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Science taught her to stand up for herself

Yogita Kadlag is an astrophysicist from Maharashtra, India. Since October 2019, she’s been a member of the NCCR PlanetS. From her hometown, where she is stranded due to the Corona pandemic, she spoke to us about her work, cultural differences and discrimination.

“It’s raining heavily at the moment; can we try again in 20 minutes?”, Yogita writes. Our first attempt at a zoom meeting ended before it really began. In Jawale Kadlag (Maharashtra), India, where Yogita is currently staying, the internet connection is not what we are used to in Switzerland. Strong rainfalls can interfere, so communication is not always easy.

An hour later, the rain has ceased, and the connection is better.

PlanetS: What are you doing in India, Yogita?
Yogita Kadlag: I came to Delhi in March to attend a conference, but it was cancelled few days before it was supposed to start. My return to Bern was scheduled for the 22nd of March, but the nationwide curfew began on the same day and the lockdown followed later. So, I’ve been trapped here for three months.

Daily cases of new Covid-19 infections are still on the rise in India. How are you and your family?
We are good. We live here at remote place on the farm of my parents. It’s nice to see them.

You started at PlanetS last October. Please tell us about your work!
My project focuses on chondrules. These are small spherical droplets of silicate that formed from once molten droplets of dust (due to high temperature processing) in the protoplanetary disc as well as during planetesimal collisions. They can still be found in primitive meteorites today. So far, I’ve been doing some early experimental work. My task in the initial stage is to separate chondrules of different types from the rest of the meteorite material. I started developing a protocol to separate chondrules by the freeze-thaw method, which involves numerous cycles of cooling in liquid N2 and heating in hot water bath. By the end of last year, I isolated around 100 chondrules from the meteorite called “Allende”. Early this year, I also separated chondrules from four other meteorites, using same procedure.

Chondrules inside a meteorite. (Credit: Yogita Kadlag)

Why are chondrules interesting?
We are interested in studying these chondrules, because their chemical composition can tell us about the early solar system environment and physical processing that took place at the time. Thus, they provide us the link between the protoplanetary disc and the formation of planetary embryos.

What will you do with the isolated chondrules?
First, we want to see inside the chondrules to discern the internal structure and composition. We will do so with 3D-images of the chondrules, using micro-CT imaging. These show the different minerals inside, with each showing a different X-ray attenuation coefficient resulting in a different gray-scale. Then, we break up the chondrules into two parts. One part, we take to SwissSIMS in Lausanne to be dated using 26Al/27Al isotopic ratios. 26Al decays relatively quickly, thus high ratio indicates that they were formed in the early solar system. The oldest ones – formed 1-2 million years after the formation of the oldest objects in the Solar System – are then used for further studies. The other part we use for noble gas measurements. In simple terms, isotope ratios of noble gases depend on the amount of cosmic irradiation they received. By measuring the gases, we can infer on the conditions (primarily the irradiation in the protoplanetary disc) in which the chondrules formed.

How did you end up at PlanetS?
This project required combination of different advanced techniques, which could only be done in a few places around the world. I was really interested in studying the early solar system environment, the irradiation in the beginning, because not much is known about it. If you don’t correct for the irradiation environment, especially when studying meteorites, it’s hard to look at the actual processes – irradiation can change isotope ratios a lot. Prof. Ingo Leya [now her supervisor] has worked on these topics for a while now, and when I read some of his papers, I got really interested in this kind of work.

You did your PhD and a Postdoc in Germany and have worked in Switzerland for over half a year now, but you grew up and studied in India. How, would you say, do the two regions differ in the way they go about science?
When we compare the setting in Europe and India, it’s in very general terms. Because research groups in the same region, or even university department, can be very different. But what I can say about my experience is that in India, the hierarchies are quite firm. You cannot really speak up against your superiors. When I came to Germany, I called my supervisor “Sir” in the beginning, and he said “No! You should not call me that, we are collaborators”. I could easily argue with him on any topic – even if my ideas were contradictory to current science – and he would encourage me to pursue it. So, this was a big difference. And punctuality. In Germany and Switzerland, people are very punctual compared to India (laughs). Perhaps it has to do with the climate – here, you never know when the rain comes. You adapt your schedule to the situation (laughs)…

…as we had to, with our zoom-call!
Exactly! It’s a different way of going about work.

Which do you prefer?
A combination of both, I think (laughs). When I have some experiments to do, I must do them on schedule. But when I can, I adapt the working hours to how I feel.

So, does home office suit you?
Actually, I prefer to work in the lab, even when I’m writing papers. Especially when I get tired of writing – you cannot continuously write a paper. Then, I would like to go to the lab and do some lab work. That is the case right now, as I use the lockdown to write review parts of manuscripts – I miss the lab.

There is an ongoing debate on racial discrimination, also in the academic field. How were your experiences in this regard – do you think you have been hindered by your ethnic background, for example (only if you feel comfortable)?
My groups have been very diverse. For example, here [in Bern], we have members from Poland, Pakistan and I’m from India and it works fine. Personally, I don’t feel discriminated or anything like that. But I’m also the sort of person that just doesn’t take it – no one can discriminate me in that way, I would say (laughs). I think that has a lot to do with my supervisor in Germany. He trained me to speak up – mainly in a scientific sense, but that also carried into everything else I do. When you go to conferences and people challenge you, you must defend yourself and your position. This is then also reflected in other aspects or situations in life.
My observation on this topic is that I think human beings are racist by nature (racism of variable types). I mean psychologically, you feel safe with the people of ‘your kind’. I don’t mean that for any particular society, because it exists everywhere in the world. It is also observed in animals who live in groups.  Human society can be considered as a fully civilized one, only when we consider this whole planet our home and we are equal in front of the mother nature and teach same to future generations. Though it seems easy to say in one sentence, it may take ages and many lessons for human society to evolve in that direction.

Let’s hope that it doesn’t take that much more time. Thank you for your openness and time, and hopefully see you soon in Bern!
Yes, thanks!

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