From chaos to access, his journey from Bengal to NASA!
Updated: Jul 10, 2020
Sometimes it takes an overwhelming breakdown to have an undeniable breakthrough. And it’s enlightening to be with someone whose been there and knows how it feels like over a cup of evening coffee.
While there’s no substitute for walking the show floor, attending the keynotes and sessions, participating in the Birds of a Feather groups and spontaneous discussions that happen throughout the year under the banner of IEEE, all this interaction—both live and online—debunks the urban myth of the classic, socially introverted geek in me and here is to one of those.
A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacle. Not often do we come across such heroes, whose perseverance serves as an inspiration to every person striving to create a mark for thyself. But I have heard of human beings like all of us who carry within them the power, though not supernatural to breakthrough what the world calls difficult and get to where they always want to. From tales of all my encounters along my IEEE Journey, here is one of it I have picked up to write about because it was one lasting piece of conversation that touched me as an Engineer and is one I would love to carry ahead and impart to my peers so as to take it to an impactful arena of its aura.
Dr. Goutam Chattopadhyay is a first-rate specimen of the wonders and a true Engineer in his own essence and of what the world is who proved himself and then to the people around that passion and hunger to excel can hatch, if not on a single shot, but someday when it has to be paid off. Having acquired his Bachelor’s degree in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering from the University of Calcutta, Dr. Goutam received a unique opportunity to complete his MS in Electrical Engineering from the University of Virginia. A chance application to Caltech, the dream place penned on a notebook of his, long back when CalTech was far from reach by distance and desire was achieved and a Ph.D. from the prestigious university was in his bucket. This was followed up by a stellar career at NASA where his current role is that of Senior Research Scientist in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
His liberal methodologies while working in teams have fetched numerous awards, thereby affirming his preference to brainstorm in groups and the one thing that stroke me off the pitch was his laurels of achieving the best team/group awards so very consequently and often.
The following paragraphs contain excerpts from the conversation we had over a cup of coffee about everything under the sun, from food to science to being an engineer and a typical Indian when he visited India as part of an event:
Being a very much normal scenario engineering graduate from an Engineering College not so-called an IIT, I had this one to ask him first. There is a needless stigma associated with graduates from colleges other than IITs, IIMs, and NITs. Only people from the big wig institutions have the caliber to crack the grey cell tests of NASA, ESA etc. Coming from modest backgrounds and yet achieving bigger than these public approved geniuses, how do you counter this motion?
Trust me, he got me there on a single shot, a hell of a comment, though a little complicated and maybe a poet but the true fact. He said, for a semiconductor to work, there has to be an impurity and I am the impurity. A plain and simple answer to a rigid and ill-required stamp of approval that I had created, in fact, most of us have created for ourselves.
The next throw was a wide shot, but peculiar and did strike as something different or rather I’ll say, weird as how the world names such mannerisms these days. I asked him that I have noticed a common formula in his papers or publications. The presence of a lady co-author.
Yes, he was the ethical Indian Man who knew what it means to not cry over feminism and he told me this, that men have their own ways of working. Women have their own methods to solve complexities. The perfect blend is to combine both of these to create a common output that has the features of either schools of thought. Thus, in a way, men and women complement each other despite having different approaches to everything. Hence, it is but necessary to have both together if you are working to create something unique.
For the next one, I pondered over what I lack to call myself a Techie and so I was like, you did your Bachelors in Electronics Engineering but your Masters and research work is in Electrical engineering. Also, it has come to my observation that the laws of physics always intrigued you and you had a keen fondness for it since your childhood. What’s that one advice you want to give to us, the so-called new generation of engineers who take a long deviation from core subjects?
He rightly got what I was asking about and the reply did make a lot of sense as he stated that to excel in any branch of engineering, one must have a thorough understanding of the pure sciences i.e. Physics or Chemistry. If you are a King of one, you can strive to be a Jack of all. A good knowledge of pure sciences will surely fetch a great momentum while digging deeper in the chosen branch of engineering.
NASA is like outer space far from reach for most Indians and so I wanted to ask this from all of us together, you have worked and scaled greater heights at NASA. What attracted you to work for NASA? What was the motivation to rise far up from your humble beginnings?
To the many times, he said CalTech, I had already figured out that it was like his dream place and he made it there but I keenly listened to what he had in store to tell me. He briefed that CalTech was always the final goal. But, getting admitted there was surely a tryst with luck along with hard work. My experiences with peers and other influential scientists got me engrossed with NASA. So when the occasion was perfect, I latched onto it. Working in NASA has helped me better what I was almost a couple of decades ago.
Now this one was for the people who had joined me for this conversation, they badly wanted to know, ISRO can be considered on par or even better than NASA as far as unmanned space missions go. Yet, you preferred NASA over the former. Any particular reason.
He did have the aptest reasons to explain, It’s a common attribute amongst ISRO scientists as they never reveal even a tiny bit of information regarding any of their ongoing missions. Whereas, at NASA, there is a protocol to acquire permissions from senior scientists to reveal an outline of the project, excluding the mathematical calculations. Also, the approval rate to do public appearances’ and to talk to the younger generation at events is very good. In fact, I haven’t had any major disagreements with my team leads or seniors regarding dissemination of project information. Moreover, the appraisals and all are far better than the Indian counterparts. The opportunity to work in diverse teams is handled in an effective way at NASA and I wouldn’t want to compare both because at the end of the day, both are different in what they do, though they look alike or of the same form.
Based on what I got to know of the amazing session he just delivered before we met, I wanted to know this and why is it so, Space missions don’t happen very often. Especially the ones targeted on planets such as Mars consume a large amount of preparation time as well as journey time. Can you elaborate on the higher preparation time?
Mr. Goutam, the humblest fascinator in my language of description told me, as easy it sounds, it is too difficult to extract data from planets. A planet as close as Mars is not actually close to Earth. There is a good amount of calculation that goes in to ascertain the time period when Mars is in the closest proximity to Earth. Along with, the same time period may be a specific season on Mars. So, if the season is not pro to our data collection unit, data cannot be gathered. Hence, a fairly accurate prediction process determines the time when the space shuttle can be guzzled to Mars and this time period may not be at regular intervals as per expectations. Its once in two years, that too for a very short duration that Mars and Earth get that time to be close enough to communicate to each other. To add to, I was like when can we start travelling to Mars as tourists, he sarcastically said, yes, you may now, but there is a loophole, big one that we only have the one-way ticket yet, we can send you there, but you need to figure out your own way to get back home.
To that cup of coffee, we had, and to that dinner we gathered for, this piece of little conversation will stay as my favorite among my book of experiences and I hope my writing pushing to all of you, who just read this, some bits and parts of the man, I call the humblest fascinator.