For Astronomer, Shweta Kulkarni sky is literally the limit. But, considers herself a combination of science and creativity. Shweta has dabbled in theatre, graphic designing and finally film editing. Filling the walls of her home with painting is also one of her hobbies. Having learnt film making for her very first astronomy course, so far, she has worked for more than 100 videos and films.

Twenty Three-year-old Shweta became a fellow at the London-based premier Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) as an undergrad. SheThePeople.TV catches up.

How did astronomy happen to you? What inspired you to pursue the most exciting yet still underrated field for women

I was awfully bad at Math in school and Science often confused me. I always wished I could study only astronomy. Ironically, Astronomy was part of Geography so it was my favourite subject in the school. To understand the formulae in my Physics book, I used to mostly relate it to astronomy and that worked great for me. I was more inclined towards literature and creative stuff in my school days. No one would have thought that I would take to Astronomy in later years.

“Whenever I talked about astronomy, it was thought to be just a hobby. It is still treated as a hobby in our society which really isn’t the case.”

As a kid, I learned how Rakesh Sharma sang “Sare Jahaan Se Achha Hindustan Hamara” when he saw our country from the space and that just made me want to go into space. I wanted to see how the earth looks from space.

“Dr Jocelyn Bell Burnell is a woman, I had always looked up to. She has discovered the Pulsar-a type of star. Her struggle to peruse science has inspired me.”

Just as my interest in being an astronaut was growing, the news of Kalpana Chawla’s death took over. I started reading about her and how she became an astronaut. Astronomy books became my friends. I was in awe of the mysteries of the universe and one day I got an opportunity to attend a talk by Dr Jayant Naralikar. I was in the sixth standard back then. His speech inspired me and I decided that when I grow up, I want to do something related to astronomy.

“Sunita Williams had just gone on expedition 14 which was enough to trigger me to take my first steps in the field.”

I then started attending stargazing programs and astronomical lectures. In 2011, on my 16th birthday, my parents finally bought me a telescope as they realised my deep and constant interest in astronomy.

Shweta Kulkarni, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society Director of AstronEra
Shweta with her telescope

READ: Meet Katie Bouman, The Scientist Behind The First Black Hole Image

What is AstronEra. What was the idea behind it?

AstronEra is world’s first astronomy dedicated eLearning platform, co-founded by Shweta Kulkarni

The same year there was going to be a total lunar eclipse and I invited my friends and family to watch through the telescope. About 60 people showed up that evening on my  terrace and that really boosted my confidence. Next, I decided to do stargazing programs with the name Astron. Until 2013, we did a couple of such programs with no profit no loss. I wanted to reach out to people and tell them whatever I knew. Back then, I never thought I was going to be an entrepreneur. It was simply my hobby and my parents totally supported it.

Shweta Kulkarni, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society Director of AstronEra
Shweta and Nimish stargazing in England

In 2013, at 18, I registered Astron as an activity under a non-profit organisation, “SHK Trust,” officially becoming a CEO with my partner Nimish Aage. He was doing his graduation in photography, and so I also got familiar with the camera and editing software. We made some short films together. Eventually, an idea took birth in our minds. What if, we make such astronomy videos? We would reach out to more people. We wanted to expand our boundaries.

“I have a team of about 20 people from various streams and backgrounds. Of them, about 12-13 are women, however, it is hard to find a women astronomer.”

Dr Raghunath Mashelkar and Dr Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary of Department of Science and Technology (DST), Government of India, guided me in this journey. I brainstormed my idea with them. We were the youngest people proposing through a very small organisation, yet, we were awarded the grant from DST to produce astronomy videos.

In all this process, Nimish and I both received a lot of international exposure. Soon after this, I was selected in IIMB’s women start-up program. My start-up idea of creating an astronomy dedicated eLearning platform was selected for incubation and then AstronEra was launched in 2018.

Also Read: Where are the women leaders in science?

Becoming a stellar Indian woman to join the RAS as a fellow. How does it feel?

I study at the University of Central Lancashire and my professor recommended my name to the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS). Very few Indians  have been awarded this fellowship, including Dr Jayant Naralikar. It is an honour. Becoming a Fellow RAS has opened some great avenues for me. I am now eligible for lots of new grants for popularisation of astronomy and for the research.

Shweta Kulkarni, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society Director of AstronEra
Shweta’s workstation

Do you face any struggle with sponsorship? 

I have received grants from central as well as the state government, so those keep me going with my passion. However, it’s hard to crack private sponsors.

What drives you towards astronomy?

The vastness! I love how in astronomy, you cannot set up an experiment and you have to be alert about what’s happening because it’s an observational science.

It’s the base of all science and with the understanding of astronomy, you gain a scientific temper. It gives you a whole new perspective and you can become a better human being!

Shweta Kulkarni, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society Director of AstronEra
Shweta’s astrophotography – Startrail and telescope.

Humankind is just a species and if you even step on the moon, the earth will look small! It is then that you realise how massive this universe is, you forget all the politics, all the religions and casts and anything that divides us.

Also Read: Meet The Women From India’s Mars Mission

As an astro-entrepreneur, what are your biggest challenges?

Being too young, dreaming too big, being too bold, these and many more tags have been my biggest challenges to deal with. I started when I was just 16 and was considered all the above and so, “over smart” to have embarked on this journey. The only struggle I face is to convince people that Astronomy is not a hobby. Since Astronomy is not considered as a mainstream educational subject, people think it’s not important enough.

The biggest challenge of all was school and college. When my passion wasn’t taken seriously, and I was rather the odd girl out.

“My teachers used to constantly accuse my parents of my ignorance towards studies as they didn’t think astronomy was ever going to take me anywhere.”

Now, after spending almost eight years by myself, trying to build my own empire, all this doesn’t matter. I still struggle to make my way through in many ways, but I know I have faced many challenges till now and I can face more on the way!

  • Core passion: My passion is to make India a mark on this tiny pale blue dot floating in this massive universe.
  • Long term vision: I want to make the knowledge of astronomy easily accessible to everyone. For the betterment of not just us, not just our kids but for the humankind.

Understanding the basics of astronomy is a great way to develop a scientific temper. The massiveness gives you a whole new perspective towards life.

With the same thought, we have recently provided our online courses in Marathi and Hindi to 500 tribal schools in Maharashtra in association with the Tribal Development Department, Government of Maharashtra. We hope that through these courses, scientific temperament will be incubated in the tribal students and eventually wipe out superstitions.

Shweta Kulkarni, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society Director of AstronEra
Shweta with her tribal volunteers and Dr Mashelkar

What are the chances for girls in the country to pursue Astronomy? Do they get as much exposure and enthusiasm as they deserve?

Astronomy is considered a science only of the nights. It’s not considered as a mainstream career path. I think rather than expecting to get the exposure from others, they should take a step ahead into the field. Their enthusiasm matters the most. It’s the lack of awareness of the field that keeps them from the opportunities in the field.

Many students are not able to pursue a course in Astronomy due to lack of basic information about various aspects and branches of Astronomy in spite of other factors  being favourable. The right orientation and information in an organised manner are required.

Shweta Kulkarni, Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society Director of AstronEra
Shweta Kulkarni, Director of AstronEra

The Indian Constitution provides for a fundamental duty of the citizens to develop a scientific temper under Article 51(h). In India, the lack of ‘Astronomy Culture’ in masses is a roadblock for our country moving on a progressive path.

However,  it is heartening to see a lot of women scientists in ISRO working hard on our space missions and a lot of initiatives are being taken, all around the globe to involve more women in the field of Astronomy.

Pictures Credit: Shweta Kulkarni

Read More Stories By Ria Das

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