Communication Networks will form a critical component of future space programs, especially those involving involve long-term missions and human presence.
Shashikant Gupta, our next pathbreaker, R&D Team Lead at Nokia (Finland), works at the intersection of software, science and space communication technologies.
Shashikant talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about his exposure to research in Astronomy through the Erasmus Space Master Programme at some of the leading European universities and institutes across Germany, Sweden, and Finland.
For students, though we live in a non-ideal world, nurture your ideals and dreams by being resilient, because that is a sure shot way to achieve your ambitions, however improbable they might seem !
Shashikant, your background?
I have always been very curious and driven by a desire to know about the true nature of things. I think my interest in the core functionality of things probably started with the passion of my parents who have had careers in the educational field. My mother would often take me to gaze at the stars while trying to fall asleep. I think that was very intriguing and gave me a strong motivation to pursue the stars. When I was in middle school, my father got me a nice encyclopedia. I ate through every page of it and in the process realized what I really wanted to know about, to learn and figure out how and why nature works in its wonderful ways.
What did you do for graduation/post graduation?
I wanted to train my mental muscle to solve problems and thought software would give me a good start. I enrolled in a BTech program in Computer Science and Engineering at NIT Rourkela and then worked for a few years. But my calling was in Astronomy. I had pursued that since my bachelors and finally got a seat in the Erasmus Space Master programme. I got to study Space Science and Technology at some of the leading European universities and institutes across Germany, Sweden, and Finland with much needed scholarships of course. It was a multi-dimensional experience, and my family was very supportive along the way.
What were some of the influences that led you to such an offbeat, unconventional and unique career?
My biggest influence has to be my parents, who though unknowingly, and out of their own individual passions, gave me the tools to find my calling. I have also had a stream of mentors in my life, my teachers through school, institutes, universities and in the industry who gave me profound advice, opportunities and challenges that made me confident about what I could and cannot do. Eventually, I applied for space programs, and got into the one which was really a turning point for me.
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 got into this one internship during my bachelors, which was on telescope diagnostics software at RRI (Raman Research Institute) India. I also got a chance to get involved in some other tasks of telescope commissioning as well. Then I did an internship at IISc Bangalore that exposed me to scientific research in the supercomputing domain. With a strong software background and these experiences, I applied to the Space Master programme and got in! I was on top of the world studying rocket science and took up diverse projects and courses that sparked my interest. It opened many opportunities for me spanning software and space RDI and a chance to pursue research in Astronomy.
How did you get your first break?
I think my first break was this internship at RRI during the second year of my bachelors, I was so lucky to have it. It was my first experience with hands-on Astronomy. When you are so young in your career, the reviewers might not be looking for specific skills. They look for relevant education or experience matching with a passion for what they do. And it isn’t so difficult if you remember that it’s ultimately another human sitting on the other side of the screen, who wants to help you help them. So, I sent as many applications as I could, and even applied directly to people at my target institutes.
What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?
I think the first challenge is simply to try to find your passion by exposing yourself to simple experiences with different fields and different people.
The second is making time to pursue those passions, by getting involved and anticipating change. Besides the opportunity to succeed, I think one is often driven by a challenge and the fear of failure. It becomes like an existential crisis to drive out the comfort zone, burning and toiling with wakeful eyes until the goal is reached.
So, the third is to plan, take on risks and the challenge. I think these three will get one started. Challenges can be overcome by resiliently trying and trying again, remember ‘Man ke haare haar hai, man ke jeete jeet’; and all will be easy if it matches one of your passions. And most importantly, while anyone can succeed, on the way it’s easy to forget that you want the vital parts too: your health, money, and relationships. It’s good to remember that you need them.
Where do you work now?
I landed my first job in Europe at Nokia. Nokia has multi-disciplinary ambitions combining software and space SciTech, and had been selected by NASA to establish a 4G/LTE network on the Moon! That perked up my interests, they recognized my background, and it was a quick interview for a position in 4G/LTE R&D.
And my ever-lasting passion for science led to my pursuits of a class of bright galaxies harbouring a Black Hole at their heart.
How does your work benefit society?
I’m interested in software and science, and I think both have brought revolutions.
Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!
I think that would be in the software industry. Once when I wanted to make a transition from the Test to Dev role, to prove my skills, I was required to individually deliver a cross-functional software product, end-to-end within a short deadline. To everyone’s surprise, I accepted the challenge and did it. That single experience gave me tremendous confidence in my skills and abilities. I realized I do not shy away from challenges and work even harder to overcome them. I realized so many busy people are willing to help me even with their workload, which made me more confident with people. I realized I must not be naive, and must pursue rocket science, which instilled the belief in me that I can do what I put my mind to.
Your advice to students based on your experience?
Remember, ‘Seek and you will find’. My advice to students would be to nurture your ideals and dreams by being resilient in the face of adversity so that you have a desire to pursue your passion and you will be happier. Have a love for literature and it will work wonders for you with masterpieces like Kavi Atal ji’s, ‘Baadhaaen aati ho aayein…’ and Kaviyitri Mahadevi ji’s ‘Jaag tujhko duur jana…’. But at the same time be smart and practical. We live in a non-ideal world and our chances to fail will be less, because the practical side of things will eventually tear through our imaginary or idealistic side. Trust yourself and better not ignore your gut feeling.
In this interview, I have tried to focus more on my approach rather than my outcomes, to keep it relevant for anyone who might want to relate to it. So, a lot is going on, but in summary for the future, let’s see how hard I can work for science and society. And the fact that I mention this to you, I will work harder towards it…