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Geology – Understanding the Evolution and Formation of Planet Earth

Geology – Understanding the Evolution and Formation of Planet

Professor Kanchan Pande, Department of Earth Sciences.

Professor Kanchan Pande is a renowned geologist and Professor in the Department of Earth Sciences of IIT Bombay.  He has received numerous accolades in his career, the most recent being the Prof. S.C. Bhattacharya award for Excellence in Pure Sciences, bestowed by the Institute. Prof. Pande has had a brilliant, satisfying, and exciting journey as a researcher and professor.  His journey over the years is a living proof of the fact that knowledge and education, when taken up purely out of curiosity, leads to radical discoveries. This interview will take us through his journey over the years. 


What is geology?

Geology as a subject has evolved from its narrow definition "understanding the evolution and formation of the planet Earth" to "trying to understand the planet Earth in terms of other planets and how it is going to change and how humans are going to affect it." 

Geology comes under the broad umbrella of Earth Sciences. We now study earth as a planet that has oceans, land, the internal structure, atmosphere etc., all of which interact with one another.


What is the purpose of the study of geology?

Geology can be comprehended in two areas- Pure and Applied Science. Like most pure science studies, geology as a pure science thrives on man's innate curiosity - the need to know how and why ...when and how the planet Earth came into existence. When life/mountains/continents came into existence? Are they everlasting? Or how the earth systems work, or how do they derive energies? Even historically, when people started wondering how the earthquakes, landslides, volcano eruptions actually happen because they were affecting them directly, and that's how the subject took birth.

Applied geology is usually taken  up for a better understanding of the concept of “Sustainable development “.We study the physics, chemistry, biology, and history of the planet earth and try to predict its future. Traditionally, applied geology evolved basically to know the availability of minerals and fuel i.e. coal.


Your research interests include geochronology and isotope geology. Can you elaborate on those? What is the most interesting research you have done?

Geochronology is the science of deciphering the timeline of different events on the earth that have shaped it to its present form. This is done with the help of isotopes for e.g. carbon dating. 


Are there any plans for introducing geology as an undergraduate subject? Do you think it is necessary?

The Department looks forward to having a 5-year integrated program for UG students who wish to pursue the subject further. The Institute is also reviewing this programme and we hope to have this UG programme initiated.

Universities world over are trying to have Earth Sciences as an in-built part of their curriculum so that students can learn the interaction between lithosphere, atmosphere, biosphere in totality, and how humans can live without actually harming this interaction.

The Geology Department at IIT Kharagpur is as old as the Institute. The idea behind setting this department was to generate manpower for hydrocarbon exploration. Most of the new IITs have set up Earth Sciences’ Department to teach the students to appreciate the earth’s systems.


What are the career prospects for a geology graduate? How has the scenario changed over the years?

Geology was a sought-after subject in the past century as well. Institutions like IIT-BHU, AMU, Xavier’s College Bombay have Geology Departments that go back many decades. Their aim was to produce manpower for mineral exploration. The student intake in these departments was very limited. Not more than 20-25. It was considered as premium because of the large competition among the students.

Students of geology would easily find employment in the industry hence perusing higher education in this field was less prevalent in earlier days. This scenario has changed over the years and we now see more students interested in perusing Masters and PhD. The changes in the hydrocarbon industry has also influenced this change to a great extent. 


How did you end up as a geologist? What inspired you?

I was born and brought up in Nainital, Uttarakhand. School was fun.  Enjoying nature walks was a part of my childhood. Several questions kept probing me during these walks and my teachers often found it hard to answer my inquisitive questions. They encouraged me to look for answers myself. Mountains and their formation always fascinated me. My curiosity over the years drove me to pursue Geology.

For my B.Sc., I chose Maths, Physics, and Geology as subjects (a little unusual combination, but I was fascinated). My professor of Geology there, Mr. Valdiya was a very renowned geologist and addressed all my questions regarding the mountains during our traverses to the Himalayas. This got me more and more inclined towards Geology. This was followed by a Masters in geology with a further plan was to find a job. But destiny had other plans.

While waiting for the results, I got acquainted  with professors from Physical Research Laboratory, Ahmedabad (PRL) who were in Nainital to study the age of some rocks in the Himalayan terrain. My interactions with them let to my joining PRL  as a Ph.D. student. I went on to take up a job at PRL after completing my Ph.D.


How did you find your way to IIT Bombay?

The time spent in PRL as a student and as a faculty gave me a great opportunity to learn Physics and Geology together. I was enjoying laboratory work at PRL; however fieldwork always excited me and that is what brought me to IIT Bombay.  Senior faculty members at IIT Bombay pursued me to join the Institute to set up the Geochronology Lab. I would like to name a few senior faculty, Prof. D.Chandrasekaram, Prof. H. S. Pandalai and Prof. P. K. Sarawati)  My pIan was to do a short stint at IITB, however IIT Bombay gave me more than I had expected and I never returned to PRL.


What have been the most interesting research areas you have worked on? 

There have been a good number of interesting projects, the latest one is the existence of the perennial river in Rajasthan which perhaps had the Harrapan civilization. This river took origin in Himalaya and during the course of time, the river dried and the civilization vanished. There is a possibility of this being the most venerated river of Indian mythology, the Saraswati. It was not until the nineteenth century that the river would be considered real when British explorers and Ideologists proposed its prehistoric existence along the river Ghaggar, a modern seasonal stream in north-western India. Interestingly, the dry channels of this purported perennial river were discovered within the ruins of the Harappan Civilization (also called the Indus Valley Civilization), the earliest known urban settlements in the Indian subcontinent.

In the last few years, we have been working in Western Ghats, Maharashtra, MP, and some parts of Andhra Pradesh. Our work has been about the volcanic eruptions in the Deccan trap and their relation to the demise of dinosaurs (they were thought to be connected). After a lot of studies, it is established that volcanic eruptions were not responsible for dinosaur’s demise.


How has been your experience in IIT Bombay? What were some of the things that turned out to be different?

It’s a great place which is why I did not go back to PRL.  The Institute’s has a structured syllabus which involved multiple lectures which limited the practical experience to some extent. After 3-4 years of working as a professor, I have tried to bring about innovative ways learning which goes far beyond just gathering information. This has been well received and widely appreciated.  That gives me immense satisfaction. The Lab jointly set up within the department is the only recognized lab in the country today.


 What is your message for students to motivate them?

Motivation comes from within. If one is excited about research and curious about wanting to know new thing this is the right field. I would like to encourage students to think of taking up research ahead of opting for jobs within the industry.