Space technologies in the last few decades have dealt with the challenges related to unmanned missions to distant planets. But the future ushers in a new era focused on Manned Missions, bringing in the complexities of Human Physiology in space !

Siddharth Pandey, our next pathbreaker, Head of Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology at Amity University Mumbai, manages research groups that undertake field, lab and modeling based approaches to study how life evolves and grows in harsh conditions on earth and in microgravity environments.

Siddharth talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being exposed to Space Biology at top notch space organizations, completing his PhD in Aerospace and deciding to work towards establishing a research center that focuses on Science, Education, and Technology Development related to Space.

For students, studying the effects of Space on life is not just an academic pursuit but a pragmatic puzzle that every space agency aims to solve before they embark on a long term manned mission!

Siddharth, tell us about your background?

I grew up as a Navy kid, living in different Naval bases where my father would be posted. I spent a lot of time in Mumbai and then in New Delhi. Schooling across 7 different schools between classes 1 and 12, gave me the skill to be able to adjust to new environments and make friends as well as focus on studies and extracurricular activities. I played cricket till class 9 and then took up basketball which I played at University level in first year of college. I actively took part in quizzes. I was always interested in flying objects and had a distant interest in space as well. But I was only able to realize this interest after coming across the Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003 where 7 astronauts lost their lives as they were returning from Space. That news coverage shook me up and made me curious to read more about people who sacrifice their lives for humanity, not just for themselves or their countries. The challenge and adventure in the field attracted me to it and i decided at the age of 14 that I wanted to take up Aerospace Engineering. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

I studied Aerospace Engineering at Bachelor level at Amity University Noida from 2006-2010. From there, I got selected for a Research Fellowship position at Aerospace Engineering Department at IIT Bombay. Subsequently, I applied and got selected for a master’s program in Aerospace Engineering at Technical University of Delft, Netherlands. During my Masters, I got an opportunity to work at NASA Ames Research Center as a summer intern. My work involved designing biological experiments to be flown on the International Space Station. I was also able to study Astrobiology and get mentored by some of the senior scientists at the Space Sciences Division at NASA Ames. I was given a research position at NASA Ames and was able to complete my master’s while I was in the US. Subsequently, I completed my research work and decided to further specialize and get a PhD in Aerospace Engineering. I applied and received a full scholarship to do a PhD at University of New South Wales in Canberra, Australia. I submitted my Master thesis in Delft, Netherlands in May 2014 and in August of that year moved to Australia. I worked on my PhD from 2014 till 2018, while also undertaking Astrobiology research in New Zealand and in India. Upon completion of my PhD, I returned to India in April 2018 and took a few months of break to spend time with my family. I then spent a month at NASA Ames Research Center as a visiting researcher in Oct-Nov 2018. I was keen to establish Astrobiology Research in India and was selected by Amity University to establish a new Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology at Amity University Mumbai. This centre was founded in February 2019 and in the past 18 months has established research projects and mentors students in Astrobiology related fields. 

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

I was strongly influenced by the story of Kalpana Chawla, NASA Astronaut. Moreover, my father and Wing Commander RS Tarnacha, was former Head of Department, Aerospace Engineering, Amity University, Uttar Pradesh 

I think one of the major turning points was The Space Shuttle Columbia Disaster in 2003 in which 7 astronauts lost their lives as they were returning from Space

A family trip to Ladakh in June 2008 gave me time to retrospect, think about my life trajectory, the natural landscape and last but not the least, the clear dark skies laid an impression. 

I was close to failing in 2 subjects in my 1st year of undergraduate studies. I was low on morale and did not know the way forward. A trip to Ladakh as well as constant discussions with close friends and family kept me motivated towards my goal. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

I applied and got selected for a summer internship for 2 months at IIT Bombay during my 3rd year at Amity. I also got selected for a 2-month attachment at HAL Nashik. I discussed it with my mentors and decided to take up the IIT Bombay internship as it would allow me to improve my modeling skills. I went ahead with it. The experience at an external institution helped improve my skills and confidence during my final year research project. Based on my good performance, I was invited for an interview after graduating from Amity for a junior Research fellowship at IIT Bombay. I passed the interview and was 1 out of 2 students selected out of over 20 candidates. This 1 year stop gap helped me further improve my modeling skills, experience life on an IIT campus and get a good recommendation letter. This letter is very important while applying to top schools for admission for Master programs. 

During my Masters program, I was curious and spent a lot of time visiting different labs, talking to researchers from different disciplines. I was constantly thinking about what it was that I really was fascinated about. This led me to attend a seminar by a NASA Langley researcher. I interacted with him after the seminar and was invited to apply for a summer internship position at NASA Ames Research Center. I wasted no time and immediately applied for it, and was selected after a Skype interview. Even then, I could not just pack my bags and fly to the USA. The NASA Security process as well as US Visa process took almost 6 months to materialize. I did not give up hope and kept following up and completing all the formalities. Good things take time 😊 

I was transitioning from an Aerospace Engineer to Space Systems Engineer, thereby using  my skills in Heat  Transfer, Propulsion, Aircraft Design and applying them to designing satellites, spacecraft hardware for planetary surfaces and experiments in space. This piece of clarity did  not come overnight, but was a product of  months and years of interactions and self-introspection. 

My first exposure to Space Biology was working on experiments on the International Space Station. I was part of the Space Biosciences Division, NASA Ames. While there, I also met with astrobiologists at the Space Science Division and we discussed ways in which I could put my engineering skills to use on Astrobiology projects. I was brought on board a project with Honeybee Robotics. This company works with NASA to design systems used on spacecraft to collect samples. I put together a project that allowed me to design new ways to collect Moon and Mars surface samples using pressurized gas to lift it and transport it within the spacecraft. I was able to make this a graduate research project in collaboration between NASA, Honeybee Robotics and TU Delft. I completed most of this work while I was at NASA Ames and then finished the rest in Delft, Netherlands. Here is an article: https://www.planetary.org/articles/20140430-swirly-planetvac

I received a few team awards from NASA for designing and building two space biology projects that were flown on the International Space Station. I was in charge of the design and development of the hardware and the integration for conducting the tests. 

For my PhD I was working on designing the thermal system of the European Mars rover ExoMars Rover 2022. The project was proposed by my supervisor who worked at Airbus Defence and Space in the UK where the rover is being built. The project involved studying the role of carbon dioxide in the Mars atmosphere that can be used to insulate the sensitive instruments in the Mars rover. I used computer models as well as conducted experiments inside a chamber to study how heat affects carbon dioxide at reduced pressures and temperatures. 

At the same time i took on 2 positions at MARS Society and Blue Marble (Research Scientist).

I Joined Bue Marble Space to collaborate with science outreach groups at NASA Ames to conduct field expeditions with students and teachers. First one was NASA Spaceward Bound India programme 2016, working to establish Astrobiology research in India 

I was associated with Mars Society North California Chapter since 2012 and joined the MSA in 2014. I was made a Director to facilitate Mars education workshops, help organize the Australian Space Research Conference 2015-2018 and Mars rover projects in Canberra, Australia. I worked under Dr Jonathan Clarke in helping define the Mars analogue research goals for NASA Spaceward Bound India programme 2016. 

And finally, i have taken up the role as head of Centre of Excellence for Astrobiology at Amity due to the freedom to establish a research centre that focuses on science, education, and technology development. This to me is my true calling, as compared to commercial efforts. I had been collaborating with Amity University since 2016 and was offered the position in 2019 January to head a new centre at Amity University Mumbai.   

How did you get your first break?

My first break in my view was the IIT summer internship that I found online and applied for it. The second break was interacting with the NASA scientist after his talk at TU Delft. 

What were the challenges in your career? How did you address them?

Challenge 1: Due to lack of background in a subject, i spent extra time learning it, getting experience from established labs and getting recommendation letters.

Challenge 2: Without coming from IIT, it can be hard to get admission. The solution is to spend time as summer intern  at IIT or similar institutions to make up for it. 

Challenge 3: To find information on opportunities, you have to actively look for such things online 

Where do you work now and what do you do?

I head the Centre of Excellence in Astrobiology at Amity University Mumbai.

I head different research groups that undertake field, lab and modeling based approaches to study how life evolves and grows in harsh conditions on earth and in microgravity environments. 

What skills are needed for your job? 

Interdisciplinary knowledge about Space sciences, Astrobiology, strong communication and project management skills, and strong research skills are some of the skills needed. These were acquired while pursuing my education and working at NASA. 

What’s a typical day like? 

It can be different each day, studying extreme life on Mars like environments on Earth (e.g. Ladakh) or designing a drill that will explore the south pole subsurface of the Moon or building an experiment that will be flown to space on an ISRO rocket. On many days it can be a lot of writing of articles, reports, funding grants as well as interacting with students and other faculty members. On some days, we get to go for field expeditions to places like Ladakh and Lonar crater. Or meeting professors at other universities and institutions. 

What is it you love about this job? 

The fact that I get to do what I love! Explore the planet and build technology for exploring the Universe. Also, the fact that I get to inspire students and the general public about the Universe.  

How does your work benefit society? 

The technology we develop for studying effects of space on life as well as technology to support humans on Moon and Mars is directly beneficial for us on Earth. Several medicines and materials being tested in Space will improve our lives on Earth. Technology to support Mars communities will first be used to support village communities living in arid, remote desert areas on Earth. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you! 

I helped build two experiments that were sent to the International Space Station on SpaceX3 and Space X-14 in 2014.

The mission of SpaceX-14 was to investigate the effects of the space environment on innate immunity, which is the branch of the immune system responsible for quick, non-specific responses to infection.

The mission of SpaceX-3 was to study the effects of spaceflight on the structure and function of the heart

Additional details in the link below:

https://www.nasa.gov/ames/research/space-biosciences/fruit-fly-lab-03-spacex-14/

And https://www.nasa.gov/ames/research/space-biosciences/heart-flies-spacex-3

The fact that I had built something with my own hands that was finally sent to space is an exciting and inspiring feeling! 

Your advice to students based on your experience? 

Always read and get familiar with the career paths of your influencers. Try to make short and long term goals. Be flexible but always have your path laid out in front of you. 

Keep an eye out on websites that list national and international scholarships. Subscribe to their mailing lists. Listen to interviews of successful people in your field, take notes. 

Build your network and maintain it, keep in touch with your old professors and friends.

Do what you love and you will find the way. Always plan for the best and leave the result to your efforts and thoughts. Do not take life as a race, everyone has their own paths to follow. 

Future Plans? 

I plan to establish this centre, achieve the set up of labs that support research scholars and students at Amity University. I wish to get few more years of research and management experience in Australia or USA and eventually move back to India to devote my time and energy for establishment of Space Science Research in the country.