How a village girl from Kerala went to NASA for a three-month internship

24th Apr 2018
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The daughter of a farmer who studied in a government school in Koduvalli, a small village in Kozhikode, Ashna Sudhakar is now a research scholar who bagged a three-month internship at Goddard Space Flight Centre, NASA.

Theodore Roosevelt famously said: "Keep your eyes on the stars, and your feet on the ground."

Ashna Sudhakar seems to live by these words. The daughter of a farmer who studied in a government school in Koduvalli, a small village in Kozhikode has come a long way. And the 27-year-old, who was an intern for three months at the Goddard Space Flight Centre, can’t help but be thankful.

Credit: Deccan Chronicle

While speaking to Deccan Chronicle, Ashna said, “NASA was nowhere in my plans. My dream destination was either the ISRO or the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre.” She added that she was never the studious type. "All I did was read novels, stories and poems. A very weak student in mathematics, I had no idea there was a branch named space physics then!”

Her fascination with space physics - the study of everything above the earth's atmosphere up to the edge of the solar system – started when she was in Class IX. That was the year when Indo-American astronaut Kalpana Chawla died in the Columbia space shuttle disaster. Ashna started reading up all that she could about her idol, and even carried her photograph on her person almost all the time. Soon after, her friends awarded her with a moniker: “Space girl”. When she was in Class X, India's Missile Man Dr APJ Abdul Kalam visited Kozhikode and gave a three-hour inspirational talk. Listening intently in the audience was Ashna, who found her second idol.

She chose to graduate in physics and joined a college in Tiruchirapalli for her post-graduation. For the MSc internship, all students had to submit a thesis. Most submitted a project that had been “ordered”, but Ashna worked in her campus library for hours to come up with hers. She applied to VSSC for her internship but was rejected a couple of times as they had no open spots for MSc students. But her persistence – and letter of interest - paid off, and she was finally in.

Opting for research

Ashna worked on gravity and ionosphere physics at Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre. The experience led to a continuing interest in research.

“For my MPhil thesis internship, I applied to the 100-year-old Solar Physics Observatory in Kodaikanal. [They had four to five staff, all men],” she has said. But Ashna didn’t give up and she got in after a rigorous interview. Later, she also interned at the Aryabhatta Research Centre in Nainital.

She participated in space conferences and summits across India. She was in Maharashtra at one such 15-day programme when she learnt about NASA’s SCOSTEP Visiting Scholarship. Under this programme, young scientists and graduates were trained in solar-terrestrial physics labs.

Ashna’s research was on the “geo-effectiveness of the energetic phenomena of the sun” and she didn’t have “much hope” as the scholarship was offered to only four persons every year.

Interestingly, it was on the eve of her wedding that the “space girl” received an email announcing her selection to the Heliophysics Division of the Goddard Space Flight Centre. She was given 10 days to submit her research proposal for the fellowship. It may have seemed impossible, but her husband Umesh, an environment officer at a tiger reserve in Tirunelveli, was very supportive.

Her hard work and umpteen good wishes helped her win the Rs 7 lakh fellowship that covered her travel, accommodation and other expenses.

Aiming for the stars

The small-town girl finally reached NASA. “My work was on solar radio burst and it was no 9-to-7 research. The Centre was open 24x7. I explored the organisation, observatories and departments, attended various workshops, interacted with space weather researchers from around 50 countries. It was an inspiring, memorable opportunity,” she said about her stint.

Ashna and Umesh now have a child, a son, but marriage and motherhood serve as inspirations to her; they will never stand in the way of her dreams, she says.

The research scholar wants every child to believe in herself, and in the power of passion. “Every child should know that despite their background - even if their parents are poor, even if they study in Malayalam medium schools or are not brilliant, they could make it there if they have strong passion,” she said.

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