Newton International Fellowship: Q&A with Devaraj Gopinathan
24 May 2017
Currently researching the complex tsunami life-cycle, Devaraj Gopinathan talks about his experience at UCL so far.
Devaraj Gopinathan is a Royal Society-SERB Newton International Fellow in the Department of Statistical Science at UCL. He’s currently researching the complex tsunami life-cycle encompassing its generation, propagation over deep oceans, and inundation on land masses, especially for assessing risk to India.
He sat down with us to talk about his experience at UCL so far, his future plans, and more.
Q: Could you tell us a little about your background?
A: I am from an electrical engineering background. I did my undergraduate in electrical engineering in India and after working for five years in the field, I did my PhD at the Institute of Science Bangalore. I was in the civil engineering department, but my work was quite interdisciplinary. There were components in material modelling, geophysics, computational mechanics and optics.
Q: How did you hear about the Newton Fellowship?
A: During the final year of my PhD, my supervisor and Professor Serge Guillas (UCL Department of Statistical Science) were working on a project together regarding the 2004 tsunami on the Indian coast. That’s how I first met Serge. We had a meeting, and exchanged ideas on what we could do together. When the call for Newton Fellowship came, he asked me to apply.
Q: How has it been so far?
A: The exposure has been an eye-opener. I have really enjoyed the access to experts. Doing my research in India, I did all the jobs. I did this, I went deep into that, and so on. In one way this is good because you can understand different fields. In another way it isn't good because you are not sharpening your edges in the particular field you want to.
Here it is different, I have learnt a lot about the way to work. You can't just sit on something and try to do it all yourself. There are people to help you, people who know a lot more about a particular field than you because it is their field and this is why you collaborate. That was something quite new for me.
I love my work here. I like it because it is not stagnant, the more you do the more you discover new avenues for exploration. I am happy.
Q: What kind of collaborations have you explored?
A: Initially I was interacting with only my host, Serge, but his field is statistics and my work includes tsunami simulation which requires some knowledge of geo-physics and physics. So for this we contacted Dr Simon Dave from UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction. For the numerical simulation - the mathematics, the code - we have help from a Professor at University College Dublin.
I’ve also had interactions with experts in my field, and some from The Bartlett. Some of these have not been deep, but sometimes just one sentence can spark something that shows you the path to follow.
Q: So following your Fellowship, have you started thinking about your future plans?
A: Personally I want to go back to India. It's like putting salt in water - a small bit of salt makes the whole water salty. So I want to go back and teach students and also show them the importance of collaborative research.
It is my vision to work on a problem in India. For example, every year we have cloudbursts which lead to avalanches and landslides. These are not purely scientific problems. There are associated social problems related to hazards and loss. So apart from warning people in advance, how else can we help? Could I start a research project looking into a particular hazard and mobilise a team, or my students, to work on it? How much of a difference could we make? I don’t know, but I have started thinking about things like this.
Q: In your opinion, how important are these international research fellowships?
A: Very important. Not only because there is a sharing of technology and techniques, but more so because there are some intangible things, skills, that you pick up when you see someone working in a certain fashion and how they choose to approach a problem. These are things you cannot really learn in any other way.
Also, I would say this is good for the development of science in India, intellectually as well as technologically. With tsunami-related research especially, there are researchers abroad doing things that we can learn from and bring in. So there should be researchers from India going to learn these aspects.
Q: From your experience, what would you say is the main challenge to researcher mobility?
A: Very few opportunities. You have short term funds but most of the time you need longer to make significant impact or progress with your research.
There needs to be more collaboration between international institutions like UCL and institutions in India. And these engagements have to go beyond universities. We have great research bodies, and centres of excellence such as NCBS (National Centre for Biological Sciences), JNCASR (Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research), where you have very talented people doing very good work.
Q: What would tell Devaraj three years ago if you could go back and give him advice?
A: I have always been of the idea that if you are in a place for a long time, and you are accustomed with the system, it is always good to go to another place and learn things from there. Why I personally believe this is because India is a big country. In my childhood I was in north India, then I moved south, and then I went to the west. Each place has many things to teach you. You learn that there is not only one way to do things. For science this is even more important.
Words and images: Jason Lewis