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Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Sravanthi Sinha, Intern, NASA Frontier Development Lab

15 May, 2017

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

In her own words, Sravanthi Sinha has only ever been limited by her imagination. Sravanthi’s inspirational journey began in India before moving to the USA. After attending Holberton School, an alternative to college training software engineers, she was accepted in an internship at the NASA Frontier Development Lab. The NASA lab is aimed at developing new approaches to the asteroid threat by combining the expertise of NASA, academia, and the private research community with the powerful techniques of machine learning. Rocket Women had the chance to ask Sravanthi about her aspirations in space and her experience at NASA.

RW: Can you tell me about when your interest in space grew?

SS: It all started when NASA announced that Pluto will no longer be considered as a planet. I was baffled with the news and I started reading about the research. One article lead to an another and I was very intrigued with the technologies which are being used to make such observations. That fascination led me to a dream visualizing myself working in the field of space and technology in future. I was in primary school then.

Astronaut Kalpana Chawla is one of my role models and I always look up to her for her determination, hard work, and courage.

RW: How important are role models to young girls? Do you think more needs to be done to allow the younger generation to interact with women working in STEM?

SS: Role Models are super important in one’s life. They become a great example of making things or achieving honours of what one dreams of. I believe in the quote “Your attitude, not your aptitude, will determine your altitude.” One can gain paramount amounts of inspiration and motivation from their role models. Their experiences guide us in making correct decisions at every point of our lives. While I was in India, I never really had an opportunity to directly interact with women working in STEM. There were various science and technological conferences held in the country but I was never in a position to afford to attend one of those, where the well achieved scholarly women working in STEM speak and impart their knowledge and experiences.  Fortunately, the books and internet became my source of knowledge. I still remember the news of Kalpana Chawla’s tragic demise in the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster during the re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. Probably, that was the moment when I learned about Indian women working at NASA. Kalpana Chawla is one of my role models and I always look up to her for her determination, hard work, and courage.

We are only limited by our own imagination.

We are only limited by our own imagination. Providing the younger generation with an opportunity to interact with women working in the STEM, would certainly increase their knowledge and awareness. Furthermore, it will instigate their interests in pursuing a career in STEM. I look forward to the promising future where the younger generation is driven by science and technology and disregard any biases. #MoreWomenInSTEM

RW: What did your internship at NASA entail and what did you do specifically?

SS: The NASA Frontier Development Lab is aimed at developing new approaches to the asteroid threat by combining the expertise of NASA, academia, and the private research community with the powerful techniques of machine learning. I was selected as a Data Scientist to work on one of three projects titled “Finding Meteorites in the Field with an Autonomous Drone”. The objective of the project was to develop a small UAV (such as a commercially available quadcopter) equipped with cameras and onboard processors that can identify potential meteorite targets in the search areas calculated from triangulated meteor observations.

In terms of machine learning the problem was that of object detection, to identify interesting object(s) in an image. To date, state of the art object detection algorithms are based on deep learning architectures, specifically convolution based networks. Convolutional models need to be trained before they can be used to identify or classify objects in images. Typically, these networks require tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of images to train an accurate model. Unfortunately in our case, this database of useful images did not exist. In an attempt to avoid weeks of data collection and curation we decided to investigate approaches that do not require training such as traditional Computer Vision Techniques – Anomaly Detection and Hand Crafted Feature Detection. I worked on the Hand Crafted Feature Detection approach.

After striving to develop a model that could detect meteorites without having to be trained, we eventually conceded that we would not be able to build a generalised model using the traditional machine learning and computer vision approaches. We determined to proceed with Deep Learning which needed collection of data and GPU power. I was involved with data collection and augmenting the dataset by photoshopping images of meteorite on different terrains. I was accountable to administer the Nvidia Jetson TX1 which was used for the on board processing. While we were still training the model on the dataset, I came up with an idea of having a web app as an User Interface for this project The ADELIE Meteorite Hunter web application was built to carry on the off-board processing of the images collected in the field. It serves the purpose of analysing the images collected from drone and archiving the meteorite images which could become a potential data-set for future learning.

RW: What steps did you take that landed you such a prestigious internship?

SS: My first acquaintance with NASA was during my primary schooling when NASA announced that the Pluto would no longer be called a planet. I learned that it was the ultimate place where an intense research in space is carried out. Since then I have always dreamed and desired to work at NASA. I would totally credit Holberton School for allowing me to live my dream of working at NASA/SETI. When I joined the school, I had no idea what was in store for me, I did expect to become a Full stack developer and realise my dreams in Silicon Valley, but I wasn’t sure that it could happen in just 7 months of joining it. The school has got tremendous support from the mentors. I got the serendipitous opportunity to interact directly with two of Holberton’s great mentors, Gregory Renard and Louis Monier (Founder of Alta Vista).

As an initial step of my experimentation in deep learning, I employed a neural style algorithm to make an image of me as it would look if Vincent van Gogh painted it. When I heard about NASA FDL program from one of the founder of the school Julien Barbier, I was awestruck and determined to get this. The application needed a personal statement, team and collaboration work and a concept note to be submitted. For the concept note, I had to choose from one of the 3 challenges/projects provided and make a brief statement of my solution to it. Louis Monier played a key role in guiding me throughout the completion of the concept note. While I wanted to explore the techniques in Deep Learning he even offered me to use his GPU machine remotely. I was quite sure, that I would get it.

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

Sravanthi Sinha [Holberton School]

RW: How invaluable was this internship and what was your favorite aspect?

SS: Being on an NASA internship and working at SETI gave a plenty of opportunities to meet extraordinary people such as Ed Lu (former NASA astronaut) who founded B612 Foundation, Steve Juvertson (invested in SpaceX, Tesla, D-Wave, Skype, Box and a number “New Space” leaders – including Planet Labs). Getting a special talk from Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart and watching the movie Contact with astronomer Jill Tarter (on which the lead character is based!) and the former director of the Center for SETI Research.

Working with Peter Jenniskens (mentor) and my teammates Christopher Watkins from Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation(CSIRO), Amar Shah from Cambridge University, Robert Citron from University of California, Berkeley on a project solving the problems in Planetary Defense. And of course living at NASA Ames Research Center, where 2 years back I just had the opportunity to visit on its 75th Anniversary.

RW: What did you take away from your internship?

SS: The internship gave me real-time exposure to the space industry. I felt the absolute need for more software “techies” to get involved with the space industry to bring in the latest technologies and leverage the NASA expertise and contribute to the space exploration.

Desire combined with effort pays off. Raise your hand when opportunities arise and make it known you are interested.

RW: Following this internship, what are your goals for the future and how has the internship helped you to achieve these goals?

SS: I desire to experience the universe of Star Wars and Star Trek. I believe that the “force is with me” in contributing to the AI research and hope that AI would reach the capability to turn my belief into reality.

During my internship I did have a great chance to work and learn from the machine learning and planetary science expertise. The project in which I was involved during my internship is still in progress and once I am back in the US from India I would like to continue my work on it and find a meteorite. And I would like to continue my journey in exploring the Artificial Intelligence and build real-time applications too.

RW: Do you have any advice for others who may want to follow in your footsteps?

SS: I would like to mention the words from A.P.J Abdul Kalam (Missile Man of India) “It’s a crime to dream small”. If one doesn’t dream about it, they never can make it. Desire combined with effort pays off. Raise your hand when opportunities arise and make it known you are interested.

RW: If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be?

SS: Oh wow!! A great and probably important piece of advice to myself would be: To never stop questioning and to keep looking up.

Inspiration, Inspirational women

India’s Rocket Women: Meet The Women Of ISRO

9 April, 2016

India has built and launched 82 satellites into space and explored the Moon, Mars and the stars through it’s Chandrayaan-1, Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) and ASTROSAT respectively. But behind these missions is a strong team of scientists and engineers, including a team of trailblazing women.

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) launch [ISRO]

The Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM) launch [ISRO]

Condé Nast Traveller recently featured the women working on the Mars Orbiter Mission (also called Mangalyaan). India’s MOM mission to Mars was astonishingly designed, planned and launched in 15 months with a budget of only US $70 million! Comparatively, NASA’s recent Maven mission to Mars cost $671 million.

Nandini Harinath served as deputy operations director on MOM and has worked on 14 missions over 20 years at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation), India’s space agency. Nandini highlights that “Women constitute only 20% of ISRO’s 16,000-strong workforce, but female engineers are increasingly joining in. There’s greater awareness and education among young women now. Parents are being supportive of their daughters pursuing careers.” Nandini also discussed the problem of a number of highly educated women dropping out before they reach leadership positions. “That’s the mindset we need to change. Women have to realise that they can manage having careers and families. It’s possible! You can do it if you want to.””

“Women constitute only 20% of ISRO’s 16,000-strong workforce, but female engineers are increasingly joining in”

ISRO Scientist Nandini Harinath at ISRO’s Satellite Centre in Bengaluru

Here’s an excerpt from the Condé Nast Traveller’s fantastic feature:

“What does it take to make sure your little girl grows up to be a rocket scientist? Start her young. Some 30 years ago, Ritu Karidhal was a little girl, looking up at the stars twinkling in the Lucknow sky, and wondering why the moon changed its shape and size every night. In her teens, she began following the activities of the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the newspapers, cutting and collecting clippings. Around the same time, Moumita Dutta was reading about India’s first lunar probe, Chandrayaan 1, in the Anandabazar Patrika in her hometown of Kolkata and thinking, ‘How lucky those people are to have the opportunity to be part of this!’ Flash forward to 2015, and both women are top ISRO scientists, part of a team that worked on India’s acclaimed Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM), aka Mangalyaan.”

The feature highlights the little-known story and mission dedication of the women at ISRO, including the four hours of sleep they get per night in order to help their children study and supportive in-laws that travel for hours to help their families.

“We think of our satellites and payloads as our babies, too. To us, they have lives. So the rules for office and home are common: Patience, Procedures, Priorities. If you’re patient, that’s half the battle won. Don’t allow for single-point failure; have backup plans in your mind all the time to avoid chaos. And you can’t be everywhere at once; so assign your priorities. The mind and heart have to be in sync. You must always be true to yourself.”

Read the full Condé Nast Traveller feature here.

Update: Meet The Women Who Helped India Reach Mars On The First Try (within 18 months!)

Nandini Harinath, ISRO [Science Friday]

Nandini Harinath, ISRO [Science Friday]

“If you’re doing mission operations you don’t need to watch a science-fiction movie, we see the excitement in our day-to-day lives.” – Nandini Harinath, Project Manager Mission Design, Deputy Operations Director, Mars Orbiter Mission, ISRO

A wonderful new film from Science Friday tells the story of the Indian women in science of ISRO’s Mars Orbiter Mission (MOM).

The goal of the film is to show the scientists and work behind the mission, aiming to inspire the next generation of women scientists. With only around “40% of missions to Mars” having been successful, this mission is special as it was not only successful on the first try for ISRO but on a “shoestring budget and in a very short time”.

“When I was small I had a dream to help the common man.” – Minal Rohit, Scientist & Engineer, Project Manager, Methane Sensor for Mars (MSM), ISRO

Watch this fantastic film here.

Inspiration

Why I Care About Michelle Obama’s ‘Let Girls Learn’ Campaign

22 March, 2016

With school girls and their teacher in Indonedia

In Indonesia With School Girls And Their Teacher [Copyright, Vinita Marwaha Madill]

I’ve been fortunate to have spent the last 8 months travelling in Eastern Europe and Southeast Asia. Whilst visiting countries including Indonesia, Myanmar and Cambodia, I became acutely aware of the differences associated with the role of girls in society compared with their male counterparts, in particular places that I visited. Mainly related to the limited jobs available to girls and the lack of access to education. In fact 62 million girls around the world don’t have access to education, education that they need and truly deserve. Michelle Obama and her Let Girls Learn campaign, a US government initiative, are focused on changing that. Having talked to girls in Asia and heard stories of their dedication to gain an education, this campaign means a lot to me.

As the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama writes:

“..this issue isn’t just about access to resources like scholarships, transportation, and school bathrooms. It’s also very much about attitudes and beliefs: the belief that girls should be valued for their bodies, not their minds; the belief that girls simply aren’t worthy of an education, and their best chance in life is to be married off when they’re barely even teenagers and start having children of their own.”

I care because even though I’m from the UK, my Mum was born and raised in India and my Father in Kenya. Having visited both these countries and talked to family, I know how lucky I am to be barely one generation away from having a choice regarding my education and career path. In India, my great-grandmother was married at 13 and similarly with her children, my grandmother. In countries around the world, the belief of treating girls as second-class citizens whilst prioritising the education of male family members still stands.

“Just imagine for a moment what it’s like to be in their shoes. Imagine being a bright, curious young girl with all kinds of ideas about what you want to be when you grow up. And then one day, someone taps you on the shoulder and says, “Sorry, not you. You’re a girl. Your dreams stop here. You have to drop out of school, marry a man 20 years older than you whom you’ve never met, and start having babies of your own.

Think about who — and what — you would be today if your formal education had ended after middle school and you knew only what you’d learned through eighth grade.” – Michelle Obama, LennyLetter.com

Michelle Obama’s much needed campaign is trying to reverse this unjust and culturally-embedded trend by bringing awareness to the fact that 62 million girls around the world do not have access to education, largely due to the attitudes and beliefs of those around them.

We need 100% of the talent available on this planet to reach for the stars and make the next crucial scientific breakthroughs. It’s 2016 not 1916, so together let’s make sure every girl, no matter where she may be born, is both allowed to dream and has the support to reach her dreams, through access to consistent education. Together let’s give girls back their future.

Visit 62MillionGirls.com for more information and to take the pledge to help break down barriers to education for girls around the world, or use the hashtags #62MillionGirls & #LetGirlsLearn.