Hari Subedi: ‘Working to Make My Dreams Come True’
Asked to name his favorite film, Hari Subedi responds without hesitation: “Star Wars, for obvious reasons.”
His reasons go beyond the sci-fi movie’s many accolades and global box-office records. Hari is deeply involved in scouring deep space for Earth-like planets that could harbor life forms like our own. So Kylo Ren (one of many bad guys) and other characters in the movie may not be that far from his line of work.
“I’m studying controls and dynamics with research focused on designing and testing instrumentation for space telescopes for hunting earth-like planets outside our solar system,” he says. The seeds of his career plans were planted many years ago in a land far, far away.
“Growing up, mostly in a refugee camp in Nepal, I was fascinated by space and astronomy, and I was interested in engineering, too. I wanted to study something that incorporated these fields,” Hari recalls. “Given the conditions where I lived, these feelings were dreams. I would look up into the sky and wonder what I would do if I had the opportunities.
“Ironically, a positive aspect of growing up in one of the poorest and most remote places on Earth is that you can watch the beautiful night sky, free of light pollution, and let your mind wander about possibilities of life elsewhere.”
Born in Bhutan on India’s northeastern border with China, Hari lived most of his childhood in a refugee camp in nearby Nepal after the Bhutan government enacted harsh citizenship laws that discriminated against a growing ethnic Nepali population that was viewed as a demographic and cultural threat.
Asked about the difficulties of living and learning in a refugee camp where hardship was a way of life, Hari refers to a documentary made by an Australian charity worker and posted on YouTube. “The video explains the answer neatly,” he says.
“I used to read a lot — whatever I could find — and it helped me grow intellectually,” he recalls of his childhood under trying conditions. “My parents always told me education is the solution. Be a learned man, and always think big.
“I was a curious kid, always trying to solve problems like fixing broken radios. One of the things I tried was to use cow dung to produce electricity and use it to play a radio. It started as a weird, funny excursion, but it worked! Small fun things like this made me interested in engineering.”
In 2008, when he was just turning 18, Hari and his family moved to Arizona through the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program. He enrolled at a local community college and transferred to the University of Arizona in 2010. During his undergraduate years, he was heavily involved in outreach and community activities such as helping students in poor neighborhoods prepare for standardized tests, tutoring immigrant students after school, volunteering with a local harvesting network for the poor, and helping with translation and interpretation.
In 2013, Hari graduated with degrees in aerospace engineering and applied mathematics, and soon entered Princeton, where he has focused his energies and academic talents on the search for other worlds and the possibility of life on other planets.
“For ages people have been asking about the possibility of life beyond Earth, be it scientifically, philosophically, or religiously,” he says. “I wanted to be part of the scientific community that is trying to find the answer. Now as a graduate student at Princeton, I’m working to make my dreams come true.”
For skeptics who might suggest that his chosen field has weak relevance for a planet beset with earthbound problems, Hari notes that his work is eminently practical. “It’s not only about humans’ dreams and desire for exploration; it’s also good economically,” he says. “The rate of return for the investment made in space technologies is one of the highest. Research related to space programs has helped solve many earthly problems.”
Hari expects to receive his Ph.D. in mechanical and aerospace engineering in the summer of 2018. Last year, he became a National Science Foundation Graduate Fellow, and he was one of five students selected to make presentations at the MAE department’s annual Research Day in September. His presentation was titled “Sparse Aperture Mask for Low-Order Wavefront Sensing.” (The mask estimates aberrations in telescope optics produced by tiny vibrations and temperature variations.)
Faculty advisor Jeremy Kasdin praises Hari for his “optimistic, can-do attitude that lets him attack any problem he is handed with energy and enthusiasm.”
“When he started, I handed him an idea I had that was being worked on by a senior for her thesis,” says Kasdin, who, in addition to being an MAE professor and vice dean of the School of Engineering and Applied Science also serves as principal investigator for Princeton’s High Contrast Imaging Laboratory. The lab focuses on technology for detecting and imaging earthlike planets in nearby solar systems.
“Hari quickly came up to speed and formed a team with the undergraduate and a postdoc of mine,” Kasdin adds. “Together they worked it out beautifully — and more quickly than I had imagined. Hari ended up writing a first-author paper, earlier in his graduate career than almost any student I’ve had. He is now focused on demonstrating the technique in the lab. Hari’s relaxed, easy-going personality and openness make him a pleasure to have in the lab group. “
In December, Kasdin was named co-chair of the science team for an upcoming NASA mission that will use a repurposed space telescope to characterize and detect exoplanets, image and characterize both nearby and distant galaxies, and probe the nature of dark energy.
— Doug Hulette