Be more interdisciplinary and global: Meet Alfiah Rizky Diana Putri

Alfiah is a PhD student in Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, working on data mining & machine learning on planetary images, focusing on changes over the Martian South Polar Residual Cap. She started her interest in planetary science in high school, managing to join the Astronomy Olympiad team representing Indonesia. At university, she took an Electrical Engineering degree concentrating in Signal Processing with joining a planetary image analysis team in mind. After finishing her Bachelor Degree, joining an ASEAN-Korea exchange program, and then completing her fast-track Master Degree, she obtained the Indonesian Endowment Fund of Education to fund her interest in learning about Mars by using orbital images. Outside of doing research, Alfiah is a member of the Indonesian student association, gives talks about Mars, and hopes that she could show more visibility of Indonesian and muslimat-wearing hijab in planetary science. Alfiah is taking part in Soapbox Science Brighton on 2nd June 11am-2pm with her talk “Looking for changes on Martian poles with the aid of 3D terrain model”. Thanks to the South East Physics Network and Mullard Space Science Laboratory for supporting Alfiah’s talk.


SS: What attracted you to Soapbox Science in the first place – and what are you most looking forward to/excited about in taking part? 

ARDP: I had read of Soapbox Science in a science blog back when I was in Indonesia. When I started studying in the UK, there was an opportunity to speak in one. It is also quite rare to see people like me in Planetary Science in general and in Soapbox Science. It is very honourable to be able to represent. Hopefully, by being involved, I could also organise future Indonesian events as well as be able to inspire at least one more person.

Other than that, I previously had attended an event where I needed to discuss my research in my native language. It is interesting to experience that explaining your research in a language other than English is harder than it seems, as well as describing it outside of research communities. Even though I had done some outreach events with children in different age-ranges, doing it in public places where people have things to do, and much distraction would be challenging. Let’s see whether science talks can tempt people away a little bit from a summer day in Brighton!


SS: Tell us about your career pathway

ARDP: I have always had much interest in science but had a little difficulty specialising. As I liked Math and technology and also was interested in how images as two-dimensional data (though you have hyperspectral data as well) represented information, I entered the Electrical Engineering and Information Technology Department in Indonesia for my undergraduate, with doing research related to images in mind. I did not get many opportunities to do planetary imaging back in my undergraduate and my masters, which I started in my final undergraduate year at the same university. Fortunately, I get to pursue Martian imaging and data mining now for my PhD.


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

ARDP: My parents and many of my teachers, I guess. I was a pretty curious child, so I asked many questions. They always tried to answer, even now when sometimes answers from the internet can be obtained faster. Both of my parents are lecturers. I always like to help them, visiting their campus and reading many of their books. I always found academia a very comprehensive job. You get to teach and have a hand in building the next generation of scientists, but you also have your own research too. In regards to planetary science, I am very thankful to Mrs Artha, my physics teacher who offered me the last chair to join the astronomy competition, my undergraduate supervisor Mrs Litasari who’s very supportive and accommodating, and my current supervisor, Prof. Jan-Peter Muller. Many people can’t study science because of lack of support; I am very thankful for getting supportive parents, family, friends, teachers, and lecturers, which sadly I could not list all.


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

ARDP: The interdisciplinary aspect of it. I like Mars, and I like working on my research, but I also like to learn something new. It is always nice because everyone is researching different things, even though they’re focused on the same planets. There are also similar research subjects for different planets like Earth or the Moon. I’ve never actually thought that there were people doing things like space archaeology or space law, but there were, and it’s always nice to learn.

Other than that, working in planetary science means obtaining first-hand data that you would normally know from books and science documentaries. The images are very breath-taking.


SS: Research in STEM is increasingly multi-disciplinary. Which subjects do you use in your work?

ARDP: Many people think that to do space-related science you need to do physics in your undergraduate. You will meet physics, but planetary science has many facets that you can approach based on your background. My work is mostly related to remote sensing and computer science (data mining, machine vision, machine learning). Statistics is also essential as working with many data; you need to be able to interpret and infer.


SS: What three attributes do you consider important to your work (e.g. creativity, team-work, etc.), and why did you pick these?

ARDP: Problem-solving. I think this critical in science. You are interested in something, you find a big problem and you need to solve in bit-sized chunks.

Teamwork and communication. Unlike what everyone perceives about a scientist, doing science is actually working in a team, knowing everyone’s strength and weakness. A lot more research is interdisciplinary and global now, so you need to be better at this.

Perseverance. I think this is very important. Even though you like what you do and maybe most of the time it goes well, there will be occurrences where everything seems to go wrong. You need to overcome them.


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

ARDP: The costs to publish and access publications, I guess. Although I am inside the system as well, so it is quite hypocritical for me to say this, but to publish and to join conferences to present your work, meet people, learning the newest “science”, they cost a lot. As I am now a student with subsidised student registration for a lot of these events, I do not have enough concern for this yet. If you are an early career scientist from other countries without funding, attending a conference, subscription to a journal, or submitting a publication, is done after much deliberation.

Even though there are now free-to-publish online repositories and smaller meetings without registration fee, as well as public events (like Soapbox Science), still, to be an academics or researcher and keep being updated with research in your field, some of the top conferences and publications are not cheap. This is why I am very glad that more and more organisations are trying to publish open-access now.


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

ARDP: If you think you’re shy or you believe that research in the lab is the only thing you need to do, please practice talking to a crowd and to many different people, as many opportunities can come from that. I am still trying to practice this myself, so, let’s try together.

Also, please don’t downgrade yourself. Please be confident and proud of yourself and your achievement, and apply for the opportunities you want.


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

ARDP: If you like it, please do it. Many people want to pursue science but don’t get the opportunity to, so when you can, definitely try, even if you do not seem to be good at it now. There is no too early and too late. Try to be curious. Nowadays there are a lot more ways to learn science and do science compared to before; please utilise them.

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