From average student to currently studying the effects of extreme nitrogen pollution events in the pristine Arctic Tundra, Sonal Chaudhary is on a mission, writes debameeta bhattacharya
Sonal Chaudhary is all fired up about becoming the Al Gore of India. In what might have been the medical profession&’s gain, this bank employee&’s daughter hated “dissecting animals in my practical classes”, found a sympathetic ear in her mother and is now an environmental researcher. Excerpts from an interview:

Tell us a bit about yourself.
I was born into a middle class family in Dhanbad and was an average student. My father, a bank employee, however, wanted me to become a doctor and had me admitted to a medical coaching institute in Ranchi after I passed out of school. I never wanted to become a doctor and hated dissecting animals in my practical classes. My mother, a housewife, saw my plight and convinced my father otherwise and I applied to the University of Delhi. I was always inclined towards environmental sciences and was admitted to the university on the condition that I achieve good grades. Inspired enough to become a topper — I won a medal for all-round performance in my Bachelor&’s at Daulat Ram College and a gold medal in environmental biology during my Master&’s at Delhi University, topping my department. I received the Commonwealth scholarship to pursue my second Master&’s in the Geographic Information System and environmental modelling at the University of Hull, UK, in 2008. Before completing my second Master&’s, I was awarded the prestigious Marie Curie Fellowship at the University of Sheffield to take up my PhD in the subject. I am currently writing my thesis and research papers for various journals.

As an environmental researcher, what is your specific area of research?
I joined the University of Sheffield in 2009 as a full-time researcher with an additional option to continue my PhD as a part-time student. My research work involved studying the effects of air pollution on the vegetation in the high arctic Tundra region. My field of experiment is situated at 79° North in Svalbard, which is the last human settlement before the North Pole.
Under the supervision of Dr Gareth Phoenix, I am studying the effects of extreme nitrogen pollution events in the pristine Arctic Tundra — pollution caused by dirty rain clouds originating from the industrialised regions in Europe. With the changing climate, such extreme events are predicted to occur more frequently in the Arctic. My research demonstrates the importance of the Tundra ecosystem in combating such pollution. I use conventional as well as remote sensing techniques to investigate how damaging these pollution events are to Tundra plants. My project is called NSINK and is funded by the European Union. I am collaborating with researchers from six universities and institutes based across five countries.

Brief us a little about your preparation process on the way to being selected for this training.
I believe that it is the responsibility of scientists like us to take research findings closer to the masses. There should be a bridge to connect people to the latest research findings in climate change. To this effect, I am inspired by Al Gore, former US Vice-President and chairman of the Climate Reality Project — who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace for raising awareness on global warming. The Climate Reality Leadership training programme was an opportunity to learn from the master himself. To be selected, I had to acquaint myself with his work and objectives, in depth.
The University of Sheffield, and more specifically my supervisor, has immensely influenced the way I perceive environmental research and has shown me a new way to explore science. I believe this and my previous outreach activities have contributed to my selection to this prestigious position — a dream come true for me.

Tell us a bit about this course.
It is not a mere course — but a training to build a future climate leadership. It is a platform to educate one on the latest in climate science while preparing you for instrumental public speaking, social media communications and global climate leadership. By undertaking this training, I have become one among these world climate leaders equipped with the knowledge, tools and drive to educate and empower diverse audiences and communities against climate change crisis. I am the first climate leader from the University of Sheffield and my state of Jharkhand in India.
This training focuses on creating a climate leader who will look beyond a job. Being an environmental researcher, I know that climate change is a reality and human activities are contributing as catalysts for unpredictable change. Ninety-seven per cent of all scientific research also supports this fact. I believe it is high time we move from knowledge to action.
As a scientist, I have a choice of being only research-focused and publishing many journal papers in my lifetime. The other option is to reach out to the world and demonstrate what a difference actions have created and could bring to the planet. I prefer the second option because I believe science must inspire people to act in a way that is beneficial for both the future generation and our environment and help solve our climate crisis. The role of a scientist is, thus, much more, which is why I want to reach out to people with the message of change — because of the changing climate and our need to change our behaviour accordingly.

Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
In another 10 years the climate change crisis, if not addressed adequately, will have a much more adverse effect. I hope to do more research in climate change sciences and also address the cause of climate advocacy through outreach activities. I want to start an organisation in India to reach out to people and make them aware of global warming and other pressing environmental issues. If people are aware, they will be capable of contributing towards stopping the crisis. I want to create a platform to make people understand the consequences of climate change. With Al Gore advocating the cause for the climate change crisis throughout the world, I believe I will remain inspired enough to become the Al Gore of India in the next 10 years.