Profile Series: Shashank Bhushan (he/him)

Let’s get the basics. Name, where you are from, and your current affiliation and advisor?

Hi, I am Shashank Bhushan, I grew up in Patna, Bihar, a city located in the floodplains of the river Ganges in India. I am currently a PhD student in Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington. I am advised by Dr. David Shean.

What is the research you are currently working on?

For my PhD dissertation, I have been learning and improving methods to derive high resolution topographic maps of the Earth’s surface from satellite imagery. If we have two or more of these topographic maps computed from images acquired at different times but over the same region, we can compare them to accurately measure the changes in the ground surface over that particular region! For the “science” component of my thesis, I use this technique to study the surface evolution of High Asia glaciers, document the rates at which the glacier ice is thinning or thickening, and analyze how fast or slow these glaciers are moving. 

What do you wish you had known when you started your graduate/academic career?

I had some experience in research before joining graduate school, acquired mostly during internships, or by spending evenings at the lab for an integrated BS-MS dissertation. I thought that I knew what I was doing and I would be able to breeze through graduate school! However, there is one big difference between undergrad and graduate school research: the program duration requires us to be steady and consistent for a long time while maintaining objectivity during both good and bad periods. One piece of advice which has been helpful to me in this regard is to have a close network of friends and mentors who are not directly involved with your research projects. My mentorship network has helped me in staying motivated and in showing me the larger picture when I am obsessively tweaking parameters to improve an experiment’s results. I wish I knew this before I joined the program, it would have saved me from a lot of anxious nights 🙂  

If you were not a young hydrologist, what would you be doing?

This is a tricky question, I could have been doing very different things based on certain life choices I took 🙂 Growing up, I was really interested in the history, geography and evolution of human culture, but ended up taking an engineering entrance exam after high school due to various reasons. 

So I could have been a budding young historian, maybe working on a thesis on the rich cultural history of the South Asian subcontinent, if I followed my childhood passion for history. If I religiously followed my undergrad geology course curriculum, I might have been exploring minerals/oil reserves with a mining company. Or maybe I might have been working as a geo-spatial data scientist at some startup in India or somewhere else if I didn’t go for grad school 🙂 

What do you find most exciting about your research topic/work? This could be societal impact, novel aspects of your own work, novel aspects of others’ work that you would like to highlight, anything that gets you motivated to start the day.

When I started working on remote sensing of glaciers, I was most excited by the new coding methods and technical details I was learning each day. However, during the many struggles of grad school and most recently during the pandemic, it has been very difficult to keep up with everything and I have needed to find new sources of motivation. One such instance was when my advisor David and I got to work with a large team of scientists while investigating a disastrous landslide in Chamoli, India, where I saw for the first time direct social implications of the work which we do. During many recent interactions with David and other colleagues/friends, I realized that arguably the most important invention of the current decade, the COVID-19 vaccine(s), has not actually been built overnight. Rather many masters and PhD theses from across the world written over the years have contributed in some ways to its development. While the work my team does might be very niche, it aims to fill small gaps in the hydrologic cycle. Each of these small contributions would finally trickle down to hopefully positively affect the lives of people living in the mountains and downstream river plains of South Asia. Realizations such as these keep me going during tough days at work, when experiments do not work as expected 🙂  At the same time however, I also keep reminding myself that I should not take myself and my work too seriously, otherwise I would struggle to maintain a balanced perspective toward life and work fulfillment. 

Who is your role model in science and why? What makes you admire them?

While growing up, most of my role models have been non-scientists 🙂 In my short scientific career, Dr. Anthony Arendt, a glaciologist at the University of Washington, who I had the honor of doing an internship with, is definitely a role model who inspires me. There are many things for which I admire him such as: a cool and composed approach to problem solving, ability to think deeply into research questions, consistent efforts to talk and promote DEI activities, and compassionate mentoring to young students and faculty. 

However, the two biggest qualities which I would like to learn from him are his willingness to change research focus to exploring new ways to contribute to our community, and his consistent effort to promote “open-science” collaboration among scientific teams. In the longer run, I would really like to  learn and practice his special team building skills where he takes the time to promote collaboration among a diverse group of scientists from different career stages and backgrounds, making sure everyone’s needs and concerns are met, and no one is left behind. We all know that in the coming days, complex science and engineering questions will require very diverse teams to answer them, and Anthony’s efforts and focus continue to inspire me.

Check out Shashank’s website for more information about his work.

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