Acoustics is an important factor in determining the overall environmental impact of the aviation industry; and investigating designs and ways to reduce the noise of an aircraft is an ongoing topic of research towards the larger goal of sustainable aviation. 

Swati Saxena, our next pathbreaker, Research Scientist at NASA Ames Research Center (California), works on long-term challenging problems in the area of commercial aviation, especially next generation air traffic management and concepts to support sustainable aviation.

Swati talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about being exposed to experimental and computational projects on wind tunnels during her BTech (Aerospace) at IIT Kanpur, that led her to a PhD in Aeroacoustics and a career in Aeroengines/Aerodynamics with a focus on sustainability.

For students, the building blocks of your professional career are shaped by the most difficult problems you choose to solve, and the new opportunities that arise from them !

Swati, tell us what were your growing up years like?

I come from a small town called Lalitpur located in the Bundelkhand region of the state of Uttar Pradesh. The region is very rich in history and is famous for the Queen “Rani” of Jhansi, Laxmi Bai, who is still remembered for her valor and fight against the British for India’s Independence and is greatly respected. She is an inspiration to all the young girls in the region. One of the public schools I went to was named after her. I mention her here as this story left a deep impression on my mind since childhood and I always believed that women could achieve great heights and do anything they put their minds to. 

I was very active in extracurricular activities in my school days such as dance, drama, debate, speech, and sports. I was the Head Girl of my school. My hobbies were painting, playing table tennis, dance and astronomy. I used to collect good books on astronomy and tried to grab any opportunity I could get for attending astronomy related events and stargazing. My father is a physician, and my mother is a teacher in a degree college. There was huge emphasis in our family on studies and we were always encouraged to study hard and score well. I was always ranked first in my class all the way to high school. I scored 23rd rank in the entire state in the 10th UP Board exams and scored 10th rank in the entire state in the 12th UP Board exams. After completing my tenth grade, I opted for Mathematics as opposed to Biology as I wanted to pursue my interest in astronomy. I really didn’t know at that time that I would eventually become an Aerospace Engineer and work for NASA.  

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

After completing my high-school, I prepared for engineering entrance exams including IIT-JEE and got selected into the BTech program at IIT Kanpur. I opted for Aerospace Engineering as my major. IIT Kanpur gave me exposure to world class academic and extracurricular facilities. The faculty at IIT Kanpur taught us to solve real world problems and pursue excellence in whatever we do. The knowledge I gained at IIT has always helped me in my career. After completing my undergraduate degree from IIT Kanpur with a Gold Medal, I went to the United States for post-graduate studies. I completed my Masters in Science and PhD degrees in Aerospace Engineering from the Pennsylvania State University.

What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and uncommon career?

I have always been passionate about science and physics since childhood. I loved astronomy and was always learning about planets, the solar system and the universe. This intrigued my interest in aircrafts, rockets, satellites and other aerospace vehicles. The biggest turning point in my studies was my selection in the IIT and my enrollment in the Aerospace Engineering program at IIT Kanpur. 

IIT Kanpur has the best facilities and resources in India when it comes to Aerospace Engineering. It has its own air strip and the flight lab which owns several aircrafts and gliders. We were taught by some of the best faculty in engineering. During my undergraduate studies, I did my internship at the defense agency DRDO in Bangalore where I got a good exposure about different aeronautical projects and programs India has. 

We also visited different aeronautical facilities and establishments in India as part of our engineering curriculum. This exposure gave me a very good understanding of this field and helped me in making future career choices.

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

While at IITK, I worked on both experimental and computational projects throughout my course work and my final year project. IITK has a low-speed wind tunnel which is the largest wind tunnel of its kind in India. Several companies and government agencies use this tunnel to do their experiments. My final year project was to test and validate a new design for a vertical axis wind turbine, and working through the entire project gave me a very good understanding of the process of product design, build, test and validation. It was very rewarding to work with not only experienced researchers but very skilled technicians as well. 

My MS project at Penn State was funded by the Boeing Company and as part of my MS research work, I developed a numerical algorithm to predict the non-linear propagation of jet noise in the atmosphere. My work received the Best Student Paper Award at the annual AIAA Aeroacoustics conference which is the largest professional conference in this domain. 

Acoustics is an important factor in determining the overall environmental impact of the aviation industry and investigating designs and ways to reduce the noise of an air-vehicle is an ongoing topic of research. Reduction in the overall noise contributes towards the goal of sustainable aviation. 

After completing my MS, I continued to pursue my PhD at the same university as I got an opportunity to continue the work on developing noise prediction methods for jet noise through the project funded by the aircraft engine manufacturer, Pratt & Whitney. During my PhD research, I developed a computational model to predict noise from commercial aircraft engines and proposed methods to reduce the noise. 

During my graduate studies in the US, I attended several professional conferences which exposed me to different government and private industries in this field and about different professional options.

A summer internship at Ansys, an engineering software company, gave me exposure in the corporate environment. During my PhD studies, I received graduate assistantship and a couple of scholarships including the prestigious Amelia Earhart Fellowship for Women in Aerospace which was highly encouraging and further motivated me to pursue my career in this field. 

After my PhD, I received a full-time job offer from GE Global Research center in New York which is a very well-known research lab. I got an opportunity to work with very experienced and knowledgeable people in the area of gas turbine engines and went on to work on several challenging problems related to aircraft and power gas turbine engines.  I worked on solving real-world problems like the impact of icing on engine performance and the degradation of gas turbine components due to operation in hot and harsh environments (regions with high concentration of sand and dust in the atmosphere). Another interesting topic I worked on was how to use water ingestion in land based gas turbines to increase the power output on a hot day. My work was published in several international conferences and journals. I was also granted two patents on developing designs for reducing the impact of sand ingestion and icing on engines while working at GE. 

After spending five years at GE Research, I joined ESI Group as a Business Development Lead for Aerospace in North America. This role gave me exposure on the business aspect of the industry and gave me an opportunity to learn about other areas such as additive manufacturing, electric vehicles and electric propulsion. 

After working at ESI Group for a year, I joined Ansys as the Technical Director for Aerospace and Defense in North America and led the technical engagements with aerospace companies such as Boeing and the US Air Force. Ansys engineering simulation software is used by all major primes and aviation companies for designing and testing their products. I was responsible for leading the technical projects between Ansys and the aerospace companies. 

Recently, I have joined NASA Ames Research Center as a chief engineer for one of the aeronautics projects and have been working on next generation concepts for sustainable aviation by optimizing and upgrading operations for commercial crewed and uncrewed air vehicles. My work at NASA involves providing technical guidance to the ongoing aeronautical projects, performing research, writing proposals and publishing our work. 

How did you get your first break?

I would call getting a full-time position at GE Research Center as my first break after completing my studies. My close collaboration with companies like Boeing and Pratt & Whitney during my graduate studies helped me in getting a position at GE. The work I did during my MS and PhD prepared me for the real-world problems in the aviation industry. GE Research opened up several learning opportunities for me and gave me a platform to grow and perform. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

When I started to work at GE, I was new to gas turbine design. My PhD was in fluid dynamics and aero-acoustics. It was a steep learning curve for me to learn about gas turbine design, tools and processes. I spent the first few months learning about turbomachinery, its design tools and the processes followed at GE. I talked to the subject matter experts and spent time reading papers on this topic. I believe that any challenge can be overcome by hard work and perseverance. Keep taking small steps and making progress. 

Another challenge I would like to highlight is about my work at Ansys where I was working with a large Aerospace company on several challenging projects. We had to align our resources and experts to support the customer. It required several follow-up meetings and discussions to come up with the implementation plan.

A typical challenge in my field of work would include coming across a difficult problem. It could be technical or related to process or people. The approach that I generally follow is to do a deep dive into the issue, brainstorm ideas, involve key stakeholders and come up with a viable solution to address the problem. 

Where do you work now? What problems do you solve?

My work at NASA involves solving long-term challenging problems in the area of commercial aviation, especially next generation air traffic management and concepts to support sustainable aviation. In addition to the traditional commercial aircrafts, airspace will be shared by other air-vehicles such as drones, uncrewed air vehicles and passenger air vehicles to support urban air mobility in the future. This poses additional challenges for air traffic management. My job is to come up with solutions to solve these challenges and make airspace operations more efficient by using machine learning and AI methods.  

What’s a typical day like?

A typical day includes attending meetings related to the on-going projects and programs and making sure the progress is being made towards project goals. I spend some time every day working on research ideas and proposals on topics specifically related to sustainable aviation.

The thing I love the most about my job is that I get to work on future concepts, and shape and guide the vision of aviation research several years down the line. I am passionate about this field and am very fortunate to be able to get an opportunity to work on something I love.   

How does your work benefit society? 

All the projects that I have worked on so far have contributed to the betterment of people’s lives through technology. Be it making the engines more efficient, or optimizing the air traffic management, I am working on making people’s life more comfortable and productive while focusing on the sustainability aspect of solutions. My work has been targeted towards reducing the environmental impact of aviation, which I am very proud of.  

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

There are quite a few projects that I feel good about but if I must choose one, I will mention the work I did on engine icing. We developed a novel computational method that was able to capture the dynamic behavior of the compressor under icing conditions. I also proposed a design to make the engine icing-resistant for which a patent was awarded. The work was published in international conferences and journals. 

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice to students is that you should follow your passion, work hard, push boundaries and don’t hesitate to ask for support and advice. Pick up difficult problems and work towards solving them. These will become the building blocks of your professional career and will open up new opportunities for you.

Future Plans?

I would like to continue to work on challenging problems related to aeronautics and would like to continue to contribute to the advancement of aero-sciences through research. Teaching is something I really enjoy as well, and I would like to use opportunities to teach engineering students in the US and in India. I am an ardent supporter of women’s education and would like to encourage and support girls to pursue their passion and become independent through whatever means I can. I plan to take out more time for volunteering activities in the future and become more active in driving women empowerment initiatives.