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The sky is the lower limit!
An interview with Varun Bhalerao

GROWTH co-investigator Varun Bhalerao - a Caltech alumnus who held a postdoctoral position at the Inter-University Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics - is joining one of the most prestigious research institutions in India, the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, as a new faculty member in the Physics Department. In this interview, he shares his reflection on and excitement about this transition, astronomy, academia and Mumbai street food.

What are you most excited about and looking forward to at your new academic home?

The Indian Institute of Technology,Bombay (IITB) has among the best students in the world and wonderful infrastructure for experimental work. I am very excited to be a part of the physics department here, which is nucleating a new astrophysics group. Coupled with the rapid growth of astrophysics in India, the possibilities are immense!

What are your main research interests and how do you plan to pursue them at IITB?

My main research interests are the study of transients, and development of new instruments for astrophysics. At IITB, I will continue my research on transients with GROWTH, AstroSat, and other facilities. I also look forward to setting up a new laboratory for development of space hardware, and start developing payloads for space astronomy. IITB has a highly talented pool of undergraduate and graduate students, many of whom are keen to work in Astrophysics as well as satellite technology. I aim to fully utilize the potential of this nexus between students, infrastructure and institutional support.

As part of GROWTH, you are leading the effort to build a 0.7m telescope in Hanle, which will join the GROWTH global network of observatories. How is work progressing and what kind of observations will the new telescope enable?

The GROWTH-India telescope will be India's first fully robotic research telescope. From the funding provided by the Department of Science and Technology of the Government of India, we have placed orders with vendors for manufacturing the telescope and the camera. We expect the hardware to arrive in mid-late 2017, at which point we will start the setup and commissioning at Hanle, Ladakh. In parallel, my students and I have been busy developing algorithms and software for automation and remote control of the telescope. I wish to set up a small telescope at IITB campus, which will serve as a testbed for the Hanle system. Students can have easy access to this telescope to learn its functioning and to develop and test new software for the main GROWTH-India telescope.

Astronomers are starting to tackle really big questions about the origin, nature and composition of the Universe and there is a trend to form large international consortia to manage expensive facilities. What has GROWTH taught you in terms of the advantages and challenges of ever-larger global collaborations?

The very exciting thing about astronomy is that the sky is the lower limit! Today, research is at a very advanced stage, which makes global collaborations and networks necessary and inevitable for answering certain questions. Indeed, the GROWTH network itself had its genesis in such a need. Video conferencing has greatly simplified communication with colleagues spread across the globe, making such collaborations possible.

We are seeing many advantages in such networks. The sharing of knowledge and resources greatly amplifies our research abilities. Many observations can be made using telescopes in the network which individual GROWTH partners would otherwise not have had access to. When we developed telescope automation software, my student Atharva Patil went to Taiwan and used it to automate their Lulin One-metre Telescope. In GROWTH, we are also making promising advances in our coordinated search for electromagnetic counterparts to gravitational wave sources.

Some challenges exists as well but many of them are small. For instance, it is impossible to schedule a teleconference, which will be at a reasonable time for everyone around the world. Senior researchers can work remotely with some ease, but students can learn and contribute the most if they are physically on site - necessitating significant international travel. Overall, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages, and we are very happy to be part of international teams.

It has become increasingly hard for young researchers in astronomy and other fields to find faculty positions. Can you share what lessons you have learned along your journey from a PhD student to a faculty member?

It is too early for me to be giving advice on how to become a faculty member! What I can do is share some of my own experiences. We all get into research to work on challenging and interesting problems. During a PhD, your advisor often defines the problem, and you work on it for several years. On becoming a postdoc however, I suddenly realized that now I had to find my own interesting problems to work on. I also realized that in a few years, I would have to be thinking of thesis topics for my students as well. Being in a highly intellectually stimulating environment helps a lot in navigating and finding research opportunities. You need to sift through hundreds of problems to find one that catches your fancy and is well matched to your skillset. I also worked with several undergraduate students. I could define small problems that were good for few-month long projects and while discussing research with them and explaining it at an undergraduate level, a lot of concepts became clearer to me as well. I still enjoy the process, and I look forward to teaching undergraduates at IITB. Lastly, I would say that one has to be aware that the most interesting, "out there" problems may well turn out to be a wild goose chase. Therefore, it is also important to identify more direct projects to work on.

India is a culinary paradise and Mumbai is particularly famous for its delicious street food. What should one not miss if they land in Mumbai?

Yes indeed! The most famous dishes are obvious targets - Mumbai's famous Vada-pav, Pani Poori and Paav Bhaji are all among my favorite. I have been here only for a few days, and need to explore further to find the best places to eat them. We hope to have a GROWTH meeting in India next year and I promise to have a full list ready by then!


Iva Kostadinova
Communications and Media Contact
+1 626 395 2952

GROWTH is funded by the National Science Foundation under Grant No 1545949. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.