This is one among a collection of videos and essays from women who contribute to NASA’s mission. They are part of the agency’s efforts to create a collaborative and supportive community of women at the agency, inspire girls to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and to encourage openness and accountability at NASA.
Growing up in India, newly liberated from British rule, and at a time when there were few women scientist role models, I still dreamed of being one. When the Russians launched Sputnik and my grandmother gathered the whole family early one morning to see the satellite pass overhead, I wanted nothing more than to explore space. When NASA landed a man on the moon, I promised myself that one day I would work for NASA. Encouraged by my mother and teachers, I strongly believed that if I worked hard I would achieve my goals of going to Oxford University in England and working for NASA in America. I doggedly pursued my dreams and won a scholarship to Oxford University and received my doctorate in Physics in 1976. Joining NASA took a little longer.
The road to a scientific career was not easy. When my girls-only school offered an opportunity for the most talented girls to study science in high school, I worked to earn my chance. Women teachers were difficult to find; my classmates and I often taught ourselves by reading our text books and discussing amongst ourselves. I taught myself mathematics from my brother’s textbooks to qualify for college. Girls were treated with awe at the University, particularly those who excelled in Mathematics. I experienced this even at Oxford, where saying that I was studying Theoretical Physics was such a conversation stopper at parties that I stopped telling people my major! Rather than be discouraged, I was motivated to show to the world that I could be the best. I won the Gold Medal in Physics when earning my Masters Degree, in addition to several prestigious scholarships. After earning my doctorate at Oxford, I returned to India and joined the Tata Institute for Fundamental Research as a research scientist and one of the two female Physicists. A year later, I was selected for the faculty of Poona University.
But new challenges emerged. Although I was financially independent and on a solid career path, I was under tremendous pressure from my family to get married. The only concession my parents gave me was to meet with the men they considered and to give my consent. When my father brought the man who became my husband, we had two hours at the Taj Hotel in Bombay to meet and let my father know our decision. I had to leave a promising career in India and come with my husband to the USA, where immigration visa restrictions closed many doors for me. But I was determined not to give up my science career. I continued my research on a limited basis until we received permission to stay in America. It was sheer will power that helped me keep my scientific abilities alive.
My connection with NASA started in 1985. I joined the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) to develop the software simulating the optics of the Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and its science instruments. After it launched and was orbiting the Earth, we realized the mirror wasn’t reflecting clear pictures. I analyzed the errors of the mirror, so that the telescope could be kept in the best focus possible to enable science, till a fix was designed. As a lead woman scientist, I provided mentorship to young women graduate students and technicians. When I see those women well placed in leadership positions today, I feel rewarded.
As a young woman in 1985 with two toddler sons, a first generation American with no family support, and at a time when day care centers and summer day camps were rare, I faced the inevitable challenge of balancing work and family. I got tremendous support from my husband, also a scientist. My sons are now both successful – one as a lawyer, and the other as an engineer. I’m so grateful for support from the management at the Space Telescope Science Institute and later at NASA Headquarters whenever I needed to be home – either with a sick child or any other reason. This part of my life is as much a part of my NASA story as my professional work.
I joined NASA Headquarters in 1994 as a Visiting Senior Scientist to manage the Ultraviolet, Visible and Gravitational Astrophysics program. Thanks to my boss, Dr. Edward Weiler, I learned about grants management, budgets, Program Scientist duties, and how the Federal Government worked. I came to NASA with the intent of getting management experience for a year. It soon became clear to me that working at NASA and serving the public was more a calling for me than a profession. When I saw my first Shuttle launch in 1995, it gave me goose bumps. My second launch was in 1996 when the mission, for which I was the Program Scientist, launched. I have been fortunate enough to be the Program Scientist for several Astrophysics missions, including the Hubble Space Telescope, and now the James Webb Space Telescope. I qualified for the NASA Senior Executive Service (SES) in 2003, after training in the SES Candidate Development Program (SESCDP).
When I think of the unlikely dream I had as a little girl in an under developed country, I marvel at where I am today. Unlike many people, I had no formal mentors while growing up, no one to guide me or tell me what step to take next. In fact, it was an almost hostile environment where a young woman wishing to pursue a scientific career, rather than getting married and raising a family, was viewed with suspicion. What I did have was the knowledge that I was growing up in a free, democratic nation, where I had the same constitutional rights as my brother. I had a mother and school teachers who were motivators. They did not have enough knowledge to provide me direction, but they taught me to believe in myself, to dream and to succeed. If my story inspires others, then I’ve continued their legacy.