Whether scuba diving in Greece or collecting sediment samples in the Alps, graduate student Rishi Sugla has gone to great lengths in the pursuit of scientific research. Sugla is a fourth year PhD student in the geosciences program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, where he is studying geology and paleoecology under advisor Richard Norris.
Sugla grew up on the East Coast and received his undergraduate degree in geology and earth science at University of Maryland, College Park. We sat down with Sugla to discuss his path to science, his interdisciplinary research, and more.
explorations now: Where are you from?
Rishi Sugla: I am originally from New Jersey, a bit far from sunny San Diego. Also, my mother was born and raised in Puerto Rico and my father was born and raised in India. Both of them moved to the U.S. in their 20s—that also feels like an important part of “where I’m from” to me.
en: What inspired you to pursue a PhD in a science field?
RS: It definitely wasn’t always clear that I’d do a PhD in the natural sciences. I actually started off my undergraduate degree planning on doing aerospace engineering but realized that it wasn’t exciting for me and that I might end up being cooped up inside more than I wanted. There were a lot of other fields outside the natural sciences I enjoy learning about—history, computer science, archaeology, and philosophy all come to mind as other areas I considered along the way. In the end, I switched my degree to geology. I decided afterwards that I wanted to do research because I never felt like I thrived in classroom settings but enjoyed the research opportunities I had as an undergraduate. I also wanted to find a way to keep fostering my curiosity about the world. Doing research is a lot different than most undergraduate science coursework (which can be pretty linear in terms of how it is taught). Research, on the other hand, can be intensively creative and artistic—that really attracted me to it.
en: Why did you choose to attend Scripps?
RS: I actually went to a high school that specialized in marine science and technology. Scripps was on my radar since then because of its reputation as a research institution. I always loved that it seemed like there were a lot of faculty here with varying research interests. What it came to in the end, though, was feeling like there was a good fit with the people I was going to be working with here- namely my supervisor Dick Norris. When I met Dick I realized that we both got along well and had similar values—an affinity for interdisciplinary interests, an open mindedness for unique research ideas, communicating, finding big (and little) adventures to go on, and most importantly a mutual understanding that a lot of learning in life comes outside of academic institutions.
en: What are you researching at Scripps?
RS: I research how atmospheric oxygen levels changed over the past 541 million years on Earth, a period of time known as the Phanerozoic. Phanerozoic actually means “visible life” in Greek, and this time period represents when we can look back at the fossil record and see signs of abundant macroscopic life. Right now, oxygen makes up about 21 percent of our atmosphere by volume, but that wasn’t always the case. The percentage of oxygen probably varied throughout this time, but it’s really hard to constrain what those changes may have been. Without understanding levels of ancient oxygen, it’s really hard to understand many aspects of ocean biogeochemistry, the evolution of life, and many other processes that are really important to how our planet functions. More lately, I’ve also gotten interested in how ecosystems structure (and restructure) themselves as a result of environmental change.
I’m using a fairly interdisciplinary toolbox to do this, pulling from areas like geology, ecophysiology, and complex systems science. This has led to a pretty varied and exciting research program that has involved everything from collecting geological samples in the Alps to computational modeling.
en: How did you become interested in your field of study?
RS: Studying ancient oxygen levels is really interesting to me because of its implications and interactions with so many other parts of the Earth system. It’s really complicated and requires you to delve into biology, chemistry, geology, and ecology to varying degrees. It’s such a fundamental part of how life on Earth as we know it today came to be, but we know so little about it. That sort of mystery and the creativity needed to try and tackle the problem at hand really attracted me to it.
en: What’s life like as a Scripps student?
RS: While in San Diego, I am usually spending time doing research in my office on campus or a coffee shop. I often have some meetings scheduled during the day both to discuss research ideas or other projects too. Some days are more stressful than others, so I love rock-climbing, photography, backpacking, cooking, camping, reading, and writing for fun. Since research can be a little esoteric at times, I also engage in a variety of community-oriented projects that are socially meaningful to me. I guess I’m pretty busy!
I’ve had a lot of time outside of Scripps too. During my PhD I’ve been fortunate enough to visit Morocco, Italy, Germany, Greece, Chile, Argentina, and the Netherlands for short courses, collecting samples, conferences, research cruises, or other projects I’m involved with.
en: What’s the most exciting thing about your work?
RS: Doing fieldwork is great because you get a change of scenery, spend time out in nature, and often times interact with people you normally don’t get to on a day-to-day basis. Fieldwork is often a chance to work with in groups or teams, which doesn’t always happen regularly in the office or lab. During my PhD I’ve had the chance to be in the mountains to collect samples, scuba dive in Greece to work as part of the new marine archaeology center at Scripps/UC San Diego, and be on a research vessel for several weeks to collect sediment cores. The variety of all those are amazing, and puts you in a space to think about the world a bit differently in each case.
My favorite type of fieldwork so far is definitely being out on a research vessel. You’re actively doing interesting research but it also has the feeling of an extended camping trip. You’re a bit isolated from a lot of technology, you feel the expanse of the ocean all around, and you have this sense of camaraderie that builds all while doing science! It’s really an amazing experience.
en: Are there any role models or mentors who have helped you along the way?
RS: I’ve been really lucky to have a lot mentors and friends along the way who have been patient with me and believed in me even when I had (and still have) doubts. Of course I wouldn’t have survived without my parents and sisters who have always supported me even when I was being a pain. My grandfather Arnaldo Muñoz was also my hero. He passed away in 2014 and a lot of who I am is because of him. My undergraduate thesis advisor Saswata Hier-Majumder was more of a mentor to me even more than I think he realized. He was one of the first people to make me feel confident enough to do a PhD and really supported me. My current supervisor Dick Norris is also a mentor and role model. I’m super lucky to have found a research advisor who is not only an intensely creative and open-minded scientist, but also a really good person.
For role models, my close friends, especially the ones who are engaged in activism, are constant sources of inspiration—they are tireless even with so many other commitments and fight hard for what they believe in. I admire my “academic grandfather” scientist Stephen J. Gould for not being afraid to speak out on social issues in his prolific writing—issues related to race, gender, and inequality in the various forms and flavors it comes with. Not enough scientists today use their voice quite like he did. Another role model is the writer James Baldwin, who really transformed my way of looking at the world and inspired me to be unafraid to speak my mind.
en: What are some of the challenges you face as a student?
RS: I really like doing research and being a student, but there are definitely challenges too. Many graduate students, including myself, can feel a bit isolated at times since we’re deeply involved in our research and there’s not always time for social activity. Research can be esoteric at times, so it can be hard to feel like your research matters, especially when looking at all the problems in the world that need to be addressed. A lot of research contributes to understanding and solving problems, but it can be a bit farther removed and hard to see while you’re in it. Many students reach a point where they feel demotivated by this.
Also, dealing with racism in its various forms is a reality for students of color in graduate school. This seems to be particularly the case in STEM fields with well documented disparities for people of color. For me personally, this has come in the form of both blatant and subtle racist comments and actions that are always difficult to deal with no matter how often they reoccur. It also happens in more structural ways, such as when faculty and staff ignore the facts that many people of color face problems that other students normally don’t have to face. Ignoring this reality is what has likely led to a lack of minority researchers born in the U.S. in higher education. I’m lucky to have a supervisor who understanding about these issues, but not everyone is so lucky. With few (if any) role models to look to for support, students of color are often left in isolation or forced to build their own systems of support. A recent article in the scientific journal Nature also points out that this is a problem at many institutions focused on earth, atmospheric, and ocean sciences. This is definitely the biggest challenge I’ve faced along the way.
en: What are your future plans?
RS: I plan on continuing in research, but also have other dreams I fully intend on pursuing on the side. I want to write a book, start a podcast, and have an idea for a non-profit that I’d eventually like to get off the ground. It’s a lot of work, but I wouldn’t have it any other way!
This interview has been condensed and edited. You can find Sugla on Instagram: @rishisugla.