Early Career Perspective: Ekta Chaudhary

Ekta is a fourth-year Ph.D. student at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences, IIT Delhi. Her research focuses on the assessment of the impact of PM2.5 and its components on maternal and child health in India. She has won several awards including the Jane Warren Trainee Conference Award 2021 by Health Effects Institute, USA, and the Outstanding Student Presentation Award (OSPA) by the American Geophysical Union.

Find her on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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

Journey from ATGC to PM2.5 – A transition from biotechnology to atmospheric sciences

Looking away from a world of petridishes and staring into the void of public health research made me realize the essence of air quality regulation and its wide ranging socio-economic impact. What started as an undergraduate elective course in environmental biotechnology at University School of Biotechnology, Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi, has become a pursuit through my doctoral research on the impact of air quality on maternal and child health.

After my B. Tech from GGSIP University, New Delhi, I moved to Anna University, Chennai for M. Tech and worked on wastewater management. But as fate would have it, a unique opportunity to visit Tokyo (Japan) for NCRM-NICHE FUJIO CUP QUIZ with the Mary-Yoshio Translational Hexagon Award came my way. It was a memorable cross cultural exchange with an extravagant experience of international art and lifestyle. This experience opened my eyes to the benefits of knowledge exchange and made me determined to practice collaborative approaches and science-sharing.

An Unexpected Turn

After M. Tech, I came back to New Delhi in 2018 with the idea of working on access to clean water resources to improve maternal and child health outcomes. However, within a few weeks of following local news updates, I was startled by the sheer volume of news on worsening air quality.

Growing up in New Delhi, I have always aspired to work toward improving women’s health conditions and DAPHNE gave me an opportunity to look at the issue from a crucial vantage point. DAPHNE– Delhi Air Pollution: Health aNd Effects: An Indo-UK project proved to be the turning point of my life. On one hand, the government was announcing a wastewater treatment project in line with Singapore’s NEWater to revive the Yamuna River, and on the other hand, Delhi air was being reported as hazardous to health with a dire need to tackle pollution. Deep down, I knew air quality management was a completely new domain for me away from the usual biotechnology applications, but the purpose of positively affecting public health on a larger scale rose above everything else. I Joined Prof. Sagnik Dey’s group at IIT Delhi as a Junior Research Fellow in the DAPHNE project. This was when I was introduced to the fundamentals of air pollution including air quality monitors, satellite data, and various software that are used to process such datasets. In the early days, I used to go to field areas to install air quality monitors and got a hands-on training on sensors.

As a part of the project, we selected women participants/volunteers based on pre-defined (maternal) health criteria in collaboration with government hospitals and deployed air quality monitors in their houses to analyze their health based on household and area-based pollution. DAPHNE gave me an insight into field-based training, community-level interaction, experience-to-ground realities, and hands-on training on sensor handling. Witnessing such eye-opening real-life pollution-driven effects on health, reinforced my choice for a career path to advance my knowledge and research on air quality management.

Being the only woman in my lower-middle-class Indian family to pursue a career in academics, the experience has been exhausting from a social and financial standpoint.

Convincing my family that a Ph.D. can pave the way toward a brighter future instead of attaining a hasty marital status has been difficult but I whole-heartedly believe in a mantra: making a difference is never easy. In 2019, I registered for Ph.D. at the Centre for Atmospheric Sciences (CAS), IIT Delhi under Prof. Sagnik Dey, as a major step in the direction of establishing myself as an air quality scientist. Through my research, I’ve also connected with scientists from around the world.

From emceeing at college events and presenting acts in school skits, to presenting research work in international conferences amidst a global panel, this little girl from a small town of Delhi has come a long way with a strong belief in her scientific journey. Making a difference is never easy…but it is worth the success!

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