Dr. Atreyee Bhattacharya, North Carolina State University

Dr. Atreyee Bhattacharya
North Carolina State University,
Raleigh, United States

Earth science is field of research that often uses novel tools to decipher geological, climatological, oceanographic and even biological events and their causes, sometimes in the present but mostly in the past. One such tool comes from space. Extraterrestrial material from meteorites and comets that pass through the inner solar system and accrete onto the Earth over millions of years. These particles, called interplanetary dust particles or IDPs, could help us in gaining incremental knowledge about our inner solar system as well as the Earth.

-Vasantha Kumar

“My research focuses on the earth, although interplanetary dust in ocean mud is a neat tool for deciphering the nature of events in the inner solar system”

“It is not just enough to be involved in science; we must have scientists and stakeholders working together”

Dr. Atreyee Bhattacharya is a research scholar and lecturer in North Carolina State University, Raleigh, United States. She completed her PhD from Harvard University, masters from IIT Khargpur and bachelor’s from Presidency College, Kolkata. Apart from being a researcher, she is an active writer working towards generating enthusiasm about natural science among young people and stakeholders. Dr. Bhattacharya has written for a variety of audience, publications and magazines.  In addition, she pursues experimental cooking, writing short-stories, learning new languages and photography.

In this interview, Mr. Vasantha Kumar discusses Dr. Bhattacharya’s research work and its potential applications as well as her interest in science writing.  We thank her for giving us the opportunity to interact with her and know more about her research work.

 [1] Please tell us about your background.

I am an earth scientist interested in understanding past changes in the Earth’s climate. At present, I am a lecturer in the Environmental Sciences Program at North Carolina State University. However, I grew up and spent most of my student life in India.

 [2] Could you please describe in detail the area of your research focus during your PhD?

I use isotopes of noble gases, oxygen and carbon in deep-sea mud and other natural archives to understand causes and effects of abrupt and extreme climate events. For example, take the case of Helium, one of the most abundant elements in the solar system and yet occurring in traces on Earth; but providing powerful tools to investigate both processes in the inner solar system as well as those operating on the Earth.

Helium has two isotopes; the heavier one (Helium-4) is produced by radioactive decay of Uranium and is delivered to oceans by weathered material. But the lighter one, Helium-3 is produced in the Sun and carried into the earth by extraterrestrial particles that absorb the solar Helium 3 as they spirals towards the Sun. So, variability of Helium- 3 in deep sea mud provide information about events in the solar system like meteorite break up, comet showers etc. that had happened in the past. On the flip side, when IDP flux remains constant, and we need to prove it in each case, Helium-3 in ocean sediments can actually act as a backdrop against which sedimentation rates in the ocean can be determined. This provides precise controls about timing and pace of events on the Earth.

 [3] What is the outcome of your research?

My work with extraterrestrial Helium-3 shows that the mass extinctions of 65 million years ago, often linked to the demise of dinosaurs, was delivered by a bolloid that is not potentially associated with increased dustiness of the inner solar system, supporting work of previous scientists who have reported similar findings from other parts of the world.

A 10 micron interplanetary dust collected in the stratosphere with a U2 aircraft. This particle is similar in elemental composition to primitive meteorites but differs in having higher carbon and volatile element abundance. The particle is composed of glass, carbon and many types of silicate mineral grains.
Above image is used only for demonstration purpose in this article.
Credit: JPL/NASA

[4] What will be the practical applications or interpretations of your research which could help us understand our universe better and not just process on Earth?

My research focuses on the Earth, although interplanetary dust particles in ocean mud is a neat tool for deciphering the nature of events in the inner solar system like breakup of meteorites, past bolloid impacts, comet showers etc. Scientists are working on developing applications of noble gases in dating geological events that could have very important implications for planetary studies.

[5] You will soon start as a post doc in University of California, Los Angeles. Could you please briefly describe your research focus in your post-doctoral work at UCLA?

Yes, and I am very excited about it! I will be investigating causes of changes in ocean chemistry over Earth’s history.

 [6] Are you looking for any collaborative research work in India? Some of our audience might be interested in this area.

Absolutely. Planetary processes will form a significant part of my research and I am always looking for collaborators.

[7] You have been a volunteer for educating people about the topics like importance of science education, climate change etc. Also, you have been a science writer for quite a long time. What inspired you to take this path?

I used to be a writer as a student in India and just continued on that path. I think that communicating is a critical aspect of life, and science is no different. As a scientist I love to have people be enthusiastic about science, but there is something more. It is not just enough to be involved in science; we must have scientists and stakeholders working together. My evolution, so to speak, in science comes hand in hand with this hope that my work in communicating science will help bridge the gap between science and society.

[8] You have been part of Indian educational system as well.  As per you, what are your recommendations to Indian science education?

We need more basic science. As a country we are focusing on applied science, which is vey good, but basic science has a fundamental role of a road map and that has not progressed very much. I think that Indian education is wonderful in many ways and with a little change, and we can do even better. Of this I am hopeful.



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