Sailing Down South with Nivedita Biswal
“To visit Antarctica now is to be a part of the history; to get a grasp of where we’ve come from and where we could possibly be heading.”
Nivedita Biswal made the headlines when she became the youngest Odia woman to be selected for the Antarctica Climate Expedition, 2022. She would be heading south to Antarctica's pristine and untouched realms with a mission to witness climate change firsthand.
An alumnus from the class of 2012, she did her Master's from the School of Management, NIT Rourkela. Having worked in a PSU for more than nine years, she realized her dream of working towards a more significant cause. Like the saying goes,
"If you want something you never had, you have to do something you've never done."
Team Monday Morning got an opportunity to interact with Nivedita Biswal to gain insights from her life experiences and the extraordinary journey that led her there.
Early Life and Education:
Monday Morning (MM): Walk us through your childhood days, your schooling.
Nivedita Biswal (N.B.): I did my schooling at Carmel School, Rourkela, and I spent most of my childhood in Rourkela. I was pretty studious and topped in most of the classes. Along with that, I was active in extracurricular activities as well.
MM: What was the reason behind choosing the Biju Patnaik University of Technology, Odisha? Was Electrical Engineering your choice, or your fate?
NB: I was preparing for the medical entrance exam. I also got through the Manipal Institute, but the expenditures were high, so I gave up the seat. Conventionally, the other option that I had was engineering. As electrical is a core branch, my parents and relatives advised me to opt for that. My choice of electrical was majorly influenced by my parents, who told me to choose that as it would have more job opportunities later on.
MM: After passing out from BPUT, you did your Management Studies from NIT Rourkela. How did that come about? Why did you choose NIT Rourkela to pursue your MBA? How would you judge your decision now?
NB: In 2010, I was preparing for placements during my final year of engineering. Post-graduation, I was thinking of pursuing MBA. As I had already wasted two years for medical preparation, I did not want to lose more years preparing for CAT and other entrance exams. At that time, NIT Rourkela came up with its Master's program. It was the best option for me, giving me two significant advantages, i.e., my home state and associating with a reputed brand name of NIT Rourkela. So, I just went ahead and submitted my applications for that.
Those two years at NIT Rourkela were the best days of my life. It was a turning point in my life that gave me a platform to enter into the corporate sector. As it was the first batch of NITR, it wasn't easy to get internships and placement, but gradually everything placed perfectly. I would say it was one of the best decisions of my life.
MM: Can you walk us through some of your fond memories at NIT Rourkela?
NB: International Student Meet is very close to my heart. It was just taking shape at that time; I participated as a volunteer in that meet. Through that, I met some great people and made good friends.
I got in contact with engineering students and made some good friends. I was also part of the entrepreneurship club. My friend and I also started a marketing club in the School of Management. We held various competitions, fests, etc. I enjoyed my marketing classes taken by Prof. Rajeev Panda, but we bunk our finance classes.
Into The Corporate World:
MM: You've worked in Coal India Limited for more than nine years. How has that experience of working in a PSU been?
NB: Honestly, working in a PSU like Coal Limited Limited is very monotonous and routined, but it gives you a lot of perks like having a well paid secured job. The work here is not very challenging. I am working in the operations department known as materials management, which revolves around tendering and procurement of various items. Working in a PSU comes with its own set of challenges too. It is a vast organization, and you have to deal with so many different works and look at angles to solve a particular case. But this is something which helps you to grow as a corporate person. The other challenge was that I was the only girl working in operations. So, I had to fight that gender bias and prove myself by staying late and taking up an extra workload.
MM: Enlighten us about your role as a Trainee at NSRCEL and how crucial it is to develop a startup ecosystem in India.
NB: When I was preparing for my Master's application, NSRCEL came across. They were inviting ideas and applications regarding startups. So, I went ahead and applied for the woman startup program. My idea was based on a circular economy; it mostly put up cosmetic brands in India that can come up with recycled bottles or refilled solutions so that less plastic goes into the environment. I got selected for the 2nd round too, but unfortunately, I couldn't continue that due to my M.S. applications.
It is an excellent platform for the startup ecosystem in India, especially for women entrepreneurs. Out of 3-4 thousand applications, they selected around 1 thousand applications, from which they were ready to sponsor about 200-300 ideas. Two things really matter here, firstly the association of IIM Bangalore, because of covid it was all online but will give you an excellent exposure; secondly, if they like your idea, they will put funding into that. I have seen many women entrepreneurs whose startup ideas have taken shape through NSRCEL. This is done in partnership with Goldman Sachs.
The Voyage to Antarctica:
MM: Travelling is something that has no relation to your academic background and is nowhere related to your previous domain of work. Where did that passion develop from? What made you inclined towards the domain of climate change?
NB: Three or four years ago, I started feeling a lack of accomplishment and wanted to do more with my life. My work was routine and uninteresting. I'd always wanted to accomplish more than that. So that's how I began my self-exploration period, where I considered what I should do next.
Then, three or four encounters impacted my interest in the field of climate change. When I was stationed in Bilaspur, I used to go on long walks and witnessed rivers drying up and polluted by people tossing plastics into them and how little birds were eating trash there. Those were, therefore, quite eye-opening events for me. And it had a tremendous impression on me when I used to watch similar occurrences daily.
I've always had a strong desire to travel. Travel has also given me a better understanding of what is going on in the world right now. I have also seen the firsthand impact on nature by working in the coal industry, a nonrenewable energy source. The influence we have on the environment has been unpleasant for me. So I recall attempting to investigate, the career change prospectus and climate change collided, and two years ago, I decided that I wanted to work in the field of climate change. Another critical factor for my shift to climate change was my home state. I keep seeing cyclones and the floods that occur every year. So I wondered, why not research ways to mitigate the effects of storms and floods? I could only find the answers by changing careers and getting a master's degree in environmental studies.
MM: How did you come across this opportunity? What made you stand out amongst the others for this prestigious opportunity?
NB: I learned about the Antarctica Climate Expedition through a Facebook post. The women leaders who had previously been to Antarctica had shared this post. I visited the 2041 website and requested an application. I had to submit 4 to 5 written questions like your short and long-term goals, why do you want to visit Antarctica, and what you plan to do after visiting Antarctica. My answers were pretty much straight from my heart, like what I intended to do and why I wanted to go to Antarctica.
I'm frequently asked, "Why do you want to talk about climate change in Antarctica? Why not in India?" Antarctica is one of the most remote destinations, with 80% of the land covered in ice and vibrant flora and wildlife. It's much more beyond the penguins. So I talked about all of that, such as how if the thick sheet of ice melts, it may lead to 10 to 20 feet of sea-level rise. Also, the Antarctica Circumpolar current drives the weather pattern.
I also informed them that once I finish my Master's degree in the United States, I aim to return to my home state of Odisha and work for them. I am finding solutions for cyclones and floods, river restoration. I believe my vision regarding climate change and doing something about it resonated with them because our founder also focuses on sustainability and renewable energy sources.
MM: What was your journey like to land up in the prestigious team of 2041 ClimateForce: Antarctica 2021? What is your exact role? How is your work related to the domain of climate change?
NB: Our typical work is a 12-day expedition during which we will be trained on topics such as sustainability, leadership, and carbon footprints, as well as how to reduce carbon emissions. In addition, every year, team 2041 will undertake carbon offset projects from different places of the world to offset carbon emissions through this expedition. Workshops on energy solutions, such as how businesses may improve energy use, how sustainability can be utilized as a vehicle for enhancing organizational and financial well-being and measuring our carbon footprints, will be routine tasks. There will be climate change discussions on our reliance on fossil fuels and how we might transition to renewable energy sources, as well as the Paris Climate Agreement and 1.5 reports. There will also be climate finance and public speaking classes. They will teach us how to be community leaders and become global ambassadors for Antarctica to continue this climate journey. It's essentially a training session for us, and I'm expecting to hear about how we've dealt with climate change and the impact it's had on our lives.
MM: During the expedition, you'll be in the company of some of the brilliant and ambitious minds, including leading polar explorer Robert Swan. What are your expectations from this opportunity?
NB: First and foremost, I am very excited to meet Robert Swan, the first person in history to walk on both the North and South Poles. For those unaware, he attempted to reach the South Pole using only renewable energy but could not complete the journey due to health issues. However, his son, Barney Swan, is the first to reach the South Pole using only renewable energy. I am very excited to hear them. On this expedition, I would be in the company of people from the National Geographic network, leading oil companies, professionals, eminent universities, and research organizations.
I also wrote to the team, expressing my wish to gather glacier samples and water samples if feasible for my data collection. I was assured that while this is not a scientific expedition, they will assist me in collecting water or ice samples if I want to. I'm also attempting to reach a polar expedition team in India, as every year, the National Centre for Polar and Ocean research sends scientists to the Gangotri station in Antarctica.
I'm attempting to contact them to learn how this data collection of water and ice samples can help me further in my Antarctica research project. I'm also starting a project in which I'll be collaborating with a few friends and the United Nations to collect data on Antarctica to find solutions such as how wildlife is being impacted, what the future of Antarctica looks like, and finding policies that will primarily shift toward renewable sources of energy. I am also excited or perhaps waiting for an opportunity to speak with corporate leaders who are visiting and learn how corporations are attempting to incorporate sustainability into their operations. Although 12 days is a short period, I am confident that I will complete all of these tasks.
MM: Being the youngest Odia to be selected for this program, you garnered a lot of limelight. Can you let us know how you celebrated this feat and how it has been since you got through?
NB: I was pretty ecstatic. I remember the day I tweeted it on Twitter, and the news spread like wildfire. I had media personnel coming for interviews. More than anything else, it was a long pending dream coming true.
MM: What, according to you, will be some of the hurdles for you for the accomplishment of this feat?
NB: Finance is a significant impediment. I need to raise funds that cost roughly 18 lakhs or more. I am also trying to receive some government assistance. I'm also attempting to contact my alumni from abroad to collaborate on fundraising.
The second challenge will be psychologically and physically ready for this excursion since Antarctica has temperatures ranging from -20 to -50 degrees Celsius. And there is one area where I need to improve my mental fortitude. And physically, taking long walks and strengthening my lung capacity are two things I need to accomplish, but the main obstacle is still money.
Contemplating Climate Change:
MM: Climate Change is one of the biggest challenges seen by humanity and has been one of the biggest threats to humanity. What is your opinion on the same, and how do you think such a threat can be tackled efficiently?
NB: I will start with the quote of Ban Ki-Moon, the eighth General Secretary of the United Nations,
"If we can't swim together, we will sink. There is no plan B because there is no Planet B".
Ecology should be considered before framing policies because what is the use of economic growth and policies if we don't have a tolerable planet to live on? I believe a few steps can efficiently tackle the climate threat.
- In any developmental project, consultation should be done with an environmental specialist to bring minimum damages to ecology.
- We need to take up river-water revival projects, especially for a country like India, which ranks 13th in water-stressed countries from 17 nations.
- The financing of green companies needs to be advocated more. Similarly, the more affluent nations need to come forward to finance poorer countries in greener solutions and sustainability because these nations are still at development stages. Without the help, it is difficult for them to do so and unfair.
- Investing in cyclone-resistant buildings, coral solutions to reduce cyclonic storm impacts.
- I would also like to advocate for the carbon tax and reviving ancient techniques involving indigenous communities to conserve our planet.
To tackle efficiently, we need to pull in human resources, environmentalists, activists, government policies, finances, technological solutions, more startups in the field of climate change, and our mission as to what kind of planet we will be leaving behind for our future generations and all kinds of living beings present on Earth.
Do we take steps immediately to minimize the disaster or leave a mess behind? Time is only running out.
MM: On a global scale, how do you think all the countries, especially India, are working to address climate change?
NB: For India, being at a developing stage still, it is challenging to balance both economy and ecology. While there is a burning discussion on shifting to renewable energy sources, it also demands infrastructure to support the same. It will take a long time for India to move from coal power plants to renewable energy sources.
India is a disaster-prone country. With its surface endowed with almost all topographical features, it witnesses floods, cyclones, landslides, and several other disasters. When we look at our counterparts such as the USA and China, they have strengthened their economies. They can hence move towards developing greener sources. India, as a country, is on its way to the same. Narendra Modi's prime minister of India committed to cutting carbon emissions to become net-zero by 2070 at COP26. At Coal India Ltd, we work towards solar power plants and take up eco-friendly mining projects. The government, corporates, and businesses gradually understand the importance of balancing economy and ecology and working towards realizing it. But we need to act fast.
MM: In 2041, the Antarctica treaty will expire. How close are we towards realizing the importance of preserving Antarctica?
NB: Antarctica is a remote destination, yet it is not untouched by the climate change impacts. The 1959 Antarctic treaty expires in 2041. If it is not renewed, entire Antarctica will be open to tourism, mining activities, and other human interventions. As per the treaty, no military activity is allowed. Only scientific research is allowed. The treaty was first signed on 1st December 1959 by 12 countries. Snow covers are melting away, and green mosses are blooming, which is unusual in Antarctica. If climate change can affect Antarctica, one can only imagine the measure of its impact on the rest of the planet. This expedition is crucial because it will put Antarctica in the spotlight for the rest of the world and force leaders into action.
MM: Leaving behind a stable job at Coal India Ltd and pursuing something that very few people even imagine doing, there might be criticism from people around you and doubt over your capabilities. How did you deal with that?
NB: I would call myself a risk-taker. When I joined Coal India Ltd, within 2-3 years of working, I realized I wanted more than that. However, the security of the job and the fear of what people around me might say kept me going. However, as time passed, my passion was overpowered by my 'normal' life that had kept me chained and, I realized it was time to let go and move forward. I was ready to take whatever life threw at me.
The best thing to do to persuade anyone is not to convince them. You must not ask permission from anyone to pursue your dreams. There's a quote from Steve Jobs which is very close to my heart,
“Have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow know what you truly want to become.”
MM: What are your future plans? Will you pursue a career in environmental studies?
NB: I have received an offer for pursuing my Master's degree in Environmental Sciences from the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. I was supposed to join this year, but because of COVID, I deferred it for another year. Next year, I will be joining either of these universities. My Master's degree will focus majorly on Conservation Science and Natural Disasters. After the two years of my degree, I want to dedicate my time to research to develop solutions that address disasters like cyclones, floods, and landslides, especially for my home state, Odisha, and of course, India.
MM: Any final message for our readers?
"Follow your passion, no matter how far-fetched it seems."
When I broke the news that I wanted to pursue a career that tends to climate change, my family and colleagues put up many questions and apprehensions. However, I knew this drove me and woke me up every morning. It is okay if your chosen option is unconventional or less explored. Dedication and hard work can take you places. Following your passion can either lead to success or failure, but you will be grateful that you took a step at the end of the day. I also believe that efforts are always answered, and things fall into place eventually.
I would also like to request the youth to take climate change with utmost seriousness. Policymaking is not in our hands, but our actions are.
Team Monday Morning wishes Nivedita Biswal luck for her upcoming stellar expedition and all her future undertakings!
Designs by – Alok Kumar Gouda