Guwahati: Science and women are often deemed as an unusual combination, but Priyanka Das is shattering this stereotype. Now settled in France, Das is one of the 75 women selected from all over the world for the prestigious Homeward Bound Antarctica Mission’s fifth edition.
The mission aims to equip women from STEMM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine) background to go into policy-making and leadership.
Das, who was brought up in New Delhi, is the daughter of Assam natives, Manoj Kumar Das and Dr Ajanta Baruah Das. Both her parents have a background in science, and she is thankful to them for the early exposure she got into the field.
Speaking with EastMojo, Das said, “My parents would take me to science fairs and do little projects at home.”
Perhaps these little things drew her to science. And not just this, Das was an all-rounder with a keen interest in multiple activities like dancing, playing violin, sports, arts and science. She also earned the the best all-rounder award just before leaving school.
Das continues to be an all-rounder even today, as, in her own words, the labels which describe her are, “Aerospace engineer, data scientist, artist, language enthusiast and ambassador for the L’Oréal-UNESCO girls in Science Initiative.”
Setting a precedent
Currently, Das is pursuing a PhD in satellite navigation, in an aerospace company called Safran in France. The topic for her PhD is “how to make positioning by GNSS (an example that we all know of is GPS) more precise, in the order of a few centimetre (it is in reality a few metre)”. The technology can be used as an added level of security in autonomous cars where even one metre matters. In the meantime, she is also studying on the feasibility of using Earth-based satellite systems for navigating on the Moon.
Apart from this, her role as the ambassador for L’Oréal-UNESCO for Girls in Science Initiative in France is helping her break stereotypes about women who work in scientific fields. For example, she said, “I do not spend entire time in a laboratory with a lab-coat — I actually get to be an artist on the side and travel to my heart’s content.”
To all the girls who are hesitant of opting for the stream, she said, “If you are curious about life, science should naturally come to you.”
The scientist, who is in her late 20s, is definitely setting an example, she was also featured by Gorgeous You India campaign, which started under the initiative of the Shirin Latif, to reach out and bring to public light the stories of 100 Indian women who could serve as inspiration to the young generation. She was honoured to be a part of the list.
Das is collaborating with Shirin Latif to start a branch in Assam to promote scientific education among girls.
Das pursued her graduation in physics from St Stephen’s College, New Delhi, where she realised that her aerospace dream could actually become a reality. She then pursued her postgraduation from École Polytechnique in Paris and got a double diploma exchange from ISAE- Supaéro.
As she progressed in the field of science, Das did not give up on her love for art. She said she always wanted to be a professional artist, but being a girl who also likes to code; it was confusing in the beginning about how to strike a balance. But now, she says all that is needed is to organise her time to do both.
“I had the great opportunity of meeting space artists during some conferences and now I am going to collaborate with some of them on certain art projects, including art that could be potentially sent to the Moon. I love to paint in my free time and make algorithmic art as well,” Das said.
Another big stepping stone in her life was the Caltech Space Challenge 2015. The five-day long international student space mission design competition brings 32 talented and highly-motivated students to the Caltech campus, Pasadena, USA, to participate in a week-long space mission design competition.
The participants work under the mentorship of experts from the industry, NASA and academia to design their mission concept from scratch to final proposal. Das also got to visit the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).
When asked where she sees herself in 10 years, Das said she would like to work on making the science domain accessible for all. She would also like to strengthen opportunities for women in the field. “If life is kind, I would love to see myself as an astronaut candidate and an advocate for the youth in the domain of space,” she added.