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Yashwant Gupta

Yashwant with GMRT in the background

Prof. Yashwant Gupta was also closely involved in the establishment of India’s Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT). © 2018 Yashwant Gupta. All rights reserved.

Team SKA benefits from the expertise of hundreds of scientists, from early career researchers to senior experts at some of the world’s most respected institutions. Among them is Prof. Yashwant Gupta, director of India’s National Centre for Radio Astrophysics (NCRA) in Pune, part of the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, and a member of the SKA Board of Directors.

A pulsar specialist and 2007 recipient of India’s prestigious Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize for Science and Technology, Yashwant led the SKA’s Telescope Manager consortium through the crucial design phase and to the successful conclusion of its work in July 2018. We spoke to him to find out more about his journey to the SKA, and how his childhood hobby became a successful career.


Growing up in India, did you always want to be an astrophysicist?

When I was in high school, I got interested in astronomy thanks to the astronomy hobby club in my school, and some encouragement from my father. From then on my interest in astronomy kept growing, but it remained as my favourite hobby. It was not until I completed my undergraduate degree in Electrical Engineering that I decided to make the shift towards a career in radio astronomy and astrophysics as a graduate student.

“The SKA is truly a next generation facility that promises to revolutionise many aspects of astrophysics.”

What was the education and career path that led you to the NCRA, and ultimately to the SKA?
 
After my undergraduate degree at the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur, I moved over to a PhD in Radio Astrophysics at the University of California, San Diego. This led me naturally to join NCRA, which was at that time embarking on the ambitious Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) project in India.
 

Travelling to remote sites like the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Australia means being prepared for the climate – and the bugs! © 2018 Yashwant Gupta. All rights reserved.

I found myself in the midst of the excitement of building one of the largest low frequency radio telescopes in the world. Here my combination of training in electronics and astronomy played a major facilitating role, and soon I became the chief scientist and the dean of the GMRT Observatory. This led to my current role as the director of NCRA.

In the course of this, as the SKA was conceived, there was significant interest within India about being part of the project, and due to my experience in working with the building and running of GMRT, it was natural that I take a strong interest in the SKA project.
 
What excites you most about the SKA?
 
The SKA is truly a next generation facility that promises to revolutionise many aspects of astrophysics; pulsars happen to be one of my main areas of research, and the power of the SKA for pulsar studies is one the most exciting things. Finally, the technologist in me is drawn strongly to the SKA for the technical challenges it offers.
 
In terms of your pulsar work, what specifically do you hope to discover using the SKA?
 
With the SKA we expect to detect a very significant fraction of the total pulsar population in our Milky Way galaxy. We expect to find some very exotic pulsars, such as a neutron star–black hole binary system. There should be a quantum improvement in our ability to carry out precision timing of pulsars, hopefully allowing us to detect very low frequency gravitational waves.
 

“Youngsters aspiring to be professional astrophysicists need to have a broad based approach to the subject – a background in instrumentation, software and big data is invaluable.”

What has been the proudest moment of your career so far?
 

The proudest moment of my career was probably being awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Award in 2007, which is perhaps the most prestigious science award in India. This was in recognition of my leadership role in getting GMRT fully functional around 2002 to 2003 – overcoming some stiff technical challenges – and shortly after that making some interesting first pulsar discoveries with GMRT, in addition to other areas of research that I contributed to in those years.

What advice would you give to budding astrophysicists – what kind of skills do they need in order to succeed in this field?
 

Youngsters aspiring to be professional astrophysicists need to have a broad based approach to the subject. It is not enough to have good skills only in physics – having a background in instrumentation, software, big data and related techniques and technologies is invaluable, especially if one wants to become a good experimental astrophysicist.

Prof. Yashwant Gupta with the SKA precursor MeerKAT array

Yashwant in South Africa for the launch of SKA precursor MeerKAT, July 2018. © 2018 Yashwant Gupta. All rights reserved.

A wider approach to multi-wavelength (and multi-messenger) astrophysics is also needed, as is the ability to work in large international teams. Of course, it goes without saying that the ability to work hard in a focused manner are skills that are still needed, even today!

Your work must be quite intense, with lots of travelling. Do you have any hobbies that help you to relax?

Nowadays, I don’t get too much time to indulge in hobbies! Music, long walks, time with friends and family are things that help me unwind.

 

Learn more about Yashwant’s role as TM consortium lead, and discover the SKA’s other engineering elements, on the SKA engineering design website.

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