There has always been a dearth of women in the field of science despite their phenomenal talent. Vinita Marwaha Madill, an advocate for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), aims to not only work towards broadening this “acceptance”, but also to encourage young girls to realise their true passion and build on it.

Having grown up in the United Kingdom, the Indian-origin woman is currently based at the European Space Agency (ESA) where she is working on future human spaceflight projects as a Space Operations Engineer. Vinita has also been involved in spacesuit design for the ESA. Alongside holding several designations, Vinita, who is in her early-30s, has also started a platform, Rocket Women, to inspire women around the world and provide advice on working in the space and technology industries. SheThePeople.TV spoke with Vinita about Rocket Women, women in STEM, and how we can make the field an equal place.

How did you develop interest in science as a child?

As a child, I was an avid reader and read every space book I could get my hands on. I remember being an enthralled six-year-old when I learned that the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman, flew to the Mir space station. Here was a woman who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for UK astronauts, beat 13,000 applicants and had gone to space. She showed me that my dreams were possible. I’m also lucky to have had parents and great teachers around me who encouraged me to study space. My parents helped me greatly, taking me to the National Space Centre and the Science Museum in London on weekends to experience space hardware first-hand and let me spend hours reading about space.

“In that moment, looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Maybe, I could be an astronaut too. That changed something inside me”

What led to your career choice in space science?

I’m fortunate to have realised my passion at a young age and told my physics teacher in year seven that I wanted to work in NASA’s Mission Control. This drive was supported throughout my education and 12 years later, it led me to fulfilling my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Germany’s answer to NASA’s Mission Control, and now at the ESA. Knowing I wanted to work in the space industry, I learned about an organisation called SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), particularly UKSEDS, the UK chapter, while studying Physics at university. Through this, I met space professionals for the first time, some of whom I actually went on to work with. Rather than space being a dream, suddenly it felt attainable.

NASA Astronaut Zena Cardman brilliantly said: “If you wake up curious and excited every morning, you’re going to be really happy no matter what the end result is, whatever career you wind up in. Just pursue whatever interests you. I sit here in this blue flight suit, and I have to say it’s possible. So you just have to go for it.”

I’ve taken small steps over the last decade and through secondary school beforehand to be able to work in the space industry. One of the largest was completing a nine-week course called the Space Studies Program at the International Space University (ISU). This was a life-changing experience with daily lectures given by astronauts and space industry experts.

How did the idea of Rocket Women apparel line come up? 

I noticed that over the years, the number of women that progressed with me to ultimately choose a career in engineering decreased, something which is called the ‘leaky pipeline’ syndrome. Only 15 per cent of UK engineering graduates are female, with the number of women ultimately choosing engineering decreasing further. In India, IITs are reserving 14 per cent of the seats for women, aiming to encourage more women to apply in future.

Encouraging more girls to pursue engineering will help to fill this gap, ensuring that they make up 50 per cent of engineering talent and that we’re not missing out on the talent available. The Rocket Women apparel collection was born from a desire to make a difference

Proceeds from Rocket Women clothing will go towards a scholarship for young women who choose to study engineering and science. Representation matters and scholarships play a pivotal role in encouraging diverse talented individuals to pursue opportunities in STEM that may have not have had that chance otherwise.

Without the fortuity of scholarships myself, I would have never had been able to complete my studies internationally and to reach my goals in the space industry. With the Rocket Women, we want to empower women with our apparel and messaging to become Rocket Women, whilst also building opportunities for future young women through proceeds supporting a scholarship

How will Rocket Women inspire young girls and women to understand their passion and pursue it?

My passion, and the goal of my website Rocket Women is to inspire girls globally to consider a career in STEM. Outside of my career path in space, I realised there was something more. With Rocket Women, we’re focusing on outreach and I’ve been lucky to be involved in projects, including a campaign and round table with Instagram and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, highlighting the importance of education. During my career, I’ve met some amazing people — especially other positive female role models. I think you need those role models out there, tangible and visible, to be able to inspire the next generation of young girls to become astronauts, or be whatever they want to be. As Sally Ride, the first American woman in space, said, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s one of my favourite quotes and is absolutely true.

I started Rocket Women to give these women a voice and a platform to spread their advice. I’m interviewing women around the world in STEM, particularly in space, and posting the interviews on Rocket Women, along with advice to encourage girls to be involved in STEM

By featuring stories of women in STEM, we want Rocket-Women.com to give young women and girls the realisation that they can be astronauts or whatever they want to be. Our aim is to empower young women to choose a career in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) and achieve their dreams, so that we can improve the current percentage of female engineering talent.

We’re driven at Rocket Women by this powerful thought – Imagine what the world would look like if it reached 100% of its technological potential?

Vinita Marwaha Madill
Rocket Women Apparel | Credit: Marka Design and Red Bubble

What advice would you give younger girls about building a career in space science?

It’s possible to achieve your goal, whether it’s to work in the space industry or otherwise. It takes hard work and dedication, but it’s absolutely worth it. The experience I gained from a comprehensive view of the space industry at the International Space University and through focused internships/volunteering helped to forge the path to where I am now. I think almost everyone I know working in the space industry and otherwise has felt like their future career was unknown at times, but pursuing your passion and persevering is important, whether you’re able to do that in your main job or even as a side hustle or volunteering role.

It’s important to enjoy the subjects that you study and the work that you’re doing. So I’d recommend graduates to really pay attention to what their passion is for

Your blog A Space Suit that Squeezes, was quite popular. Please share with us any one incident/experience that changed your life or made you change your perception regarding a situation? 

On seeing British astronaut Helen Sharman in a library book at such a young age, she became a role model to me. Knowing that there had been a British female astronaut helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger.

I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human spaceflight, and eventually I did. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me

There had been a female British astronaut and maybe there could be again. I knew that it was possible. Through featuring advice and stories of women in STEM globally in addition to creating a scholarship, I want Rocket Women to give other girls and women around the world that same realisation that they can have a career in STEM and achieve their dreams.

What do you think is required globally to attract more women towards STEM?

Girls decide to leave STEM by the age of 11, when there’re in an education system where the choice of subjects severely limits their options for working in other fields later on. We need to change the typical stereotype of a space engineer or someone who works in tech and STEM is usually male and nerdy.

MIT Professor Dava Newman rightly said that you don’t have to be the “best in maths and science” or the top of your class, “you just have to want to help humankind. That should be the passion”

Many men and women who work in STEM don’t consider themselves a stereotypical ‘nerd’. Girls also need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy, or simply smart. In fact, as an increasing number of jobs incorporate at least a moderate level of technical skills, it’s going to be necessary for girls to learn to code and feel comfortable in a technical environment in order to succeed and thrive in any chosen career. There also seems to be a disconnect between girls in particular wanting to make a difference and knowing the impact that a career in STEM can make.

To do STEM you don’t have to be the best, just be proficient in the work that you do, and most importantly, enjoy it

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