Dreaming of the stars with Priyanka Das

An inspiring meeting

Dreaming of the stars with Priyanka Das

We are so proud and happy to introduce you to an amazing young lady - Priyanka Das.

Priyanka is a brilliant scientist and artist from Assam, in North East India, the birthplace of our founder, Usha. She is an inspiration and role mode for young women in science. The young scientist has been contributing her expert knowledge in satellite navigation for the French Defence Company, Safran while pursuing her Ph.D at ISAE-SUPAERO, a world leader in aerospace engineering  in Toulouse,  supervised by the French Ministry of Defence. Priyanka’s area of research is precise point positioning and navigation of man-made satellites.

Talking about her research, Priyanka expressed her hope that her findings may give a new direction to self-driving vehicle technology.  As a student at  the prestigious French Engineering school, Ecole Polytechnique,  she specialized  in Data Science. In her final year, she joined ISAE-Supaéro for a double master's degree in Aerospace Engineering. We asked Priyanka about her journey, her dreams, and her projects in art & science.

1. How were you inspired to study space engineering ?

Ever since I remember seeing the sky, I have been interested in Space. I have always wondered what worlds exist beyond the Earth - and since I have the spirit of a traveller with insatiable wanderlust - I want to explore those extraterrestrial worlds too. Space makes me dream bigger and reach out to the stars.

2. Tell us more about your journey.

Like most children, I was interested in several things as a child, and it took me some time to decide what I wanted to do in life. I was undecided between a career in Art and Design, or a career in Space as an astrophysicist (I did not know then that doing both simultaneously is also a possibility). So I chose to pursue Physics in Delhi. Thereafter, I studied at Ecole Polytechnique which suited me greatly. I tried several subjects from Biology to Computer Science, and ended up doing a first master's program in Data Science. For my école d'application, I went to ISAE-Supaéro where I obtained a second master's degree in Aerospace Engineering, specialized in Autonomous systems.

During this time I was also part of some fabulous projects that gave me more experience in the domain of Space Sciences. I became involved with social outreach projects with L'Oréal-Unesco as well.

3. How would you describe your work ?

I am currently working for Safran as a research engineer on a PhD contract. I am affiliated with ISAE-Supaéro in Toulouse. My PhD thesis focuses on studying navigation signals from satellite systems (like GPS) and fusing them with other physical navigation devices so that we can have a robust solution for a super precise position. My research could have applications in autonomous cars and planes where a few centimeters can make a difference for sur­vival.

I am also an artist and have been working on several projects. Some of them are related to Space art !

The Taj Mahal, painting by Priyanka Das

4. What do you love the most about what you do ?

Space is an amazing field ! I love that as a Space scientist I can be a physicist, a computer scientist, an artist, a fighter for women rights, and I also get to travel a lot ! What is fantastic is that with each new voyage I meet people who have figured out how to combine their career with what they love doing, and I find new sources of inspiration each time.

5. You were recently awarded the title of ambassador by the L’Oréal-Unesco program yo encourage more girls to study science. Do you feel that there are barriers for women who wish to study science and technology ?

It is unfortunate that in 2019 we still don't see enough women in STEM careers (Science, Tech, Engineering, Mathematics). Much remains to be done with regard to gender balance in science. Most tellingly, women account for only 28% of the world’s researchers according to a 2015 UNESCO report. In my  team I am the only woman and very few professors are women.

6. In your opinion, why are there fewer women than men in this industry ?

There are important barriers that discourage women from entering the profession and obstacles continue to block progress for those already in the field. Society still expects young girls to behave in a certain way and many  feel that women should still function as unpaid household caretakers. To give an example, someone from my mother's family once asked her, « Your daughter has so many degrees... how will she find a husband ? » Incredible, isn't it ?

7. You participated in the « Act in Space » contest, organized by the French space agency CNES, and you won the 1st spot in the Parisian area. You were also chosen to participate in the space challenge by CALTECH. Tell us more about these experiences.

In my first year at École Polytechnique, I participated in an event called ActInSpace, organized by the CNES, the French Centre for Space Studies. Our team developed an origami-inspired design of solar panels around a space probe for ease of de­ployment in space, and won the first prize in the Paris region and made it to top 5 in France.

Encouraged by the success of my proj­ects, I jumped at the opportunity of applying to the 2015 Caltech Space Challenge, organized by the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in collaboration with scientists from NASA'sJet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). I really put all my effort and prayers into it, but I was still really surprised when I was named among the 32 selected from around the world! The challenge itself consisted of simulating the planning of a mission to send astronauts on an asteroid captured and put in an orbit around the moon by NASA’s Asteroid Redi­rect Mission (ARM). It was not just all work and no play - we got a chance to visit JPL, play beer pong with NASA scientists, and have a good time !

8. What are some of the current projects you are working on and your future plans ?

In October I will be taking part at the International Astronautical Congress in Washington DC, and for this I have also been awarded a sponsorship by the European Space Agency. I am super excited !

Next I am working on a prototype for the Moon Gallery - a project for sending 100 artworks to the Moon in 2022, but with a challenge - the artwork needs to fit in 1cm3 of space !

And finally, I am going to Antarctica next year as part of the 5th cohort of the Homeward Bound Mission for Women in STEMM. This is a year-long leadership program for training women into taking up more leadership roles and I am extremely fortunate to have been chosen at a young age. The program will culminate in a three-week voyage to Antarctica. I have always dreamt of going there !

Yosemite National Park, painting by Priyanka Das

25/09/2019
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