Delhi: An Indian student is all set to begin her PhD
course in Earth Sciences looking at climate change
in the Indus Valley at the University of Cambridge,
after being awarded a prestigious Gates Cambridge
scholarship in recognition of both her academic
achievements and social leadership.
Yama Dixit is one of 90 new scholars starting at the
University later this month. The scholarship
programme was established in 2000 by the Bill &
Melinda Gates Foundation to enable outstanding
graduate students from outside the United Kingdom to
study at the University.
They are awarded on the basis of a person's
intellectual ability, leadership capacity and desire
to use their knowledge to contribute to society.
Yama did not start studying the environment until
her second year of undergraduate studies at Delhi
University (DU) after she revisited the site of her
earliest childhood memories of taking part in the
religious ablutions in the river Ganges at Haridwar.
When she revisited it she found, to her horror, that
the ecosystem had been absolutely devastated. "In
the place of green hills and shady trees were
squalid houses and shops," she says. What began as a
desire to return things to their "natural state"
developed into an ambition when she visited Vaishno
Devi, another sacred site in the mountains.
Here too, she witnessed destruction in the form of
deforestation. She decided to switch to studying
environmental sciences at Jawaharlal Nehru
At JNU she got a lot of encouragement from one of
her lecturers, Professor V. Rajamani, who supervised
her Masters project. She credits him as being a key
reason for her winning a coveted Junior Research
Fellowship (JRF) in Earth Sciences. This in turn led
to her getting to the second round of interviews for
the prestigious Shyam Prasad Mukherjee scholarship.
Another more personal influence on her academic
career has been her parents. Her father put his
career on hold while her mother completed a PhD in
Sanskrit, despite strong social pressure for her to
discontinue her studies.
At university, Yama, aged 24, became involved in
several extra-curricular projects. At Hansraj
College, Delhi University, she lived in Kamla Nagar
where she and some friends started up some classes
for street children who were forced to work against
"We saw underprivileged kids on the road, making a
living, while we were hanging out," she says. "We
went to their parents and told them the importance
of education and we collected funds from the college
students and saved our pocket money so we could buy
books and stationery for them."
Yama says she loves to teach, particularly people
who do not get the opportunity to learn. At JNU, for
instance, she has been teaching people working in
her departmental canteen. "These people cannot even
calculate their wages and thus they were always
hoodwinked by their employers," she says.
In April, she and some friends formed a Society
called "Think for All" to encourage people to do
voluntary work to help marginalised members of
society. Within JNU she has also been active in
promoting public health and environmental issues.
As councillor of the School of Environmental
Sciences, she arranged cleaning drives, no smoking
campaigns and organised a week-long celebration for
Earth Day involving local schoolchildren in painting
and collage-making competitions on
All of this, a broader outlook made her a perfect
candidate for a Gates Cambridge scholarship, but she
only found out about the programme by surfing the
Yama, who since her early childhood has studied
Kathak dancing, was attracted to the scholarship
because of the University of Cambridge's reputation
and also because she saw it as a great opportunity
to interact with students in various fields from all
over the world.
Her PhD will focus on reconstructing a model for
climate change in the Indus Valley. Using drill
cores from a dried up lake in NW India, she will
seek to reconstruct the local palaeoclimate history
and rainfall patterns of the region occupied by the
Harappan civilisation of 2500-1600 BC.
The sediment which is unearthed will be checked for
elemental and isotopic composition and dated by
radiocarbon. Any changes in the oxygen isotopes of
shell material will be analysed to show monsoon
intensity and the ratio of lake evaporation to rain.
Yama says her study will provide the first record of
palaeoclimate data in NW India for the Holocene
She says: "Our society is increasingly interested in
the consequences of future climate and environmental
change, as well as the role humans have played in
these changes. Human civilisations throughout
history have affected the environment and perhaps
influenced climate through deforestation,
agriculture, urbanisation and industrialisation. My
research on how ancient civilisations affected their
environment and in turn how environmental and
climate change may have influenced cultural
revolution will help us to draft management plans to
avoid the same catastrophic climax for our own
civilisation as that which befell the Harappan