Personal Journey with Niraj Lal
Updated: May 14, 2021
Dr. Niraj Lal, a science presenter, energy researcher, and children's author, shares his exciting journey.
Dr. Niraj Lal at the TEDxSydney Sustainability Salon (Photo: TEDxSydney).
It is a privilege to be asked to describe my post-Gates career trajectory for the 20th Anniversary The Scholar magazine. The only question was from what perspective? Should it be the usual trope we all trot out for every job, grant, or award application outlining the individual accumulated morsels of recognition that we try to make sound as grandiose as possible? Or could it be something more honest? I’ll do a bit of both, but I will try to align it more with the Gates ‘commitment to improving the lives of others’ to make this article a little less bland to read.
After holding that pinkie finger in Senate House in 2012, I took my newly minted physics PhD for a busking, WWOOFing bike tour across the French countryside for three months with my girlfriend at the time, before landing at a research gig at the Australian National University, where they, excitedly, had accepted my request to work 9 days a fortnight. Having the first-world privileged perspective of the modern capitalist ratchet being an engine to instil the insatiable desire to be money/status rich at the expense of being time poor, this reduced work-time is, for me, a cherished measure of success. It has been a slippery slope – I now work a four-day week, with 8 weeks of leave; I’ll feel like I’ve truly made it when I can work three days a week with 3 months of leave a year to allow me to feel properly human, spend quality time with my kids, partner and community, and pursue the creative and political projects that really improve the lives of others—instead of the techno-bandaid solutions that I’ve often found myself engaged with.
“For me, perhaps the most potent area for future lasting change is to help spark the fires of critical and creative thinking in our young ones.”
My PhD was on solar cell nanophotonics, and I have continued my work in renewable energy and sustainability across the sector, but somewhere in the back of my mind is Jevon’s paradox, which highlights that greater efficiencies often lead to greater consumption. That is, as I strive to make renewable energy cheaper, whilst it may have a positive climate impact, it will likely also mean that we all buy more cheap stuff to eventually chuck into landfill. How much of scientific research is industrial capitalism posing as social worthiness? And to what end? Perhaps there needs to be a greater research focus on the topics of ecological symbiosis, time-management, and true well-being—so beautifully covered in the final three chapters of Yuval Noah Harari’s review of human history Sapiens.
Dr. Niraj Lal recording kids science songs for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (Photo: ABC).
In 2017, I made the jump into energy policy and also got my first television gig – working with Todd Sampson to explore how physics could keep him alive in precarious situations. Public science communication is a line of work I have been lucky enough to continue, with a number of TV series and radio engagements, and most recently as a host of an early childhood podcast ‘Imagine This’ with the national broadcaster.
To achieve lasting improvements to global wellness, technology certainly has a place, as does sound, evidence-based policy based on access to true information, but each must be accompanied by political change. With the growing prevalence of our ever-more comfortable echo chambers of self-selected media, reaching adults of differing opinions is becoming exponentially harder, let alone changing those opinions.
For me, perhaps the most potent area for future lasting change is to help spark the fires of critical and creative thinking in our young ones (before they start self-selecting their information) to help them engage with evidence-based reasoning, figure out what is truly important, and then see it become a reality. My science communication work in TV and radio is to this aim – as is my recent kids book about gravity, ‘Henry the Flying Emu’, that Sir Richard Friend, Cavendish Professor of Physics, was kind enough to describe as: “Isaac Newton’s story of the apple falling on his head re-written - great for all ages!”
My commitment to ‘improving the lives of others’ that enabled me to win a Gates Cambridge Scholarship in 2009 hasn’t wavered, but the avenues through which I aim to achieve it has. Work in progress.
Dr. Niraj Lal [2008, Clare Hall] is a Visiting Fellow at the Australian National University, Principal at the Australian Energy Market Operator, Presenter with the Australian Broadcast Corporation, and host of the ABC Imagine This Kids Podcast. His recent children’s book about gravity, Henry the Flying Emu, was published in 2020 by Little Steps. He lives in Melbourne with his partner and two kids. He graduated with a PhD in Physics as a Gates Scholar in 2012. More information can be found at nirajlal.org.