Rutgers undergraduate Havishk Tripathi was awarded a NASA Astrobiology Institute Early Collaboration Award earlier this spring. Typically most of these awards go to graduate students and post-docs, and is usually awarded to a small number of individuals of the highest merit each year. Tripathi has been working in the laboratory of Distinguished Professor Paul Falkowski (Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences) for over a year and left at the end of the spring semester for the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI) in Japan for research with researcher Henderson James (Jim) Cleaves.
In his own words to the SEBS/NAJES Newsroom, Tripathi shared about his undergraduate career, his passion for his work and what the award means to him.
“I’m a senior chemical engineering and geology student here at Rutgers University. My career path has definitely been nontraditional. Before I began college, I had always been a below average student just getting by. When I graduated high school, I had no direction. I didn’t really want to go to college, but I also knew how fortunate I was to grow up in America and as a first generation immigrant, I had to at least genuinely attempt the academic life that so many immigrants come for.
I started my career at a different institution because I didn’t know what to major in. I chose ChemE because I wanted a challenge and to see if I could meet the new, higher, expectations I had set for myself. My first year in college, I forced myself to be more outgoing, determined, and genuinely passionate in whatever I was doing. I have always believed in hands-on field experience over pure classroom learning.
While testing and other traditionally perceived hoops of success (GPA, Exams, etc) are tried and true measurements of capability, college opened my eyes to a wealth of other ways to demonstrate ability. For me, that meant working in an internship where I can succeed by learning hands-on what to do and how to do it well.
My hard work (and some amount of luck) got me my first internship at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where I worked for over six months. That taught me how to be a top-tier skilled researcher, but more importantly, revealed my passion for research. Everyone I worked with were from from top ivy league universities, with high paying grants and clearly, were traditionally successful. On the other hand – while being only one of two interns in my group – I was learning organic chemistry through a textbook on my own, and running my own experiments guided by a research and postdoc. Through NIST I learned to love research and saw its many facets. However, I also learned that I wasn’t passionate about the type of work I was doing.
Passion is important to me because, otherwise, I knew I wouldn’t be able to work to my full capability. To find my passion, I thought about my past and remembered being obsessed with Jurassic Park (like every other kid) and wanting to be a paleontologist just like Dr. Alan Grant. To determine if that was my calling, I went to Rowan University to work at a fossil quarry doing the most rugged type of geology as a field paleontology researcher. Every day I dug for fossils alongside eminent researchers, and learned what hands-on geology is really about.
When I wasn’t getting my hands dirty, I was communicating to schoolchildren about the importance of science and, more specifically geology and planetary science. Helping students be junior paleontologists by letting them dig in the quarry and finding genuine fossils for them to take home, is a memorable experience. It empowered students to pursue a STEM field in the future, but also, taught me the importance of pushing STEM careers early on in student lives. I also learned about how much I loved communicating STEM topics to the public and stimulating their interest.
I came to Rutgers University shortly after that experience, to seek more opportunities to improve myself. I began to involve myself in the NASA ENIGMA team, being trained hands-on by both Paul Falkowski and graduate student Winnie Liu. The entire team at the NASA ENIGMA helped me learn what I was passionate about: astrobiology. The ENIGMA team gave me the initial boost to work at Earth Life Science Institute (ELSI) and to apply for the NASA Early Career Collaborator Award.
When I won the award, which included the chance to work in Japan, I was validated. The award has presented me the opportunity to learn, challenge, and improve myself. The idea of moving to a new country, where I don’t speak the language, and doing high level astrobiology research is daunting to me. But the feeling of facing new problems to solve, surmounting them, and then moving forward with a new perspective, is something I love.
In my mind, I’m in Tokyo to answer complex questions, publish my results, and make our universe a little less chaotic (and also eat some ramen whenever I can!)
At ELSI, I’m facing new challenges, new techniques, and working with information I’m unfamiliar with. My work there involves developing a new type of way to classify exoplanets, through abiotic planetary signatures, an important topic in astrobiology.
There are very few research institutions that work specifically on astrobiology and ask the questions on the origin of life. ELSI is a novel institution that’s dedicated to specifically doing that. ELSI provides a unique environment to learn from other top scientists, from a multidisciplinary perspective. Being able to discuss new concepts and ideas with these people, provides the extra boost needed to further the field of astrobiology.
Through all the different experiences I’ve had, I’ve learned to have willpower, the importance of communicating science to the public, and most importantly, that I made the right choice, years ago, to push myself. Most of the opportunities I’ve had resulted from meeting new people, discussing different thoughts and questions, and myself absorbing all the wisdom they chose to impart.”
About the Astrobiology Early Career Award
The Astrobiology Early Career Collaboration Award offers research-related travel support for undergraduate, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and junior scientists. Applicants are encouraged to use these resources to circulate among two or more laboratories supported by the NASA Astrobiology Program (the NASA Astrobiology Institute, Exobiology and Evolutionary Biology, Planetary Science and Technology through Analog Research, MatiSSE, PICASSO and the Habitable Worlds Programs), however any travel that is critical for the applicant’s research will be considered.