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Interview with NASA Scientist Surendra Adhikari

You did your bachelors in agriculture engineering, masters in engineering geology and PhD in geography. How are they different?

These academic disciplines are certainly different from one another. However, I view all of these as branches of applied physics. Aside from the difference in technicalities (between engineering and science), there is no fundamental difference to me.


What are the different avenues one can pursue in earth sciences? Where is the research in earth sciences now ? What are the things we recently found out- are we on the verge of insightful discoveries?

Earth system sciences may comprise a broad spectrum of physical (and biological and geo-chemical) sciences that deal with processes operating on (e.g., ice melting, land hydrology, ocean circulation, sea-level rise), above (e.g., atmospheric circulation, greenhouse effects), and beneath (e.g., crustal motions, Earthquakes, volcano, mantle convection) the Earth surface. My research is primarily related to understanding the link between Earth’s surface (ice/water) mass transport and solid Earth deformation.

One outstanding question is whether the West Antarctic Ice Sheet — having potential of raising more than 3 meters of global mean-sea level if completely collapses — collapses in the near future as the theory and contemporary observations would imply.

One of many interesting things we have recently found is in one of my own works: we detected a massive pulse of ice mass loss into the ocean through a major Greenland glacier — suggesting that glaciers can indeed respond to climate-change on much shorter timescales than previously thought.

One insightful discovery that may have huge implications for the coastal population and infrastructure would be accurate predictions of the local sea-level rise. In fact, our research group has recently made a big push towards it. Here is a tool for the public or general scientist.


When people hear of NASA, they think of rockets and spaceships. Please tell us about your research in NASA. How do you work with scientists from various other fields?

It is true that NASA is known for space exploration, and rockets and stuff. The fact is though NASA doesn’t just look towards outer space, it also looks inward at our home planet. There are tens of satellite missions that are currently in operation, for example, to measure subtle changes in ocean surface height, Earth’s gravity fields, and crustal displacements.

I do earth and space sciences pertaining to ice melting, sea-level rise, solid Earth deformation, earth rotation etc.


What is a typical day in a geophysicist’s (your) life like?

As a professional researcher, my everyday job is to try and solve some of the fundamental questions in geophysics and climate sciences by combining data, methods and theory for the benefit of humanity and society. I will have to attend a few meetings every day, present my research to (inter)national forums almost once a month, write peer-review journal articles, and advise students and post-doctoral researchers.


Tell us about your career journey upto now including your current job.

I have always been fascinated by snow and the Himalayas ever since I was a kid, to the extent that during my Master’s degree, I literally chased a professor who used to work on polar ice sheets and requested him to advise me for my thesis. This was when I clearly knew all I wanted to do was explore ice and related geophysical problems. Then opportunities started unfolding one after another. Currently, I hold a position that allows me to freely explore ideas on aspects of Earth and Planetary sciences at NASA’s premier laboratory–the Jet Propulsion Laboratory–which is a part of the California Institute of Technology aka Caltech (one of the most prestigious universities in the world).


Tell us about a time you made an exciting breakthrough — or any other highlight in your journey so far.

The first major breakthrough, to me, was to find a mathematical way out that allows scientists to treat small scale features (e.g., lakes or glaciers) within a global geodetic model very efficiently. This is a technical breakthrough that eventually led us to many intriguing science discoveries, including those related to Earth’s rotation.


Tell us about a time you had serious doubts about your own ability in the field you chose. How did you overcome that?

I don’t mean to sound arrogant but, honestly, I have never had a doubt about my ability. I think I know my strengths and weaknesses fairly well. That said, in 2014/2015, I was probably a bit overambitious to try and solve one of the most difficult problems in glaciology: understanding how liquid water flows through a glacier (i.e., frozen water). But, I somehow managed to make some progress using so-called complex potential theory — and I am pretty proud about this!


You did your undergraduate in Agriculture Engineering. Tell us about the transition from agriculture engineering to geophysics. Do you have any words of inspiration or thought to Agriculture Engineering graduates?

As I said before, I never consider these as two entirely different disciplines as understanding both of these require fundamental knowledge of physics and mathematics. To those who are undertaking Agricultural Engineering (or any kind of Engineering, or physics or mathematics) I would just say this: Be open minded to be an explorer!


If you were in the admissions committee, what qualities would you look into a prospective graduate candidate in Earth and Planetary sciences?

One should have a tremendous amount of passion towards science. But, I understand that this is something difficult to quantify and judge. So, somebody with good undergraduate scores and who is willing to explore new ideas would be ideal.


How can prospective graduate students prepare themselves for pursuing graduate studies in Earth and Planetary sciences? Words of advice for someone who wants to pursue their interest in Geoscience?

If you are good at mathematics, are interested in physics, and love solving real-world geophysical problems (e.g., how to predict earthquakes? how to predict sea-level rise?) you are more than well equipped to be a geophysicist/climatologist.


Can you recommend 5 universities that someone with an interest in your field should check out?

Here are some example institutes by disciplines:
Seismology: Caltech; University of California at Berkeley
Ice/glaciers: Columbia University; Washington University; University of California at Irvine
Oceanography: University of California at San Diego; Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Geodesy & aerospace engineering: University of Texas at Austin; University of Colorado at Boulder
General geophysics: Caltech, Princeton, Harvard, University of California at Berkeley, Stanford


Can you recommend 3 resources for people looking to get into your field ?


Tell us about the role of mentorship in your professional life.

It is indeed a fortune to have someone by your side who keeps on radiating positive energy to inspire you to do even better. I am fortunate to have found handful of such personalities/colleagues in my career — I am deeply thankful to them!


What is the best career advice you have ever received?

Keep your head down and continue working.


The career advice you wished you received in your twenties

I wish somebody would have told me “do more math” (not that I am not good at it).


What do you think about your opportunities and responsibilities for merging your identities as a scientist, Nepali national and a global citizen?

Actually, I do not think too much about it. I try to remain focused on what I love doing.


Surendra Adhikari

Surendra Adhikari is a scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California, USA.

He has led various breakthrough discoveries at NASA including model linking glaciers and  global sea level and solving the earth rotation puzzle

He completed his SLC from Saubhagyodaya Secondary School in Lamjung and completed his Intermediate in Science from Amrit Science Campus, Kathmandu. After finishing a Bachelors in Agricultural Engineering from the Institute of Engineering, Dharan, he went on to Belgium for a Masters in Engineering Geology.

He holds a PhD in Geography from University of Calgary, Canada.

He is the recipient of various awards including the JPL Outstanding Postdoctoral Research Award (2016); CSDMS Student Modeler Award, University of Colorado Boulder, USA (2012); and Outstanding Doctorate Student Presentation Award, University of Calgary, Canada (2010).

Research Website


Sujhaab Chautaari

Author: Sujhaab Chautaari

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