Shireen Datta, A Story of Aerospace Engineering, Resilience, and Finding Your Inner Power
In honour of it being International Women in Engineering Day last week, I am so pleased to release my interview with the wonderful Shireen Datta. Shireen and I were able to connect on Instagram after we came across each other on the EngineeringGals Instagram page. We arranged a meeting and became fast friends!
I am very inspired by Shireen's story of finding her passion, her perseverance through challenges, as well as her uplifting, positive outlook on her journey. She has been able to take part in many interesting things, including an internship at Jaguar Land Rover, a year at Georgia Tech's French campus, a European Space Agency training course, and is currently part of the well-respected Aerospace Systems Design Lab at Georgia Tech.
Without further ado, I'll let Shireen take it away.
Can you introduce yourself?
I'm an international student at Georgia Tech in the process of obtaining a master’s degree in aerospace engineering. My background is in mechanical engineering from Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.
I grew up in India, where I lived for 11 years, until I moved to Ireland for the following 11 years. I also lived in France for a year to study, and did a semester in England to work. That cultural upbringing has made me who I am today.
I also used to read all the time, when I was younger, which has given me the curiosity that has brought me to where I am in my career today.
How did you get into aerospace engineering and is there anything in particular that sparked your interest?
I had little to no idea what engineering was until halfway through secondary school when people started asking me what I wanted to be. So initially, I considered engineering pretty much because I was decent at maths and physics, and liked knowing about things and constantly asking questions.I was pretty clueless about most aspects of engineering until I actually got into it. The first time I wrote any code or even touched a circuit board and spanner was in my first year of university. DIY was not and still is not my strong suit, but I absolutely love doing hands-on engineering work at any chance I get.
In 2012, two years before I got into university, I attended a lecture by Dr. Charles Bolden, the NASA Administrator at that time. He came to Ireland and gave a guest lecture where he spoke about Mars 2020 with a sense of inspiration that really caught my ear. I wanted to build my career in a field where people were inspired by their work, and also work to inspire others. This experience, followed by watching Curiosity’s landing on Mars a few weeks later, were my first exposures to the space industry, or aerospace in general.
I initially decided to do something broader because the aerospace industry in Ireland at the time was pretty small, which is how I ended up doing mechanical engineering. Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t just go straight into aerospace engineering at first! It would have given me a much stronger foundation for my current work, but I also really appreciate the diverse experiences I was able to get during my undergraduate years. Even though I wasn't studying anything related to the space sector, I tried to keep up my knowledge and awareness by regularly watching news and reading articles from websites publishing content related to space technology.
Navigating Through the Undergraduate Years
What kind of internships did you do throughout your undergraduate years?
I did three internships during undergrad. The first one was at IBM, in technology consulting. I worked in a very small R&D on a bigger project, and most of my work was non-technical because I was 18 - straight out of my first year of college. I did not know much, but it was still a really great experience because I got to meet people and see how a huge company works. That internship taught me the importance of going for opportunities, even when you’re scared.
My experience at IBM helped me get my second internship, where I looked into EU frameworks for academic research funding. Essentially, after academics submit their proposals for projects, they get funding from different places. This gave me a high level view into how academic funding works. Even though I did not go back into that field, I now know how proposals are written, and how the minds of academia work.
My last internship was at Jaguar Land Rover, which was finally in mechanical engineering. I did a lot of stress analysis and some statistical analysis for components. I would say my biggest lesson learned from that internship is how amazing it is to see your work in the bigger picture. I worked on the first prototype of a tiny component in an engine. Then I got to see it being assembled, which was so exciting!
From all of my internships, the two lessons I learned were that you should not be discouraged by mundane work, such as excel sheets, coding, and writing reports. You also have to know how to sell yourself, and realise that everything you have worked on has helped you get to where you are today.
What was the most challenging part of your undergraduate university experience?
In terms of career development, definitely the lack of opportunities. When I went to undergrad, I knew that I wanted to work in aerospace engineering. But the course options in my degree had a pretty strong mechanical focus in things like thermodynamics and fluid mechanics, due to the type of research and faculty profiles in our department. It wasn't always easy to keep my interest in aerospace while having to do six classes a semester in mechanical engineering.
Although there are international standards for university courses, everything outside of academics is not uniform. Attending conferences, doing summer research, and even doing research during the year can be tricky in Ireland. Some places in Europe are now taking on the concept of undergraduate students doing research, but I never got to do any of that. I spent a lot of time outside of academics trying to keep up with the aerospace world. I think it’s important to do your own research if you’re passionate about specific things, even if your university does not provide you with the time or opportunities to do so.
There were definitely points in undergrad where I was burning out, partially due to me taking some classes that I really did not enjoy in university. So a lot of times I found myself stressing about assignments in topics that I had no interest in, whilst trying to keep up with learning about things that I did want to do. However, even though I was stressed, I didn’t want to stop doing my extra work, which I think is a good sign that you have found your passion.
Undertaking an Aerospace Engineering Master's Degree
What is it that you do in your lab at university, and the work that you’re doing?
For the first year of my master’s while I was in France, I focused on taking classes in areas such as aerodynamics, fracture mechanics, and aircraft design. Alongside my second year classes, I’m also working as a research assistant with Georgia Tech’s Aerospace Systems Design Lab, where we do systems engineering design and optimization for aerospace applications.
One of my projects explores “model based” certification of aircraft, a systems engineering concept that the Federal Aviation Administration has recently been interested in. Aircraft certification regulations for noise or safety have usually been built around conventional aircraft which have existed since the beginning of aviation, or at least for multiple decades. Now, technology is advancing so quickly that these certification processes are often unable to handle modern aircraft. Some examples of this are supersonic/hypersonic aircraft like the Concorde, electric propulsion systems, and blended wing body aircraft. For this project, my team is trying to streamline these certification processes using engineering models, with the goal of making them adaptable for any aircraft.
Can you explain some of the gravity related research you did this past summer?
The European Space Agency training course I did was an interdisciplinary one, with engineers, biomedical scientists, physicists and more. Initially, we had a week of lectures where we learned about topics like thermal and fluid system behaviour in space, and the effects of altered gravity on astronauts’ musculoskeletal and neurological systems. Basically, everything that falls under the umbrella of how microgravity or hypergravity affects systems involved in human spaceflight.
For the second week we had to do a pitch presentation where student groups designed experiments that could be conducted using one of the altered gravity platforms that ESA has established across Europe, whether that is with microgravity (simulated in parabolic flights or a drop tower), or hypergravity (simulated in a large diameter centrifuge).
My team’s experiment was formulated with the goal of finding whether hypergravity affects the process of nutrient absorption through biological membrane systems - the process is naturally quite dependent on how fluid moves, and is therefore influenced by gravity. This topic potentially has some very cool applications both on earth and for human spaceflight! I was given the team leader and the systems engineer roles, where my main responsibilities were to ensure that all parts of the team/experiment were integrating and working well together. I really enjoyed working with a team consisting mainly of scientists - the diverse perspectives and skill sets were pretty refreshing to be around, after having worked only with engineers for years!
Can you talk about some of the challenges you have faced over the past year and how you have overcome them?
The first year of my masters’ degree was in France, so it came with moving to a new country (and new language!) as well as pivoting from mechanical engineering to a highly specialized field. The aerospace classes were very new to me, and I was on a campus where most of my cohort were actually in other non-aerospace graduate programs. So the learning curve was steep and it was difficult to avoid feeling isolated occasionally. I think if you’re planning on going abroad for a degree, you really need to spend time preparing yourself as best as you can for the unpredictability of the experience.
I’ve also been experiencing big-time imposter syndrome. At undergrad, I think I was the only one in my year who wanted to go into the aerospace industry - but now, I’m at a university that is internationally renowned for its aerospace program, and I’m just a very small fish in a very big aerospace pond. I’m totally okay with that though, because it means that I’m around people I can learn from. For me, it’s really just a case of getting over being intimidated and making negative comparisons. I try to remember that I’m here to be a better person and a better engineer through learning, so I need to focus on the positives and take inspiration from those around me.
Developing Soft Skills
What are your tips for overcoming failure?
In terms of academics or exams, a couple of bad results will not be the end of everything. I transferred universities during my undergrad degree, because I hadn’t done particularly well in my secondary school exams and wasn’t happy with my personal progress at the first university. You might get kind of derailed here and there, but don’t stress too much about it. If you’re stressing excessively about a specific exam or project all the time, you are going to lose your ability to look at the big picture. If I had settled with staying at my first university, where I was comfortable and doing well on paper, I would not have gotten to where I am today due to a lack of challenges and opportunities.
If you do experience setbacks, don’t lose sight of your end goal and your motivation. Whether that is career goals, supporting your family, or simply being happy. If you fail and you don’t see yourself going towards that goal,. Don’t let yourself overthink things and hinder yourself.
Could you speak a little bit about your thought process of your networking this past summer?
One thing that I didn’t really do as an undergraduate was networking, because I just did not know how to. Looking back on my internships and time at university, I wish I had dedicated time to networking instead of approaching my career development in a more passive manner. For me, good networking is mostly a matter of learning how to ask the right questions to the right people and how to have productive conversations.
At the beginning of summer 2020, I was surveying the market for after graduation and looking for jobs. Even in school or undergrad, I would google for job descriptions and look at where I wanted to be in 10 years. So this summer I decided to constructively stalk people on LinkedIn, who were in companies or job roles that I would love to see myself in.
I was trying to find other grad students at the main Georgia Tech campus, which is how I came across a classmate who had a very similar cultural background to me, and also related to the international student in aerospace struggle. It seemed like she was way ahead of me in the aerospace field, as she had already done four years of aerospace engineering along with some research/industry internships.
The second time we spoke, she told me about how she uses various tools and strategies to network, her experience of creating opportunities for herself instead of waiting for them to show up, and how she organised and led an entire conference in Singapore! I definitely credit her as being one of the main inspirations for me to start reaching out to people and properly networking.
So my advice would be to find one or two people who can inspire you to be better, and help you push yourself. If you find yourself in a situation where someone is doing something that you want to do, actually consider doing it rather than just admiring from afar.
The EngineeringGals Instagram page was also really inspirational, as it has this huge list of women in engineering. Something that makes networking the most comfortable for me is if I can relate to the person I am speaking to, so don’t overlook the value of reaching out to people at the same level as you. You don’t have to go and contact CEOs right off the bat - it can be others in the same profession, cultural background, or those with similar hobbies.
Minorities in STEM
What advice would you give folks from minorities going into STEM?
I think it is really important to create the right mindset where you focus more on moving forward by believing in yourself - rather than constantly dwelling on the obstacles, many of which you often cannot do anything about. But also give yourself space to breathe - it can be a scary experience if you’re in a new situation, especially if you’re coming from a different country or if English is your second language.
Try to find people who are in the same situation as you, or can relate to the nuances of your career journey. Alongside this, don’t be afraid to voice your opinions even when you feel like the odd one out in a room. As minorities I think we hesitate out of the fear that being wrong will mess with our reputation and image, but I really think it’s important to take up that space and put yourself in the same confidence bracket as others. There will almost always be other people in class or at work who don’t know what they are talking about, but don’t get penalized for that.
Also try to find people that you can relate to, whether that is cultural clubs or things like the Society of Women Engineers. At my undergrad university, active advocacy for diversity and inclusion wasn’t really a thing, and there were no significant minority communities like Society of Women Engineers or Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics that I’m now a part of. If you can’t find a group at your university, go to the Internet and social media, find communities such as the EngineeringGals Instagram page, and from there find people whom you can look up to, whether they are an online persona or just your classmate who sits beside you.
Are you looking to do anything in the future to build up your network or others’ network?
I’ve recently joined the Women of Aeronautics and Astronautics organization where we are trying to create and maintain inclusive spaces for minorities in the aerospace industry, and encourage their personal and professional development. I also volunteer as the VP of GradSWE (the graduate section of Society of Women Engineers) at Georgia Tech. Both of these experiences have been incredibly rewarding ways to build a network of like-minded people around me.
I have a vision for creating a local branch of the Space Generation Advisory Council or Women in Aerospace Europe, for Ireland - these organisations already have UK and European local groups. I want to work on building a nationally recognised aerospace community for students in Ireland, and have started connecting with some current undergrads and early career professionals. Next steps include getting in touch with companies in the local industry, university departments and government-affiliated groups. This type of venture will take a while to plan and execute, but I am hoping to leverage networking to get the required support and inspiration.
In terms of my personal networking progress, my next goal is to get better at finding something to work on after initial conversations with people, so that I can follow up and maintain the connection. If I speak to someone working at a company that I’m interested in, I would like to ask questions about skill sets that I can refresh or refine to be in a better position as an applicant.
Have you ever felt like you’ve been treated differently as a woman in STEM?
The main thing that has stood out to me has been my experience on university group projects. In Ireland, immigration started much later than in the UK or US, so not only was I one of very few women in most rooms, but I also had a foreign background. I think that occasionally added to the feeling of being out of place, because most of my classmates not only had gender in common, but also their entire cultural background. This problem is a bit less prevalent in other countries like the US, because people originate from a highly diverse set of ethnicities.
Focusing on the gender side of things, unless you speak up, you’re not always going to be actively asked for an opinion. Everyone’s experiences are different of course, but in my opinion if you do not want to always be the person “putting together the report and presentation”, then you must speak up and place yourself in the midst of the technical work.
You don’t always need to be right to do this , just get your ideas out there - if you keep waiting until you know something for sure, the project is going to be over before you know it. I’ve mentioned before to people that my idea was only listened to when a male classmate brought it up, and I realised that people are often oblivious to these subtle biases and the impact they can have.
Shireen's Next Steps
What’s next for you and your career?
I still have three semesters of my master’s degree left, and I’m trying to make the most of it while also maintaining a balance and avoiding burnout. This is my first experience doing research work that actually matters and is close to real-life problems, which I’m excited to continue until my graduation in December 2021.
My post-graduation goal is to begin a technical career in sustainable space technology, combining the systems engineering and mechanical design experiences from both of my degrees. I’m looking at small to medium companies, as I’ve noticed that they encourage younger employees to take on more responsibilities. However, I would also really love to work for government based research at some point, such as ESA’s Young Graduate Trainee programme or if I’m able to find a suitable opportunity in a research lab on the US side of things. Eventually, I would love to get a PhD in the near future - ideally I would start working and do a PhD part time so I can connect the two, since I don’t want to pursue academia full time.
I also want to be able to make a difference in how engineering is taught in schools and many universities. I think, overall, most forms of engineering are not taught in a way that makes students want to stay in the field going forward. I find it pretty shocking that about 70% of my undergraduate year didn’t want to stay on the technical side of engineering, and are going into jobs that are either cross-disciplinary, or far removed from what we were taught in class.
One of the classes I’m taking right now, cognitive engineering, is helping me learn more about this, as we’re looking at how humans interact with everything around them. So we’re looking at people’s responses to other humans, objects, or structures that are imposed on them. I want to be able to use this kind of knowledge in the future to make the engineering experience better for students and young professionals.
If you are interested in contacting Shireen, check out her LinkedIn here.
Wow, Shireen, your story is incredible! What a journey of chasing down your passions and embracing unfamiliar situations . I am grateful for you taking the time to share your experiences with me and the audience. I am excited to see where your journey takes you, and to support you along the way.