Student trades sunny India for the icy Arctic in her quest for research



Freezing weather conditions, the risk of polar bears and intense days of field work have become the norm for an Indian postgraduate student at the University of Sheffield, who has swapped the hot and sunny climes of India to realise her dream of carrying out groundbreaking research in the Arctic.

Sonal Choudhary, aged 26, has gone from the small town of Dhanbad in eastern India to the Tundra region in Svalbard, Norway in a bid to study the impact of acute nitrogen pollution on tundra vegetation. Her achievement has led her to become the only Indian woman researcher staying at the British research station of Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) in Ny-Alesund on the Svalbard archipelago.

With a population that can be as few as 35 people, Ny-Alesund is one of the world\’s northernmost settlements and is where Sonal kicks off her daily routine at 8am. Armed with a rifle and survival kit, Sonal braves freezing temperatures in summer to travel the 45 minute journey to her research area.

Sonal graduated from Delhi University with a degree in botany and was the top rated student while pursuing her postgraduate degree in environment biology. Following a masters at the University of Hull, Sonal gained her position as a Marie Curie Fellow at the University of Sheffield allowing her to pursue her doctorate degree. The fellowship brought her to Svalbard, remote islands between Norway and the North Pole, the home of snow-capped mountains, icebergs, polar bears and beluga whales.

The research is estimated to take Sonal three years of which she has already completed two. Her work investigates the impacts of extreme pollution events on pristine tundra, caused by dirty rain clouds originating from industrialized regions of Europe. Over two months in the summer, Sonal investigates the impacts of pollution on plant growth and biodiversity, and takes plant, soil and soil water samples to determine how much pollution is retained in the ecosystem and how much is released into stream water. Sonal´s work aims to show how damaging these pollution events are to arctic tundra plants and whether the tundra plays an important role in mopping up the pollution, stopping it being released to streams and rivers.

Sonal hopes the research opportunities she has gained at the University of Sheffield will allow her to apply her skills to contribute to the improvement of Indian environmental research.

Sonal Choudhary, said: \”This research is one of the first of its kind to be done in the Arctic. Arctic ecosystems are considered pristine but are now threatened by pollution from acute, extreme atmospheric deposition events. Working in the tundra in extreme weather conditions is extremely challenging as well as a very enjoyable experience. I thoroughly enjoy my stay in the Arctic as it makes me realise the uniqueness of the environment and the importance of the research work there.

\”The University of Sheffield has contributed immensely in grooming me into a researcher. I am very lucky to have access to modern equipment and facilities in the University laboratories that I use for my work. The teachers are always supportive and ready to lend a helping hand to bring the best out of me. Apart from academics, the University organises regular seminars and symposiums that offer vast windows of exposure and contribute to the overall development of students. That simply makes the University of Sheffield a dream destination for prospective international students.\”

Sonal´s tutor, Dr Gareth Phoenix, from the University of Sheffield´s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, who travels out to site with Sonal said: \”The University of Sheffield has an international reputation for its biological and environmental research, and its wonderful when we can work with and train some of the brightest young scientists from around the world who come here to study for their PhDs. Sonal has found herself at the cutting edge of an exciting new field, and this combined with her intellect and enthusiasm will set her up well for a shinning career when she returns to India.\”