Ask questions, ask for help to fulfil your dreams: Meet Sonali Mohapatra

One of the 12 speakers for Soapbox Science Brighton on July 29th, Sonali Mohapatra has a double masters in theoretical physics from IISER-Kolkata, India (India’s premier research Institution) and from Perimeter Institute, Canada (one of the top theoretical physics research hubs in the world). She graduated as a valedictorian of her batch of Perimeter Scholars International in 2015 and then joined her PhD in 2016. Sonali shows there are no boundaries between the arts and science, also being a published poet and a singer. Sonali will be speaking about “Gravity and Blackholes: Linking Fantasy and Reality” at Soapbox Science Brighton on 29th July, 1-4pm, sponsored by The University of Sussex Doctoral School.


SS: What is the most fascinating aspect of your research/work?

SM: I work on quantum gravity and black holes and every day I am fascinated by the variety of science fiction-type, wilder than our wildest fantasy ideas that are being confirmed as reality somewhere in the universe.



SS: What, or who, inspired you to get a career in science? 

SM: My earliest mentor was my mother, who took me to participate in science exhibitions in school. I remember that my first project was titled “Magnets and Magic” when I was barely 7 years old. I remembered it being really fun and as a bonus, I won a science fiction book as the first prize. Also my grandfather, himself having two masters in both maths and physics. Mathematics was stressed upon in our family and power cuts were used to learn mathematical shortcuts and watch stars on the roof. Apart from that having good science teachers played a major role. From 2002-2007, India had Dr. A.P.J Abdul Kalam, a physicist and aerospace engineer, as its 11th president and he made it his main focus to inspire students to do science. I remember meeting him at a national level science congress I was selected for and the inspiration stayed with me for a long time. His influence over the students in those few years in India was magnetic.



SS: How did you get to your current position?

SM: After my high school, I sat an exam called KVPY (Young Scientists’ Encouragement Program) and got selected among 300 other students across India for a full scholarship to IISERs (Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research) which were set up to become interdisciplinary research hubs. It was a bit hard to convince my family that I wanted an unconventional career but it worked out and I joined IISER-Kolkata. I chose physics as my major in the 3rd year of my BS-MS and it helped that the physics faculty there were amazing and very, very encouraging. There were regular seminars and colloquias held where we got an opportunity to listen to world famous physicist’s such as Roger Penrose and interact with them. Their influence will stay with me for the rest of my life. Being only one of the two women in a class of around 60 was a bit of a setback, but we managed to pull through even through many hurdles. At that time, I got interested in quantum gravity and read some popular science books such as “Three roads to quantum gravity” by Lee Smolin and that inspired me to apply to Perimeter Institute for the PSI program, which is the world’s best and toughest masters program in theoretical physics. I was selected on full scholarship and once I started the program at PI, I saw that what I had been missing during my undergraduate years was a strong variety of female physicist role models. Perimeter filled that gap and made me more confident and I graduated as the valedictorian of my batch of 2015. I won the Chancellor’s Scholarship for the University of Sussex after being nominated by my supervisor and here I am.



SS: Research in STEMM is becoming increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which STEMM (science, tech, engineering, maths, medicine) subjects do you use in your work? In particular, how does maths play a role in your research?

SM: I am a theoretical physicist working in gravity, high energy and particle physics. Thus, I use physics and mathematics on a daily basis, mathematics being the only language in which we can write and make sense of the world around us.



SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and why Brighton? 

SM: I love explaining the work I do to non-specialists and love to see the wonder in their eyes when they realize something fantastical about the structure of our universe. I also love motivating students and providing them with a role model in order to dispel the views that physics and maths are uninteresting and hard. Role models and exposure to specialists who enjoy and thrive in their professions plays a great role in motivation. Moreover, I consider it a duty to motivate and be a role model for future women in physics so that they do not face the same problems in gender inequality that I faced.



SS: Sum up in one word your expectations for the day – Excitement? Fear? Thrill? Anticipation?

SM: Excitement!



SS: If you could change one thing about the scientific culture right now, what would it be? 

SM: Gender Ratio. I would like it to be equal.



SS: What would be your top recommendation to a female PhD student considering pursuing a career in academia?

SM: My recommendation would be to not get deterred by hurdles and to not question their brain power due to myths permeated by the society. It is important to realize that the imposter syndrome is equally present across all genders and it is not something to get deterred by. I would recommend them to reach out to scientists they like and talk to them, ask questions, ask for help wherever necessary and just fulfil their dreams.



SS: What words of encouragement would you give to children who might be interested in a career in science?

SM: Wouldn’t it be so much fun to build or work on stuff that we read in sci-fi or watch in movies. Physics is so much fun! Keep asking questions!!

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