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NASA’s Madhulika Guhathakurta: listen to your gut, follow your passion

NASA astrophysicist Madhulika Guhathakurta, who received the Woman Leader of the Year award, speaking with Esha Mittal at the American Bazaar Women Entrepreneurs and Leaders Gala in Bethesda, MD, on November 16, 2018.
NASA astrophysicist Madhulika Guhathakurta, who received the Woman Leader of the Year award, speaking with Esha Mittal at the American Bazaar Women Entrepreneurs and Leaders Gala in Bethesda, MD, on November 16, 2018. Photo by Saju Varghese/American Bazaar

The Indian American astrophysicist receives Woman Leader of the Year award.

By Esha Mittal

Astrophysicist Madhulika “Lika” Guhathakurta, one of the most prominent Indian Americans in NASA, was presented with the Woman Leader of the Year award at the American Bazaar Women Entrepreneurs and Leaders Gala in Bethesda, MD, on November 16, 2018.

Currently, she is a lead program scientist for the agency’s “New Initiatives in the Exploration Technology Directorate” at its Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, CA.

The Kolkata, India, -born scientist earned a master’s degree in astrophysics from the University of Delhi and came to the United States to do a PhD in physics from the University of Denver.

At NASA, Guhathakurta has worked in several positions, as a scientist, mission designer, instrument builder, directing and managing science programs and teacher and as a spokesperson. Her career has focused on studying the importance of the scientific exploration of space, in particular understanding the sun as a star and its influence on the planet earth.

Guhathakurta has been a co-investigator on five Spartan 201 missions to study the solar corona in white-light and UV radiation. She has also led NASA’s Living with a Star Program for the past 15 years. Last year, during the historic solar eclipse, she served as a lead scientist on the team that studied the eclipse.

Prior to receiving the Woman Leader of the Year award, Guhathakurta spoke to Esha Mittal, a high school junior from Richmond, VA. Here are the edited excerpts:

Dr. Lika, tell us about your early life. At what age did you decide that you will become an astrophysicist?

Well, that’s a tough one. When I was really young, I did not know astrophysics was a word. But, I certainly did know I was fascinated by the stars in the sky and wanted to know more about them and how they worked. It must have been very early, when I was 5 to 6 years old.

What is the Living With a Star program? I know you have helped create and lead the International Living With a Star program.

Living with a Star program is a fascinating name for a NASA program in that it actually describes the functionality of the program. We live with our star, the sun, and I know there are a lot of people who still do not think the sun is a star simply because we see it during the day. But this star essentially dominates every cubic inch of our environment, not just our planet, but every planet out into the Milky Way galaxy. Now the sun normally creates variability in our climate, something that is of great importance today but I am not going to talk about that as that’s not my area of specialty. We know terrestrial weather, when there is a snow storm or a hurricane, but what I study and the field that the Living with the Star Program created is another kind of weather: weather created in outside space known as space weather.

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This weather is actually driven by the variability of the magnetic field on the sun. This variability creates space weather, which is actually weather you cannot detect on radar because it is actually variability of particles and radiation that interact with technology of all sorts. In fact, if you have anything that has an on/off switch, that object can actually be vulnerable to a solar storm and that is what is space weather.

Space weather affects us outside of our terrestrial atmosphere but it can actually affect us on the ground. It can actually cause variability in power and can actually drive current that can trip transformers and create power outages. So, the consequences of severe and mild space weather [are] huge and it is huge for a technologically invested society and that’s where we are. From GPS, communication, navigation, satellite, to astronauts in space, everything is vulnerable to the variability of the sun and that is the essence of the Living with the Star Program.

What advice would you give to all the young women who want to pursue a career in your field or in the larger science field?

I would say to lead with passion. I think we heard lots of wonderful feedback from the community of entrepreneurs about whether you are a scientist or in business or policy, listen to yourself, listen to your gut. What is your passion? Don’t let anybody stop you, don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t do this because you are man, woman, short, tall, or whatever adjective they might come up with. Just follow your passion, follow it doggedly. Give it all you have, that’s what I would say.

Watch the interview:


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