Meet Vidya Balasubramanyam

Vidya Balasubramanyam recently joined the Coastal Management Program as their Coastal Outreach and Engagement Specialist. Vidya will be providing support for the Sand Management Working Group, as well as visiting and learning about the Illinois shoreline, meeting partners, and attending meetings to absorb information on the projects and activities taking place across the coastal watershed.

How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?

I was a toddler when I first became interested in science. Both my parents are scientists—my mom likes to tell stories about how she used to read these large sized medical textbooks to prep for her qualifying exams, and I used to copy her by picking up the same books and pretending to peruse them (but of course, my toddler hands held them upside down!). My parents used to travel frequently to scientific conferences and take me with them. I remember watching them develop their presentation slides, practice in the hotel room, and then deliver their talks at various venues. Observing them as a four-year old, my most-used phrase became “Next slide please!”

At the same time I recognize that a lot of (first generation) scientists do not have the privilege of literally being raised to be scientists. I have a lot of appreciation for them and hope to be able to mentor more first generation scientists to pay it forward.

Who or what drew you to your field of study?

My initial interest in a coastal career came from an unlikely source: a leaky water tank in my childhood home in Bangalore, India. I would spend entire afternoons sitting with a bucket, trying to capture every drop of precious drinking water that was getting wasted. At the time, I imagined myself as a plumber, conserving the limited fresh water by plugging leaky pipes. As I learned more about the environment, I realized that I could have a greater systemic impact if I worked on bigger picture environmental issues. When the 2006 tsunami struck the southeast coast of India, I was exposed to larger concepts like coastal hazards and shoreline vulnerability. I was terrified of the ocean (and still am), but I’m determined to do my part to help protect coastlines around the world.

What was your background before coming to work at ISTC?

Previously, I was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Management Fellow with Tridec Technologies detailed at the New Hampshire Coastal Program where I worked on siting and socializing nature-based shoreline stabilization approaches in coastal New Hampshire and contributed to a variety of other projects that improved resilience to coastal hazards along the New Hampshire shoreline.

Before that, I attended the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO where I received my MS in Natural Resources with an emphasis in Human Dimensions and a graduate certificate in geographic information sciences. And before that I grew up in Bangalore, India where I received my BSc. in Environmental Science, Chemistry and Botany at St. Joseph’s College.

What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at ISTC?

I’m really excited to bring my creative thinking to the coastal hazards and climate adaptation work that I’ll be doing. I enjoy the process of brainstorming, problem-solving, and planning. Coastal erosion is a tricky problem that affects people and natural resources, and hence needs creative solutions grounded in science and supported by design thinking, systems thinking, and inclusive community involvement. I’m looking forward to synthesizing best practices from multiple disciplines and helping our communities come up with adaptation solutions that are equitable and effective.

I also enjoy public speaking and look forward to doing more of it. My favorite thing to do is story-boarding- I can spend hours creating and refining my science messages and crafting a compelling story. I enjoy designing interactive, eye-catching presentations and I’m always exploring new strategies to engage my audiences.

What are common misconceptions about your field?

A lot of people think coastal management specialists spend all their time on the water. This notion is dangerous because it actively discourages people with disabilities from applying to jobs in this field. While spending a lot of time in the water could hold true for some types of coastal scientists, a lot of my time is spent planning, managing projects, communicating and meeting with stakeholders. I occasionally go out into the field and really enjoy being out there, but I try to let people know that you don’t necessarily need to be an able-bodied individual to do this work. There is room for people of differing abilities to do great work and truly shine in coastal management.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?

The coastal adaptation field is new and doesn’t yet have a tried and tested career path. Most coastal adaptation professionals pretty much make it up as they go. When I first moved to the US as an international student, I was clear about my goals but was confused about how I can make inroads into this undefined (but exciting!) field with the added complications of visas, paperwork, and so on. But I was lucky enough to have found supportive mentors along the way and although my mentors did not know a lot about being an international student, they went out of their way to find and facilitate opportunities to help me achieve my career goals and I am so grateful to them! I also struggle with imposter syndrome but I recently stumbled across this amazingly insightful article which changed my perspective on it completely.

What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?

I’m hoping people start being more open minded about what a scientist looks like. I’m often mistaken for a high school student and people have a hard time believing that I’m a scientist because media and mainstream public discourse characterizes scientists as old white men in lab coats. People also forget that a scientist doesn’t necessarily have to be someone with a PhD. Anyone who creates, uses, or translates science is a scientist! Undergraduate students who are studying science, technicians who are out in the field collecting data, science communication specialists who translate scientific information—they’re all scientists too!

Fortunately, there are incredibly cool projects out there like 1000 Women Scientists that are intended to change public perceptions of who is a scientist, what they look like, the range of different backgrounds they have, and the diverse suite of skills they use in their day-to-day work.

What advice would you give to future scientists?

To aspiring scientists in grade school: I want them to know that they don’t necessarily need to have good grades in math or physics or biology to be a scientist. What matters is having curiosity, persistence, and the ability to think creatively so that you can find answers to your questions.

For those in higher ed who are training in their respective scientific disciplines- my advice would be to think critically about power, privilege, and oppression in science and how that affects scientists and society. Each day I learn something new about how to center diversity, equity and inclusion in the way I conceptualize coastal science and implement solutions. I’m really grateful for the communities of practice that have shaped my thinking and encourage others to proactively cultivate similar networks that exposes them to people with situations, ideas, and backgrounds that are different from their own. Networks like these can go a long way in building your career and will enable you to pay it forward by helping those who don’t have as many resources to achieve their career goals.

What book did you read last (can be work-related or not)?

I recently finished reading the entire Crazy Rich Asians trilogy! I enjoyed the series immensely. It’s part-romantic comedy, part-satire with insightful and revealing societal commentary. It does two things simultaneously: challenges traditionally held stereotypes of south-east Asians, while also critiquing elitism, sexism, colorism, classism, fatphobia, and the income disparity that’s rampant in society. I learned so much about my own implicit biases while reading this book and can’t wait to do another re-read so I can unpack all of these themes some more!