UC alumna explores for National Geographic

Radhika Bhargava’s global experiences started at UC

Radhika Bhargava did not know what directions her life would take when she left home in India to study biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati.

Spurred on by several study abroad experiences through the University Honors Program and the School for Field Studies, Bhargava continued to pursue global research, with a focus on the effects of transnational forest management policies in the Sundarbans mangrove forest. Bhargava recently completed her doctorate in geography from the National University of Singapore, partially funded by a grant as a National Geographic Explorer.

After presenting her research at National Geographic’s Explorers Festival in Washington, D.C., this June, Bhargava made a point to revisit Cincinnati and catch up with friends, faculty and staff from her first academic home.

“It all started at UC,” Bhargava said. “I think when you move around a lot, you forget some things, but Cincinnati was such a special place.”

Choosing UC

Radhika Bhargava poses with the Bearcat mascot.

Radhika Bhargava poses with the Bearcat. Photo/Provided

Bhargava grew up in Indore, a growing urban area in India’s central state of Madhya Pradesh — as she noted, the setting for Rudyard Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book.

“But I didn’t grow up in the jungle!” Bhargava joked.

As part of a middle-class family, most of her college decision came down to cost. Cincinnati was her most affordable option. But even after confirming her admission and getting on the plane to Ohio, Bhargava wasn't sure what she would find when she landed.

“I didn’t even know if it was pronounced ‘O-hee-o’ or ‘O-hi-o,’” she said. “Ohio’s not something you would hear on the news back in India.”

What she discovered was a supportive, welcoming community that was able to help her adjust to an entirely new culture. Bhargava described meeting with her honors program advisers regularly to find resources around campus or work through homesickness.

“It ended up being the best decision ever,” she said. “As an 18-year-old, leaving home, if I didn’t have the type of environment UC gave me, I could have freaked out and gone back home or stressed about finances.”

From UC to the Amazon

Radhika Bhargava holds up a fish she caught during her Amazon River study abroad experience.

Radhika Bhargava holds up a fish she caught during her Amazon River study abroad experience. Photo/Provided

In Bhargava’s second year of school, the University Honors Program started advertising for an upcoming study tour to the Brazilian Amazon, which offered an incredible opportunity to experience one of the largest tropical ecosystems in the world.

During the trip, students, instructors and crew were expected to live on a boat and travel more than 600 nautical miles along the river. There was only one problem — Bhargava didn’t know how to swim.

Determined to gain a spot on the tour, she took lessons from the Campus Recreation Center and practiced with life vests and pool noodles until she could confidently swim on her own.

“The University Honors Program is really responsible for helping me go out there,” Bhargava noted, turning to her faculty leader, retired environmental sciences professor Jodi Shann. “And thank you for not saying no to me! I kept pestering you.”

Shann, who led the tour to the Amazon multiple times, saw Bhargava’s dedication to the program and understood how vital global experiences were for her and all UC students’ development.

“International students, when they come in, they’ve already made the jump to a different place,” said Shann. “But frequently, we get students who are local, want to live local, want to be local. There’s something heartwarming about that, too, but go first. Take an internship somewhere, study abroad and if you still want to come back home, do it — but you’ve gotta go.”

Take an internship somewhere, study abroad and if you still want to come back home, do it—but you've gotta go.

Jodi Shann, Professor Emerita

Bhargava’s experience on the Amazon was life-altering, encouraging her to continue studying abroad and performing ecological research. Before graduation, she put her swimming skills to the test again by studying at the School for Field Studies in Turks and Caicos.

“We were living on an island and diving or snorkeling every day,” said Bhargava. “It really struck me. Since then, I’ve been working in coastal areas and along coastlines. I’m a diver with 70-plus logged dives.”

National Geographic calls

Radhika Bhargava stands on the edge of a dock wearing diving gear.

Radhika Bhargava suits up for a dive. Photo/provided.

After graduating from UC’s College of Arts and Sciences in 2016, Bhargava completed a master’s degree in environmental management from the University of San Francisco. It was during that time that she discovered her path to becoming a National Geographic Explorer.

“I saw someone I was really inspired by — she’s from Sri Lanka — and I emailed her to learn more about her research,” Bhargava said. “She emailed back and had signed her name ‘Asha De Vos, National Geographic Explorer.’ I pinned it in my head and thought, whenever I do my Ph.D., it might be a good resource.”

Shortly after starting her doctorate at the National University of Singapore, Bhargava began her research in the Sundarbans mangrove forest, a tropical wetlands in the delta between India and Bangladesh. Her work examined the effects of each country’s management practices on the Sundarbans and proposed solutions for its conservation.

 “I looked at how the coastline areas were changing, how the people are adapting to the change, and how the mangrove — which is the vegetation there — how that is adapting,” explained Bhargava. “I was across 16 villages and I collected data across 3,000 kilometers of shoreline, living on a boat, knowing how to swim this time. It felt a lot like being in the Amazon, because the mangrove delta is similar in the field.”

To fund this research, Bhargava applied to the National Geographic Explorers program and won the grant. Now, she has a lifelong relationship with the publisher and a network of other Explorers to collaborate with.

Washington, D.C. June 14, 2023 NATURE PROTECTS, WHEN SHE IS PROTECTED, Radhika Bhargava] | Coastal Geographer. National Geographic Explorers Festival Symposium. National Geographic Explorers are propelled by purpose. It cultivates their curiosity, sparks personal growth, and inspires action within their communities. Along the way, an Explorer's perspective often shifts as they encounter the unfamiliar, adapt to the present moment, and deepen their understanding of the world around them. Join National Geographic Explorers from across the globe as they share the driving forces behind their work, their innovative methods for finding solutions, and the ways they are coming together with their communities to protect our planet.

Radhika Bhargava presents her research at the National Geographic Explorers Festival in Washington, DC. Photo/Sam Kittner.

The title, to her, is still a bit surreal. As Bhargava described, many of the other program Explorers grew up reading the magazines and dreaming of seeing their work in its pages.

“Back in India, to get it shipped and delivered, it would have added a lot of cost. It’s not that it was completely unaffordable, but we would have had to give up something else,” said Bhargava. “I never read a whole magazine before becoming an Explorer.”

But the opportunities with National Geographic have brought her back to her roots; back to the United States and even back to Cincinnati. To Debbie Brawn, senior director of the University Honors Program, Bhargava represents the very heart of what UC is trying to achieve: developing global citizen scholars who are capable of solving the world’s most complex problems.

“Radhika embodies joy and what we hope for our students — that they live their lives authentically, pursue their passions and go out to make a positive impact on our world,” said Brawn. “Starting with her courage to swim, she continues to put that courage into action to change our world for the better.”

For the next year, Bhargava will continue at the National University of Singapore as a postdoctoral researcher. In the future, she imagines her own field research institute, doing long-term monitoring of the Sundarbans and other coastal areas.

One thing is for sure: she will definitely keep swimming.

Image at top: Radhika Bhargava points to a map of the Sundarbans. Photo/Provided

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