The Journey from Nabagram to NASA

Our team recently got the opportunity to hear to Dr. Goutam Chattopadhyay through IEEE-MTTS in a webinar where Mr. Tushar Sharma and Ms. Aisha Nazia moderated the session. They explained that these Live Public Lectures are being conducted where they are bringing different field experts and established professionals to convey advanced Scientific and Engineering technologies to the people in a simple way. The guest of the session, Dr. Goutam, is a person who enables these technologies so that astronauts can actually go into the space.

Dr. Goutam Chattopadhyay is a Senior Research Scientist at NASA at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory ( JPL ). He works in the development activities for space exploration. He works in the field of Astrophysics, Planetary Science and Life Sciences He has published more than 350 Journals. He has presented many Technical Papers in many Conferences. He has more than 15 Patents. He has received more than 35 NASA Technical Achievement and New Technology Awards. He is a fellow of IEEE, IETE etc.

Mr. Tushar Sharma asked Dr. Goutam about his journey from childhood to NASA.

Dr. Goutam thanked and acknowledged both the moderators as his heroes and very enthusiastic people with a great spirit of volunteerism they have and that makes him hopeful.

Discussing about his journey from Nabagram to NASA, Dr. Goutam explains that as a child he lived in Nabagram. It's a small place which is located outside Kolkata. They were 6 siblings. He belonged to a very poor background. They lived in a 1 Bed-Room flat (14 * 12 feet). Many a times, it happened that they did not even get 2 meals a day to eat. He further discussed that many times when he was hungry, could not sleep and he used to lie on bed see the roof and he used to dream big of going to NASA.

Dr. Goutam mentioned the words of Late Director of JPL who said "Dare mighty things" , and for that one has to work hard.

He talked about those students in the audience whose Parents were in the same situation and could not give them proper infrastructure and facilities to study. For them, he gave the message that "Dream Big. There would be Obstacles. Work Hard. "

He further gave the example of the movie "APPOLO 13" and said that the motto of his organisation is that "Failure is not an Option". He gave the reference of the current peaceful marches in U.S and other countries. He talked about the failure of not addressing the inequalities and injustice around the world. All the people around the world have to come together as Humans and solve those issues.

Mr. Tushar asked about his experience as a high school student and from where did he get inspired to go to NASA. What steps helped him to reach his goal and how he carved his path?

In Dr. Goutam's words, talking about the path to get there, there is no manual for it. One has to read about it to gain knowledge. As a student, he only had access to newspaper. At that time, he never wanted to become an Astronaut. He just wanted to go to NASA for Science. Space is very exciting. He was always very much interested in Billions of Stars up in the sky. There are 100 Billion Stars there in our Milky Way Galaxy. Numerous Galaxies are present. So, how all those are formed that developed his inquisitiveness and his interest.

After his Undergraduate, he went to the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. There he met very smart people. Those people gave him pathways to fulfill his dreams. They give him the necessary skills.

Mr. Tushar shared his own experience that when he went for his Summer Research Program to TIFR, his vision enhanced that there is so much to Science and so much more to Engineering. Experts from all parts of the world were there. So, that gave him a different kind of experience.

Mr. Tushar asked him that from where did he get the Inspiration from?

Dr. Goutam said that it is very important for every individual to talk to people.

To explain that why it is important to talk to people, he shared his experience that in his small way, as a child, he did not have the opportunity to meet people. In his school, there was no such facility but his teachers really kept him motivated as they talked about Big Scientists like Neils Bohr and Rutherford. When you have no role model like Dr.A.P.J. Kalaam, then Self Motivation is the drive.

Further Dr. Goutam was asked about his path to reach Virginia to do his Masters Degree?

Dr. Goutam said that before Internet, the world still existed and he actually contacted several people through letters and they showed interest in him,

Talking about Virginia, he said that Bobby Weikle who was his Masters Thesis Advisor, showed interest in him and he wrote to Dr. Goutam and that's how he landed in Virginia. From there, he always had a dream of Caltech and he applied and got selected at Caltech.

Mr. Tushar asked him about his experience during his PhD days at Caltech and what helped him to be more productive?

Dr. Gautam shared his story that when he was doing PhD in the Electrical Engineering Department. The scenario was such that you can have an Advisor from any other Department. So, his advisor was Jonas Zmuidzinas who was from the Physics Department and he was one of the smartest men there. So, Dr. Goutam used to sit in the Physics building.

So, there every winter, Stephen Hawking used to come to spend his time at Caltech and he used to sit just two doors next to his office. So, all eminent Professors like John Preskill and other Nobel Laureates used to come there and talk to Stephen Hawking. So, that way he got exposed to eminent Physicists.

Discussing about NASA, Dr, Goutam explained that NASA works very differently. So, the Physics environment at Caltech helped him in formulating his techniques that what kind of questions they find solutions for, out there in NASA and what kind of instruments they develop for this. That acted as a path for him to NASA.

Mr. Tushar further asked him that Space is a field where an Engineer or any person from any of the field can work. How is it possible?

Dr. Gautam explained about the Multi Disciplinary nature of the field. This is very important.

He said that during his lectures, many students ask him that how to become a Rocket Scientist. He said that Space is a field where we need people from all walks of life. At all of these institutes like NASA, INSA, ISRO etc, all people from different disciplines have to come together. We need people who are good at art, who are good writers. If they are doing good research then they need a person who can write that Research well and they need a good speaker to tell that to people. It is not an individual one stream area. He says to people, that it does not matter the person is from which field but any person irrespective of his field can join NASA, there is one requirement that you need to be polite.

Mr. Tushar shared his own experience that having being not belonging to an English speaking country, when he wrote his first transaction paper, he was almost in a crying state for the next three months. In his view, "How to write it right is also an art." So, he explained that not just a person needs to excel in Technical Skills but also needs to excel in various interpersonal skills to eventually evolve over time.

Mr. Tushar further asked him that as a Caltech Graduate, on getting various offers from Silicon Valley and a company standing on his door, why did he refuse to these offers and what was his motivation to join JPL which was in itself full of challenges?

Dr. Gautam replied that while he was writing his thesis, got a call from Peter Searle who said to him that he had read his papers and about his work and invited him for a talk with his group. Dr. Gautam went there and post his conversation he was offered work. The salary was less than 50% as compared to what he was offered from Silicon Valley companies. But he did not hesitate to take up that offer because in Dr. Goutam's words "As per his experience in life, whatever I get is much more than what I had before".

Mr. Tushar asked Dr. Gautam about the kind of work he does in NASA, what is it's relevance in Engineering innovations?

Dr. Gautam explained that at NASA, you can have the best of technology but whatever you do, needs to have a big science research. He gave an example that Scientists believe that Comets got water to Earth.

How do you prove that? One of the thing is that the water that we drink is H2O( 16 ) the 16th Oxygen Isotope is very important. But there are other kind of water as well like H2O (17) , H2O(18), HDO etc. For water, if we take the ratio of abundance of different kinds of water, so we see that those ratio matches to some of the comets. So, the question is that if we could go to some of the comets and do this research., then we can say that this is more or less of the source. We observe that on matching if the ratio has to be same to the source. So, how to build an instrument to do this research. So, Dr. Goutam works in the building of these instruments and works in the field of TeraHertz.

Further they talked about TeraHertz where 1 TeraHertz is (10 to the power of 12).

So, to understand that, he explained that,

at the beginning of the Universe, if we look at the sky, look for the stars, the frequency that we are receiving is Optical. Through our eyes we see the optical domain. In actual, the Universe is the Brightest.. It works at 3THz frequency. The stars radiate at different frequency. But in the interstitial medium, there is dust and this dust absorbs the light and then it re-radiates this light. Then they preferentially radiate in this frequency band.

If you have to see new Galaxy or Stars that are formed, then you have to work in THz. So, it is a very important area of research and Dr. Goutam works in that area.

So, they are working on very High Resolution Spectrometer that can fit in a very small size platform and that can go in a Shoe Box Size Satellite. So, that they can go to those comets and can measure those water ratios. So, Dr. Goutam explained that he is working on multiple instruments in Astro Physics and also doing Instrumentation for Mars. They are also working on Wind Instruments to develop instruments in Mars because Mars many times has dusty winds that can take away our expensive instruments. So, the research is required.

Mr. Tushar asked him further that at NASA, what are the different disciplines that come together, for which he was responded that they need Chemists, Physicists, Microwave Engineer, a Mechanical Engineer like Aisha and a Thermal Engineer as well including others. They definitely need a person with depth in knowledge and who has an expertise in subject matter but also if you are leading a team you need to have a understanding of multiple areas. So, they need Engineers from all branches. Team work is really important for them with respect to their projects.

On being asked about the Right attitude they deliver when facing a problem, Dr. Goutam explained that Failure is a part of life. When you read a paper, you hear about a successful paper and what you don't hear is about the failures. Everyday they fail in some form or the other. Do not despair if it fails because it is a part of life as long as we can learn from it that what went wrong.

At NASA, they have a particular section, where each one of them has to write "what are the lessons learnt whether you succeed or fail".

For every Industry, Innovation is really important. Innovation does not happen in one day. When you face some problem, you search for its solutions and for which you build a team. Team building is important. As a team leader, you have to listen properly to the ideas if you want to build something. You have to talk to people who are not necessarily working in your domain. Innovation is when we find a solution to a specific problem. This happens in everyday life as well. For an example in our daily life, if you are passionate for cooking. You need to make a good meal. If it does not work, then you need to make some changes and meanwhile you innovate something new.

Mr. Tushar Sharma said,

"Failure gives opportunity to begin again with intelligence".

By Henry Ford

On being asked about meeting people with diverse backgrounds, Dr. Gautam said that Space is very expensive. You need to be collaborative. Everybody needs to come together and work as a team. All space agencies like ISRO, ESA and NASA need to come together and work. This is happening on a daily basis. Not just the Government Agencies but also the Private Agencies like SpaceX are coming together and working in collaboration with each other. In a particular mission where millions of dollars are involved, when there is a need for contribution from other countries, so, they can not ask for money from them, but they can contribute as an instrument in their project. So, that instrument will fly in that mission and will disperse the information to everybody else. This is the current model.working in the world.

Mr. Tushar asks him that the recent participation of SpaceX was an example of Public Private Partnership and what opportunities it brings forth?

Dr. Goutam responded that there are many Private Companies who are working in this field and contributing like SpaceX Dragon CAPSULE. They have made big strives Many progresses have been made. It gives a productive output when commercial entities come together.

When a company develops technology, they have to make profit so they have other motivation as well. So, this gives the opportunity to NASA to focus more on Science as well. There are greater opportunities to come in for students as compared to the limited opportunities currently in the Space agencies.

Ms .Ashia Nazia further took the discussion forward by addressing Dr. Gautam with one of the questions asked by the audience during the ongoing session.

She said that in most of the Team Awards which Dr. Gautam and his team got, in most of the papers and projects, there is a presence of a woman everywhere irrespective of Space being so complex and technologically challenging.

Talking about women, Dr. Goutam said that in the world there are 50% women and that ratio of men and women is not seen in their work. Better decisions are made when both men and women are involved. Women can do anything that men can do and they can do it even better. Dr. Gautam said that he preferred to work with the women not because they were women but because they were experts in their field and they were best and they needed the best of the people in their projects.

Further taking the discussion forward, Mr. Tushar asked him that they hire research scientists to work with them. So, what are the paths /mainstreams /platforms which a person needs to follow to reach out to NASA?

Dr. Goutam replied that in their organisation i.e. NASA, people are hired from different ethnicity from all over the world. The path to be followed is that there is job opening at NPP ( NASA Post Doctoral Program ). They have limited number of slots. Every country has smart people. They can apply through that. His aim is that if he can inspire even a single person then his work is done and that gives a fruitful output. He gave an example of Cairo, Egypt where he found people who were very enthusiastic and with full of dreams in their eyes. He encouraged them and inspired them so that they can pursue their dreams.

Another question put forward by Mr. Tushar was that, due to COVID 19, the working patterns have changed. We have observed a cut in the funding of Science Research. It is also a matter of worry. Since, the Job market is doing so bad. So, what scenario we see in the upcoming years?

Dr. Goutam very patiently replies that it is just a strand of virus that has shown our vulnerability. The Job market has laid down, There is a lot of pain and suffering that people are going through. We will have to find ways. Dr, Goutam shared his own experience that in the past two and a half years, it was for the first time that he was working from home. It is important for them to go to lab to bring something to the cloud space. So, the quarantine time which they got, they stayed at home and thought of developing some instruments. They also have to think ahead about what they will be doing in future. They are using this time to plan for their future projects. So, they are focusing on those areas. At the same time, safety of people is very important. People are wearing masks everywhere. He says that after the "9/11 incident" , U.S changed. Similarly, because of this COVID pandemic, the world which we knew before would be different from the world we would see after that. The world will completely change in his view.

Dr. Goutam shared his experience that on being asked by the students, often, about which branch to choose, he replies that do not think about the scenario 4 years from now. Think about the future beyond that. In future, there will be a lot of investment in the Healthcare Industry. They will need technology to make their equipment. There would be new kind of equipment for hospitals.

On being asked about the open source ventilators, Dr. Goutam explained that recently due to the Corona outbreak, there was a shortage of Ventilators. So, at JPL, they thought that at low cost, they can make something. They gave a blueprint to companies. These ventilators did not have all facility but they had facility that was specific to COVID. They tested it with the hospitals, It would cost them less than 300 Dollars.

In Dr. Goutam's words, if you are agile, if you have a heart at the right place, then we live in society. Whatever we do, will have an impact on the society.

Mr. Tushar further discussed about a comment which a Class 10th student had made during the ongoing live session. She was a student from Dubai and she commented that "Team Work is the key instrument". She mailed to Dr. Gautam much prior to his session and that made him so motivated. It gives hope. He said that the key ingredient is that a person has to listen. When in a meeting, you have to listen and let others talk because in his view, most often others are smarter.

Dr. Gautam shared his personal experience that prior to the COVID outbreak, it was his rule to go with his friends for coffee. His friends would be from different technology backgrounds. They talked over everything, Soccer, Sports, Weather, Technology and everything else.

People come up with suggestions, Talking is the best way.

Mr. Tushar asked him about the statement that his Mom once made,

"Dream and Reach Sky

But keep the feet on ground"

Responding to this Dr. Goutam said that for Electrical Engineers, the Ground is very important.

Mr. Tushar Sharma further asked Dr. Gautam that "Is PhD really important?" for which he responded that you don't need to have a PhD compulsorily but if there is a possibility then you should go for it. He explains the scenario that, in PhD, you are given a problem that is not solved till now. So, PhD gives you access to all those tools to solve the problems. Talking specifically, about COVID19, he said that the Job Market has got affected so, Post Covid, you will not get hired at the same rate. Hence, if you have done your Masters/PhD, then you will be more marketable. For all this, a person needs to be Self Motivated.

Asking about the key technologies, which he would advise to the Undergraduates to pursue in Masters in coming 5-10 years from now, Dr. Goutam replied that a person should focus on the basics. Technology may change but basics will remain the same.

If you know the basics, you can change / mould yourself to the coming new tools and technology. With this, he gave the example of 5G, which is almost here and to understand it, we need to understand the underlying principles.

Dr. Gautam further talked about Nacer Chahat, one of his colleagues, who is himself one of the greatest engineers around the world. He is a leader in himself. Nacer Chahat often calls Dr. Gautam, obnoxiously optimistic.

Dr. Gautam shared his view about himself that he is too positive and he is an eternal optimistic person. He needs to be hopeful because that keeps him driving.

With this Dr. Gautam concludes with his session giving a message to everyone that we should be a global citizen. We should be socially aware and each one of us should be a good human being because that is our primary motivation.

Speaker's Profile -

Born - Nabagram (Kolkata)

Undergraduate studies - Bengal Engineering College

Masters - University of Virginia

PhD - California University of Technology

Current Work -

  1. Senior Scientist at NASA (JPL)

  2. Visiting Professor at Caltech

  3. BEL distinguished Chair Professor at IISc Bangalore

  4. Adjunct Professor at IIT Kharagpur

  5. Visiting Erudite Professor at Cochin University of Science and Technology

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