Dr. Sunetra Sarkar is a Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, (IIT) Madras. Her field of research includes Aerodynamics and Fluid Structure Interactions.
Shilpa Jain: Please tell us what does Aerospace Engineering involve?
Sunetra Sarkar: Aerospace engineering is a study of the science of flight and the components of all the flying systems, which operate both within and outside the earth’s atmosphere. It encompasses aeronautics, astronautics and aviation. Some of the main areas of the study involve, aerodynamics, space dynamics, structures, propulsion, avionics, guidance navigation & control.
SJ: Aerospace Engineering is a sub-set of STEM. How is it as a career option in India?
SS: Aero is a fascinating subject and highly specialized. Aerospace engineering also defines some of the very futuristic application areas, like future flying cars, bio-mimetic devices like UAVs & MAVs, network and control of swarms of flying robotic devices and so on. Aero is also part of the big Mechanical Sciences family. As a job creator its scope is as broad as any other Mechanical sciences branch. In addition, we have the government Defence Research Labs (DRDO), Space Research Organization (ISRO), engaged in developing defense and space related technologies, which I believe will see much more funding in the future as our space programs flourish. Our missile and satellite programs are already quite successful. We will definitely need more and more highly qualified people (both men and women) with advanced degrees to join these programs, especially in the field of avionics, which is still weakly represented in most aero training programs. This could be a very rewarding career option as one contributes directly to the growth of the country. We also have private sector R&D, which is also increasing. All leading aerospace and aero-engine giants have opened shops in India, most of them keeping a strong focus on the aspect of research, like General Electric, Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, Airbus, Boeing. But let us also not forget that the scope of Aero is not limited to the above alone, AE graduates can join any core engineering jobs as well as software, banking, finance like other engineering graduates from the mechanical sciences division.
SJ: Are aeronautical, avionic and astronautical engineering similar to aerospace engineering? If no, what is the difference?
SS: Yes, they all come under Aerospace Engineering. While Aeronautical engineering is the study of systems that operate within the earth’s atmosphere, Astronautics deals with systems operating outside the boundary of the atmosphere and avionics is the study of the electronics component needed for the instrumentation of the systems for control and communications. However, in many Aero degree programs in India, avionics is often underrepresented due to lack of qualified personnel.
SJ: Do you see a lot of women in this industry? Or is it largely male- dominated?
SS: The growth opportunities must be tapped by women too, and they should not miss the bus. We need more women to join the field in the first place, which is still not happening. There is a big gender gap in our undergraduate classes in almost all areas of STEM. And in Aero, which is a much more specialized area within STEM, we see really miniscule representation of women. This should definitely change. It seems women are still not dreaming strongly to `capture the sky’. I know of many boys already pursuing AE, who wanted to become Aero engineers from an early age. There may be misconceptions and lack of awareness, but those need to be overcome. Having said that, I must also add that over the last decade things have improved significantly.
In academia, we still have very few women in the areas of STEM, especially in engineering. This is understandable as it is a long career path and with every higher degree, their number falls further. In order to rectify this, women need multiple support systems and also need to battle with age-old misconceptions, biases and even emotional blackmailing from the partner, immediate family as well the society in general. A detailed discussion on this is outside the scope of this questionnaire.
SJ: What is your advice to our young women on pursuing a career in aerospace engineering?
SS: If you are already here, then play the game hard. There are enough opportunities. Do not stop at the UG level, please pursue at least Masters to exploit the field properly. As I mentioned above, we need and will increasingly need a large pool of highly qualified people to rule the R & D sector in Indian as well as in global industries. We need more and more women today at the top level of any organization, to influence the organization’s policies and future directions.
SJ: Any interesting anecdotes you would like to share which you have come across in your illustrious career?
SS: I am in academia and it is a very rewarding profession. The most satisfying part of it is the opportunity to interact with the bright young minds. It allows me to discuss their academic pursuits at length, to motivate them and channelize their interests. It is a gift that I truly enjoy in my profession.
I still remember when I decided to go for higher studies in Aero (Masters and PhD), I was told that I was narrowing down my job prospects and as a woman, I would probably end up being only an air-hostess! I also remember my exasperation and how I felt at a loss for words. This was of course in the late 90’s and thankfully we as a society have come a long way since then and many of the age-old biases are now diffused out.
SJ: Why do you think young women should be financially independent?
SS: I will rephrase the question a bit. I would say, it is important to work outside home and important to have a career. It is important in order to preserve our own identity and not just for the sake of financial independence.
The outcomes of financial independence are quite well discussed and I am sure every young girl on the verge of a career appreciates the fact that it gives her freedom to choose her path and enables her to make her own decisions without being answerable to anyone. It is not simply about money as one can inherit and be financially independent, but also taking to the logical conclusion the training that one has received in education and pursuing a career out of it. A career preserves a person’s identity, it defines one’s worth to oneself and to the world outside and is also an acknowledgement of the struggles one has undergone in the developmental stages, as students, interns, or young career aspirants.
SJ: You are the only woman in your faculty at IIT Madras. Kudos and more power to you. But you must have faced a lot of challenges. Would you like to highlight some of them?
SS: I am happy to say that I did not face any significant challenge or discrimination as a woman student. But as a professional in an academic career, there were some hardships. I have found few male colleagues to be often overbearing and judgmental. Also, being the single female faculty member in my department, I am literally often the proverbial ‘only woman in the room’. Even though science is gender neutral, the workplace environment can become insensitive and lonely for a woman. However, I am hopeful that as more and more women join the fray, the situation will improve.
SJ: Any message to the members of Aspire for Her? And any message for the Foundation in general?
SS: Be yourself-and use it like a motto. Even if you find yourself in a male dominated profession, do not always try to fit into men’s shoes, but retain your own imagination, aesthetics and sense of judgment. In any field, it is not always prudent to assess a situation from a male perspective, which has happened in male dominated professions since always. Women’s strengths may be different from men’s and it is essential to preserve them, not just for women to grow in AE or any other field but also for the general progress of humanity.
I am very happy to be part the wonderful platform of AFH, a bridge to reach out to our young women and sense the pulse of their aspirations and struggle. I sincerely hope AFH is able to ignite these minds to dream big and is able to create the space to protect it and also show them the way to achieve it. AFH should also a forum for discussions through which women can find the strength to fight off gender biases both in the workplace and at home.
Question: One person, fictional/real and dead/alive that you want to have dinner with
Answer: Sherlock Holmes
Question: A book on your career field that you would recommend to or readers
- An easy read (almost a bed-time read) on the subject of flight and aerodynamics would be J. D Anderson’s Fundamentals of Aerodynamics and Introduction to Flight.
- A great book to ignite young minds in STEM is Richard Feynman’s Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.
- As a woman a book very close to my heart is Toni Morrion’s Beloved.
Question: 3 things on your bucket list
Answer: Travel extensively through the mystic places of South America, write a non-technical book, own a house in the mountains.