Kriti Faujdar finds ISRO a supportive place to work at for a woman – yet can’t help but notice that there are not many of them.
The Life of Science – When India’s Mars Orbiter Mission launched in 2014, one photograph became the topic of much conversation. It showed seven scientists, all smiles and hugs, celebrating the success of the mission – not unusual in itself, but it was the fact that all of them were women that made the news.
The reaction to the photograph itself is telling because it showed us how the space arena is still seen as a place odd for a woman to be in. Twenty per cent of Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) almost-16,000-strong workforce comprises women, but the ratio drops to 10% if we take only engineers into account. All seven heads of ISRO so far have been men.
ISRO has said that more and more women engineers are joining in, so it could be that the gender ratio and the number of women rising to the top improve with time. We thought it would be interesting to catch up with one such recent employee and try to get some context of her journey here, her ambitions and intentions.
Kriti Faujdar’s eyes light up when she talks about Vaishali, the ancient city in Bihar, where she grew up: “It was the best place I’ve lived in. It’s really awesome. It’s the birthplace of Jainism & workplace of Buddha. Maybe it’s because of that – I don’t know – but you feel peace in that place.” Now she is almost 2,500 km away Hassan, Karnataka, working as scientist/engineer at ISRO for the past three years. As much as she misses home, 26-year-old Kriti firmly tells me she is proud to work at India’s space agency.
The Master Control Facility (MCF) at Hassan, where she works, is one of the two facilities (the other is in Bhopal) that ISRO has tasked with monitoring its geostationary satellites like the INSATs, GSATs and Indian Regional Navigation Satellites System (IRNSS; now called Navigation with Indian Constellation, NAVIC). Such satellites orbit Earth at about 36,000 km from the surface. They rotate in sync with Earth’s rotation, making them look stationary. Their ability to track the same spot for extended periods of time makes them invaluable for weather and communication purposes.
Kriti and the rest of the MCF team have to make sure the satellites remain healthy and are not veered off-course by gravitational forces of the sun or moon. How? By studying the vast amounts of data that streams in all day and all night. This data acts as indicators of the spacecraft’s health – its temperature, pressure, location, the electric current flowing through it and many others. When any of the number streams that arrives at MCF begin to look wonky, Kriti and co. must act quickly and control the satellite to make the required adjustments. This tweaking is done with computer programmes that operate the satellite.
Such situations are increasingly rare says Kriti, “It’s not like you see in the movies, with people panicking and running around. Usually, we know we will get back control, even if it takes time.” Nevertheless, even missing on a few seconds tracking can be dangerous.“We don’t have any physical contact with the satellite, all controlling is done with data, so the ground stations which receive this data must be kept in high security always,” she informed me, explaining why it was impossible for me to have a look around inside the facility.
Studying at Vaishali and an RSS school
Kriti began her schooling in her home village, Vaishali. “Till the fifth standard, I actually had to write two exams each time, one at a private school where I went because the education is better, and another at a government school because the private school was not affiliated with anything.”
After the fifth standard, Kriti’s family put her in a better school, Saraswati Shishu Mandir, in Madhya Pradesh, where she lived with her mausi (mother’s sister) for the next four years. “This school is run by RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the Hindu nationalist organisation) and it was a Hindi-medium school.” So much that Kriti, laughingly recalled how she once got punished for saying ‘good morning’ in English! Only kho-kho and kabaddi were encouraged as sports. “They feel that they have to secure our culture,” she explained, conceding that she did not fully agree with this approach as “if you won’t teach us here we will learn from elsewhere and English is necessary in the modern world.”
However, Kriti remains grateful for the exposure the school gave her. Her favourite subjects were maths and science. “We had to wear suits as uniform,” she smiled. “For me, this was a good change because it was the first time I was in a school where they actually taught you and you actually studied. They also developed my public speaking skills.”
Nevertheless, Kriti made a decision to move to an English-medium school after her tenth standard. “I thought that to take up engineering I’ll have to study in an English-medium college anyway, so why not start now itself.” She knew it wouldn’t be easy. “There was a fear that my results might be affected (because of the language shift), but I decided to wait and see.” Luckily, it was only a bit difficult in the first month. “I think that the move was a great decision…”
Landing up at ISRO
Kriti went on to study computer science engineering at a college in MP. She managed to get placed in an IT company but her joining date was many months later. It was during this gap that Kriti heard about an upcoming ISRO recruitment through a friend whose father worked there. “It never crossed my mind that I can be selected because my percentage was only 70. I learnt that most of the others giving the interview had 80-85%.” To her pleasant surprise, she made it, along with just 21 other computer science graduates that were selected.
“Coming to Hassan was not so difficult,” Kriti says. Her parents were familiar with the place, having visited Shravanabelagola (a town famous for a giant statue of Gommateshvara Bahubali, a Jain figure) and nearby locations. Besides, Kriti was not fussy. “I would’ve gone anywhere, I like exploring new places,” she said, smiling.
When she joined ISRO, Kriti noticed that there was only one girl who was of her age. “But later I realised even senior ladies are very nice, so age was never a factor in making friends. Even the men are easy to talk to. People say you don’t find good friends at work but I’ve been lucky.”
‘ISRO treats us the same’
Working at ISRO isn’t a walk in the park. Since monitoring has to be done round the clock, shifts change every couple of days – the morning shift is from 6.30-1.30, the afternoon one from 1.30-9.30 and night one is from 9.30-6.30. Kriti said her excitement kept her going in the beginning and now she’s used to it, so she doesn’t have any issues with the odd hours.
Kriti appreciates the fact that ISRO treats all its employees the same. “They try to give us equal opportunity. We work in nightshifts, too – there’s nothing like women shouldn’t work at night. We never feel unsafe. Male colleagues are very supportive.”
Still, she acknowledged that the number of women at the facility is very less – only 35 out of 400 – and this includes not just the technical staff, but also administration, accounting, canteen staff, etc.. Kriti said she had no knowledge of why this might be. “Maybe it’s because this this is an operational centre? Many female employees join and then leave after marriage.”
“My whole family watches the rocket launches live on TV,” said Kriti, smiling. “We are three sisters and our family background is not so advanced. Some other families say that girls should not work or go out of the city, but my father has never put any restrictions,” she said. “I never had to fight to work, in fact sometimes I had to fight to not work,” she joked.
I asked Kriti what she felt about India’s space science priorities. Has she ever seen any reason in the point of view that our country has too many primary issues to be able to afford to spend money on space exploration?
“Are you sure that if we don’t launch rockets then that money will go to hungry people?” she countered. “Besides India needs its own technologies because we can’t rely on other countries always. For example, if our army needs sensitive information, we cannot rely on other countries’ navigational systems.”
The IRNSS series of seven satellites, which are currently being monitored by Kriti and colleagues, do exactly this. The system will be functional soon, but Kriti said to use them on our smartphones like we do GPS, we have to wait till IRNSS receivers are fitted into them.
Kriti has not ruled out higher study. “An MTech at some point might help me get exposure.” However, she is very keen to continue her work at ISRO.
“ISRO is a government office so it’s not as if I can expect a quick promotion.” But she would like to be able to try different responsibilities and maybe even work at different centres. “I am doing something different from the things other computer scientists are doing. That’s the main thing. I don’t want to go to a regular office like the rest of them. This is exciting. I get to see the launch, and contribute to the nation.”
This piece was originally published by The Life of Science. The Wire is happy to support this project by Aashima Dogra and Nandita Jayaraj, who are traveling across India to meet some fantastic women scientists.