On a voyage of discovery way out in the wild Pacific Ocean Jyotika Virmani’s dreams of becoming an eminent scientist took a serious hit. In 1997 during one of the strongest El Nino events ever recorded, a storm struck the oceanic research vessel she was working on, destroying the instruments and data she needed to finish her PhD thesis.
It was gazing at the stars in Manchester as a child that had fuelled Jyotika’s passion for science, now her ambitious attempt to fathom the mysteries of the deep meant she “essentially had to go back to the drawing board.”
Born in 1970 at North Manchester Hospital, Jyotika grew up in East Didsbury where her parents, originally from India, still live in the same house she grew up in.
Growing and learning in Manchester
Due to the difficulties her parents experienced in getting established in the UK, Jyotika lived with her grandparents in India for two years before returning to the UK and starting her primary education at Broad Oak Primary School in East Didsbury, where teachers were very helpful in bringing her English skills up to speed.
Jyotika was a keen reader as a child who loved watching the popular science and technology show Tomorrow’s World, and anything science fiction related.
It was in Manchester she developed a passion for space and its many mysteries. Observing the stars and the moon on her own telescope, she was a “born traveller and star gazer”, say her parents.
At Parrs Wood High School, Jyotika passed five A levels, two in Mathematics and one in Physics. She was in the chess club, helped in the library, and co-organized an Asian programme to raise funds for the school. Active in ice skating, tennis and orienteering, she also loved to watch Bollywood movies with the family.
Rocky road from the Punjab to Manchester
The road to Manchester, that had provided Jyotika such a happy and rewarding childhood, had not been an easy one for her father Bhim and mother Yogesh.
Bhim Virmani was born in the Punjab in India, and his family was forced to flee the region during the horrors of the partition of India in 1947.
Partition displaced over 10 million people in the Indian sub-continent and saw widespread violence with an estimated one million lives lost, with the Punjab particularly hard hit due to the new border between Pakistan and India running through it.
The Virmani family of 13 adults, children, and grandparents, found safety in a Delhi refugee camp where a single large room was allotted for the whole family. They were penniless, jobless and living on donated food in slum conditions.
After a long struggle, Bhim found a clerical job at the main New Delhi Post Office and studied in the evenings. He obtained his MA in Economics from Punjab University and was awarded a scholarship to do a research degree in The Hague in the Netherlands.
Jyotika’s mother, Dr Yogesh Virmani JP, MBE was also born in the Punjab. She obtained a MSc (Chemistry) in India, married Bhim in 1968, and moved with him to Manchester in 1969.
Early days and ‘rampant’ racism in Manchester
When Jyotika was just six months old, her mother secured a PhD position at the University of Manchester to pursue her research interest in Chemistry. Since they had no car, every morning after feeding the baby, they walked two miles to the university carrying Jyotika and placing her into the university staff day nursery until 6pm and the walk home.
As both parents were working so hard, they took the difficult decision to send Jyotika to live in India with her grandparents for a couple of years. But it wasn’t just the workload they were struggling with, Bhim explains:
“Unfortunately, when we first moved to Manchester, racism was quite rampant and no-one would initially sell us a house especially, in Didsbury. We wanted to buy a house of our own as early as 1970 but people would refuse to sell. Mainly their understanding was that the value of the property would go down because of the presence of a coloured family.
“Yogesh was also not offered a lecture-ship job even after doing her PhD in the same University. She faced additional prejudice due to being a woman, in addition to being coloured with a baby.
“However, as Jyotika grew up, things were slowly changing. She didn’t experience as much prejudice as we did, and she had friends of many backgrounds and ethnicities.”
Yogesh eventually obtained her PhD in Chemistry at the University of Manchester in 1973 and continued her research for a further five years as an experimental scientist. Bhim became a Lecturer in Economics, until retirement, with an expertise in the economics of third world countries.
Onwards to London and the world
It was while obtaining a BSc in Physics from Imperial College London that she was offered a prestigious GEC-Marconi Research Centre scholarship. Upon graduation, she worked at the research centre for two years and then applied and secured a Rotary Club Ambassadorial Scholarship, with the support of The Rotary Club of Manchester. The scholarship covered one year masters degree in Atmospheric Science from Stony Brook University, New York.
Her MSc thesis investigated the viability of using an instrument on a satellite to measure atmospheric gasses, Jyotika says it was:
“A look at if this new sort of instrument would provide better ozone data to NASA if they build it and put it on a satellite. It did, and they built the instrument, which was launched in 2004 on the Aura Mission. Data on ozone was provided until 2008.”
Jyotika had always looked to the sky for inspiration, but it was at Stony Brook after taking some Marine Sciences classes, that:
“I learned that our weather and climate is controlled by both the atmosphere and the ocean.”
It was this revelation that led her to pursue a PhD in Physical Oceanography to further the study of air-sea interactions.” Her work further characterised the effects of “El Nino” – a cyclical warming of the Pacific Ocean which changes the predominant direction of the currents in the ocean and has global affects on weather.
With her Masters under her belt in 1995, and a new desire to understand the interaction between atmosphere and ocean her next step was downwards – from space through the atmosphere and to the ocean surface, and southwards from New York to Florida.
PhD lost at sea
Dr. Robert Weisberg at the University of Southern Florida recruited Jyotika in a PhD position which would deploy instruments to measure oceanic and meteorological parameters in the equatorial Pacific. Jyotika was working to a strict timetable: “Time on research vessels is booked a year or more in advance, so we were preparing to go out in 1997. The plan was to get data in, analyze it, and write up my dissertation and be completed around 2000.”
The research project started well. They sailed to the Pacific to deploy the mooring with the instruments, on the equator of the eastern coast of South America where the water is 4,500m deep. Currents on the equator can be strong so dropping the anchor for the mooring containing the measuring instruments has to be done with care. The currents were also flowing in the opposite direction to a normal year, indicating an El Nino event, which turned out to be one of the biggest ever recorded. There was a great deal of excitement as the data collected was going to capture this unusual event which would inform Jyotika’s PhD.
Deciding that they needed another data set to complete their research the group raised funds to voyage out into the Pacific once again, to obtain another set of readings.
To avoid the blazing heat of the day the research ship team started work to deploy the mooring that would float on the surface, carrying all the scientific instruments, and be attached to the seabed 4.5 km below by a cable and anchor.
A crucial point in the operation, once the mooring was in the water, was dropping the anchor and cable that would fix the device to the seabed.
It takes 45 minutes for the anchor to reach the ocean floor, but a squall came through and the ship had to back away from the area. When they returned after the storm dissipated the mooring had disappeared.
Searching all night, they failed to find it. They did receive a faint signal from acoustic sensors on the instrument package which indicated it was now in a horizontal position instead of its intended vertical orientation, suggesting it had sunk to the sea bed.
It took ten hours of dredging, before they they managed to hook the mooring, raising Jyotika’s spirits. “The best way I can describe that is it was like shooting an arrow into the dark, from 4.5 km away, and hitting bulls-eye!”
It took 36 hours to bring the mooring back up to the surface. The team’ spirits dropped when they found that all the data had been destroyed and many of the instruments damaged. Further analysis found a manufacturing miscalculation in the buoyancy of the mooring which caused it to fail. The data for Jyotika’s PhD was gone along with $250,000 worth of instruments.
Devastated at the loss and having to start from scratch, Jyotika decided to switch her studies from deep sea to coastal work. She obtained her PhD in 2005 from with her dissertation entitled: Ocean-Atmosphere Interactions on the west Florida Shelf.
A year after graduating, as the first executive director for Florida Coastal Ocean Observing System Consortium (FLCOSS), she was working with leaders of marine institutions around Florida and getting to know oceanographers from Texas to Washington DC. Gaining insights into the management of ocean sciences across diverse organisations and obtaining a $1.25M grant to put elements of an ocean observing system into place.
Jyotika had always intended to return to the UK and she obtained a position at the UK Met Office in Exeter as a Senior Scientist, moving to the UK in August 2009. Things were going well until April 2010, when a huge disaster occurred that needed Jyotika’s unique skill set to address the crisis.
The Deepwater horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico on 20 April killed 11 workers and injured 17 more, with the gushing oil from the seabed not plugged until 15 July. It is still the worlds biggest oil spill and the largest environmental disaster in American history.
Jyotika was asked to return to Florida as the associate director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography (FIO), as they needed someone who could come in and not need any time to get familiar with a new position as it was a crisis situation. She immediately began research into the impacts of the oil spill, where here experience and connections in oceanography proved invaluable. She packed up her home in the UK and moved everything to Florida in October 2010.
Florida, Los Angeles and marriage
While living in Florida she met and married Benjamin Alpi, a film maker based in Los Angeles. Moving to LA Jyotika secured a position as technical director of the Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE.
XPRIZE is a non-profit organization based in Los Angeles which runs multi-million dollar international competitions for technology developments aimed at solving some of the world’s biggest challenges.
Jyotika was then offered the position of leading the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE in 2015. This $7 million competition was to spur the development of autonomous or unmanned technologies to map the sea floor quickly and at a high resolution. Although 71% of the planet is covered by Ocean, very little of it is mapped. Jyotika explained why this XPRIZE was needed:
“When we launched the Shell Ocean Discovery XPRIZE, only about 5% of the sea floor had been mapped to a high resolution and the estimate was that it would take 200-600 years to do this with the technology of that day. As of 2020, we have about 20% mapped at a high resolution – as part of an international effort to do this. And this global effort, called Seabed 2030, is aiming to have all of it mapped by 2030 with the help of the technologies and innovations that came out of this XPRIZE.”
In late February 2020, Jyotika became the first Executive Director of the Schmidt Ocean Institute. This was established in 2009 by Eric and Wendy Schmidt to further oceanographic research through technology. Recognizing that the most expensive part of going to sea was a research vessel, they provided the vessel, the R/V Falkor, at no cost to scientists from around to world and in exchange they make their data, findings and research publicly available as quickly as possible.
The Falkor carries the very sophisticated SuBastian which is a remotely operated vehicle that can go down to 4500m depth, equipped with 4k cameras and a plethora of sampling capabilities.
“We also have an advanced communication system on board that allows us to conduct telepresence cruises, which has really helped us to continue operations this year with some scientists tuning in remotely from their living rooms as we broadcast live”
Jyotika says that due to the pandemic, there have been some challenges, “but we were lucky enough to continue operations throughout this year partly because we were already at sea on a series of expeditions around Australia when the pandemic really started to take hold in mid-March, and partly because of our incredible crew, staff, and the technology we have on board.”
In spite of Covid, there have been some exciting discoveries.
Off the Ningaloo Canyons off Western Australia in April 2020, a video captured what is believed to be the longest creature in the ocean at 150-feet in length. “What is really striking about this is that it highlights how vast and unexplored the ocean is, that the fact that a creature of this size was seen for the first time only a few months ago shows us how massive and strange this planet actually is”.
In October 2020, they found a 500m tall new detached coral reef on the northern edge of the Great Barrier Reef ledge. The first new reef discovered in 120 years, is taller than the Shard in London.
In spite of being so busy, Jyotika has still finds time to update her tropical storms blog and produce her husband’s latest short Sci-Fi film called Hashtag, which has won six awards. Released for public viewing at the end of May 2020, it has been seen by more than one million people around the world. Jyotika although established in the US, has dreams of returning to the UK:
“I’ve lived in many places and had many adventures, but I always return to the UK and we hope to live there one day. Even here in Los Angeles, our annual calendar is always from Devon.”
Watch out for a Q&A with Jyotiki Virmani , to be published next week, where she answers questions on her scientific career and her hopes for the future of science and the planet.
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Feature image and in article images (unless attributed otherwise): Jyotika Virmani