Elisha the Planetary Scientist & Astrophysicist
Elisha with a Lunar Electric Vehicle.
I am super excited to be featuring Elisha, an Edinburgh graduate and Space Queen (no seriously, she was part of a documentary called Space Queens), on my blog this month. She is currently a PhD student at UCLA, and has experience in all sorts of areas. I actually remember attending a HYPED (Edinburgh's hyperloop team) and hearing Elisha speak all about the team, so it's super cool to think that several years later we are doing this!
She has such an inspiring story about her path to her PhD, and I am so excited to be sharing her story. We spoke quite a bit about the projects she is working on (NASA funded missions, wow!), diversity in STEM and space, alongside lots of great advice that Elisha is passing on to all of you.
The thing I really took from this interview is to find your passion and put the work in to make it happen, as Elisha did! I hope you enjoy hearing all about Elisha's story.
Why don’t you introduce yourself?
I’m Elisha Jhoti and I'm a PhD student at UCLA doing geophysics and space physics. I moved from the UK to the US last year to pursue a PhD, and hopefully can apply to be an astronaut in the future at NASA.
How did you get into planetary science? Is there anything that really sparked your interest in the subject?
When I was first thinking about what to study at university, I knew I wanted to study space after learning about it in physics. So I ended up looking into astrophysics and studied that for my undergraduate degree. I was always more interested in studying planets, such as Mars, and the moon as well.
Classic Edinburgh graduation photo at McEwan Hall.
It turns out that you don’t actually study planets in astrophysics. I mean I still enjoyed astrophysics a lot, and definitely would have picked that either way, but we didn't really cover planets that much, which got me looking into how I can learn about planets. I ended up looking into how I could do an internship at NASA, and I found this one internship that I could apply to since I didn’t have to be a U.S. citizen. That was the Lunar and Planetary Institute Internship. That’s really what got me into planetary science, as I didn’t even know the discipline existed. It also made me realise that planetary science is actually geosciences, like geology and geophysics, which I had no idea about. That’s really what got me into it and made me want to pursue a PhD in the area.
You were involved in a lot of different things at university, such as HYPED, the University of Edinburgh’s Hyperloop team. What skills did you take from there and how does that translate to where you are today?
HYPED was a huge influence on my self-confidence, my skills, and learning. I learned so much. I started as a member of the technical team, so I was doing engineering. I had never done engineering before, as a physics student, but I was interested in it. I had never had the opportunity to do any design work. I learned a lot from the other engineers on the team. There were a lot of older members of the team, such as fourth and fifth year engineering students, so they taught me a lot about engineering.
Manufacturing for HYPED.
In my fifth year, I was the technical manager of the technical team in the first semester. That meant I was basically managing the whole technical team with the technical leader, of a team of about 100 people. I learned a lot of skills that you would not learn during your degree like how to effectively manage a team, draw up timelines, and project management. A lot of this stuff you only really learn when you work at a job or a project, so I definitely learned a lot. If I hadn’t done HYPED, I would not have received the opportunity to work at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.
Could you speak a little about the Lunar and Planetary Institute and what you were doing there?
With that internship you're paired with a supervisor, who is a research scientist at the Institute or Johnson Space Centre. I was at the Institute because I’m not American so would not have been able to work at Johnson Space Centre. You basically work on a project that they create for you, while your supervisor helps and mentors you. My project was using data from this instrument that's on NASA's lunar reconnaissance orbiter, the lunar spacecraft that has been up there for 10 years. This instrument is called LAMP, which stands for Lyman Alpha Mapping Project which maps the moon in the far UV part of the spectrum. We were looking at relatively new impact craters, because they realized that around these new impact craters, the regolith is much colder than the surrounding regolith. So you basically get cold spots around the impact craters which can extend outwards for hundreds of kilometers. They are not really sure what forms these cold spots. So I was looking at these cold spots with this instrument, and looking at the spectrum of the cold spots while comparing it to the spectrum of a normal part of the regolith to see if we could find out the process that was causing it. There was lots of data manipulation and arrays involved. It was very rewarding.
What was the most challenging part of your undergraduate university experience?
I think that would be when I was in fifth year and trying to do too many things. I used to say yes to everything when I was in my younger years, because you have to take every opportunity to improve yourself and get further. I don’t think I would have had a lot of the opportunities I did have without saying yes to things in my earlier years. At that point, in fifth year, I had already done a lot of things, so I didn’t really need to be saying yes to everything. I really struggled managing everything that I said yes to, which eventually led to me stepping down from HYPED after the first semester. I hadn’t worked on my master’s project at all, because HYPED had turned into a full time job alongside my degree.
I think learning how much you can deal with, and how much time you actually have, while having breathing space is important. As I was going through the year, and had a bit of spare time and would think, “maybe I should commit to this thing” when I really should have just left that spare time for myself to recuperate and reflect. So I think that was a really important lesson that I learned during fourth and fifth year to not over-commit yourself, to value your time, and that you don’t have to say yes to everything. You want to give your all to the things that matter to you, instead of half of your effort. You will get to the stage where you really think about what each opportunity will give you, and what you will get out of it.
Why don't you tell everyone what you're up to as a PhD student?
Because it’s my first year, I’m taking a few classes as well as doing research. I was learning about geophysics, which I haven’t done before and was super interesting. The research is my favourite part, and I have my own one. I am doing the orbital calculations for an ultra-low altitude lunar satellite. Basically, I’m seeing if we can have a satellite that orbits the moon at a very low altitude, say 10km from the surface, which hasn’t been done before as we normally just crash into the moon. I am using gravity and topography data to see if this is possible.
Elisha with a SpaceX launch vehicle in the background.
I am also on a science team for a NASA mission called L-CIRiS which is an instrument that's going to be on the NASA CLPS lander. CLPS is the Commercial Lunar Payload Services, which is a NASA programme where they will pay private companies to transport instruments to the lunar surface. This one is the first one that is landing, it will be around Summer 2022. The lander will be going down to the South Pole where we will be mapping the moon in thermal on the surface down to centimeters. This means that the resolution is going to be unlike anything we've seen before.
There is also another instrument on the lunar console called Diviner, which is also thermal infrared mapping from orbit. I am also involved in this one, because my supervisor is the PI on it. There is a lot of thermal work going on in my group. Diviner is really cool because it’s the one that discovered the possibility of ice on the polar caps of the moon in the permanently shadowed regions. We get to do a lot of that and get to do a lot of that and listen in on telecoms. Recently with L-CIRiS we have been looking into landing sites as well. A year ago, I never could have imagined getting to work on NASA missions, it was such a faraway dream that is happening now.
Have you had a moment when you really stop to think about how cool your work is that you are doing?
I definitely have had a moment like that in the past week, as we're looking at the landing site information for L-CIRiS. I was tasked with spearheading collecting as much data of the sites as possible. I was rushing to try and look at all the sites before the deadline, and stopped for a moment to think, “Oh my God. I'm literally looking at landing sites for the first mission to the South Pole ever. What is my life?”
What led you to doing a PhD instead of working in industry?
I really did think about going to work for a private space company because after five years of exams and classes I needed a change. I was aware that I wanted to work for NASA in the future and having a PhD would greatly improve the chances of that happening, especially if I was to go for the science route. I did also apply for the ESA Young Graduate Trainee Programme, which is more like government work. However, I wanted to learn more about planetary science.
Exciting experience in the meteorite lab.
It was really that Lunar and Planetary Institute internship that made me want to do a PhD because the science was what I was interested in. I also thought a lot about engineering and going to work for a company but I realised that science was really the thing that I was passionate about. So that's why I applied for a PhD instead of finding a job. I also thought I could do a job when I finished my PhD.
Could you speak a little bit about the challenges that you faced when moving from the UK to the US?
It’s always very hard moving to another country. You don’t realise the subtle differences that you will experience. I had been in the US for a year abroad, during my third year at Edinburgh, so I was kind of familiar with California culture, and had a few friends. It’s not the same though, when you’re coming here for a longer period of time. It’s definitely challenging being away from home and dealing with, FaceTime, time differences and especially a pandemic.
Elisha getting prepared for future astronaut training with some skydiving.
I knew because I had experienced doing a year abroad, and an internship abroad, so I wanted something that would challenge me and push me to the next level. I felt that if I stayed in the UK I would get bored pretty quickly. There are more opportunities in the US in planetary science, and I liked the culture more of the industry. I have a lot of friends in the UK industry in space, and they are lovely people, but there are also serious diversity problems. I’m not saying that there aren’t in the US because there are, but I just felt a bit more optimistic about going to the US. The opportunities are also amazing because there’s so much more funding. Really with a PhD, you have to follow the funding and it didn't seem so great with Brexit happening. I was really questioning whether there were going to be any opportunities at ESA if the UK continued down the Brexit path. It wasn’t looking great at the time I was applying for a PhD.
I definitely would recommend moving to a different country at some point in your life, since it really challenges you, and pushes you to depend on yourself. You're the only one who can really figure things out, and you can’t fall back into a safety net. I think it really develops you as a person and makes you feel like if you live across the world, you can deal with the next challenge.
What’s been your biggest challenge at grad school?
The first year is hard. Imposter syndrome has been a serious issue for me, and I think it's an issue for everyone. It’s been a struggle coming into a new field like planetary science, which I had never done before. I didn’t know anything about geology. I was surrounded by all these people who had been doing geology for all their careers, and I was just an astrophysicist who knew about cosmology. I definitely still have imposter syndrome. Often when you're an underground in the US you have opportunities to do some research as an undergrad. So quite a few of the same people in my class had been working on planetary research for a couple of years during their undergrad. I definitely felt like I had no idea what I was doing, while I felt like my classmates knew exactly what they were doing.
Really, nobody knows what they are doing. I think the imposter syndrome really is detrimental as it stops you asking for help when you need it. That's something that I'm trying to work on, as I struggle to ask for help. It makes me feel like those around me are going to think I don’t know what I am doing and that I don't belong here. But I do belong here. They wouldn’t have accepted me into the programme if I didn’t. Getting through those feelings of imposter syndrome is difficult, but I’m starting to get over it. I think also being an international student makes you feel somewhat precarious in your situation. You feel like they “took a chance on you,” when they really accepted you because of your qualifications and didn’t take any chances.
What really kind of shook me out of these feelings was when my supervisor mentioned when he was feeling imposter syndrome. If he’s feeling imposter syndrome, then everyone is. He mentioned that he always gets nervous before a talk, because he’s not an expert in a particular area. He was worried that people who were experts in the field would challenge him on his talk. The fact that he expressed he had feelings like that made me feel that it’s okay to feel like that.
Do you have any advice for people looking to work in space or STEM areas?
I think that a lot of people look at space exploration and working in this field as very scary and difficult to do.You feel like you have to be pretty good at math and science and engineering to do it. When I was deciding what I wanted to study at uni, my maths grades were really bad. I was told not to study astrophysics or physics because I was told I wasn’t going to be good enough at it. I applied anyway. You just have to be prepared to work hard. It doesn't matter if you’re a maths genius or anything like that. That’s not what’s important. What’s important is your work ethic and passion. If you have both of those then you can do whatever you want.
Elisha and Dr. Michael Foale, British-American astrophysicist and former NASA Astronaut
I think a lot of younger kids are put off by science and maths. Maths was my least favourite subject at school, but I ended up doing a lot of maths because I wanted to do space. I knew I had to do it to do what I wanted to do. I was very lucky that I discovered my passion early on. If you don’t know what your passion is, then try new things and take advantage of new opportunities.
Another piece of advice is to have persistence. It’s so important. Learning how to fail is probably the most important lesson. I applied for that Lunar and Planetary Institute internship, the year before and didn’t get it, so ended up reapplying and got it. Reapplying for things is so important. Don’t be disheartened if you don’t get it the first time. Learn from it and reapply next time!
Not necessarily being the best at everything is another thing. You need to fail at something to learn how to pick yourself back up again. There are some very smart people who have never failed an exam. When they do fail an exam, it’s going to be devastating for them. Experiencing failure is so important for growth.
Do you have a favourite space fact?
I used to use this one, but I’m not sure if it’s true anymore. Something like there are a million stars for every grain of sand on Earth. But I think it’s more like one star for every grain of sand on Earth. I remember that from a Carl Sagan video. But that blew my mind.
A new fact that I learned was that the permanently shadowed regions at the poles of the moon are actually the coldest places in the solar system. You would think it would be Pluto, but the poles of the moon never see the sun, so they are the coldest.
Could you speak a little about the diversity work that you are doing?
This year, I was elected to the board of the UCLA Society for Women Geoscientists, which is this society at UCLA for women geoscientists. Basically my role is to help with institutional reform and improve diversity, equity, and inclusion at UCLA, especially within the Earth, Planetary and Space Sciences (EPSS) department. It’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff, and meetings with people.
Recently, with the civil rights movement, there has been a lot of interest from faculty and department heads to do something about it. I’m not sure if anything will actually come of it because of bureaucracy and red tape. We're really hoping we're going to get somewhere with all of our meetings, but sometimes it feels a little like we are fighting an uphill battle with some of these institutions. They do seem receptive to it though.
It’s a weird paradox, because the university tends to ask grad students for help on diversity issues, when it’s really not our job to do diversity work for them for free. I’m happy to do it because I want it to be a better place for minorities, but I think there is a worrying trend of universities expecting students to do the work for them, which is a bit questionable. For me, maybe down the line, I might become a bit busy with research. Often, institutions will ask minorities to do the work, which is ironic because minorities are the ones who are struggling the most, and really want to be focusing on their research because they feel like they have to work doubly hard to get noticed. It’s a bit of an issue that will hopefully be addressed in the future otherwise it will get exasperated.
Is there anything in the future that you want to specifically see change in universities?
I’ve been in classes in physics departments, engineering departments and now in geology departments. Geology is the worst for ethnic minorities, as it’s very White. So I hope to see more ethnic diversity in the UCLA EPSS Department and other departments, because geology has always historically been a very White field. The gender balance is actually pretty good, it’s better than physics and definitely better than engineering. I really hope to see more Black and Indigenous students, as the numbers are kind of abysmal for them right now. I also hope to create a nicer environment for students to feel more welcome to apply in the first place. I think that’s one of the main issues in the first place. You can encourage students to apply and they will apply and get in, but if it's not a nice place for them to work in, they will not want to stay. We need to make it a welcoming environment for them to stay and thrive in the environment.
Do you have a few quick tips for anyone who wants to go into something like a space related field but is worried about diversity issues?
I can’t say that you are not going to face issues, because you will. I definitely think that this is changing a lot, because there have been a few studies showing that in the new generation of students who are applying for space-related degrees at university now are much more diverse than say, the faculty. So it’s going to be slow but steady progress. There is also the issue of the leaky pipeline, with those students who do a space-related degree but don’t go on to academia.
Just find allies where you can, and often you will find communities of people who are diverse and interested in space. There’s a huge group in the UK space industry, like UKSEDS, who are very good allies. Then you can feel more comfortable because you will have people who will back you up. Also, listen to people who advise you against working with a specific professor or a specific department. Definitely listen out for that because that can happen. It's tough, but finding allies, and people you can talk to about it is probably the most important thing.
Elisha hosting a TEDx presentation.
It’s also about picking your battles. I received some very good advice from someone who's pretty high up in the industry. She's a woman, not from an ethnic minority, but she talked about being a woman in STEM. We were asking her about when you should call people out, when they are being sexist or racist. Sometimes you’ll be in a meeting and you are the only woman or the only ethnic minority, and someone says something problematic. If you’re the only junior member in that meeting, you might question whether to call it out or not, or whether to let it slide. She said that as a junior person in industry, you really have to pick your battles, because there are some instances where you can’t speak out because you’ll put yourself in a difficult position. You have to be prepared to be in that position sometimes, which is hard, and I wish it wasn't the case but sometimes it just is.
When you eventually get to a strong position, then you can start making the change you want to see. Otherwise, you don't want to exhaust yourself by fighting these battles, when you should be focusing on your own career and not worrying about other people. Other people make their own decisions about what they want to think, and you can only try so hard to change peoples’ minds. A lot of people should be prioritising themselves instead of trying to help other people change their mind, because sometimes it’s a losing battle. The only way you can make lasting change is when you get to a position of power and seniority.
Women in STEM perspective
Have you ever felt like you have been treated differently as a woman in STEM?
I feel like every woman in STEM has an anecdote of when this has happened to them. There have been instances in the past. Looking back at this particular experience, I should have said something because I didn’t have anything to lose.
I was at a conference for HYPED, and was representing them, where I networked with someone from an engineering company. Afterward, I received an email from them saying that I would be a really good fit for their company, and that I should reply to them to arrange an interview. I replied to them saying it sounded awesome but that I wasn’t an engineering student, but I would love to apply for an internship to see how it worked out.
So I went to this interview and had a really bad experience with them. First off, I knew that engineering in Scotland was very male dominated. I remember getting into the building and going into an elevator. There were a bunch of engineers with me, and they were all White guys. They were asking if I was there for the interview so I responded, and they said, “don’t worry, we all got in.” I looked around at them and found it a bit worrying that there was nobody who looked like me.
I got to the level where the company was and there were no women in sight, except for the receptionist. I ended up being interviewed by a senior engineer and another person. The senior engineer had my CV in front of him, and said, “Okay, so let’s see what you were doing with this Hyperloop stuff. We just need to make sure you weren’t just getting the tea for everyone.” I was honestly so shocked that he said that. I wish I had said, “would you have said that to be if I was a guy?” but I didn’t. That was blatant sexism. I said something like, “If you read my CV, you would see that I was not getting the tea, I was doing engineering.” That was definitely a bad experience, and I didn’t end up getting the job. He was also questioning me the whole time about why I even applied for the interview, to which I responded that I was headhunted by his colleague. He was very surprised that a physicist was applying for the engineering job, even though he later said that they mainly hired physicists, which was a bit confusing. Later, I received an email from them saying that they had a vacant spot in their maths department. That was the summer when I got the Houston internship, so I responded saying that I was going to Houston, which was my one-up.
Exploring NASA's Mission Control Center.
That experience taught me to call out people. I had to have that experience to realise that I didn’t want to work for that company, and that that can happen, and I need to call it out in that situation. Especially as I didn’t need to do an internship there, so it didn’t matter if I burnt a bridge.
Do you have any advice for women in STEM? Any tips?
I would just say that really maximising the skills that you have is important. I remember that I wasn’t good at maths in school, but was really good at public speaking. Using those skills and putting an emphasis on them, while developing skills that you know you are capable of. Saying yes to opportunities such as giving a talk on behalf of your team if they need a volunteer really helps. You don’t need to be the genius in the room. You want to develop those soft skills to succeed, especially in industry. You don’t learn those skills in uni, but you need them for your future career.
Don’t worry too much if you’re not top of the class with all your grades. You just need to be at a good level, and can excel in other areas. I feel like people get so discouraged, especially young girls when they think that they are not good at maths or at the top of their class. From an early point in my career, I learned that making the most of the skills you have is so important. Growing up, I really did worry about grades, and slowly realised that’s not what is important. It’s about your work ethic.
Elisha presenting at the Lunar and Planetary Institute.
For women in uni, doing societies is such a great thing to do. It helps you practice skills, like speaking, working on a team, meeting new people, and learning new things. Honestly, societies are what made my university experience, and will definitely help you later on.
What’s next for you? Any goals?
For me, it’s a bit difficult as I am limited by the citizenship thing. I thought about maybe doing a Postdoc. There’s a really cool NASA Postdoctoral programme that I might apply to. I don’t think I want to stay in academia, as I don’t see myself becoming a professor. For those who are interested though, it is a great thing to do.
I would love to work at a space company at some point, and work in industry at some point, because I would find that really interesting and would learn a lot for it. Perhaps a space start up. I see myself, hopefully, staying in the US, if I can get a job after I finish. JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory) would be awesome, but it’s very competitive.
In the future, I would love to apply to become an astronaut, which is why I want to stay in the US. To be fair, I could become an astronaut with ESA, but I’m not sure when they are doing their next astronaut call. You have to be 26 or 27 to apply, so I’m not old enough right now. Maybe the next one. I’ll apply to every call that I qualify for.
Check out her short story, "Homecoming" about a young, female Indian astronaut about her trip to space on the Space Queens website
I hope that you learned a lot from Elisha, I know I sure did! Definitely keep your eyes peeled to see what she does in the future, I'm sure she'll be in orbit before we know it.
What are some of your goals?