Jigyasa Nigam

Jigyasa Nigam was a young girl when Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian woman in space was killed in the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia. The news in her hometown of Delhi was full of stories about this national hero and it sparked her interest in science and becoming a space scientist or astronaut. After finishing high school in the neighboring city of Gurgaon, Jigyasa—whose name means “curiosity” in Hindi—decided to study solid state physics at the Indian Institute of Space Science and Technology. She is now finishing up her INSPIRE Potentials master’s project in the COSMO group of Professor Michele Ceriotti. In her free time, she enjoys writing poetry and stories—one of which was published as part of an anthology—as well as traveling. 

Interview by Carey Sargent, EPFL, NCCR MARVEL

Why did you choose to study physics? 

In high school, I always wanted to keep up with the science courses, even though at one point I wasn’t doing very well in physics. I was scared of physics for a while and thought about focusing on chemistry instead. I figured though that if I wanted to be a space scientist I would need to study physics. I started following a MOOC where the professor used a lot of visual tools, making abstract concepts accessible and seem like real fun. That’s when my love for physics really grew. I went around questioning everything—why are rainbows in the shape of an arc, why are there only a few planets in our solar system, how do astronauts live in space? What’s going on? And this is why I studied physics at university. I am studying solid state physics, probably because I liked quantum physics a lot. A lot of these concepts are very non-intuitive when you see them for the first time. I never imaged that things could be in two states at once—that was a very difficult notion to grasp when it was first introduced to me.  How can that happen? I read a lot of books about it, not just the ones assigned in class, but just out of curiosity. I’m still on my quest to understand.

How did you hear about the INSPIRE Potentials Program?  

I was looking for internships and work experiences for the semester break from my university and I’d already been to the U.S. a couple of times. I saw that Michele’s group was doing great work, putting machine learning, physics and math altogether, which is a great combination. I initially applied for a summer internship, but by the time they got back to me I had already taken an internship somewhere else. Michele then suggested that maybe I could join his group for my master’s thesis. I thought this was a great idea and I jumped at the opportunity. I’m spending almost a year away in an international environment that is so dynamic and different from what I would have had in India.   

What is your master’s project on?

I set out to solve one of the classic problems of condensed matter physics, that is hydrogen at high pressure, and I do that by trying to develop long-range machine learning descriptors. Until now, many of the algorithms that exist or have been used for atomistic machine learning have been based on local atom-centered descriptors. They are not able to capture long-range interactions like electrostatics or Van der Waals interactions, which would be quite important in a lot of systems. So my work has been on studying hydrogen by developing and applying a new local description for capturing non-local long range interactions in machine learning.

What’s the best thing about the program?
I spent almost 21 years studying within India, but stepping outside is a great opportunity. Each international experience has been very different for me. When I spent time in the U.S. and Australia, I got to know a different culture there and now here, the European culture is quite different. For a long time, I’ve had a dream of travelling around the world and I’m getting to do that in addition to doing science, which I love—it’s a perfect combination!

Here, I think it’s great that everyone is so helpful and approachable, and they try their best to answer questions that we ask. And we’re asking such basic questions because we don’t have advanced knowledge in many things that we set out to do, but people are always so patient and they take their time explaining stuff. When I came here, I didn’t know many things and I wasn’t very comfortable doing the high-level programming that they’re doing here. What moved me most was that, Michele is quite busy, yet when I was lost on how to get somethings done, he took the time and sat with me, typing code and explaining how to do it.  That was really helpful and I don’t think I would have had the opportunity to learn so much in so little time elsewhere.

The enthusiasm of people towards their research is also very inspiring.  Sometimes it can be very intimidating – you’re talking to someone and they’re giving you a bunch of information and you’re standing there like “I didn’t get most of what you said, but okay, that’s something to think about.” I think that’s also really helpful because in addition to working on your own project you also get a chance to explore a lot of other interesting problems and the ways people have approached them.  It might not always be something you immediately grasp, but I think it can also help and influence you in the longer run.

What are your plans for the future?

I have had experience in different fields of physics and science and it has been difficult to converge to one area and to go into more depth. I explored a lot of breadth and I liked working everywhere because you’re seeing all these new things that don’t come up in coursework. With a PhD, you have to be really passionate about what you’re doing, also have to get along with your supervisor in an environment that will help you grow. I’d definitely consider doing a PhD.

Do women face particular challenges in the sciences?

I think women face challenges on three different levels. The first is societal. And I think that’s because women in science, (or even sports, because they’re considered traditionally male-dominated fields) if they’re doing well or want to progress in those fields, they are stigmatized, that’s one aspect that discourages women from going into these fields. The second is then the institutional level of challenges: even if you get there somehow, there’s the wage gap, glass ceilings, basically you’re considered to be just doing a job and that your contributions are not really important to the field.  The third is an organizational level, by which I mean interpersonal relationships during work. I have been very lucky in that even though I have had all male supervisors up until now, they have been very understanding and helpful, but not everyone has had this kind of experience. You need to have an environment that encourages you to go further, rather than putting restrictions on you with people who say “no, you’re a woman, you have to stay home. What’s the point in educating you?” Many women, around this age, wouldn’t consider a PhD right now because this is the time you ‘are supposed to’ get settled/married. A PhD or a career is a long-term commitment and we are raised with the notion that women should want to stay home and take care of the household and the baby. Often, it’s not a choice that women get to make for themselves. 

Thankfully, I was raised in quite an empowering environment where I saw women defying traditional gender roles and so I never thought that there are somethings that girls cannot do or some subjects that girls aren’t smart enough to study, and I think, realizing this the key to not holding yourself back.

Any advice for young girls interested in the field?

It’s definitely important to get a breadth of experience. You might not like one area, but maybe you’ll find another that you like more. I was scared of studying physics at a certain point, but you can’t give up just because you got bad grades on one test. Perseverance is a very important aspect, you have to give it a go. The second point Is that you shouldn’t let anyone/anything discourage you. Sometimes, it might be your own circumstances at odds with you, like I had to fight the stereotypes of being from a ‘broken family’ and struggle for my own identity. Don’t worry about what society thinks or what will happen as a consequence of your actions.  Find your own identity in a world that goes out of its way in trying to dictate yours. In your passion, you will find the strength to overcome all barriers!