Feature Stories 2023: Siddhant Kerhalkar '24: Chasing monsoons

SMAST PhD student Siddhant Kerhalkar standing in front of the ocean
Feature Stories 2023: Siddhant Kerhalkar '24: Chasing monsoons
Siddhant Kerhalkar '24: Chasing monsoons

SMAST PhD student conducts research at sea to understand the driving forces behind powerful weather systems

Just days before the scheduled departure of his research expedition off the coast of Goa, India, a Category 3 hurricane was brewing in the Arabian Sea. But PhD student Siddhant "Sid" Kerhalkar is no stranger to stormy weather. Kerhalkar grew up near the ocean on the east coast of India, where hurricanes and monsoons have a profound impact on daily life for millions of people. He came to UMass Dartmouth's School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) to study the relationship between the ocean and these storms and to help improve our ability to predict them.  In June, Kerhalkar and Professor Amit Tandon joined researchers from the U.S. and India on a research trip to the Arabian Sea to study the ocean-atmosphere connection. During the trip, Kerhalkar used his action camera to document life on board the ship and capture scenes from beneath the ocean's surface.  

Upon his return to dry land, Kerhalkar reflected on the opportunities and surprises that have come with his UMassD experience.  

Give us some background on your journey to UMassD 

"I studied mechanical engineering at the Indian Institute of Technology Bhubaneswar. I was interested in fluid dynamics, but I also wanted to do something with a societal impact, and I was drawn to oceanography and atmospheric sciences.  

"Living near the ocean meant that I grew up watching the waves and was fascinated by the sea. Growing up near the ocean also meant my home was prone to monsoons and hurricanes. I've experienced a Category 4 hurricane twice in my life. It was scary, but it also made me curious. I wanted to explore how I could use my engineering skills to better understand and predict these weather events." 

What made you choose UMass Dartmouth?  

"While I was an undergraduate in India, SMAST professor Avijit Gangopadhyay guest lectured at my school. We stayed in touch, and he referred me to  UMassD. I learned that UMassD is home to good facilities and resources, and I knew I could do impactful research here. I am in the Intercampus Marine Science (IMS) program, which allows me to enroll in courses at the other UMass campuses and have access to resources and faculty across the UMass system."  

sun setting over the Arabian Sea
Photo courtesy of Siddhant Kerhalkar '24

Tell us about your research – what drew you to this topic? 

"My research is focused on understanding small-scale ocean processes in the upper ocean and the coupling of the ocean and the atmosphere. By better understanding the ocean, we can improve our abilities to predict weather events like monsoons.  

"Each year in India, the hot summer gives way to a severe rainy season referred to as a monsoon. Monsoons vary from season to season, and within each season as well, and thus they are not well-predicted by current weather models. The ability to better predict how these storms behave would have far-reaching implications for people all over the world." 

Why is this research important? 

"Weather worldwide is interrelated, so errors in weather models in India can impact weather predictions here in the U.S., for example. Also, 20-25% of the global population lives in the Indian subcontinent.  Agriculture accounts for 18% of the Indian GDP and 70% of rural households depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. So, forecasting errors can create a huge economic burden and a domino effect worldwide. Not to mention the potential for loss of life each year. To predict monsoons better, we need to better understand how the ocean and the atmosphere interact."  

Tell us about your recent trip to the Arabian Sea  

"We spent 20 days aboard the research vessel Roger Revelle, along with 24 scientists from the U.S. and India. The U.S. scientists in this collaboration are primarily supported by the Office of Naval Research, and additionally by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and by NASA. The Indian scientists are supported by their Ministry of Earth Sciences.  

"As we were about to embark, Cyclone Biparjoy was headed straight for our path. Luckily, it was downgraded to a Category 2 storm, and didn't prevent us from continuing on. But we did experience 3-4 days of stormy weather and rough seas.

"This was my third research experience at sea with my advisor, Professor Amit Tandon. On previous research trips, we worked in the Bay of Bengal; now, we're looking at the Arabian Sea, on the opposite side of the Indian subcontinent. We took measurements in the ocean and the atmosphere to help us understand the exchange that happens between them, and to what extent the ocean drives monsoons.  

"While I was abroad, I gave a talk at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology in Pune. It was very satisfying for me to return and present my work in my hometown."


Scenes from the sea 

"I also have an action camera that I use to take time-lapse videos and photographs when I'm out in the field. It's useful for scientific communication, but it's also just beautiful.  It gives me a break from science and gives me a chance to appreciate seeing what's around us. I've seen dolphins, whales, and sharks during our research trips."    

As one of the graduate students tasked with planning the 2021 UMass Intercampus Marine Science Symposium, Kerhalkar introduced the marine science photo contest to the annual event. 

What is it like working with your faculty advisor? 

"I feel very lucky to have Professor Tandon as my advisor.  He brings out the best in his students and brings a personally tailored approach to mentoring each of his advisees. I'm grateful to have his valuable feedback on my work. He even helped me deal with seasickness during our research trips. Professor Tandon also has a dense network, which has been a great resource for me; if he can't answer a question, he knows someone who can." 

Siddhant Kerhalkar and Amit Tandon
Professor Amit Tandon and Siddhant Kerhalkar '24

What has been your favorite aspect of your UMassD/SMAST experience? 

"I have a few answers to this question!" 


"My favorite thing about this experience is the friendships I've made.  I came here, more than 7,000 miles from home, expecting nothing more than to get a good education. I found much more.  I am very thankful for the friends and connections I've made here in my cohort at SMAST and also in the local community. We go to trivia nights in New Bedford, we have a recreational soccer league and play in local tournaments, and we go to see our Major League Soccer team, the New England Revolution."  

SMAST students at Cisco
SMAST students at Cisco Brewers, New Bedford


"I'm also grateful for the level of support, financial and otherwise, that is provided for students here. I was lucky to find such a good fit.  

"I received funding for my education through the Distinguished Doctoral Fellowship which is supported by UMass Dartmouth with additional support from the Office of Naval Research. I've been able to get consistent travel and research funding thanks to the provost's office, dean's office, and Office of Graduate Studies. I've been given the ability to venture out, do research, present at conferences in San Diego, Portland, and Vienna, and connect with people from all over the U.S. and the world. 

"Other kinds of support came from my fellow students at UMassD. I was a member of the Indian Students Association and the SMAST Graduate Student Association, which helped a lot with my transition as a new graduate student.  When you first arrive in a new country, the culture shock can be overwhelming. The International Students and Scholars Center is helpful with the academic side of things, but your fellow students can help ease the adjustment to basic aspects of daily life: where to get groceries, or how to get your driver's license, for example. Receiving that strong social support made me want to do the same for other students who are new to the U.S. and to UMassD." 


"UMassD has a very interesting pool of talented students. As a graduate student, I've had the opportunity to mentor undergraduates who are interested in marine science.  Undergrads in mechanical engineering, physics, and other majors can come here to SMAST and learn about oceanography and marine tech. I love seeing talented students stay here and continue working with us."  


"UMassD has also given me opportunities to collaborate with the best minds in my field. I've collaborated with people from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, as well as researchers in Brazil and India. We come from different places but share the same goals; it's been invaluable to communicate with people all over the world and get their feedback on my work."  

Researchers from the US and India aboard the research vessel Roger Revelle
Researchers from the U.S. and India aboard the research vessel Roger Revelle

What do you hope to do in the future? 

"After I finish my PhD, I want to continue in academia so I can teach and do research. I'd like to motivate the next generation to learn about the changing earth." 

Do you have any advice for future students? 

"As someone who came here from India, and who came from a different academic background, I know it may seem daunting to change your life path. But if you know what you want to do and have a strong feeling, trust that.  Never stop asking for help. Science and engineering are very open and collaborative fields, especially here at UMassD. In the past, in other parts of the world, I've found science to be so competitive. Here, it is collaborative, as everyone is working together for a greater good."  

What are you most proud of? 

"I'm proud of the community I've cultivated here; being a part of it makes me feel valued. I've built a rapport with faculty, become friends with my fellow students, and collaborated globally. Five years ago, I didn't expect that I'd be communicating about my research to an audience, or seeing my work have an influence on my field. 

"I feel very fortunate to be in good health, in the right field, and with the right people to go experience these things."