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Raj Pandya

Published on: Jun 18, 2014

Meet Raj Pandya, director of both SOARS (Significant Opportunities in Atmospheric Research and Science) and Spark: UCAR Science Education. Raj is also the Program Director of AGU's Thriving Earth Exchange. Before settling on atmospheric sciences, Raj studied civil engineering and physics. As a post-doc at NCAR, Raj began expanding educational opportunities for underrepresented groups by helping school teachers design their curricula and hone their teaching methods. As the SOARS director Raj is thrilled each summer when the students selected for the 10-week internship begin their research. 

Raj Pandya

Who and/or what inspired you to pursue science?

I had great teachers in middle and high school. My eighth grade biology teacher, whose bushy beard and protuberant tummy still reminds me of the dwarfs who accompanied Bilbo, taught us to swear in Latin and growled enthusiastically when we were on the right track.

My first high school science teacher, who had an air of benevolent bemusement and offered useful life advice during dissection labs, spent the first week of class convincing us all that human civilization was seeded by alien intervention. The next week he carefully and methodically dismantled the argument with real evidence.

It is either ironic or a testament to the power of interdisciplinary work that three English teachers contributed to my love of science: a middle school science club advisor who helped me nurture a reservoir of confidence during a time that otherwise highlighted my complete lack of coolness, a cultured 12th grade literature teacher who linked science, literature, and philosophy into a grand tradition of discovery; and my college literature and philosophy professors, who helped me learn to write about ideas instead of events.

What has been the most exciting part of your research?

Being an introvert, research has given me an opportunity to meet people from all over the planet and a comfortable place to begin to get to know them. Through research projects, I’ve had the chance to work with doctors in Africa and tribal college professors in the US. Doing science together is a great way to get beyond the superficial, and begin to talk about important things and see the world from a completely new perspective.

Because research is so tied to education (how would we get anything done without students?) it’s also a great opportunity to stay in touch with younger people and be exposed to emerging ideas and fresh enthusiasm.

When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?

The fact that I’ve survived, and sometimes even grown from, other dead-ends or frustrating situations. During my first few dead-ends, I was worried that each one was the beginning of the end of my career – ‘promising young scientist becomes barista.’ I worry about that less now. A little.

Since I am less afraid of revealing my cluelessness, I am more willing to reach out to others for suggestions, and that has helped a lot. For frustrating situations, it helps to remind myself to wait a day or two before reacting.

What one thing have you done that you would recommend no one attempt?

One thing? Here are a few.

  • Try to fix problems you don’t own
  • Offer corrections with a condescending tone when you are still a graduate student
  • Write with a condescending tone anytime
  • Send emails when you are really angry (a little angry may actually be ok)
  • Go back to work after drinking
  • Call more than twice to ask if the hiring committee has made a decision yet
  • Assume that people only disagree with you because they don't really understand, and that you will be able to convince them if you just try to explain it again
  • Try to fix an uncomfortable situation by avoiding it
  • Try to make someone happy who would rather have something to complain about
  • Give up an office for a cubicle
  • Assume someone else will nominate the person you admire most for an award
  • Only work with people like you
  • Continue to work with someone you don’t respect
  • Hope that no one will ask you about something you don’t know how to answer (they will, so figure out the answer)
  • Count on your darker skin to protect you from sunburn in Africa
  • Not ask a question because you might look stupid
  • Ask a question because you want to look smart
  • Discourage someone from something because you don't think they’ll make it
  • Not tell someone what they need to improve to be more competitive
  • Tell someone you’ll take the job no matter what, but it would be cool to have a higher salary (actually, that worked, but I don’t think it is a good idea generally)

What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been in?

Work-related? I once interviewed for a job as a quantitative analyst on Wall Street. It was a phone interview, grudgingly granted because someone in the investment company my mother-in-law worked at was a closet weather nerd. In exchange for talking about the weather with him for an hour, he made someone interview me. After the interview, I subscribed to the Chronicle of Higher Education so I could look for jobs in Academia.

What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?

Arrogance and insecurity. Some fraction of scientists seem to have a reckless disregard for different ways of thinking or relating to the world, and it gets in their way and makes others feel unwelcome. I’ve even heard scientists dismiss whole fields of science as less important, less relevant, or less rigorous. On the other extreme, I meet brilliant scientists doing amazing work who suffer from “imposter syndrome” and imagine they are about to be discovered as less accomplished than everyone thought.

Neither of these is unique to science, but I think aspects of our science culture exacerbate both. The critical thinking that strengthens our science might actually hurt our relationships and discourage people. There is a great story about a former AGU director who once said to the AGU executive committee “I know y’all are critical thinkers, but do you think you could say something nice, first…”. With all that critical thinking going on, it is natural for some people to internalize it and others to protect themselves with a veneer of arrogance.

What prompted you to move from research to science education and public outreach?

I enjoy the immediacy and personal connection of outreach – the fact that you can connect to people, help them see something a little differently, and learn to see things differently yourself. I often feel like if I can explain something to myself, I can explain it to anyone, and it is always a good career move to use your weaknesses to your advantage. For me, public outreach and education offers an interesting day-to-day variability – a morning might be with pre-schoolers and an afternoon finalizing an educational research article. I like learning about and linking a broad range of ideas, and public outreach requires that. I worry that I may be too dumb or too ADD to focus on things in depth. Outreach can be a way to invite new ideas and new people into science, which is vital to science. Finally, I think science is a useful way to solve real-world problems, but that can’t happen without outreach.

To be honest, I kind of don’t love the word outreach because it implies a one-way flow of information. What I am really into is a partnership, where scientist and non-scientists work together to advance scientific understanding and apply that understanding to real-world priorities. Ideally, it begins with defining a mutually interesting research questions and extends all they way through impactful changes.

How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?

I am not sure they react all that much to my job. They are pretty happy (and maybe a bit relieved) that I have a good job, and even more excited that the job aligns with my desire to do something that contributes to the greater good.

What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?

Do it – don’t throw your life away by being a physicist! Seriously, I think my advice is to try geosciences while also thinking about all your other skills. School is great for technical skills, but too few schools teach the skills required to plan and manage a career. I don't mean blatant gunner-like self-promotion, but an honest exploration of who you are and what you want to offer the world.

Learn how to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses, explore careers, acquire and reveal your non-technical skills, and deal with (and even learn from) disappointment. I think those skills can be learned, but you have to actively try. You can start by thinking about who knows how to do these things and who seems to create interesting career paths for themselves, and asking them for insight and help. Learn to cultivate a pool of mentors.