Vidya Balasubramanyam, a coastal hazards specialist at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC), is the recipient of the Prairie Research Institute’s 2021 Early Career Investigator Award.
Vidya's work supports the Shoreline Management Initiative with the Coastal Management Program (CMP). The project entails coordination and facilitation of land managers from each coastal community working on regulatory and permitting issues; understanding and translating relevant research; developing and shepherding demonstration projects, and broader education and outreach on the issues.
In nominating Vidya, Debra Jacobson associate director of ISTC's Technical Assistance Program writes, "As a new employee, Vidya quickly took charge of the Shoreline Management initiative, one of the most complex, ongoing projects for the CMP. She quickly understood the project goals and was readily accepted as a leader for this project among the community partners in the region. Vidya has demonstrated commendable performance in the face of a challenging situation.”
Diane Tecic director of CMP writes, "Vidya is a rarity among early-career employees in the speed with which she absorbs new topics and understands and begins new project and activities. With little supervision, she is able to take charge of projects and carried them forward with thoughtful and deliberate action."
How does it feel to win this award?
I was pleasantly surprised! I feel both humbled and honored to win this award, and I love that PRI has these systems set up to boost employee morale. It's also a good excuse to reconnect with other PRI colleagues who I haven’t been in touch with when they reached out to offer congratulations. I miss seeing people daily, and I always love an excuse to reconnect.
What’s it like doing this job in the middle of a pandemic?
I like being around people so I found remote work under-stimulating and isolating. That said, I feel conscious of my privilege in being able to work from home away from the grasps of the virus. Every day I wake up to news about the devastation caused by the pandemic to lives around the world, and I take the time to hold that grief in my heart and find ways to productively channel this collective shared grief we’re all facing at this time. It made me realize how social justice and equity are inseparable from the work we do and has motivated me to prioritize social justice and equity in all my projects.
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 freshwater 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 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, open-minded 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 do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?
I’m hoping people start 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 Ph.D. 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 expose 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.