Conquering New Heights: Ankur Kumar
Shrestha Mohapatra | Nov 11, 2019
Ankur Kumar, a recent MSc graduate from NIT Rourkela in Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, has pioneered in his field extensively. From researching at Purdue university to landing up at the NASA IMPACT team with a prestigious position, this man is on the run to become the flag-bearer of his department.
A strikingly distinct personality with an aura of humility, Ankur Kumar has also authored a novel on the relationship between siblings. Team MM caught up with him to help propagate his story of inspiration and mettle.
Monday Morning: Walk us through your childhood.
Ankur Kumar: As a son of an Indian Army Junior Commission Officer, the bedrock foundation of my house is discipline and punctuality. Back in my school days, sometimes, I got irritated with this discipline but now, a pinch of discipline is still there in my day to day life which helps me to extract the best out of my own life. I constantly changed schools which gave me a chance to make more friends easily and to get acquainted with different cultures and languages. Till the time I entered NIT, I was always surrounded by soldiers in uniforms and seeing all things like rifles, helicopters, tanks, missiles and these things made me respect the country even more. I completed my schooling from Kendriya Vidyalaya and completed my bachelors from Pune University majoring in Mathematics.
MM: What made you take up Earth and Atmospheric Sciences as a branch?
AK: Frankly speaking, I entered in this department “by mistake”. I had done my bachelors’ in Mathematics and wanted to do masters’ and Ph.D. in mathematics itself from IITs. I dropped for a year to prepare for IIT JAM exam after my bachelors’ but didn’t get enough marks to get into IIT. My marks were not sufficient to get mathematics even in the NITs. So just to play it safe (as I didn’t want to drop another year), I picked Earth and Atmospheric Sciences in NIT Rourkela (as the cut off of this department used to be comparatively less than other science branches). Just because of having a crave of doing higher studies in mathematics, I spent my first few months of first semester in preparing for IIT JAM for the next year. And at the same time, I was working on the transcript of my first novel. I was not at all serious about the course in my first semester. I got my novel launched in March. At the end of first year, I was completely meshed with my dreams of doing masters in mathematics or atmospheric science or to opt creative writing as my career. After that I got opportunity to do my summer internship in India Meteorology Department* (IMD mausam vibhag). IMD was the place where my interest in this field evolved and I slowly started getting interested in atmospheric sectors like forecasting weather and all. So the real journey of my masters’s starts in my second year.
M.Sc. Atmospheric Science 2016-2018 batch
MM: What is the scope of your branch in the current world scenario? How are opportunities abroad in comparison to India?
AK: Our family of atmospheric science is very small in India, in comparison to other science fields. Atmospheric science is completely research orientated and hence I don’t think there are enough career opportunities available in the private sector, in India. But yes, there are plenty opportunities in Indian government sectors underlying ministry of earth science. Frankly speaking, after completing masters’ from atmospheric science, you need to do a PhD to get a “good” salary job. It is very tough to get a job in our field, especially in India.
In United States and other developed countries, jobs like air pollution and quality scientist, atmospheric science researcher, climate change analyst, educator, environmental impact assessor, environmental monitoring, environmental scientist, and meteorologist exist. Doctoral students can get into private firms like national weather services, weather forecasting for broadcast media or private forecasting firms, environmental consulting firms (such as environmental impact reports, wind farm siting). One can go into the government agencies at all levels from local (air quality districts, planning departments, etc. ) to State (Air Resources Board) to national (NOAA and NASA), and also, companies whose operations are impacted by weather (such as airlines, futures markets). Local and state levels jobs are not there in India, as it’s working only on a national level.
MM: How was your bachelors life?
AK: I spent the enitrety of my 3 years of bachelor’s dreaming to do something different from the rest of the world. I always love spending time alone inside the four walls of my room and instead of socializing or making friends to spend my day. That’s why there was nothing special during my bachelors year. It was just about attending lectures and enjoying my own company.
MM: How was your life in NIT Rourkela? What are the things you liked and disliked about it?
AK: In terms of academics, it was not stressful. It was fun learning the atmospheric science from the NITRKL faculty. Apart from the academics, personally, it was almost same like my bachelor’s degree life, except a couple of things. NIT was the first place for me where I lived away from my family and army area and I experienced living with people who are completely unknown to me. I have seen students criticizing the hostel food, but for me, it was far better than my expectations. I never attended any fests or social gatherings as I always skip attending crowded places and prefer to spend time alone.
MM: How did you spent your one year between your completion of masters and starting your Phd?
AK: When I was in my last semester, everyone in my batch was filing the forms of NET and GATE, but I was so sure of my near future. I was the only one in my branch who didn’t apply for these competitive exams. When my batch mates was preparing for NET and GATE, I was preparing for GRE and TOEFL. After my masters’, I continued working with Dr. Krishna Kishore Osuri (the professor under whom I did my master dissertation) as a JRF for the next 9 months (July 2018 to March 2019). I gave GRE and TOEFL and eventually was contacting a couple of foreign professors to show my interest in the field to do Ph.D. In March 2019, on the basis of my research and recommendation from Dr. Osuri, a professor Dr Dev Niyogi from Purdue University, USA invited me as a Visiting Scholar for three months.
Research group at Purdue University under Dr Dev
MM: How did you land up researching with the NASA IMPACT team? How did you come across this opportunity?
AK: I spent April to June in Purdue under Dev Niyogi and had planned to opt for Ph.D. under the same professor in Purdue. During my visit, my application got accepted in Purdue for the Ph.D. fall intake. Just a day before of generation of I20 from Purdue, Dr. Dev suggested me to apply for NASA IMPACT. After a couple of telephonic interviews and few daily assignments, I got acceptance from NASA IMPACT for GRA and NSSTC UAH for my Ph.D. I am getting enrolled for Ph.D. in The National Space Science Technology Center in The University of Alabama in Huntsville. At the same time, I am researching with one of the leading NASA research teams, Interagency Implementation and Advanced Concepts Team (IMPACT) team.
MM: What was your journey like to land up in NASA IMPACT? What is your exact role? How is it related to your work in NASA?
AK: My journey to land up where I am today was not a piece of cake for me. Just after my masters’, I started researching with Dr. Osuri as a JRF, but that was not my goal (in terms of academic). Quite honestly, when I was a JRF, there were downfalls in my life which led me to start doubting on my decision of not applying anywhere in India.
Today, researching with NASA IMPACT is something I never thought of. My journey motivates me everyday to trust myself. Whenever I am about to give up on anything (not restricted to academics), I just look at my journey. It keeps motivating me.
Coming to my work, there are lot of sub-teams within NASA IMPACT who are working on various subjects. I am researching with Machine Learning, which basically focuses on the prediction of track and intensity of landfalling Hurricanes over Atlantic and Pacific Ocean. At the same time, I am working with Analysis and Review of CMR (ARC), which works on the discoverability, accessibility and usability of NASA’s Earth science data which NASA receives from its satellites. The objective of NASA Earth science data is processing and distribution of all datasets. This platform is widely used by atmospheric scientists throughout the world.
MM: How is the research culture there and how it’s different from NITR?
AK: Research culture in USA is “results” orientated, not “the time when you work” oriented. I think, having the biometrics for Ph.D. students in NITRKL is a never-ending debate.
MM: How would you advise your juniors to work towards this particular field?
AK: I advise my juniors to first clear the basics and then focus on the programming skills. Clearing the basics should be the first priority but don’t spend too much time in reading the theory. Spend more than half of your time in building your programming skills. I request my juniors to work sincerely in working on their master’s project by having a weekly interaction with their project guide.
MM: Why did you choose PhD over a normal job? What are your future plans?
AK: Doing a monotonous job is not in my priority list at all. I am doing my doctoral studies from United States but doing Ph.D. or post doctorate is not the motive of my life. My motive in life is to do something for the people of India. I was planning to initiate something and was building teams from the last 4-5 months. Finally, this week, we are starting a non-profit organization named “Let’s Fly India | a step ahead than yesterday” (www.letsflyindia.org), which is going to work on providing dignity and independence to needy people from all walks of life coming together with the mission to make our India a little better than yesterday. For the initial start, our organization is going to help provide financially aid to the Acid attacks victims in collaboration with Sheroes Hangsout (leaded by Channv Foundation). Along with this, we are initially working with Myna Mahila Foundation in providing sanitary pads and related education to the women of Mumbai slum area. Readers can stand with us in our mission just by providing their information here: https://www.letsflyindia.org/stand-with-us
(a) With the founder and manager of Myna Mahila Foundation (b) with acid victims at Sheroes Hangout, (c) with CEO of Channv Foundation
MM: How did you manage to juggle so many things at once (writing, academics, organizations)?
AK: It’s all about having the proper vision and time management. You need only one reason to start working on your dreams, and once you have your vision, you can easily extract time to work, irrespective of how busy you are in your daily scheduled life.
I am focusing on my research during my usual college hours. I have submitted the transcript of my second novel to few publishers and waiting for the response from a good publisher. For now I am not working fully on any other novel, as I am deep into research. As far as organization is concerned, I am not alone to run organization. I have the team or people working in India who are helping me out to run our organization, Let’s Fly India.
MM: What do you regret about your life?
AK: Yes, I do regret something and this is the biggest mistake of my life. I don’t want others to repeat the same mistake which I did, that’s why readers can take a free lesson. I spent my lot of time in dreaming when I could have utilized my time in working and planning to execute that. So I request readers to focus more on implementing the dreams instead of dreaming.
What is your success mantra?
Dreaming new dreams is absolutely okay but don't forget to work on the dreams which you already dreamt.
MM: Any message to your readers who don't belong to these 'core branches’?
AK: If someone says you to prepare your “to-do list before I die”, I am pretty sure that studying in IITs or NITs or getting a bachelors/ masters/ doctoral degree from any recognized institute would not be in your list.
This might be a part of your goal, but not the motive of your life. Set the motive of your life and start working towards it.
Its okay to dream but it’s foolishness to only dream..
As a die heart Shahrukh fan, I want to end this interview with a famous dialogue from Shahrukh movie, and I believe practically in this dialogue, “agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaho ... to puri kainaat usse tumse milane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai” translates to “if you really desire something from the heart ... then the whole universe will work towards getting you that”.
Team MM wishes him a very successful journey and all the best for his future endevours.