It’s rocket science: Picking Physics over Biology propels Swati to NASA

PTI Chennai | Updated on July 29, 2021

Indian-born member of Mars mission shares key moments from her journey in space science during a virtual interaction with students and others

It was the choice between physics and biology that made all the difference to Indian-born Swati Mohan in pursuing her passion in space science at NASA.

Mohan, who was part of the Mars 2020 Perseverance Mission, said her decision to study physics in high school helped pursue her passion at NASA.

“Physics was easy and biology didn’t come naturally to me; the internship at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) gave me the opportunities to learn and explore,” the guidance, navigation and control systems engineering group supervisor of NASA’s JPL, said.

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She was speaking at the launch of the #DiasporaDiplomacy held under the aegis of the US Consulate General in Chennai, on Wednesday. US Consul General in Chennai Judith Ravin inaugurated the virtual series.

From enrolling in space camp at NASA to selecting a school to taking up internships, Mohan said she was drawn to exploring and learning about other places in the solar system.

Her parents and her family members including her husband were “super supporters” in helping her chase her passion, the mother of two daughters said.

“There are many Indian-Americans and Indians working on Mars 2020 and JPL as a whole,” she said, responding to queries from students and participants.

Asked if the Indian premier space agency ISRO and NASA would take up joint missions in future, Swati replied that NASA and ISRO were collaborating on NISAR (NASA ISRO synthetic aperture radar) satellite. The ISRO instrument team is at JPL, integrating their sections of the instrument with those of the JPL.

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“The JPL team will come to India next year to integrate and launch the spacecraft from India,” she said and hoped that the NASA-ISRO partnership would continue to grow in future.

NISAR is expected to be launched into a near-polar orbit to observe our planet’s land and ice-covered surfaces every 12 days during its three-year mission.

Asked whether she faced trouble because of her origin, she replied, “in my career journey I faced more difficulty in being a woman in a male-dominated field than being an Indian.” However, she considered herself blessed at “a diverse organisation like JPL, which has a lot of diaspora from many different cultures”. Was she missing India and anything in particular? “I especially miss the street food in India... so good, especially the corn roasted by the vendors,” she replied.

Every time she visits India, she ensures a visit to the restaurants here because the food is so much better. She, however, hastened to add, “of course, we have good Indian restaurants here (in the US).”

Published on July 29, 2021

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