It’s 12 p.m. and the New Delhi airport is bustling with masses of people. The sounds of ceaseless honking and incomprehensible chatter reverberate all throughout the area with high levels of energy and excitement.
The mid-February air is heavy with the scent of food and a cool Indian breeze seems to undulate through the outside terminals.
Amongst the droves of people is a small group of Western researchers, professors and students waiting for their bus to take them to Agra, the so-called city of love and home to the Taj Mahal.
There is a genuine look of disbelief on the face of astronomy professor Shantanu Basu. The idea of a winter school in India was merely a topic in conversation only a few months ago.
As the bus arrives, the group of six Western undergraduates, 10 internationally renowned speakers and four Western graduates quickly grab their luggage and cram into the rusted yellow vehicle. Below the windows of the bus are lightly faded words that spell out “Anand Engineering College.”
The driver revs up the engine, presses on the gas and dangerously zooms into the left lane of the road, weaving and zipping past cars, rickshaws and motorcycles. The unfinished pavement and dirt roads make the ride comically bumpy as passengers nearly hit their heads off the roof whenever a pothole sinks the wheels.
“Welcome to India!” laughs 23-year-old Pranava Sharma, winter school organizing secretary and engineering student.
It would be a day after the group arrived that 21-year-old engineering and physics student Toluwa Ajibola would make an unexpected appearance. His difficulties with getting a travel visa had everyone thinking he couldn’t make it.
But despite the odds, Ajibola manages to navigate through New Delhi, eventually boarding a train and walking for hours just to get to the college.
“I was observing people, asking for train tickets, I kind of up picked up a little bit of the language with as much time as I had,” says Ajibola. “I managed to get myself a ticket, got on the train and journeyed like three hours from New Delhi to Agra. It took me through so many different parts of India that I wouldn’t have normally been able to see if I took the regular bus or car.
“I saw people just bathing outside, I saw cows on the train tracks stopping the train. I saw so many different towns and villages. I met a lot of really great people on the train. There was a man and a wife who tried to speak Hindi to me — didn’t work very well. But we established a temporary method of sign language that helped us communicate. Don’t ask how I managed that, it took a while.”
It was late into the opening ceremonies when Ajibola finally caught up with the rest of the group.
Let the games begin
On the left stage of the Anand auditorium stands a statue of Saraswati, the Hindu Goddess known to be the embodiment of knowledge.
Lined up around her are the guests of the college, waiting to be inaugurated in the traditional Indian lamp lighting ceremony. Thus begins the conference — and the adventure.
For the first couple of days, the participants of Astronomy at Taj engage in intense scientific and philosophical discourse. Navigating through topics like gravitational waves, star formations, extraterrestrial life and the discovery of Pluto.
Henry Throop, senior research scientist at the Planetary Science Institute, talks about his time working with NASA on the New Horizons mission and his first time seeing images of the distant dwarf planet.
“It was mind blowing to be involved in the mission,” says Throop with excitement. “To see these pictures come down every day as they get sharper and sharper.”
The Indian students, frantically writing in their notepads, listen with intrigue and fascination. Every chance they got, they would raise their hands and labour the professors with questions.
The conditions were ideal – interested students and engaging professors coupled with the expansive topic of astronomy. It was the exchange of knowledge in its purest form.
In between talks and presentations, domestic and international students would have long winded and deep conversations with some of the most prominent figures in astronomy. It was a breaking down of barriers. It didn’t matter who you were, if you wanted to talk to a NASA scientist, he was right there.
After the first two days of lectures it was clear that the whole thing had already been a success. But much more was awaiting the days following.
Traversing the grounds of the Taj Mahal and through the Agra streets
While everyone’s making their way to the college cafeteria for breakfast and chai, outside are a couple of buses parked by the road waiting patiently.
Ajibola, sitting at the breakfast table with seven of his fellow Western students, turns to his left and asks “what’s on the agenda today?”
“We’re seeing the Taj Mahal!” replies Chandrika Manjunath, fourth-year medical science and political science student.
Everyone’s eyes light up with excitement. They quickly finish their meals and board the waiting buses. The ride is long and arduous, and to pass the time, some of the Indian students break out into song. At one point, a student began reciting poetry in Hindi. After each line spoken a series of “oohs” and “aahs” would follow.
Fast forward two hours later and the group is standing on a hill top some 600 metres from the Taj. They gaze upon one of the seven wonders of the world aside a vista of greenery. It’s in this setting where another session begins. The group starts talking extensively on practical subjects dealing with the difficulties of applying for PhDs.
“Can you please tell us what are the crucial features [professors] look for in a candidate?” says Krishna Kumar Kowshik, 26-year-old research scholar at the M P Birla Institute of Fundamental Research in Bangalore. “I’ve been rejected from many universities and it feels almost impossible to get accepted.”
As in any other region of the world, competition is rising quick and students are beginning to feel as though they need mounds of experience in order to get any type of job in academia. For the most part, the only way to get your foot in the door is if you’re Einstein or if you’re well connected. It seems as though the difficulty of being a student is a universal norm.
As the day progresses the sights of India become increasingly more beautiful. From the meticulously carved out interior of the Taj Mahal to the humble, sublime and rustic streets of Agra.
Mark Baker, mathematical physicist, graduate student and organizer, takes full advantage of every opportunity to explore. While the rest drive back to the college, Baker stays to see the golden light of the sunset bathe over the Taj. It dawns on his mind how just a few months ago, this whole trip was only a possibility.
Before the scientific talks and the ancient monuments, it all started from a conversation in Basu’s kitchen.
How it all began
Flashback four months ago to September when a young international student by the name of Pranava Sharma began working as a research intern with Basu. As fate would have it, the two discovered that with their extended connections – both in Canada, India and several other countries – they might be able to pull off a winter school abroad.
“It was kind of weird ,you know?” says Sayantan Auddy, graduate student and member of the organizing committee. “[Sharma] was in Canada as an intern and weirdly, when they were just cooking lunch in Shantanu’s place, they suddenly came up with the idea for Astronomy at Taj.”
What began as a benign conversation quickly unfolded into a real conference with renowned academics from India, Japan, Denmark, France and the USA all participating in workshops and lectures. The puzzle pieces couldn’t have fallen together more perfectly.
Baker recalls how quickly the whole process transpired.
“It was pretty crazy. This wasn’t even in the realm of possibility until two or three months ago,” says Baker. “We literally just sent out a couple of posters to a few universities in India and all of a sudden, dozens and dozens of people began applying.”
In fact, they ended up receiving nearly 200 applications from regions all across India. “Within a couple of weeks, we had to shut down the registration because we could only accept 50 people,” says Baker.
For Sharma, this conference meant much more than lectures and workshops. It was a chance to open up Anand internationally and foster greater interest in the fields of science and astronomy.
“We need to promote research if we want to have greater scientific minds here in India. If we don’t give the young minds the zeal to learn new things and the passion to do something, then we will never develop our educational system, and India will fall into ruins,” says Sharma.
That is why it was imperative to him that the expenses were taken care of for potential applicants.
“It’s very important to provide students with this kind of opportunity because many of them rarely get to do something like this,” Sharma says. “If you’re not going to give them experience then how are they going to get it? Someone has to give them a chance.
“If I hadn’t made this conference free and if I had charged for it, then we would have gotten people with money but no grades. They would have come here just for the certificate,” continues Sharma.
There and back again
On the second last day, the participants sat together in a circle on a patch of land for a bond fire. Accompanying them was a guitarist and the crackling and popping of the flames. Sharma thanked everyone for their engagement and passion and encouraged the students to talk about their experiences throughout the week. Suddenly Kowshik put up his hand and relayed how he felt.
“It was extremely helpful,” hey says. “Far more helpful than any of the astronomy conferences I’ve attended. We’ve made a lot of meaningful connections with the speakers. In any other workshop, speakers would either be very busy or uninterested in talking to us. Here, they practically wanted to know everything about us.”
The level of engagement that some of the students experienced was characteristically uncommon as far as conferences in India go. The cultural engagement and the opportunity to meet professors from Japan, Denmark, France, USA and of course, India, was something many of the Western students didn’t expect coming into the conference.
“You can have a wide worldview and you can have a very international scope but experience it is a completely different thing,” says Ajibola. “You get to see how big the world is. Every culture has a different way of expressing different things. It’s just fascinating to take yourself out of your bubble and experience new things.”
Outside the Anand cafeteria, the graduate and undergraduate students are packing up their bags and getting ready to drive to the New Delhi airport. In many ways, this is a sad moment but also the beginning of what could be a series of more winter schools around India. With the success of Astronomy at Taj, it’s only a matter of time before Shantanu Basu and Pranava Sharma pack up their bags and organize another trip.
Before the Western students completely separate, there is a final goodbye at a hotel 20 minutes from the airport. But just before they get caught up in the sadness of leaving, 21-year-old astrophysics student Sean Pentinga says, “Wait. Won’t we all see each other at school?” A bout of laughter occurs and as one adventures ends, another will soon begin.