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Indian-origin woman scientist heads to Antarctica, eyes space

Neha Banka
Priyanka Das Rajkakti in a zero gravity experience at CNES, the French government’s National Centre for Space Studies. (Source: Priyanka Das Rajkakti)

Priyanka Das Rajkakati, a 27-year-old woman, originally from Assam, has been selected for the fifth edition of ‘Homeward Bound’, a global initiative that conducts leadership expeditions for women in science to Antarctica. According to the French Embassy in India, of the 75 women selected for the programme from around the world, Rajkakati is one of the youngest women of Indian origin to be selected for the opportunity.

The one-year long programme starts in November this year where the participants, women with STEMM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine) backgrounds, will work on various aspects of the programme before leaving for a month-long trip to Antarctica in November next year.

Rajkakati, whose family is originally from Assam, lived in New Delhi till she moved to France for further studies and research. She graduated with a degree in Physics from St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi but had come close to studying product design instead at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. “I was always interested in art and science and I went to NID for a month but I shifted back to Delhi to study Physics at St. Stephen’s,” Rajkakati told indianexpress.com. After graduating from St. Stephen’s, Rajkakati joined École Polytechnique in France where she did a double masters in Artificial Intelligence and Aerospace Engineering.

After graduating from St. Stephen’s, Rajkakati joined École Polytechnique in France where she did a double masters in Artificial Intelligence and Aerospace Engineering. (Source: Priyanka Das Rajkakti)

Rajkakti says that she “always wanted to do a PhD” and she is at present pursuing one in precise satellite navigation at ISAE-Supaéro, a French research institute overseen by France’s Ministry of Defence. Her research work is being conducted in the Research and Development (R & D) team at Safran, a French company with interests in aerospace and defence, that has an industrial contract with ISAE-Supaéro.

Looking West

In her chosen field of work, there aren’t many women and Rajkakati is one of the luckier ones. “In my R&D team, I am the only woman,” she says of her work at Safran. Rajkakati also has big dreams—she says that she wants to “work in space” and would like to sit for an entrance exam for the European Space Agency. Rajkakati’s trip to Antarctica would provide useful training for those dreams. “Antarctica is a harsh environment and they look for these qualities in astronauts. Many astronauts train in Antarctica and I found this programme for STEMM,” says Rajkakati explaining why the Homeward Bound Antarctica Mission helps her get closer to space.

Rajkakti gave up her Indian citizenship three years ago and acquired a French passport which she says will help her work in her chosen field, especially in Europe. However, despite looking towards a future in the West, she says that she still has her eye on ISRO but the organisation doesn’t have any manned space missions planned as yet. Neither has she forgotten her interests in design and art, a field that she almost chose over STEMM.

Priyanka was part of a research in Cognitive Science. (Source: Priyanka Das Rajkakti)

Women in Science

Gender disparities continue to exist in STEMM fields today across the world and Rajkakti recalls how there were more women in the Physics programme that she was enrolled in at St. Stephen’s College in New Delhi, while there still aren’t enough women in IIT institutes across the country. Rajkakati also wants to join her interests in space, art and in bringing visibility for women in science. To do that, she has been working to create an initiative called ‘Girls Can Science’ in Guwahati, Assam, to raise awareness that girls too can find success in STEMM fields. “This is just to start small but I want it across Assam for girls who don’t have opportunities to study science,” she says of her ideas that are still in a nascent stage.