Anita Sengupta’s childhood fascination with science fiction and curiosity led her to a career as a project manager in NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
She helped design the 70-foot parachute that slowed the descent of the Curiosity rover so it could land safely on Mars in 2012, and she’s currently working on an experiment intended to make its way to the International Space Station in 2016.
Yet, at a conference a few years ago, Sengupta was struck by a thought as she listened to one of the speakers explain to the audience how appreciative he was of the mentors who’d had a hand in inspiring him and helping shape the direction of his career.
“I sat there thinking, I’ve been working here for 10 years, and I never had that,” she said, lamenting the reality that there still aren’t enough women in her field that other women can look up to. “It was sad for me to come to that realization. But I think, as a result of that, I’ve always pushed myself like crazy.
“For me, the motivation comes from within. I’ve had people ask me, when I would tell them what I wanted to do as a career–‘Are you sure you want to do that?’ And tell me it’s very competitive and very difficult. I just don’t try to be anything different than what I am. I’m happy to be a girl, to look like a girl, to be from my generation and I’m not going to pretend to be something I’m not.”
Sengupta’s PhD is in aerospace engineering, a field where women are largely underrepresented. One reason she’s keen to talk about her education and her experience is that she thinks the shortage of women in STEM and related fields tends to perpetuate itself.
A lack of women leaves future women with no one to look up to or be inspired by, with the consequence being that the cycle continues.
“I don’t have a perfect answer, but I can say this,” she says, “I’m also a professor at USC, and there are very few female professors in hard science and engineering fields. So, there aren’t enough female role models girls can look up to and feel like this kind of thing is normal. It’s a huge detractor. There aren’t enough role models pulling girls in.
“I come from an immigrant family, and my mother–she’s incredibly hardworking. ‘Never say can’t,’ that was her favorite phrase. And of course my dad, he never pushed me to be an engineer. He kind of let me do my own thing. One thing that’s helped is I love to learn. I like moving around in different specialties, which you can do in engineering.”
She points to her current project with a team of engineers and scientists designing, building, and testing an ultra-cold quantum gas facility, with the intention of eventually launching their experiment in a pressurized cargo vehicle to the International Space Station, as an example of the fun she finds in her job of solving complex technical problems.
Complementing her inner drive and natural curiosity was her realization that you have to stand up for yourself in her field, and that there’s no room for wallflowers.
She adds that in her experience, NASA is a meritocratic environment, where people who can prove themselves tend to be able to advance, and that space exploration and related scientific endeavors don’t have to be the stuff of white men in lab coats that some people might believe them to be.
“I always had to advocate for myself,” Sengupta says. “You can’t ever be quiet, and I used to be very, very shy. At some point, I made the decision that that’s stupid and you’re never going to get anywhere like this. In college I decided to do a 180 and let the passionate person I was come out and see where that would take me.
“When it comes to the space program, if this is what you want to do, I’ve never met anybody who was interested in it who couldn’t get a job doing this.”
Still, she does what she can to advocate for the field, especially for women. She posts publicly and often on Facebook, for example, sharing photos of her travels and experiences, like the time she visited the U.S. Columbia module training center at NASA Marshall Space Flight Center. She shared a photo of herself reaching into the glove box lab, which she says is used to perform biological science on the International Space Station.
And she enjoys answering questions on Twitter (@Doctor_Astro). She’s promoting NASA’s work, but also hoping to reach that next generation of scientists, the ones who may be already thinking about their future career and looking up at the sky in wonder.
Correction: A previous version of this article misstated that Anita Sengupta’s PhD is in plasma physics; it is in aerospace engineering.