Shireen Datta

Graduate student in Aerospace Engineering; Georgia Institute of Technology

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Please go for any and all opportunities that come your way, and actively look for more from as young an age as you can!

What do you do?

I currently study some of the very cool and complex technologies in aerospace engineering, i.e. the behind-the-scenes of airplanes and spaceships! There are an amazing number of different disciplines involved in this area, more of which I hope to explore in the future, but right now I'm interested in and working on the following concepts.

Flight mechanics and controls, which investigates how humans can help flying things to do their job, i.e. takeoff, keep flying steady and finally land safely. Systems design and optimization, which looks at the 'big picture' view of air/spacecraft operation and aims to improve the overall performance by creating effective interactions between components. Lastly, space physiology, which explores how human biology reacts to being in space and on other celestial bodies. I'm specifically interested in the cognitive aspect of this, i.e. how our brains adapt to extraterrestrial environments, and the impact on our self-awareness and decision making skills.

Why did you choose this field?

As a school student, my favorite subjects were always physics, art, and graphic design/technical drawing. The idea of engineering was floating in my mind for a while, but my specific passion for aviation and aerospace didn't really show up until one fine day in 2012. Charles Bolden, then-administrator of NASA, gave a talk in Dublin about the near future of Mars exploration... his infectious enthusiasm and charisma inspired me to begin learning more about spaceflight. A few months later, Curiosity landed on Mars and the sheer excitement of JPL's engineers in the mission control room was enough to completely sell me into the idea!

In recent years, I have come to realise that even though this is a technical field, there are endless opportunities to bring my love for art into my career. In fact, due to the extreme complexity of systems in aviation/spaceflight, creativity is often essential to technological advancement.

What do you look at and think, "I wish younger me would have known this was possible"?

Having experienced some significant road blocks in school, I lost hope since I thought academics was the only thing I was good at. This did throw my career plans off-track for a while, but I knew I had two options... be comfortable where I was and adjust my goals to this new path, or roll my sleeves up and fight to get forward to where I knew I deserved to be.

I want younger me to be proud of not only the person I become throughout my career, but also of the journey I am taking to get there. I wish I knew then that failure usually comes with a choice, and that eventually I would make the right choice to keep striving towards my goals. I will soon be doing research work at one of the most prestigious aerospace systems labs in the US, an opportunity that would have seemed like an impossible dream just four years ago.

Why do you love working in STEM?

Almost everyday that I'm in university or work, I find out that I know even less about my field than I thought I knew the day before. This ever-expanding pool of knowledge is what scares me the most sometimes - how am I meant to succeed when I feel like I know nothing? But it's also what inspires me the most to stay curious, stay humble and keep exploring.

I also love the aspects of STEM that combine the natural world with technology, and I believe that this type of innovation has incredible power to influence the future of humanity. Lastly, I love that collaboration is a significant driver in all STEM fields, regardless of how technical or complex the concepts might be. For me, this is an essential reminder that people and relationships are the building blocks of most successful advancements in society.

Best advice for next generation?

Please go for any and all opportunities that come your way, and actively look for more from as young an age as you can! We have been conditioned in school and childhood to follow the system set in place for us. Often that system is just not good enough to give us our best chance at succeeding in the area we want, especially STEM. You may be advised to only have goals that are "achievable" and apply to degrees/jobs that you're clearly qualified for.

If you want to be or do something, set that as a goal regardless of how far fetched it seems to be and then work towards it with laser focus. If life gets in the way, pause and get back to it as soon as you can - this is okay and does NOT mean you have failed. The only thing you lose by applying to jobs that you may be underqualified for is the time it takes to do the CV/cover letter/interview - which will help you develop anyway even if you don't get the offer! Tell people regularly about your passion and goals, and ask them for advice/feedback... you will be surprised how many people are willing to talk and share their perspectives.

Inspo quote / fun fact / role model

"I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul." - Invictus, W.E. Henley

NOMINATE a woman in STEM

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