Initial Impressions of the Workplace – Himalaya’s EPA

How time flies!  May has come and gone, which means I’ve been at ICIMOD for a full month already.  Many friends have asked me about the work environment and culture.  Although it’s still early to make many conclusions, I can offer some first impressions.

The ICIMOD building and campus are beautiful.  I knew this when I came out for the interview.  Attractive flower beds decorate the front garden and there’s a prominent cycle stand (i.e., bike rack) beside the main building.  Upon entering, the majestic wall hangings that decorate the main corridors and stairwells are breathtaking – panoramic photographs of beautiful Himalayan mountainscapes with native residents in the foreground engaged in their daily activities.  Even after working at ICIMOD for a month, I can’t help stopping and staring in awe at these photos.


My first day at the office had a couple surprises.  I arrived on bicycle and was directed to a handicap-accessible restroom where I could change into office clothes – no locker room with warm showers like we had at the EPA!  I went upstairs to check in with my department secretary and was greeted warmly by a number of familiar faces whom I remembered meeting during my interview a few months before.  My group leader, Arnico Panday, showed me to my office which is in a new wing on the ground floor that was still partly under construction.  The office had two bare exterior windows and a dilapidated desk.  That afternoon, a carpenter came in to take measurements of the office and we sketched out several pieces of furniture together!  After a few days, my custom-built desk was delivered and the shelving and file cabinets arrived a couple weeks later.  I used a loaner laptop for a couple days, but a brand new Dell laptop with docking station arrived the following week.  The office gradually took shape throughout the month of May.  Blinds were put on the windows, office supplies were delivered, and I even got a pedestal fan that helps me cool off after my morning commutes.

One highlight of my first month at work was the bike commute.  My 6 km ride from Heritage Apartments to ICIMOD takes between 20 and 25 minutes.  The morning ride has some gentle downhills and very little traffic, providing a lovely start to each work day.  The evening ride home takes a bit longer, due to the uphill grade and heavier traffic volume.  The busiest intersection that I pass through is Satdobato, which literally means 7 roads!  There’s no traffic light there (or anywhere in Kathmandu, as far as I”ve seen), but the intersection is usually manned with a police officer who tries his best to direct the unruly traffic while inhaling an lethal dose of air pollution.  Keeping in mind that May is National Bike-to-Work month in the U.S., I commuted by bicycle 24 times.  Last week was the first time in my life that I managed to bike commute for 5 days in a single work week, and it felt great.  Cycling the streets in Kathmandu is a lot like playing a video game.  There are numerous obstacles:  most of them are moving, some that yield, others that intimidate, but one quickly learns to predict their patterns of motion.  I’m happy to report that I’ve had no accidents and only one close call in my 288 km of commuting thus far.

A highlight at ICIMOD been the genuine optimism exhibited by our Director General, David Molden, and reinforced by the near absence of cynicism among the staff.  We’ve had one all-hands meeting and a full-day retreat for all staff at an off-site resort.  At each of these events, I have to pinch myself to believe that the research budget here is actually on the rise and that ICIMOD is hiring aggressively – a stark contrast to EPA where the budget was cut year after year and morale was plummeting.  Whereas most Americans seem to have grown complacent about environmental protection, taking their clean air and water for granted, Nepalis are acutely aware of the importance of addressing their environmental hazards.  The daily imperatives to filter tap water before drinking and to wear masks while traveling the roads are the most blatant reminders.

ICIMOD colleagues descending on the refreshments at an all-hands meeting.

ICIMOD colleagues descending on the refreshments at an all-hands meeting.

My closest colleagues at ICIMOD are Bhupesh Adhikary and Praveen Puppala.   They also work in the Atmosphere Initiative and sit in offices adjacent to mine.  Bhupesh joined ICIMOD in March.  He’s a native of Kathmandu, but did his undergraduate studies and PhD in Iowa (Greg Carmichael’s group).  He’s a whiz at running meteorology and air quality models.  He even runs daily numerical weather forecasts for Nepal (reminds me of Rob Gilliam predicting wave heights and hurricane paths).  Bhupesh is extremely talkative and very friendly.  Praveen started the same day as me, after moving from IASS in Potsdam, Germany.  Prior to that, he worked at Scripps (San Diego) and at some top-notch research institutes in India.  Praveen is our measurement expert, and has been tasked with establishing a handful of mountaintop and urban observatories for monitoring air quality in the region.  He is lanky (looks like a giant next to Bhupesh), not quite as talkative, but very amicable.  The three of us often eat lunch together and have openly expressed to each other our environmental aspirations, which are quite alike.

Colleagues enthusiastically working on a team-building activity at our retreat

Colleagues enthusiastically working on a team-building activity at our retreat

Last week on a phone call to NC, Jay Helms (a close friend from Breckenridge) asked me whether the work I’m doing at ICIMOD is similar to what I had envisioned before joining.  My split-second response came as a surprise, even to me – a decisive “No.”  Whereas I came with the intent of doing research that would help reduce air pollution in Kathmandu and the Himalayas, my work during the first month can be best characterized as “capacity building.”  Our research group spent most of May gearing up to host a 5-day training class on a cutting-edge air quality model (WRF-Chem) that will be taught to young scientists and government staff from 6 of ICIMOD’s member countries, then host a regional atmospheric sciences conference with 80 participants from across the region, and then convene the first meeting of an international advisory panel for a proposed new graduate degree program on atmospheric sciences in the Himalayas.  While pitching in wherever needed, my main task has been to organize the advisory panel meeting: inviting panelists, setting the agenda, and trying to build consensus within our team about our motives for starting a degree program.  I’m hopeful to return to modeling research and data analyses soon after these meetings are over so, in hindsight, perhaps the more accurate answer to Jay should have been “Not yet.”  More on that in my next blog post…

— Prakash

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