Indian American NASA scientist Madhulika Guhathakurta talks about her study of the Sun, its effects on Earth and how the Sun shapes space weather.
Madhulika Guhathakurta is a program scientist at NASA and has led the Living With a Star program at NASA for 16 years.
Madhulika Guhathakurta is a program scientist at NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) headquarters and senior adviser for new initiatives at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in the Heliophysics division. For the past two decades, Guhathakurta has led the development of Heliophysics as an integrated scientific discipline.
Guhathakurta was the lead program scientist with the Living With a Star (LWS) program at NASA for 16 years, which studies the changes in the levels of solar radiation and its effects on Earth. As the LWS program lead Guhathakurta oversaw development of flagship missions like the Solar Dynamics Observatory, which gave us a closer look at the Sun, the Solar Terrestrial Relations Observatory (STEREO) that gave us the first 3D image of the Sun, and most recently the Solar Orbiter mission—an international cooperative mission between the European Space Agency and NASA—all of which are revolutionizing our understanding of how the Sun shapes space weather in the solar system.
Guhathakurta holds a master’s degree in astrophysics from University of Delhi and a Ph.D. in solar physics from the University of Denver, Colorado.
Excerpts from an interview.
Can you tell us about your educational and professional journey to NASA?
It has been quite a journey! As a young girl growing up in India, I watched humans step foot on the Moon. In those days America, NASA and even science itself were mere concepts—vague and unformed in my young mind. Yet, as I talk to you, I find myself an integral part of that very organization. And, through the science we pursue here every day, I have reached out into space and touched the Sun itself.
What once appeared vast and unconquerable to a young Indian schoolgirl is now the routine of my daily life. And I have the privilege to do so in the company of my brilliant colleagues—people of every stripe and persuasion.
Why did you choose to study astrophysics?
Very early on, perhaps, after my grandmother passed away and I was told she turned into a star in the sky, I got hooked on watching the night sky. I was then constantly asking my father: “Where do we come from?” and “what happens to us when we die?” My father tried his best not to shut me up—instead he reasoned with a 6-year-old. He drew a circle and said, “Well, can you tell me where the beginning or the end of this circle is?” That just stuck with me.
Solving puzzles, playing games, reading about dinosaurs, visiting the planetariums, staring at the night sky—the world around me inspired me to be a scientist. As a grown-up girl, I also loved cosmology—I loved connecting science to philosophy and spirituality.
As the LWS program lead, Guhathakurta oversaw development of the Parker Solar Probe—a mission to “touch” the Sun. Parker Solar Probe travels through the Sun’s atmosphere, closer to the surface than any spacecraft before it, facing brutal heat and radiation conditions to provide humanity with the closest-ever observations of a star. Launched on August 12, 2018, it uses Venus’ gravity during seven flybys over nearly seven years to gradually bring its orbit closer to the Sun. (Photograph courtesy NASA)
Can you tell us about your work on the Living With a Star initiative?
For the past two decades, I have enabled the development of Heliophysics as an integrated scientific discipline, from which fundamental discoveries about our universe provide direct benefits to society. As the lead for the Living With a Star program, I helped make possible several flagship missions like the Van Allen Probes that give us a view of hazardous energy particles trapped in Earth’s radiation belts and a mission to “touch” the Sun through the Parker Solar Probe.
To accelerate innovation and scientific discovery, I helped create funding mechanisms to shepherd traditional domain scientists out of their comfort zones. We now have LWS system science known as the Targeted Research and Technology program and Focused Science Teams that foster competitive, yet collaborative environments that promote the cross-pollination of science ideas and technology.
To nurture the next generation of leaders in Heliophysics, I helped create the Jack Eddy Fellowship Program, which has become an important channel for the professional growth of promising researchers and has been successful at promoting the careers of many women scientists.
Did you face any challenges as a woman in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math)?
I am uncomfortable saying that I have been discriminated against as a woman. Most of my life, I did not actively think about this, neither did I have time to observe it. You need to look, think and pause to know that this is happening. In the last several years, things have changed. It’s not just NASA, but the whole country: America is changing. We see that reflection at NASA also, and that is the fact. I do not doubt that there is a lot of unconscious bias in the field of science and everywhere.
But, I believe that the empathetic side of women allows them to develop a larger and deeper understanding of everything, whether running a scientific enterprise, a family or the world.
What is your advice for women and men who want to build careers in STEM?
I think the STEM fields are unique—the impossible becomes reality on a daily basis.
Make pursuit of science and math fun! With puzzles, games, hands-on activities, visits to the museums and planetarium shows. Be curious about everything in the world around you. Get out of your comfort zone. The toughest part is taking the first step that gets you out of the boundaries you feel comfortable in. Take small steps—put yourself in a new environment, do something that scares you, consider other points of view and ensure that you don’t pick the “safe” choice.
Natasa Milas is a freelance writer based in New York City.