All about Mars, diversity and STEM

On International Women’s Day, Swati Mohan, an ­Indian-American aerospace engineer who was the Guidance and Controls Operations Lead on the NASA Mars 2020 mission, transported the Rotarians in the room to the red planet with her insight into space ­science, and the importance of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) education for girls, at an interactive programme organised by RC Madras East, RID 3232, and the US Consulate General, Chennai. Alex Ave-Lallemant, chief of the Consular Section at the American Consulate, was also present at the event.

Rotarians in the audience broke into a cheer when Swati said that she was an Interactor in high school where “I first learned about community service and giving back. Initially, I thought it would strengthen my college application, but as I got more involved, it began to become a memorable experience that shaped my outlook of the world.”

Swati Mohan, Guidance and Controls Operations Lead on the NASA Mars 2020 mission, ­addressing members of RC Madras East. Also seen are (from L): Alex Ave-Lallemant, chief of the Consular ­Section, US Embassy, RCME president Babu Krishnamoorthy and secretary Revathi Sanjeev.

One of the activities that her Interact club was involved in was tutoring girls in math at local elementary schools. From this experience, she realised that “they found math difficult, not because they lacked the knowledge, but simply because they lacked confidence. It’s so easy for girls to lose confidence in their ability to do math and science, and that often happens at a very young age. So, if we want to encourage them to pursue STEM fields, we need to start early.”

The demand for skilled individuals in STEM fields, she noted, “is increasing as the world relies more on digital technologies. Recognising this crucial need, many organisations are actively promoting interest in STEM education among today’s youth. Our girls shouldn’t be left behind.”

She noted that when she started her career in space research, there were very few women in the field. Part of the reason for her speaking tour in India is that she wants to “pay it forward.” Her role as the mission commentator for the landing of the Perseverance rover in February 2021, “gave me a platform. I was fortunate to be selected as a commentator. The pandemic made it challenging with a mask covering my face. However, the bindi on my forehead bestowed the identity of an Indian woman, sparking both support and dissent, especially within the Indian community globally. Immigrants, women of colour, and minorities must see role models who break barriers, particularly in fields lacking diverse representation. I aim to inspire young girls so that they too can succeed in these areas,” Swati said.

Swati with schoolchildren.

Highlighting her NASA fellowship during her postgraduate programme, which provided not only financial support but also a strong sense of community and peer support, she said, “That network of peers and mentors can help navigate the complexities of academia and career paths, particularly in male-dominated fields like aerospace.” Swati  disclosed that she was pregnant when she was assigned to be part of the Mars mission. Insecurity crept in as she wondered if she could continue with the mission or would be transferred. “Luckily, I had a female boss who shared her motherhood journey. Support from peers during tough times plays a crucial role in maintaining motivation and confidence,” she said.

Answering a question on the future of space exploration, she said, “Space exploration holds the promise of ­fostering world peace. As nations ­collaborate on space missions, they nurture diplomatic relations and inspire unity.” Earlier in the morning Swati shared her Mars mission experience with 200 school students. She spoke to them about the choice of the Jezero crater for the Perseverance rover’s touchdown and highlighted the seven minutes of terror (a term used by NASA engineers to describe the entry, descent, and landing (EDL) phase of a Mars mission).

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