We had the good fortune of connecting with Vijay Harid and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Vijay, can you share the most important lesson you’ve learned over the course of your career?
If I had to pick, I’d say one of the most important lessons I’ve learned over the course of my career is to always approach problems logically and analytically but without neglecting the intuitive “human” aspect. Although this is especially true in the natural sciences, it does indeed extend to most other disciplines. In the early days of my career I often approached problems from a highly mathematical perspective. Since my field is in the physical sciences, this approach does serve well most of the time. However, only looking at problems in a “formal” manner can frequently lead to tunnel vision. This became very apparent to me during the second year of my doctoral studies where I was stuck on a physics problem I was researching. I spent over 3 months trying to solve a particular equation and kept getting an answer that disagreed with well-established physics theory. When I discussed this with my colleague, he gave me the advice “don’t forget to keep the physics in mind”. What he meant by this was to visualize and abstract the problem via an intuitive perspective while keeping the mathematical basics in the background. This piece of advice made me completely rethink my approach to debugging the problem I was solving and I was able to quickly find my error. Although this may seem like a small lesson, it has immensely shaped how I solve problems both in and out of the workspace.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
I am currently an assistant professor of electrical engineering at the University of Colorado Denver. Most of teaching load is in the electromagnetics and RF area, however, my professorial duties are much more biased towards active research. My areas of research are quite broad, however, my “bread and butter” research is in near-Earth space physics. Specifically, I study the physics of the Earth’s natural electrical environment extending from the surface of the Earth to about 30,000 miles above the Earth’s surface (this includes lightning, the ionosphere, the magnetosphere and the radiation belts). One of the unique sub-areas that I specialize in are the Earth’s radiation belts. Most people have never even heard of the radiation belts and neither had I until I started working on analyzing data from this environment 11 years ago. The radiation belts consist of a blanket of electrically charged particles that surround the Earth in space and are trapped in orbit by the Earth’s magnetic field. These particles are so fast that they swing from the north to the south pole in a few seconds. One of the most fascinating things about the radiation belts that I study are “kinetic plasma instabilities”. This is fancy science speak for radio wave explosions that can happen spontaneously from the radiation belts. These explosions play a major role on space weather and can have important and sometimes dangerous consequences on satellites and astronauts. In fact, the result of these instabilities can be so dire that one of the by-products have actually been dubbed “killer electrons”. Much of my work is focused on developing mathematical models and computer programs that can predict how, when, and why these instabilities happen. My path to this research area can be traced back to when I started my PhD at Stanford University in 2009. Back then, although I knew I was generally interested in space physics, I was still exploring my specific area(s) of research. During my first year of the program, I was made aware of a historic experiment known as the “Siple Station Wave-Injection Experiment”. This 15 year experiment consisted of a giant (25 miles!) antenna that was setup at Siple Station in Antarctica during the 1970s. This famous experiment used the antenna to shoot radio waves into the radiation belts and waited for them to be received in the other hemisphere, in Canada. The results seemed to defy physics…the radio waves came back a thousand times stronger! Somehow, the radio waves tapped into the stored “unstable” energy in the radiation belts and brought it back to the Earth. The research group at Stanford had originally run this experiment in the 1970s and still had all the data that was largely unexplored. At this point, I was hooked on the complexity of the radiation belts and I’ve continued in this area ever since. I can honestly say the process of understanding radiation belt physics has been far from easy….but it has also been incredibly rewarding. Going through this process has taught me about the “real” method of scientific inquiry. It is never as simple as the elementary school description of hypothesis to experiment to theory…it is much more of a haphazard art. It requires a constant back and forth between guessing, testing, experiments, and theory until a path is ultimately cleared and paved.
If you had a friend visiting you, what are some of the local spots you’d want to take them around to?
If friends visit, I really prefer to just hang out and spend time together in conversation and laughter. I don’t typically follow a set itinerary for visitors and much prefer to play it by ear (don’t tell my wife). That being said, I am definitely a foodie and any friends that visit will experience Denver through that lens. Some of my current favorite places (definitely not an exhaustive list!) are below: Chook Chicken Pho Haus Denver Biscuit Company Bon Ami La Loteria The Inventing Room Dessert Shop …and some home cooking as well, I love to cook!
Shoutout is all about shouting out others who you feel deserve additional recognition and exposure. Who would you like to shoutout?
There are of course many individuals who have played an important role in various aspects of my life. On the personal front, I wouldn’t have made this far without the moral support and encouragement of my parents (Sudha & Shankar Harid) and my wife (Erica Caasi). On the professional side, my mentors (now colleagues) and peers from my doctoral program at Stanford University have very heavily shaped my career as a practicing scientist. I would specifically like to shoutout to Dr. Tim Bell, Dr. Mark Golkowski, Dr. Umran Inan, Dr. Morris Cohen, Dr. Maria Spasojevic, and the late Dr. Don Carpenter.
Taylor Fraser Fatima Nanavati Wedding documentary Enrico Caasi