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Opening doors – and eyes – to India

By Heather Hughes, Western News

Physics and Astronomy professor Shantanu Basu organized Astronomy at Taj, an astronomy winter school and workshop on star formation in Agra, India, during Reading Week 2016, which included about a dozen delegates from Western and 65 Indian university students, as well as participation from hundreds of high school students and the local community.

Photo by: Heather Hughes

Physics and Astronomy professor Shantanu Basu organized Astronomy at Taj, an astronomy winter school and workshop on star formation in Agra, India, during Reading Week 2016, which included about a dozen delegates from Western and 65 Indian university students, as well as participation from hundreds of high school students and the local community.

Physics and Astronomy professor Shantanu Basu feels the next generation of university graduates should be primed to answer the call for highly educated and creative thinkers to address the challenges facing the developing world.

As the former chair of Physics and Astronomy (2010-15), Basu organized a student international experience in Agra, India, called Astronomy at Taj, during Reading Week 2016. Basu, currently on leave, leaned on his connections in the area to organize a winter school in astronomy and workshop on star formation. The participants were required to purchase their flights to India, however organizers provided the rest – from food, lodging and transportation to participation in the weeklong educational and tourism events.

Six Western undergraduate students – including one from Astronomy, Physics, Anthropology, Engineering, English and Political Science – travelled with four graduate students and two faculty members, along with friends and spouses, to the city most famously known as the home of the Taj Mahal. A joint effort between Anand Engineering College in Agra and Western, the weeklong event included 10 international speakers, lectures, astronomical viewings and cultural and tourism activities. In addition to the Western delegates, about 65 Indian students participated in the school.

“Study abroad is something we, as educators, have to promote because it is a global world now. Globalization means we owe it to our students to graduate them with a sense of what is happening in the rest of the world, not just in terms of politics, but in terms of education, learning and science,” Basu said. “They are going to be competing with students in the rest of the world for jobs here in Canada. Or, it’s up to them to take advantage of the opportunities that are abroad.”

While the focus of the trip was astronomy, Basu says the experience pushed students to find connections with people with a different culture and perspective from their own.

Basu felt strongly about integrating the community of Agra into the event, which he achieved through a public discussion and a lively panel discussion, Are we alone in the universe? Hundreds of local high school students were also invited to attend lectures.

“We had many chances for people to connect, not just student-to-student from different countries, but also students connecting with leading researchers, professors from around the world,” he said. “We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just giving astronomy lectures that we could give here, but delivered in India. We made sure there was an Indian component.”

The Archaeological Survey of India granted special permission to hold an outdoor event at a location overlooking the Taj Mahal. The group held discussions about careers in astronomy, as well as used a solar telescope to view the sun and its sunspots.

India has a history of contributions to astronomy and astrophysics. The country is positioned to be on the scientific forefront with recently announced investments in the field.

India recently joined the consortium for the Thirty Meter Telescope, which when completed will be the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth, and has approved construction of the third Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO). The two U.S.-based LIGO observatories recently led the ground-breaking discovery of gravitational waves that famously confirmed Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity prediction.

“We have a lot of stereotypes here about the developing world. This might have shattered some of those stereotypes because you have a very fast-developing economy in India, even more so in China. These kids there are very smart; they want everything people here want and they are willing to work very hard for it,” said Basu, noting the student participants have expanded their global networks, which will be advantageous personally and professionally.

Mark Baker, a Physics master’s student who helped Basu organize the event, is passionate about education and educational development. The rapid expansion of colleges and universities in India offers visiting educators and researchers unique opportunities to make an impact with limited time and resources, he said.

Astronomy at Taj showed me what can happen by simply bringing people together,” Baker said. “Students from all over India, and the world, came together for a week to share this experience. It was not the scientific talks or conference lunches that made many of these students claim it was the best week of their life. What made it so special was they were able to talk with one another, share experiences and hear firsthand the different challenges in life from all around the globe.”

The weeklong event was an educational experience for all involved – from students to organizers, he added.

For Sean Pentinga, a third-year Astrophysics student, travelling to India for the first time was an incredible experience.

“I really felt like I stepped onto another planet and I honestly learned more about Indian culture that week than anything else,” he said. “I loved getting the chance to see what life is like for people in another country, one that is so different than Canada.

“This week was incredible and is something I will never forget.”