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The ‘Away from home‘ blogging series features Indian postdocs working in foreign labs recounting their experience of working there, the triumphs and challenges, the cultural differences and what they miss about India. They also offer useful tips for their Indian postdocs headed abroad. You can join in the online conversation using the #postdochat hashtag.
Today, we have environment scientist Ram Avtar, an alumnus of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi and a postdoc from the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC). He tells us about his transition from a postdoc to a research associate with the United Nations University in Tokyo, an organisation with a global outlook and ample scope to forge meaningful collaborations — not just in one’s professional life but also in the personal life.
Why environmental science?
As I was growing up, global warming was one of the most widely discussed environmental issues. There was apprehension and curiosity about it. This inspired me to take a keen interest in researching issues related to global environmental change. Since then, I have paid special attention to climate change mitigation. My keen interest in environmental science helped me excel during masters at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi.
Later, I received the Japanese government’s prestigious Monbukagakusho Scholarship to pursue doctoral research at the University of Tokyo. My doctoral research monitored forest cover, deforestation and forest biomass in Cambodia to establish a cost-effective operational measurement, reporting and verification (MRV) system for effective implementation of REDD+ policies. My visits to Cambodia to collect data gave me a better understanding of ground realities and the role of local people whose livelihoods depend on forests and forest products. The research also provided information to the Cambodian government on implementing sustainable forest management policies to minimise deforestation.
After the Ph. D., I started working with the Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology (JAMSTEC) as a post-doctoral fellow. During my post-doctoral research, I monitored the conversion of peat land forest to oil palm plantation and its impact on ecosystem services in Borneo. I learned a lot about sustainable agriculture and forestry and the real practical possibilities of trade-offs between palm-oil productions and sustainable land management.
Since October 2012, I have been working as a Research Associate with the United Nations University, Institute for the Advanced Study of Sustainability (UNU-IAS). I am learning how multi-disciplinary research can make a bridge between cross cutting issues through research, education and collaborative initiatives with the aim of solving current problems and anticipating future challenges. At UNU-IAS, I am actively involved in Climate and Ecosystems Change Adaptation Research (CECAR-Africa) and focusing on enhancing resilience to climate and ecosystem changes in semi-arid Africa.
Crossing the line
I studied in the civil engineering department of University of Tokyo (Todai) and my major was in the applications of remote sensing and GIS to solve global environmental problems. Tokyo is one of the most expensive cities in the world but I was lucky that Todai put me in the JASSO Soshigaya International house, which I could afford easily with my scholarship. At Soshigaya, I had a wonderful experience living with international students from all over the world and exchanging ideas and views on different issues. I also got an opportunity to learn more about the customs and cultures of different countries. Todai’s International Center helped me interact with a Japanese family and to know their culture closely.
After graduation from Todai, I have been working as a Research Associate at the United Nations University (UNU). UNU is also a wonderful place and has world class research facilities and an international environment. Now, I am on the other side of academic life as a faculty member. I miss the fun and freedom of student life when all mistakes were excused. Now I need to be more careful and responsible.
Living in Japan
I was always influenced strongly by Indian culture and customs. India’s diversity and multiculturalism makes Indians acclimatize to any kind of environment and culture quickly. I learnt a lot from different cultures and tried to adapt to them during my stay at JASSO’s International House. The Japanese people also have strong cultural values. But unlike Indians, I feel that the sense of family bonding is sometimes missing in Japanese culture. I also miss the social life that I had back in India.
There are a number of career options in Japan after you complete a doctoral degree. You could opt to work in a private company as a consultant, an engineer, in the research & development section, as a researcher, scientist or in the academia. Japanese companies are quite open when it comes to accepting people from various academic backgrounds. For example, someone studying engineering can join a banking company. However, job hunting in Japan is a bit time taking — you have to apply for a job one year before your graduation. If you are looking for an option in the research and academic field, you can apply for JSPS post-doctoral fellowship or you need to contact the professor of your area of interest directly.
Advice for future researchers
The period after doctoral research is relatively relaxed and you can start working on some individual research projects. You can apply to different funding agencies to get your own funding and start working on a topic of your choice. You can also hire researchers in your project.
If you are planning to come to Japan, don’t be afraid of the language or culture. It is a country where you will enjoy your work and personal life. You can also try to stay connected with different Indian communities here through the Indian Scientists Association in Japan (ISAJ), University of Tokyo Students Association (UTISA), Indian in Japan etc. You can enjoy different festivals/events/cultural programmes in Japan. These programme help one enhance collaborations, network, share experiences, organise events and stay connected with people in Japan. They also make for good memories when you leave and help you remain connected with researchers in Japan.
Find Ram Avtar in our ‘Away from home’ interactive map featuring Indian postdocs from around the world. Please feel free to suggest names of postdocs from countries and disciplines we haven’t covered yet.