“Space engineering always inspired me from the beginning.” Born and brought up in Kerala, Vidhya read a number of documentaries that spoke about the hardships and challenges faced when the first rocket was launched in 1963 by Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO). Apart from Wings of Fire, by Dr APJ Abdul Kalam, reading about the launchpad which was amidst coconut groves and the rocket transportation to lift-off pad on a bicycle and bullock cart, instigated an interest to pursue Electronics and Communication Engineering at Calicut University.
“My father served in the army and defence, and he was always involved in building stuff and electronic projects. I was curious as to how rockets and space shuttles work.” She admired the criticality involved for electronics engineers in designing fail proof systems.
The critical point for her was choosing “Satellite Communications” as an elective, with a quest to explore what role it played in rocket/spacecraft design. While the field of computer science was rising, she often felt scared if she could ever make it to the Indian Space Research Organisation. However, battling all odds and finding strength from fields like embedded systems, radars and signal processing; she went on to be a gold medalist at her university.
Grateful for her first job at IIST, a research Institute of ISRO was a unique opportunity of working with colleagues who were well versed with space technology. Working as a Space Systems Engineer, for development and design of CubeSATs gave her a different perspective of her dream. Her involvement with the CubeSAT student group who handled Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) student satellites helped her develop her managerial skills and team integration; not compromising on the hardware stuff involved like developing on board computers, communication boards, telemetry and payload design. “It depends on every individual interest to achieve a common goal,” she quotes.
With an impactful first job she chose a career which was challenging while being connected to her discipline. She wanted to have a perfect combination of project management, electronics and aerospace, and hence started widely researching papers and learning about aerospace and aviation. “I started upgrading myself while waiting for my dream job at TUDelft.”
Being a single girl child, coming out of the shell did take time for her, yet her diligence and persistence made her step as a Space Systems Engineer/Project Manager into the faculty of Aerospace Engineering at Delft University of Technology. Her experience ranges from developing Pocketqubes to PRIDE JUICE space projects.
Looking forward to her current mission she shares, “PRIDE-JUICE (JUpiter ICy moons Explorer) – is the first large-class mission in European Space Agency programme. Planned for launch in 2023, it will spend at least three years making detailed observations of the giant gaseous planet Jupiter and three of its largest moons, Ganymede, Callisto and Europa, with particular emphasis on Ganymede as a planetary body and potential habitat.” In addition she also works in areas like propulsion, planetary science, astronomy and mission design along with student groups, and is currently pursuing her Part-time PhD in Planetary Science and Radio Astronomy.
“As much as marks are important, they do not decide your career.” Like every person, she wasn’t sure what she would see 5 years down the lane when she began, yet kept acquiring knowledge. “The best part of being a gold medalist was people taking time out to view my resume,” she laughs and goes on, “I believe in learning everyday.”
She attributes her project management learning to her internship as a technical associate from INKEL Limited. She feels young graduates in India should be more aware of internships as they matter and play a critical role as they boost your confidence and give you the exposure of the work environment with professional networks as well. “Internships should not be viewed as a paycheck. My internship wasn’t part of space engineering, yet it helped gain experience on handling projects.”
One major thing she claims that could have been learnt before, is speaking up for herself. Adding to the view that enough space should be given to juniors she says, “As a junior staff member, you are always loaded with work; but it is important to speak up. Make proper boundaries.” Interns of career progression, keeping ourselves updated with current skill sets is needed.
“Its equally important to take regular breaks, and have some time for yourself.” She finds the horizontal pattern of working to be very encouraging. “The vertical pattern of management doesn’t give the required space for an individual.” This space for every individual helps them in their personal development and helps in channelising proper talent.
Few of the key people who played a huge part in her journey were her former and current Mentors/Colleagues like Dr.K.S.Dasgupta (IIST/ISRO), Prof.Kuruvilla Joseph(IIST/ISRO), Karthik Selvan, Bibin Johnson, Prof.dr. L.L.A. Bert Vermeersen (TU Delft) and Leonid Gurvits (TU Delft/JIVE). “These people have treated me with huge respect, valued and chiselled me to be a leader.”
Gender equality involves a lot of respect to both parties. Stigmas about women should not restrict them from moving ahead. The concept of women being denied opportunities for various stereotypes is one major action that should change. “Thankfully I have never faced any but viewed many.”
From an academic point of view, she works with STEM and feels that the expectations for women are quite high resulting in a less representation of women in the technical field. It is important to find the balance between academia, society and the other internal/external pressures that women face to be perfectionists. From her experience, it is best to ask for help and engage with people and not shy away about it. She supports the saying, “Be strong enough to stand alone, Smart enough to know when you need help and brave enough to ask for it.”
In terms of space technology, her suggestion for young engineers is to broaden their expertise, especially with opportunities available in India with respect to space technology. With ISRO planning to make a space ecosystem, she adds, “India would evolve as a space hub for the world.”
“Privatisation in Indian Space Technology paves way for a lot more opportunities”
She loves working with students and recollects times when she learnt new stuff. Her advice for the younger generation on Women’s Day is to connect with professional role models and mentors who are further along in their journey. Such connections can help view opportunities, boost your confidence and help address the problems faced by women. “Having a confidential classified team that supports women in every organisation would be a great support to women in electronics.”
She concludes by defining her success as “knowing your ultimate goal” and celebrating every such moment with my family. She feels honoured when her work is recognised and feels there is more yet to come.