Published: March 18, 2021

Vishal Ray is an F-1 international student who recently participated in CU Boulder’s 3 Minute Thesis (3MT) competition. Vishal won the People’s Choice Award and received $500 in research funds. Watch the recording of the competition and see Vishal shine! ISSS had the opportunity to speak to Vishal about his participation in the competition, his research, and his future goals at CU Boulder and beyond.

Vishal’s 3MT is about how what we as humans send into space could potentially collide (like in the movie Gravity) and create “space junk” as Vishal calls it. This is dangerous and problematic. Vishal wants to work to solve humanity’s trash problem in space by creating a better model of the atmosphere so that we can improve satellite placement in space.

Is your 3 minute thesis topic similar to the topic for your dissertation? 
Yes, the 3MT topic is similar to the topic of my dissertation. I definitely focused more on the space junk part for 3MT to make it interesting for people, but it is more of an application of my dissertation research. I focus on modeling the force of atmospheric drag on satellites and how we can better quantify it using tracking data from satellites. That can definitely help with the space junk problem since we will be able to better predict the positions of our satellites in space but I’m not really focusing on space debris for my dissertation. Another aspect of my research is that by improving atmospheric drag models, we can get insights into the Earth’s upper atmosphere which allows us to better understand its long-term evolution.

How did you come up with this topic?  
I had interned at the University College London (UCL) during my undergraduate years. My advisor, Dr. Anasuya Aruliah, was at the Atmospheric Physics Lab there and she wanted an Astrodynamicist to take a look at the discrepancy between the satellite derived atmospheric parameters and the data from UCL’s ground-based instruments. That internship experience turned out to be the gateway to the next step of my academic career. My advisor at CU, Dr. Daniel Scheeres was interested in exploring the problem and he proposed a topic leveraging some of the work that he and his earlier students had done, and I was hooked! It is a complex problem that lies at the intersection of Astrodynamics, atmospheric science and space weather and many groups around the world are trying to solve it through different methods. In fact, we have quite a fantastic group of researchers at CU- SWx-TREC, LASP and CCAR who are working on this and I’ve had the pleasure of collaborating with.

What would you like other international students to know about your experience participating in the 3 minute thesis competition? 
I would strongly encourage everyone to participate in 3MT. It really is an enriching experience to go through the whole process of coming up with a story that connects your research to the bigger picture which would be exciting as well as informative to the general audience. You start seeing your research in a new way and it reminds you the importance of what you are doing that one tends to forget in the day-to-day research struggles! I really hope more international students participate in 3MT, it doesn’t matter whether English is your native language or not. We had quite a few superb international student finalists at the competition! I was definitely hesitant at first, I was worried that people would have a difficult time understanding my accent. I have to repeat myself so often when I’m talking to people that it’s become a part of my daily conversation. It’s understandable but it kind of takes a toll on your confidence in a social setting. But some people went above and beyond to help me with very specific feedback on my enunciation and the script in general like Alex Rose and Kathryn Penzkover from CU Science Discovery and Sarah Tynen who formerly managed 3MT. And in the end, I had a really fun time with my 3MT cohort, and it seems people actually enjoyed my talk!

What has been your favorite thing about studying at CU Boulder (academic or non-academic)?
My absolute favorite thing I would say is that CU is in the pretty town of Boulder! Where else can you just walk into the mountains whenever you want! I have had a great time being part of the Aerospace department here which I feel is really one of the best in the world with such fantastic professors and so much intersectionality and diversity in the research! I really hit the jackpot with my advisor who is always there to help and encourage us along our research and he has helped me get so many opportunities throughout the years I have been here. A PhD can be hard, but a great advisor can make the journey so much more enjoyable. It never gets boring here, there’s always something or the other happening whether it’s an international festival, an art and crafts event night or a Zimbabwean acapella concert! I have really had the time to develop a lot of hobbies after coming to CU which has given me a lot of joy during the pandemic as well. And I love that CU is a really inclusive campus and has different groups working towards the goal of making it more diverse and inclusive. Being part of the LGBTQ community and coming from a society that is squeamish about any of those letters, that was one of the major reasons that made me choose CU over other campuses.

What is next for you in your academic journey?
I hope, more like wish, to get a post-doctoral position in one of the NASA centers or a job in an Aerospace start-up in Boulder, whatever opportunity lands up in my hands!

What is your dream job or dream position?
My dream job is to be a part of (maybe one day leading!) a planetary mission at NASA. Yes, being an international student introduces a lot of obstacles along the way but opportunities open up if you keep working towards your goal! I never would have imagined being funded by NASA for my PhD (mainly because international students were not sponsored by NASA just until two years back) but here I am!