Sanchayeeta Borthakur: Reaching For The Stars
    By Ankur Bora 

    Sanchayeeta Borthakur is a Research Scientist in the Physics and Astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. Her area of interest is to study star forming galaxies, how the galaxy evolves, and how matter and energy is spread throughout the Universe. Sanchayeeta is originally from Bongaigaon , Assam where her father was the Chief Medical Officer at the refinery. When she was just three years old, it was her father who brought the science of learning to life with stories about the sky, the stars and the cosmos. In the following interview Sanchayeeta tells her journey including the recent work with the Hubble Space Telescope to probe nearby galaxies.

    Sanchayeeta Borthakur

    1. Please tell us about your family background and growing up in Assam.

    I was born and brought up in the small town of Dhaligaon in Assam. There, my father worked as a Chief Medical Officer in the refinery (BRPL) hospital and my mother was a teacher in a local school (the school later became the DPS). My parents have always been very encouraging. While growing up, they have always allowed me to pursue my passions such as astronomy, classical dancing, and even a bit of cooking! Growing up in the refinery campus was a very cozy experience. I had friends that hail from all over the country and spoke different languages at home. It gave us a sense of unity, Indian-ness and a feeling togetherness to live in a truly cosmopolitan community. It was like living in a really big family. As kids, we used to call all adults “uncle” and “auntie” and they in turn were like our own parents – concerned, making sure the we are safe, and sometimes even disciplining us.

    Looking back, I feel like as though it was a community effort in the then BRPL to raise the children in the right environment. We all were cited examples of seniors, who did well in studies or extra-curricular activities. And it made a lot of difference for us. Now, most of my friends and people who grew up there are doing well and are model citizens living in different part of the world. I feel truly blessed to have such a wonderful childhood and for the guidance of my parent, teachers, and neighbors during my formative years.




    2. Did you have a role model growing up? What inspires you?

    I did not have any one particular role model. I was inspired by specific qualities in a lot different people. Both my grandmothers are quite an inspiration. They never went to school, but self-thought themselves to read. My parents had very though childhoods themselves. They grew-up without fathers to take care of their families, but still both of them managed to go to colleges for their undergrad and graduate degrees. All these examples have imbibed in me that ones sincerity and motivation can make all the difference.

    3. When did you get interested in the field of astronomy?

    I remember when I was about 3 years old, my father and I used to go on walks at dusk/night and I would ask him about the stars. He would tell me about Saptarishi and other constellations. I was absolutely fascinated by the sky. Occasionally, my father wouldn’t know the name of a star. Then, I would say, “When I grow-up, I am going to find out about those stars and will tell you about them just as you are telling me now”. I believe that was when I had fallen in love with astronomy and I never got over it!

    4. Your work seems to have drawn a lot of data from the Hubble space telescope. And obviously you are associated with one of the premier institutions in the USA. For someone who does not have access to such facilities, is it possible to build a satisfying career in this field?

    Any university in USA or other country is a good place to pursue a career in astronomy. For example, to acquire data with the Hubble Space Telescope we had to submit a proposal describing the science we wanted to do with the data. These proposals are peer-reviewed. The proposals can come from anyone from any institution and are treated equally. Similarly, some of the other observatories such as the Giant Meterwave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in Pune are accessible to most astronomers. Therefore, one can and has made use of world-class facilities while enjoying the merits of smaller academic institutions.

    5. What could a student with a Ph.D. in astronomy pursue as a career if not research in this field?

    Ph.D. in astronomy, like most technical fields, teaches one the process of learning and solving problems. The skill set that we acquire with a Ph.D. can be used in software industry, banking/finance sector, mathematical modeling used in predictions (such as insurance), image processing (for medical purposes, satellite imaging and remote sensing), education and software-assisted education, science writing and journalism and many other fields.

    6. You have mentioned the importance of understanding the impact of starburst-driven winds in contributing to the ionization of the gases in the outer periphery of a galaxy. Our readers would love to hear in layman's terms if and how that applies to Milky Way galaxy at all.

    It applies to all galaxies. Although, Milky Way is not undergoing a starburst event currently, but in the past it must have. These events are short-lived but their effects can be significant. Such events have shaped the galaxy we live-in today by regulating how many stars were to be formed. It even might have contributed to keeping our solar neighborhood habitable by limiting the number of stars around sun.

    7. There is a video called the pale blue dot by Carl Sagan. Do you see parallels between that narration and the results of your research?

    It encompasses the same concept of a small object or event that one would probably not give a second thought be so crucial. As earth, a tiny speck, can house all of humanity, similarly, a fleeting starburst event can spread matter and energy all across the universe.

    8. What are the challenges you faced in order to shape up your career?

    The biggest challenge was the lack of information. I was lucky to have parents, teachers, and classmates/seniors, who were helpful and provided guidance as much as they could. For example, I luckily stumbled upon summer research opportunities in Nehru planetarium in Delhi during my undergrad. This led to me spending every Sunday for almost 3 years doing research at the planetarium. Then again by chance, I saw a poster of Young Astronomers’ Meet (YAM), a conference for astronomy students to come and present their work. I submitted an abstract of my research and got the opportunity to present my work at YAM held in ISRO, which was an absolutely fabulous exposure to the field. Similarly, by coincidence I happened to learn about workshop for Masters/PhD students in NCRA (TIFR) and somehow got the opportunity to attend even as an undergrad! I’m sure, I had missed out some opportunities due to lack of information. But the ones I got made a big impact on my career.

    9. How do you see yourself doing in 10 years from now?

    I see myself doing something that I love. Everyday, I try to do my best and not worry about the results. Research and discovery in particular cannot be planned. Sometimes things work out and we discover exciting things, other times we try and learn from our failures. The goal is to enjoy the process. All I want to do is something interesting and challenging.

    10. Do you believe in God?

    Yes, I do. I have been blessed by God in more ways than I can remember. God gives me strength to do my duty and leave everything else to him to take care of.

    11. Can you tell our student readers a little about the process involved in your research? For example, what sort of measurements does Hubble make, how is that data made available to your team, what exactly do you look for in that data?

    The idea is to look for faint gaseous clouds that envelope the galaxies. With our current technology we can't image them directly, so we use an indirect technique - absorption spectroscopy. As light from distant quasars/galaxies pass through such clouds to get to us, these clouds absorb photons at certain frequencies. So by looking at the spectra of such distant sources, one can detect and study the properties of the intervening clouds. For example, this is similar to looking for clouds in the night sky. If we can't see the stars, then that is an indication that must be clouds!
    Here is a schematic diagram showing the absorption of certain frequencies by clouds present in the extended envelope of a galaxy. By studying the spectrum of the background source, we can find signatures of the clouds as absorption features.



    Using the Hubble Space Telescope, we have probed the faint and otherwise hidden gas reservoir of galaxies up to 20 times further away from the starburst. During the starburst phase, a galaxy produces a large fraction of its stars in a fairly short period of few tens of million years (as oppose to their age of more than 10,000 million years).
    We found that the properties of gas clouds are very different in starburst galaxies as compared to other galaxies. The gas in the extended envelops of starburst galaxies are highly ionized and had little cold material unlike in galaxies that are not going starburst. This suggest that the young stars can produce winds that can reach more than 600,000 light years from their birth place and heat up the gas surrounding the entire galaxy.


    Here is a schematic showing how spectroscopy with the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph on board the Hubble Space Telescope allows us to probe gas at different distances between the background source and us. The wavelength of light shifts to higher values (redder colors) as light travels through space from distant sources. Since the gas clouds absorbers light at specific wavelengths only, therefore the position of absorption features can tell us about the distance of the clouds. In addition the properties of the absorption features such as their strengths tell us about the physical conditions in the clouds.

    Hubble Data:

    We provide the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) that manages Hubble with our observing codes. These programs tell the telescope to go to the target of interest and use the filter/camera that we want to use to observe. Finally, once the data is collected, the data is processed by the scientist at STScI and is given out as a spectrum to us. We then analyze the spectrum (similar to shown in Figure2) and infer the properties of the gas clouds.

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