enough to validate the effectiveness of the experimental scheme in improving the air quality, inquiring the literature helped me contextualise the complex and intertwined nature of pollution sources in and around New Delhi. The insights from the study became an interesting ice-breaker topic during various PhD admission interviews that followed later.

I graduated in 2016, and a few months later, Delhi and the broader North Indian region experienced one of the most severe air pollution episodes. As sombre as this personal experience was, it reinforced me to choose a career path later allowing me to advance my basic understanding in atmospheric sciences. 

In parallel, I was also preparing for the hitherto UGC National Eligibility Test (NET-JRF) for the post of Junior Research Fellowship which to my naive mind was the test of my worthiness to become a researcher, like wielding the Mjolnir was a way for the Thor to test his worthiness; it seemed like the only way to get into a PhD program in the top institutes in India. I didn’t qualify the exam that year, and I wanted to gain more research experience in this field. So, I took admission in the integrated MPhil-PhD program in Environment Science & Sustainable Development at Banaras Hindu University through their common entrance test. 

Coming of Age

For my one-year MPhil dissertation study, I looked at the long-term aerosol climatology over South Asia using remotely sensed microphysical and optical properties of aerosols derived from AERONET. It was a profoundly satisfying experience as I got to participate in many insightful science discussions with my colleagues and acquired more knowledge and research skills. But as I was still a novice when it came to data analysis and programming expertise, in a field where it’s a skill as important as ‘the force’ to a Jedi, I quickly realised I needed to advance my technical skills and gain a deeper understanding of the subject. I decided to pursue a PhD abroad as I wanted to gain a broader perspective by working and learning within an international community of researchers and benefit from the exciting training opportunities offered by the universities. I qualified the NET-JRF exam in Environmental Sciences in 2018 and started looking for PhD positions (albeit not actively).

Meanwhile, I also kept my option open for pursuing a PhD from a flagship institute in India, which didn’t go quite as planned. As it transpired, I got rejected for atmospheric science programs due to their bespoke admission criteria of having both physics and mathematics at the undergrad level. To expand my experience, I took a compelling job opportunity at Sensing Local to work on the project Clean Air Platform – Bengaluru for a brief period of four months. While working there, I got a view through a different lens, which broadened my somewhat siloed understanding of the issue and connected it with the ‘citizen science’ approach.

I later registered as a junior research fellow at CSIR-NPL in 2019 as I wanted to go back to the research. All this sprinting between career prospects happened in the course of one year! I continued (actively, this time) looking for PhD prospects in the UK and I interacted with some amazing and kind professors who found the time and interest to interact with me  personally. I could only apply at limited places as scholarships for international students in the UK are hard to come by through the conventional NERC funded routes. The process took nearly six months, and two out of my eight applications were successful. 

Finding my feet

Fast forward to the present, I am a first-year PhD candidate at the University of Edinburgh and stoked to be working with amazing supervisors, colleagues, and peers. Currently, my focus is to understand and model the distribution of Black Carbon aerosols over India using regional chemistry transport models.Nine months into my PhD, apart from prating about my never-ending struggle with errors and bugs, I can now say that I am a modeller. I am glad I was exposed (albeit for a short while) to other areas like measurement of atmospheric composition and remote sensing which gave me a nuanced narrative and to not take a siloed approach within my research. I have been working on my data analysis and coding skills in Python while understanding the blurs between model and real-world processes. I recently explored animating 2D fields using Python; as an example, a simple Air Temperature at 2m height from the surface for the month of February in 2019  from ERA5 reanalysis data is shown in the figure below. I aim to make all my routine analysis codes public, and I update them on my Github profile

My two cents

Research- Being in a PhD program has been no mean feat on both personal and professional fronts for me. The experience can be particularly overwhelming when you are thousands of  miles away from your family and friends, but it’s an opportunity worth taking; so is the ‘home away from home’ experience you get. For the most part, PhD is about staying afloat and thriving in a dynamic world, but it’s not possible without the support and help of several cast and characters along the way. A helping hand might be just an email, google search or a cubicle away. 

AQ in India- The landscape for people working on air quality in South Asia has taken a quantum leap over the past few years. Numerous people are working towards demystifying the latest research outcomes into colloquial terms for the public. Given the increase in openly available datasets and advancements in modelling efforts, the deeply-human issue of air pollution can be dealt with a systematic and coordinated approach rather than the current duct-taping solutions. 

I wish to help people live in a better environment by devoting my work to clean air research. So, then, maybe one day, stepping out to get fresh air would be a relaxing pursuit for everyone. 

P.S.For anyone who’s doing a PhD and is a little bit of a procrastinator like myself, I would highly recommend reading this article on procrastination by Tim Urban. I liked the idea of personifying the little voices inside my brain into bespoke characters and identify when I am actually procrastinating (e.g. when I am zooming in into the Siberian wildfires mid workday and overlaying aerosol index and aerosol optical depth over the globe at this website while instead, I should be chasing that pesky error in my model).

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