UCL Alumni


Alumni stories: Exploring the cosmos with Indhu Varatharajan

Indhu Varatharajan says UCL’s support gave her lift-off as a planetary scientist.

Indhu Varatharajan headshot

16 March 2021

Coming from a small village in Tamil Nadu, India, planetary science was perhaps not the most obvious of career pursuits for Indhu Varatharajan. But when she was in seventh grade, the Columbia space shuttle disaster sparked school conversations about the universe, and her interest was piqued. A few years later, Indhu was part of her school’s team for a national astronomy quiz. “My dad gave me a small book about the solar system,” she says. “I read that and thought ‘okay, now I know everything’! But then I went to the quiz, and it turned out I didn’t! The questions were amazing, so I started to learn everything I could about space.”

The launchpad

In a meeting with a careers counsellor, Indhu explained her passion for the cosmos and was advised to study for a degree in geoinformatics, which she undertook in Chennai. An internship saw her travel to the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Berlin, where she learnt to apply geoinformatics to different planets. This ultimately led to a job in the planetary sciences arm of the Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad.

While her job was a giant leap, which saw her start working on spectroscopy (studying the interaction between matter and radiation), it was always Indhu’s intention to do a master’s in Planetary Science. And in 2015, thanks to a Commonwealth Scholarship, she was able to enrol at UCL. She says: “I wanted to come to UCL because my work was in remote sensing of planetary surfaces, and most of the papers I read about this came from UCL. I had to choose three master’s options to apply for my scholarship. All three I put down were at UCL!”

Another world

London was a culture shock for Indhu, but she says UCL made her feel welcome. “Everything in the UK was different to what I knew - the climate, food, the people. But UCL wasn’t scary. I was so excited and happy to be there! I never felt alienated and I found I could easily get along with the classes, the people and the environment. And unlike my first time in Berlin, when I was in London I never felt lonely. I spent a lot of time with people from the Centre for Planetary Sciences - they were my academic family.”

Having not specifically studied planetary science before, Indhu’s tutors gave her extra support, inviting her to evening classes at Birkbeck, filling gaps in her knowledge. “That was so helpful,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done without that.” And being in London meant there were ample opportunities to get inspired by other disruptive thinkers outside of the lecture hall at conferences and events. Indhu became a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society, as well as a member of the UCL Planetary Society, which unlocked many networking opportunities, helping her to plan her future.

Mercury rising

After graduating from UCL, Indhu returned to the DLR in Berlin to study for a PhD. She also took up a placement with the Frontier Development Lab, researching how artificial intelligence can be used in space science - something she hopes to do a postdoc on in the future. Right now though, Indhu’s focus is on the planet Mercury. Her PhD research is supporting the ongoing European mission BepiColombo to learn more about the solar system’s closest planet to the sun.

The BepiColombo unmanned spacecraft launched in 2018, with an expected arrival at Mercury in 2026. On board is the MERTIS payload - the Mercury Radiometer and Thermal Infrared Imaging Spectrometer - and it is this which Indhu’s PhD work supports. She explains: “My research is focused on how we can understand Mercury’s surface, its volcanism and what its interior is made up of, via spectroscopy. It is amazing to be supporting an ongoing mission - I am so, so lucky.”

Staying connected

Indhu is keen to keep up her close ties with UCL and make new connections through our growing alumni community. She participated in a recent UCL Great British Quiz Off event, where she met fellow alumni from India. Plus, she is giving advice to students and has volunteered to mentor alumni. She feels she owes this to the community. “I would not be where I am without the help of other people,” she says. “UCL gave so much to me, so I want to give something back by helping the current students. Plus, being in touch with UCL means I have an ongoing connection with London, which is very special to me.”

Indhu has lots of good memories from her time here. But while her eyes may be on the skies these days, back then she did miss an opportunity for a launch of her own. “For me, UCL was the best experience,” she says. “My only regret is that I was too busy to join the UCL Gliding Club! I really want to fly!”

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