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Career Profile: Rajul Pandya

Rajul Pandya. Photo courtesy of Rajul Pandya.

National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR)/University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR)

Rajul Pandya

is one of the leaders of the 2013 Preparing for an Academic Career in the Geosciences Workshop. Prior to the workshop, we asked each of the leaders to describe their careers, for the benefit of workshop participants, by answering the questions below.

Note, at the time of this interview, Rajul worked with NCAR/UCAR. He is now Program Director, Thriving Earth Exchange, at the American Geophysical Union.


Click on a topic to read Rajul Pandya's answer to an individual question, or scroll down to read the entire profile: Educational background and career path * Current job responsibilities * Best part of the job * Challenges and strategies * Qualifications * Balancing work and life * Advice

Briefly describe your educational background and career path.

I did graduate work at the University of Washington investigating the large-scale organization of thunderstorms. During a post-doc at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR), I had the chance to teach classes at Colorado College, help teachers in rural Colorado incorporate weather and climate in their class, and be part of (and eventually manage) a team developing visualization tools to support college students learning about geoscience. Based mostly on how much I enjoyed those experiences, I focused on teaching-oriented colleges in my job search. I was lucky to spend four years teaching meteorology and astronomy at West Chester University, and about half my students were current or future K-12 teachers.

For a combination of family reasons and the opportunity to get involved in systemic change efforts, I returned to NCAR. There, I was part of the Digital Libraries for Earth System Education and the Unidata Program, which provides real-time meteorological data and state-of-the art visualization tools to university faculty and students. I moved to SOARS—an undergraduate-to-graduate bridge program for students from diverse background (there aren't nearly enough in the atmospheric sciences)—then to my present position in Spark, the education and engagement group associated with NCAR.


Briefly describe your current job responsibilities, perhaps by describing a typical day, week, or semester.

I am the director of Spark. Spark's mission is to engage people and communities in the wonder and discovery of science, especially as related to the atmosphere. To do this, Spark hosts research internships for secondary and college students and teachers; develops exhibits on weather, climate and sun-Earth interactions; works directly with over 6,000 K-12 students annually, and builds web-based games and interactives. Spark also partners with diverse communities on projects that address community challenges and advance atmospheric science. Examples include working with tribal colleges to explore climate change impacts on native lands and working with public health officials in Africa to use precipitation forecasts to better allocate meningitis vaccines.

On a day-to-day level my job includes: securing funding for program activities, managing and leading a group of 16 people, contributing to and helping to align the education and diversity activities throughout NCAR, and trying to build and maintain effective collaborations outside of NCAR. I also try to set aside time to focus on a particular passion of mine: helping make science more inclusive.

What do you like best about your work?

So many things: the chance to help other people in their careers and life; how lucky I am to be paid to think about things I care about (like education, diversity, communicating science and climate change); the chance to try things, fail, and learn from them; and the opportunity to work on big ideas and systemic approaches. I work with passionate and talented people who are committed to making things better, and I get to travel and meet other talented and passionate people. Its' exposed me to lots of ways to think about the world, and helped me explore how science can connect with people and be part of making life better. I also still get a kick out of the increasingly rare chance to interact directly with students.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work? What strategies have you developed for tackling that challenge?

Right now, I am interested in transforming the way we do science. I worry that science is remote from people's lives and isn't being used to address the huge challenges society faces. Climate change science is a good example. While it is tempting to imagine the problem is the public (i.e. science literacy), I think we, as scientists and science educators, need to adapt how we do science, how we communicate about science, and how we set scientific priorities. For me, this is all about inviting the public into science as partners, helping connect science with others ways of thinking and knowing, and doing science that intentionally blurs the boundaries between application and research.

The challenge is that this idea is much bigger than what I can do and I don't know how to do it. Another challenge is developing and promoting this approach without devaluing or undermining more traditional approaches. It is challenging to fit these ideas into the education programs at a national lab because most people see our job as communicating research results, not inviting non-scientists to help influence the choice of research topics and approaches. Finally, it might be especially tough in our current budget environment, where everythings seems like a zero sum game.

To takle this challenge, I've focused on small wins and first steps, watching people who are good at it, asking for feedback, trying to bring resources back for the more traditional research, and finding collaborators who can do it better or with more credibility.

What qualifications do you think made you competitive in your job search(es)?

Maybe that question is better for the people who hired me. I've been told I am a good communicator, especially a good listener, and that I can synthesize ideas. I do like to gather a lot of people's input and build things a lot of people can feel part of, and I've been working on knowing when to move ahead without consensus. I think am pretty good at developing than instantiating an abstract idea, leading teams, and I've been told that I am good at drawing good ideas out of others and helping them succeed.

Many of the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows in these workshops are interested in balancing a family and career, in dual career couple issues, and in how other personal choices affect the search for a fulfilling career. Please share information about your situation, your ideas and experiences.

My family refers to my partner as the "real doctor" and her ability to find work anywhere (it turns out medicine is in more demand that atmospheric science) has made it easier to manage finding jobs in the same location. We still lived apart for all of grad school and for several years after, which sucked but isn't uncommon.

We have one kid, and she is awesome: funny, smart, and fun to be around. It has made work harder: I often take her to school and don't get to work before 8:30. I usually work a few hours on the weekend and try to put in a longer day a couple times of week. I am also trying to "ruthlessly prioritize" what I do at work: supporting people in Spark, in real time, is always first priority; time for things that advance an important idea second; and routine things or committees that seem powerless last. I try to combine the first and second priority.

What advice do you have for graduate students or post-docs preparing for academic careers in geoscience? What do you know now that you wish you had known as you started your career?

My advice is to think hard about what you value and build your goals around that. I found it way too easy to adopt the mindsets of the people I work with and admire, and I think I missed some opportunities because of it.

In practical terms, it helps to expose yourself to lots of different people and different ideas – to move in a variety of diverse circles. It is good for science and innovation, allows you to develop your own values and goals rather than merely adopt those around you, and it helps keep things in perspective. I think this may also make you more competitive – from the students I interact with even research careers are demanding a broader set of skills, so give yourself opportunities to develop them.

Finally, while feeling uncertain and uncomfortable doesn't ever go away, you do get better at dealing with it and it really is ok not to be the smartest person in the room - even (especially?) when you're in charge.

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