From Pune in India to Playa Ancha passionate about the evolution of galaxies

Kshitija Kelkar es the new postdoctoral researcher at IFA, who started working -remotely- in April with Prof.  Yara Jaffé and her group, funded by a FONDECYT Postdoctoral grant.

Kshitija studied physics at the University of Pune (India) and obtained a PhD in Astronomy at the University of Nottingham (UK). She is currently in Pune, her home town without the possibility to travel to Valparaíso due to the current Covid-19 pandemic, While Kshitija waits for the pandemic crisis to be over, she continues to work on her project at home, which focuses on understanding the evolution of galaxies in extreme environments such as merging galaxy clusters.

As a kid, Kshitija wanted to be an astronomer, fascinated by the nighttime skies in Pune. Today she is dedicated to understanding how galaxies formed and evolve. We chat with her about her research and how she is handling these peculiar times.

As a child, did you always wanted to be an astronomer?

Yes ! As a child I always wanted to be an astronomer 🙂 Ever since I remember, I was always fascinated with the night sky. Now looking back – all my academic decisions since childhood were always towards ‘doing Astronomy’. It was curiosity about stars in early days, then reading to know more about astronomy followed by doing amateur astronomy, and ultimately deciding to major in Physics to be an Astrophysicist. And I feel lucky to have had a family family who put faith in my childhood dream and my hometown Pune which made Astronomy reachable to general public – which is not surprising as it hosts two premier Astronomy institutions.  

Tell us, why did you choose your line of research? 

So work with galaxies in their varied environments began with my PhD in Nottingham. Over past few decades, several deep and sensitive large scale surveys focusing several aspects of galaxies have enabled us to fairly understand how galaxies change in dense environments like clusters. Moreover, due to hierarchical nature of the observable universe where smaller structures coalesce to form larger ones, these dense environments have evolved over time through subsequent mergers  of galaxy clusters. However, little is known of such changing galaxy environments and more so their effect on the galaxies within as only a handful of such systems have been discovered. But with the advent new low- frequency interferometers like SKA and LOFAR, this is now an opportune time to detect such galaxy clusters reaching sensitivity limits which were unattainable till now. This is why I decided to investigate galaxies in merging systems through multi-wavelength analysis as part of FONDECYT Fellowship !  

How are you going through this isolation time in your city?

Like everyone worldwide, this isolation time is tough. One day we are working on our research and the next we are suddenly faced with working from home with limited access to data and tools which we normally need. Moreover, our daily necessities are suddenly rationed which is a difficult situation to be in. However, I do feel that I somewhere I have found peace and enjoying doing what I do  best – Astronomy and cooking !- in the comfort of my home. I feel that getting a break from the practicalities of being in a big city, I am getting more time to do my work without any time constraints and strangely catching up with happenings in other spheres of my interests – like music and art – in a meaningful way.     

Have you suffered discrimination for being a woman scientist?

Honestly, I would be lying if I say no- even if I haven’t yet suffered a direct discrimination of being a woman scientist. I feel discriminated through government laws, lack of funding opportunities, and gender representation

across your own workplace etc. However, I experienced an awareness regarding these issues during my time as a Phd. student in the UK, which I feel was empowering. As an early-career astronomer, I now feel that I can constructively contribute towards raising voice against such gender based discrimination in academia and would continue to do so.  

How do you picture your life in Valparaíso?

For a person from the ‘northern hemisphere’ , life in Valparaiso is going to be vibrant- with the sea, southern night sky and colourful culture of the city 🙂 – not to mention a chance to  sample finest South American wines and coffee !   

Could you tell us about your hobbies?

If it was not evident, my hobbies are cooking, travelling, photography and dance :). I take my love for food on travels where I like to experience/explore every new place through culinary delights they offer, and capture the culture and history through my lens. Dance has been a dear hobby since childhood and I feel quite privileged to pursue a particular Indian classical dance form called `Odissi’- which is also one of the ancient dance forms in India and probably in the world !