Studying the Climate

Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellow Tamanna Subba explores the links between aerosols, air pollution and climate change, to build a better understanding of the Indian summer monsoon.

By Jason Chiang

January 2020

Studying the Climate
Tamanna Subba operates the multiwavelength radiometer at Dibrugarh University. Photograph courtesy Tamanna Subba


Tamanna Subba is a doctoral scholar in atmospheric science at Dibrugarh University, Assam. She was one of the three scholars selected out of 22 applicants for the Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship in 2017-18. Her work during the fellowship at Pennsylvania State University focused on aerosols, air pollution and climate change, with a goal to build a better understanding of the Indian summer monsoon.

Excerpts from an interview with Subba about her research during the Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship and how this experience is helping to advance her work in the field of atmospheric science.

Could you share a bit about your background, and how you became interested in atmospheric science?

I was aware about the concepts of global warming and climate change since my childhood. When I used to notice forests burning on the way to Darjeeling from Kalimpong, my hometown, I used to wonder how much heat and ashes that produced, besides causing the loss of trees.

As a student of physics, I was also curious about the initiatives taken by the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) to study air pollution and air quality. I joined as a Junior Research Fellow for the Aerosol Radiative Forcing over India (ARFI) project, under the ISRO Geosphere Biosphere Programme in November 2013, and never looked back.

My research interests include the use of ground and satellite measurements, in addition to model simulations, to learn about aerosols, clouds and precipitation, and then applying them to regional and global air quality research.

Why is it important to study topics like aerosols and air pollution to understand the Indian summer monsoon?

It is very important to realize that humankind has a major influence on the atmosphere. Extensive study of atmospheric parameters in all fields—ground, model and satellite-based—is absolutely vital for a better understanding of the present atmospheric scenario.

Well-characterizing air pollution in South Asia, and especially aerosols, is important, as aerosols may significantly affect the seasonal evolution and long-term variability of the Indian or Asian summer monsoon.

What were some of the biggest takeaways from your work at Pennsylvania State University, as part of the Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship?

Beyond academic and professional involvement, the Fulbright-Kalam Climate Fellowship is also meant for building understanding between the citizens of the United States and India. This program intends to develop strong international strategies for fighting against climate change.

My experience as a Fulbright scholar has been an extremely enriching one. During those nine months in the United States, I got to work with and learn from some of the world’s leading experts on climate science, and also attended some of the biggest conferences in this field. One memorable experience during this period was when I got the opportunity to visit NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and present my work before [senior research scientist] Ralph Kahn’s research group. I can still recall my heart pounding so fast! It was really one of my dreams come true.

Since you began working in the field of atmospheric science, what are some of the biggest changes that you’ve noticed?

It’s been around six years that I have been involved in research. In the past few years, I have noticed several changes in the field. For example, the use of climate models has become more common to understand the atmospheric processes and their contribution to the climate and climate change. The number of ground observation stations has increased. Also, the subject of atmospheric science has itself become more diverse, where new studies have been started, involving the biosphere, hydrosphere and land-atmosphere interaction.

Apart from this, the instruments involved in aerosol and trace gas measurements have been upgraded. This has allowed researchers to get valuable and reliable data sets for scientific studies, even over complex terrain and oceans where the observations are inadequate or, rather, absent due to inaccessibility.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to get involved in the field of atmospheric science?

In order to get closer to the truth, the aerosol-climate interaction studies require robust data sets, adequate measurements and complex modeling. However, the bright side is that the world has a lot to offer.

The most important thing is to find people who inspire us. Look for the opportunity to work in an active research group, where we can continue to develop the knowledge that we need in order to understand the fundamentals of the problems related to climate change, to identify the most promising ideas and to efficiently pursue research on them. Most importantly, always be grateful to all the helping hands and support we get in this journey.

Jason Chiang is a freelance writer based in Silver Lake, Los Angeles.


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