In Conversation with Dr. Manabendra Saharia, who is a researcher in the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where he develops forecasting systems for floods and water availability in Africa
Gone are the days when the youths of our country would silently accept whatever is given to them. Today’s generation is more prepared – both in terms of ability and intentions – to seek their own destinies and to carve their own paths. And who can be a more fitting example than Manabendra Saharia – a highly talented and dynamic scientist who made his fellow citizens proud by being selected to work in the prestigious National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) organization of USA. Saharia’s dreams, however, were not just limited to work in the world’s top space research organization for he also created headlines when he announced his decision, last week, to quit from his job in NASA and come back home to India and teach and guide young engineers and scientists of his homeland.
Born and brought up in the Hengerabari area of the city, Manabendra Saharia has been working as a researcher in the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, United States of America, where he develops forecasting systems for floods and water availability in Africa. Based on his experiences in developing systems for Africa, Saharia has also been working on the viabilities of flood mechanism systems in our region, which includes the formation of a North East Open Data Consortium. As he says, “I would bin the flood problem in Assam into two categories – scientific and administrative. From developing locally-relevant forecasts to resilient flood infrastructure, there is a lot of work engineers and scientists can do. But they need greater government support in terms of funding, data access, and last mile implementation support. But issues such as encroachment on floodplains and haphazardly built infrastructure are administrative problems that have to be taken care of by the government. With an integrated approach, I do believe the impact of floods on people and the economy can be vastly minimized.”
A man whose dream is to see every kid in India and Assam getting access to world-class education, Saharia last week created quite a stir when he announced his decision on social media to leave his job to come back to teach civil engineering in IIT-Delhi, one of the most premier engineering institutes of the country. In a post on Facebook, he had announced, “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears”, he wrote, adding, “I have been holding onto this news for some time. Pleased to finally be able to share that I will be joining IIT Delhi as an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering. It’s the culmination of decade-long dream for me and I’m excited to turn a new page in life. A tad sad about having to leave my current job, but hyper-excited to be back in homeland after 8 years!”
His decision has been lauded by many with many people appreciating his decision and referring to it as a sign of “no brain drain movement”. In a recent interview with mélange, Saharia talks about his journey so far and also about his decision to come back to India. Following are excerpts.
- Where were you born? Please tell us about your parents, childhood, family and growing up days?
Ans: I was born and brought up in Guwahati in a typical middle-class background where you have more dreams than means. My parents, Ramesh Chandra Saharia and Nilakhi Saharia, run small businesses and their hardworking nature is something I aspire to improve upon in my life. I also have a brother, Dhiraj Saharia, who is studying engineering in Tezpur University, and we like to code together during our spare time. In school, I used to read books of various genres such as science, entrepreneurship, fiction, etc. I grew up with considerable personal freedom and my parents let me make my own decisions in life and learn from my choices. I was an avid quizzer in school and actively participated in club activities.
- Please tell us a bit about your education and about your professional career?
Ans: My schooling is from St. Stephens’ School, H.S. from Cotton College, and then a B.Tech. in Civil Engineering from NIT Silchar. My time in Silchar really allowed me to figure out what I really wanted to do in my life and having a small group of friends with similar goals was tremendously helpful.
I also have an MS and PhD in Water Resources Engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington and the University of Oklahoma respectively. Since then I have worked in the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC). I was extremely fortunate to receive full funding for my master’s and PhD, without which my higher education would not have been possible. My research is primarily focused on understanding how land and atmosphere interact with each other on earth and using it to better predict natural disasters in advance, especially floods and droughts. I am at the early stages of my career and will soon be joining IIT Delhi as an Assistant Professor of Civil Engineering.
- How did you get interested in the world of science?
Ans: I have always been inclined towards science and engineering since school. It was probably a combination of having good teachers, reading habits, and popular role models I could look up to. However, my actual entry into the field was circuitous. When I was in undergraduate, I was dissatisfied with our first-year curriculum and was looking for ways to supplement my learning. The life-changing moment was when I landed a summer internship in IIT Guwahati with Prof. Rajib Bhattacharjya. I followed it up with internships with Prof. Sharad K. Jain from IIT Roorkee and Prof. P. Choudhury and Prof. PJ Roy of NIT Silchar. Some of my work at that time got accepted into conferences and journals, and I discovered that I enjoyed the challenge of delving into problems in a deeper fashion and pushing the state-of-the-art by a tiny margin. I always enjoyed building things, but it’s the process of scientific enquiry and meeting good advisors that provided me the necessary structure and impetus to enter the world of science.
- You are one of the very few people from the region to be working in NASA. Please enumerate your journey in this field to reach this organization.
Ans: Like many kids, I also had childhood dreams of working for ISRO or NASA, but with no clear conception of how to achieve it. After high school, I never thought about it again for a long time. But during my MS/PhD, I discovered that NASA had a huge Earth Science Division which studied the science of water, atmosphere, and land. It’s at that time that it occurred to me that I might still have a chance to realize my childhood dream. So, I started directing my efforts in that direction and met a few scientists from NASA during our conferences. Luckily, some of my research work attracted the attention of a few hydrologists there, one of whom eventually offered me a position to join the Hydrological Sciences Lab. He was looking for someone with experience in building large-scale flood forecasting systems using satellite data, which as providence would have it, was also my area of expertise.
- You are a researcher in the Hydrological Sciences Lab of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center where you are working on improving flood and drought forecasts in West Africa. Do you feel that there is hope for a solution to the perennial flood problem of Assam?
Ans: To find a solution, first we have to understand the problem. I would bin the flood problem in Assam into 2 categories – scientific and administrative. From developing locally-relevant forecasts toresilient flood infrastructure, there is a lot of work engineers and scientists can do. But they need greater government support in terms of funding, data access, and last mile implementation support. But issues such as encroachment on floodplains and haphazardly built infrastructure are administrative problems that have to be taken care of by the government. With an integrated approach, I do believe the impact of floods on people and the economy can be vastly minimized.
- Your decision to leave your job in NASA to come back to work in IIT in India has been hailed by many people in Assam. Do you feel that youngsters should prefer to work inside the country so as to prevent this drainage of bright and talented minds?
Ans: I strongly believe that we must first thrive individually for us to triumph collectively. As Assam stands at a critical juncture of history, our target should be to have resolute voices in every corridor of influence in academia, art, industry, and business. I don’t believe brain drain is a big issue as long as our youth maintain connection to the motherland and find ways to contribute in their own ways. I am more concerned about how we can enable a greater percentage of our youth to reach their desired goals. For every person who has achieved a modicum of career growth, there are a dozen others who didn’t get the right opportunity and help at the right time. I believe we can change this with our collective efforts. Instead of relying on a handful, let us create an enviable global workforce that will build our credentials as an assiduous and industrious community.
- What are you presently working on and your future plans?
Ans: Currently, I am transferring some of my flood prediction work at NASA to our regional hub in West Africa where it will be used by local governments to make water-related decisions. After some discussions with senior officials in India, I have also started prototyping a regional-scale flood forecasting system, with a special focus on the Brahmaputra. After I join IIT Delhi, I will direct all my focus towards this with the goal of delivering a public-facing forecasting system. In the long-term, my dream is to see every kid in India and Assam getting access to world-class education.
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