About the Author: ‘You are just your intelligence’ stands true for Ashna V.M., a student of Mahatma Gandhi University, Kottayam. She shares insightful details about her journey to NASA.
As a child, I would gaze dreamily at the night sky filled with twinkling stars and wonder about the innumerable phenomena going on in space. This is where the desire to unfold the mysteries of the universe shaped up. I was in school when I heard about Kalpana Chawla’s death in the Columbia Shuttle crash and her venture into space made me idolize her. Since then, I had wanted to work in the field of space research. I had fallen in love with her infectious smile and influential personality so much that I’d carry her photograph all the time. This even earned me a nickname – The Space Girl!
While I was pursuing MSc in Physics, I applied for an internship at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC); however, I was rejected since they weren’t entertaining MSc students. I didn’t lose hope and got in touch with the head of their Human Resource Development Division (HRDD) and recited my interest in working there. A week later, I received a selection email. At VSSC, I worked on gravity waves and ionospheric physics. This was the beginning of my career in research. For my M.Phil thesis, I emailed a resident scientist of Solar Physics Observatory, Kodaikanal, and bagged an internship there after a rigorous interview. I also interned at Aryabhatta Research Centre, Nainital. While pursuing Ph.D., I got bored with all the data analysis and decided to learn something new. While browsing the internet looking for space school announcements, summer internships, or relevant conferences to learn to refresh my mind, I came across the NASA space school in Maharashtra and joined it for 15 days. I interacted with scientists from NASA and attended their lectures. I also came to know about SCOSTEP Visiting Scholar (SVS) Program under which young scientists and graduate students are trained in solar-terrestrial physics laboratories and institutions for a period of one to three months. There are around 10 host institutions that function under this program.
My research work was concentrated on the Geo-effectiveness of the energetic phenomena of the sun. So, I chose to work at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre, which was one of the ten host institutions that function under the mentioned program. I sent an email to the head of the Heliophysics Division, GSFC, to host me for an internship. I waited for a reply impatiently. In the meantime, I worked on the second part of the application procedure which was to make a research proposal. For that, I read a number of research papers on the various phenomena occurring on Sun. The proposal was to comprise the work I was planning to do at the research centre and the scientific data I expected to avail from their group in a precise and concise manner. My research guide at college was working in the field of ionospheric research, a different field altogether, so I had to prepare the proposal without any guidance. After waiting endlessly for a month, I received an email citing my selection. I couldn’t be happier. However, this was just the primary step. I was yet to send my research proposal which would be analyzed by their team. I was given a duration of 10 days to do so, and I would be offered the fellowship on the basis of this proposal, my CV, and my previous research work. They accepted my proposal, which I had prepared after endless nights of reading and sweating my brows, and after two months of stress and hope, I got an email stating my selection for a three-month internship at NASA. I cried with joy and recalled Kalpana Chawla saying, ‘The path from dreams to success does exist. May you have the vision to find it, the courage to get onto it, and the perseverance to follow it. Wishing you a great journey.’ Then I prepared an application including details of my visit, work to be performed, dates of visit and estimate of the airfare, and letters from my supervisor and the host scientist and emailed it to the selection committee of the SCOSTEP to provide for my airfare expenses. The happiness felt by a girl hailing from a small village who had watched airplanes from the terrace of her house on taking a 17-hour flight and working in NASA was beyond words. The whole village celebrated my selection and my parents were extremely proud.
Now, I am here at NASA GFSC for my research training, constantly inspired by scientists working passionately, in a friendly atmosphere. At GFSC, I interact with seasoned scientists who guide me through my mistakes. I am working on solar radio burst; I do data analysis and draft the results of the research which are submitted as the proposed work. I share weekly research reports with the supervisor. The 9 to 7 work timings have never been a concern since I got familiar with the workflow from the very first day. In my free time, I explore the organisation. I’ve visited many research departments and observatories and found each one to be highly intriguing. I witnessed an exciting thing on my visit to building number 28 for a workshop. There was the same globe which Shahrukh Khan stood beside in the movie Swades. During this SVS program, I got an opportunity to attend the 2017 UN/US workshop on the International Space Weather Initiative (ISWI2017) at Boston College. I presented a poster related to my work at NASA and got lauded for it. I got an opportunity to meet space weather researchers from around 50 countries there. I also visited MIT and Harvard University with a friend whom I had met at the NASA space school. We cherished some delicious Indian food at a Punjabi dhaba near Boston University. I visited Washington DC and nearby places. I also got lucky and witnessed the Great American Eclipse! My journey at NASA has been truly inspiring and memorable.
To honour my parents who encouraged me to study, I am planning to do a space physics outreach program at my school to share my experience with little girls who dream of becoming the next Kalpana Chawla.
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