On July 22, as the Chandrayaan 2 launches, a young scientist from Ahmedabad will be watching it keenly. In an exclusive interview to SheThePeople.TV, lunar scientist Dr. Megha Bhatt speaks about her research, why the Chandrayaan 2 mission is crucial and the scientific studies she will conduct once the data from the mission comes in. Bhatt, a scientist working in the Planetary Sciences Division at Physical Research Laboratory in Ahmedabad spoke about her contribution to the space mission which will come into play after the data from Chandrayaan-2 is available to the scientists.

“It takes some time because the data-set has to be cross-calibrated and validated before providing it to the scientific community,” she added. This is the first time India will send a lunar lander to the surface carrying a six-wheeled roving robot—a lunar probe that has only been achieved by the US, the USSR and China in the past.

She was an unlikely entrant into the world of scientific research, but her fascination for space was what drove her in her quest to explore the universe. Dr. Bhatt’s story is that of an underdog who transformed into excellence in STEM. While numbers of women in science may show slow growth, Bhatt is here to change this reality as she says that her only ambition was to work in science in her home country.

Her work with Chandrayaan-2

Now what interests Bhatt the most is something all of us might have pondered over at some point in our lives- what are the kinds of elements found on the exterior surface of Moon. “My interest lies in mapping the major lunar elements and mineral exposures at the topmost layer of the Moon surface, which provides insights on the mechanisms that governed the formation of the Moon and its subsequent internal differentiation. It’s interesting to know elemental abundances of surface for example how much amount of Iron, magnesium, titanium etc. is there and if this combination is present on the surface then what could its condition be at the time of the origin of this body?” Bhatt explained, matter-of-factly adding that she will be continuing her research in the similar direction using Chandrayaan-2 datasets in addition to other lunar missions’ observations in collaboration with other planetary scientists.

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The story of her progress from a small town 

While this may make Bhatt sound a bit of a nerd, which she definitely is, but the sweetness in her voice as we spoke in a telephonic call makes her comes across as an extremely humble and a family-oriented person who is balancing both the worlds with absolute élan. In fact, in her journey of becoming a scientist, she broke several stereotypes first of which is of not being a school topper. According to her, she was an average student and the weakest academic performer among her siblings (a brother and a sister), both of who are also scientists in their own right.

I think the reason I could reach up to this level was because I have always been very dedicated and sincere. I knew that if a person with a brilliant mind can solve a question in about two hours, probably I would need three hours for the same. But I have always been ready to put in as many hours as required.

Bhatt originally belongs to Gujarat, but she grew up in a small town of Kymore in Katni district of Madhya Pradesh because her father worked in a cement factory there. “My siblings have always been toppers in school and I wasn’t even in the top five in my class. But during my graduation and post-graduation, I did have an inclination to do PhD either in instrumentation or in astrophysics,” said she. The scientist finished her schooling in Kymore in 1999 and then went for her graduation and post-graduation in a Jabalpur University up until 2004.

“I think the reason I could reach up to this level was because I have always been very dedicated and sincere. I knew that if a person with a brilliant mind can solve a question in about two hours, probably I would need three hours for the same. But I have always been ready to put in as many hours as required. During PhD, there are several times when one feels like giving up but I always pushed through the tough times. Secondly, mentally I felt peaceful because of the strong support my family provided me with and it stands true for both my genetic family and my in-laws.”

She added that without her family’s support it wouldn’t have been possible to continue her work, as women have so many responsibilities. “We cannot really progress until and unless we have a family standing as a rock behind us to support us,” said Bhatt, whose dream was to work for ISRO once in her lifetime. And that dream did come true.

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Her professional journey   

In 2006, she was selected for Junior Research Fellow of ISRO at Space Applications Centre, Ahmedabad. “It was a very proud moment for me because I really wanted to work for ISRO where I assisted in some projects. This gave me the practical knowledge that I required, as my graduation and post-grad education was only restricted to theoretical knowledge. My time at SAC inspired my curiosity to proceed in the direction of lunar science.”

I came back to India after doing PhD in Germany because I always had it clear to me that I am going abroad only for higher education and will return back to work here.

While she was at SAC, a team from Germany came there and she happened to meet the Principal Investigator of the payload for which they had come to work on. They saw Bhatt’s interest in it and asked her to come and work at the prestigious Max Plank Institute for Solar System Research (MPS). She later on applied for a PhD scholarship in the same institute and completed it in 2012.

Bhatt was clear about two things in life—that she wants to work in lunar science and that she wants to work in India. She said that since her college time, she was always fascinated by our national space research program. “I came back to India after doing PhD in Germany because I always had it clear to me that I am going abroad only for higher education and will return back to work here.”

“Family support is the backbone of my career”

Her family has clearly been the backbone to Bhatt’s progress in her scientific career and talking about her parents she said that even in her childhood, her parents always motivated her and her siblings’ interest in whatever they wished to do.  “In our home, my parents always stressed on education, as my mother was a teacher and father an instructor in a cement firm, and they had faced a lot of struggles. My mother’s parents, in fact, let her study Microbiology in a city far off from their village, as in those days only one college in entire Gujarat offered the course. My grandparents sent my mother to live in a hostel to study. Similarly, my parents wanted us to do better than them.

My time at SAC inspired my curiosity to proceed in the direction of lunar science.

Talking about women taking up science fields and what helps them, she said, “It depends more on our upbringing as I got the kind of exposure because of the openness shown by my parents. If we give that kind of exposure and freedom to develop in a particular career to girls then definitely, we’ll see more women in all professions.”

How can we save women from mid-career dropouts?

On mid-career drop outs of women scientists, she elucidated, “I took a break too in the midst of my career to plan my family and it is required too. Women have this extra social responsibility of raising a child but we can handle it very well if we have family support.  For me, my mother or my mother-in-law is always at home. Once you know that your child is in safe hands, you’ll be able to concentrate on your work better.”

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Having a curious child

Bhatt’s son who currently studies in first grade already knows that Moon is a satellite. She said that she want him to choose a different career than sciences. “We have such an environment today, I sometimes feel that I never knew Moon is a satellite up until my primary education but this fellow, he knows and also what an artificial satellite does, etc. He shows great interest in science and asks scientific questions like why the earth is round? And if it rotates then why do we not fall off it? So, this is the kind of curiosity he has. When children ask us questions and if we don’t know the answer to them, we shouldn’t hesitate from saying no. But then we should also look for answers and satisfy their curiosity.”

“I think why I could reach up to this level was because I have always been very dedicated and sincere. I knew that if a person with a brilliant mind can solve a question in about two hours and probably, I would need three hours for the same but I have always been ready to put in as many hours as required. During PhD, there are several times when one feels like giving up but I always pushed through the tough times.

Reactions on telling others that she is a scientist

The most memorable reaction that Bhatt got on telling people that she was a lunar scientist was when she went for an outreach programme just outside Bangalore during her PhD. “We visited several primary and middle schools in nearby villages of Bangalore. In some of the places, children actually used to climb mountain or sometimes longer distances to come to school and their main attraction was to get one free mid-day meal every day.”

She was leading the project named Khagol Rath aiming to encourage astronomy and higher studies among those children. There she met several kids who would come to ask her what she worked on and when she told them it was the Moon. It peaked their level of surprise. “That was the first time I felt that I was doing something good because sitting in your office and working with intellectuals you tend to forget what impact your work has until you meet people outside of your zone. There are black dark spots on Moon visible from Earth. Kids were curious to see Moon through naked eyes and through telescope”.

Bhatt’s absolute perseverance to become a lunar scientist should inspire parents to tell their girls that it is possible to reach the Moon. Her grit to take up challenges and turn them into opportunities is a story of success in itself. Women like Bhatt can solely motivate a whole generation of girls to take up STEM and aim for the Moon.

Also Read: Anouska Streets On Why Gender Imbalance Is Still Significant In STEM

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