Was your education related to technology/electronics? If yes, why did you select this field?
I did my undergrad in electronics and communication engineering. I selected this because it has scope in diversified fields. And I’d always been interested in electronics, it’s not a narrow field. Even if I wanted to end up in the software industry, I could do that. But what I wanted was to get a feel of the project I’m working on, I wanted to see the product. I couldn’t have done this in the CSE or IT field. This was my view while selecting ECE at that time.
After graduating, I was placed in TCS and I worked in Bangalore for around 1.5 years. But since my passion was always with electronics, I quit my job to continue my career in electronics. I opted for a master’s in Communications and Radar Systems. There were many options that I could have chosen, but this one was closest to space technology. I was naturally inclined to all the subjects taught – antennas, cellular communications, and satellite communications. I enjoyed every class and every project. Currently, I’m pursuing my Ph.D. in Satellite Communication.
What was your ambition while studying in college? How did you end up choosing the field of space technology?
I’ve always had a passion for space technology. I never knew where I’d exactly end up, but I always used to follow the ISRO launches. Every day, I used to spend some time either watching space-based series or reading books related to space. During my master’s, I always knew I wanted to do something related to space but I wasn’t sure in what way. It is a broad field and I had to narrow it down.
Then I happened to attend a CubeSat workshop conducted by Asst. Prof. Sharan Asundi. I was able to connect to the things that he had mentioned, and that was the moment I knew I wanted to do something in the satellite field for the rest of my life. That was my trigger moment. Then I started to go through various resources, be it research papers related to satellites, books on satellite technology, and materials that people have generously made open source. After doing all this, I started working on my own satellite.
What are you currently working on?
As of now, I’ve built a prototype CubeSat. I’ve kept almost all sub-systems that satellites need to have, and sent it for High Altitude Balloon Launch. That launch will happen by the end of this month. It will go to the stratosphere, up to 40km. For the next launch, I’m planning to reach up to 100km with the help of a sounding rocket.
I started my journey with whatever little sources available to me – open-source platforms, research papers, and books. With the help of all that, and the degree that I already have (Master’s in Communication and Radar Systems), and my background in electronics, I was able to do this. I’m very happy with what I’m doing right now.
What is the male to female ratio in the space technology field?
So far, I have seen a few female founders and co-founders, but still, whenever I go to a rocket company or approach launch providers, there are 2 to 3 females and the rest of them are males. I think this is still a male-dominated industry. Not just in India, I have dealt with various foreign companies and most people I spoke with are men. I hope, in the future, more women take this up as a serious field.
“It is a niche field, not all people choose it. But yes, the gender imbalance exists, not just in our country”
As I said, I was inspired by a workshop I had attended, where I saw an actual satellite. I had seen ISRO launches on TV or YouTube, but only after seeing the actual satellite was I really inspired. So by conducting various workshops, or by creating satellite kits and distributing them at an affordable price in colleges, showing various sub-systems of satellites, creating model rockets, universities can help students – especially girls – make an informed career decision. But not all universities can afford such activities. So the people in the rocket and satellite industry should focus on creating affordable kits and then giving these to students.
What are the key mistakes made and learnings from them over the years?
Initially, I sent various requests to key players in the satellite field, because I wanted to be a part of some team. But I was not able to move around due to my master’s and Ph.D. I used to think that to build a satellite, we need a big team, big infrastructure, and I wasted a few months waiting to be a part of such teams. This was the mistake I made. Nevertheless, I learned from it.
After several trials, I thought, why not make my satellite on my own! I did not wait for infrastructure or a big team to help me. I started with whatever resources were available to me without any offers in hand. This approach really helped me – not waiting for funding, infrastructure, or anyone! Without any launch providers, I started making my satellite and posting my progress through LinkedIn and other platforms. And then, launch providers started approaching me themselves.
“Don’t wait for anything. Just start with whatever resources you have and tell the world what you’re doing. Then the world will help you with your next step.”
Women have to balance personal and professional lives. What are your views on that?
During my master’s – every married woman possibly faces this – the people from the society wanted me to have kids. But I did not want to take a break. But this was between me and my partner. He always supported me and gave importance to my career. There was always that understanding.
“If your family supports you, it will be easier. If not, don’t let that be a roadblock in your career”
Right now, I’m pregnant, but I’m not going to stop my research. I will keep going even if there will be a few compromises. Taking care of my child, my Ph.D. work, and managing my company (N Space Tech) – these three things are very important to me and I’ll balance them well.
As a girl climbs the ladder from school to college to a top position, there are many instances where she is faced with external pressures from society. Things have changed, but traditional gender roles are still there, and that’s why it is important for families to support women in their careers.
Can you talk about the strengths that women naturally have? Do you have any tips or advice for male colleagues/bosses, that if they follow—could make it a more leveled field for women?
I feel that women can take risks easily. Including women in the tech industry is very important. There are many products and services that are related to women. So if many women are not involved in the tech field, the thought process of women will not be included. The diversified thoughts and solutions that women have are a very important advantage to any field.
“Bosses should not think of women as a liability.”
Professional women certainly face more challenges as compared to men – maintaining a work-life balance, taking care of children and family, etc. Especially when it comes to pregnancy and maternity, bosses should not hesitate to give them projects, and should also give back all their projects once they rejoin after maternity leave. A few women are not able to continue with their careers because their managers are not supportive.
Any bosses/mentors/colleagues who played a significant role in enabling you to succeed in your professional journey?
As I mentioned, Asst. Prof. Sharan Asundi from Old Dominion University was one of my mentors. I met him twice when he came to India for workshops, I’ve been in touch with him via LinkedIn. He motivated me to build the satellite on my own and I go to his YouTube channel and message him when I have doubts or questions.
My guide for my master’s thesis, Dr. S Koteswara Rao (Former Scientist ‘G’, NSTL, DRDO, Min. of Defense) is also an important figure in my life. His way of doing research inspired me. He taught me how to approach a problem in a systematic way and how to conduct research on a particular topic.
My father K N Prasad (HoD, Department of Computer Applications, Bapatla Engineering College) taught me programming languages and whenever I have programming-related problems, I always approach him. I’m also fortunate to have a sister Sowmya Kurapati who is a data engineer. When it comes to analyzing large amounts of data that I receive, my sister helps me out. Moreover, in taking care of my company’s accounts and finances, my husband Kothamasu Raghuram, who is also another director of N Space Tech has been a great help.
What would be your message to youngsters contemplating between electronics and other popular steam like computer science, AI/ML, etc?
These days, people are choosing a career in computer science without considering other diversified fields like electronics, civil engineering, and mechanical engineering. India needs people who have mastered all fields, only then can we catch up with the world. Plus, the economy will boom if there are more product-based companies.
I strongly recommend youngsters to consider electronics-related fields, as their chances of going into various career options will increase. It is not difficult to build products, you can start with a simple Arduino board and the several open-source materials that are available. You do not need big infrastructure to start something of your own.
When it comes to electronics, we need to create an ecosystem, an industry, and hence more employment. Therefore, my message to students who are thinking of pursuing a career in electronics and allied fields would be, “Identify problems around you and try to create a product to solve them.”