Sanjeev Gupta: life as a scientist

Professor Sanjeev Gupta discusses his background, how he became interested in geology and early fieldtrips, his work mapping the landscape under the English Channel and Mars, and subsequent work on NASA's Mars Science Laboratory Curiosity rover mission, and his initial hesitation at being asked to take part in the 'Inspiring Diversity' project.

My name is Sanjeev Gupta; I’m a Professor of Earth Sciences at Imperial College here in London and I’m a geologist and I’m interested in what shapes the landscape and reconstructing past landscapes – so going back in geological time and seeing how the Earth has actually evolved.  And I work in places like the Himalaya, under the sea in the English Channel and, now, on Mars. [0:21] So I was born in Agra in India, where the Taj Mahal is, and I came over to Britain when I was five years old and my father who was a research scientist, then came over to Britain to teach biology, initially in Kent and then in Reading.  [0:36] So my father – my parents – my father obviously being a teacher - were always interested in education but they wanted me to have a career in something like medicine – something that had a clear career structure and  led to a clear job and unfortunately for them, and fortunately for me, I wasn’t really interested in medicine or engineering.  I think I didn’t want to work in an office or a laboratory or something like that and I was really interested in the outdoors and so I got interested in geology and wanted to become a geologist which was a pretty eccentric choice for them and so we had quite a few battles about what I would actually go on to do as a career. [1:19] So I actually became interested in geology because I loved to travel; I was really interested in travel and as a child I read all these books about explorers travelling around the world and that’s what I wanted to do.  And so kind of late in my teens I started travelling around the world and just before university, I made a trip to the Himalayas and actually to a place in the western Himalayas called Ladakh which is this bizarre, strange landscape and I hiked around some of this strange terrain, saw weird rock formations and just got completely hooked and I just thought, gosh, if I can do a job that gets me to travel to these locations, that’s the job I want to do; that’s the career I want to pursue. [2:01] And the other thing I’ve always been interested in is problem solving – I like to problem solve and when you go to a remote part of the world, you have a new terrain – somewhere that nobody has ever been before or very few people have been before and so I’m interested in trying to reconstruct what happened in these places so I’ve worked a lot in  -  I went on an expedition as an undergraduate to the rainforest in Borneo and then I’ve worked a lot in desert areas like in the Sinai desert or in the deserts of western America trying to work out how those landscapes came to be and how those rocks came to be deposited.  [2:34] So doing scientific research is really wonderful because you can actually choose the problems you want to solve.  Nobody tells me what problems to solve and I kind of meander through different things that I have become interested in.  So I first started off looking at ancient rocks, so for example I worked on how – for my PhD – on how the Alps were formed, looking at rocks, and I would spend every summer working out in the French Alps for three months every year, which was just fantastic.  And then I went on to do similar things in the Himalayas and out in the American West and then subsequently I got interested in other problems and I teamed up with a really good friend of mine Dr Jenny Collier here at Imperial who’s a marine geophysicist and we started exploring what the landscapes were like under the English Channel so beneath the sea and we produced the first map of the landscape under the sea using sonar bathymetry data and this was just an extraordinary revelation.  [3:31] That then led me to actually working bizarrely enough on Mars because actually the landscapes under the sea in the English Channel are actually quite similar to flood landscapes on Mars.  And I started working with Orbiter data – that’s data collected – photographs collected from satellite going around Mars, mapping the surface and we looked at these data and tried to work out what caused the formation of giant channels on the surface of Mars.  That then went to another surprising leap where I ended up working on selecting landing sites for future Rovers on Mars and I got selected to be on the science team of the Curiosity Rover – that’s NASA’s current rover on Mars – and here I work as a long term science planner working out how the team is going to plan its science experiments on the surface of Mars and where the Rover is going to go next – what the Rover is going to do next and what rocks it’s going to look at next. [4:24] So I’m very proud to be Indian in origin, but I never like to be defined by my ethnicity so I was kind of mildly annoyed when I got this invitation from the Royal Society to participate in this feature on British scientists from minority ethnic backgrounds but actually in the end I decided it was a good thing to do because it would show people from perhaps underprivileged ethnic backgrounds that they could enter science and succeed in science and get to be successful in science and have an exciting career in science.       

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