Preethi Pratap Goes Where No Man Has Gone Before

preethi pratap

Who says girls don’t like physics? Not me – and not Dr. Preethi Pratap, astrophysicist, engineering fellow and chief engineer at Raytheon Missiles and Defense, a business of Raytheon Technologies. Like me, she was a daughter of a physicist and fell in love with physics as a young girl in India.

“Astronomy and astrophysics, in particular, struck my fancy at a very early age,” says Pratap. “I remember when I was in sixth grade, India was at war with Pakistan. We used to have blackouts at night. So my father and I used to sit outside. It was very dark and we used to look at the stars. And that started my fascination for studying the stars, studying the universe. I pursued that path and did everything to further that interest.”

Born in Kerala, Pratap spent her early childhood in Mumbai where her father was a physicist at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. The family moved to Belgium where her dad pursued a research fellowship, and then to the University of Austin, Texas, where he worked with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Ilya Pregogine. The family moved back to Chennai and then to Ahmedabad, where Pratap finished her schooling and received a bachelor of science degree in physics. She then earned her master’s degree in astrophysics at IIT Bombay.

“That piqued my interest in astrophysics,” says Pratap. “My father was working at the Physical Research Laboratory, and I used to go there with him and meet scientists from all over the world. That got me interested in astronomy. I decided that’s what I wanted to do. At the end of my master’s degree, I applied for Ph.D. programs in the U.S. and India. I got into the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and spent six-and-a-half years there, [earning] a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in astronomy – and radio astronomy in particular.”

What first began as a curiosity about the universe solidified into interests spanning physics, chemistry, and engineering. Pratap used radio telescopes to study regions in the universe where stars formed. Influenced by her graduate school thesis advisor Lew Snyder, her thesis work focused on formaldehyde masers (M.A.S.E.R. stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation). Masers are a type of lasers that use microwaves, which have less energy than visible light. Formaldehyde, which is also found in interstellar space, is a simple compound consisting of carbon attached to two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. It absorbs available radiation and sends out microwaves in lock step.

“Formaldehyde is a very unusual type of maser,” says Pratap. “I started studying why there are certain star forming regions that have formaldehyde masers. My thesis was focused on what makes those particular regions unique. And you use these masers to study other properties of those regions to see why do stars form there and not somewhere else.”

Snyder, her Ph.D. advisor, a pioneer in molecular astrochemistry, was looking molecules that point to life in the universe. Pratap’s first project was searching for urea, a basic building block of life, and addressing the question, where did life on Earth start? Did it come from the outside? Or is it something inherent on our planet that makes it conducive to life.

It was that quest to find the answer to the question of where and how life started on Earth that set Pratap on a journey, first to Harvard, then to the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, and, finally, to Raytheon.

We sat down with Pratap to discuss everything — from the Big Bang theory to the Higgs Boson particle, from star formation to women in physics.

Preethi Pratap
Preethi Pratap – the early days

The question on where did life start on Earth drove you to focus on lasers and masers?

That was a really difficult problem at the time, because the technology was not good enough to detect the molecule. As I was branching out, I had landed on lasers and lasers —things that were serendipitously discovered in the universe. In fact, my advisor was one of those people who started looking for water in the universe, and everyone said, ‘Oh, you’re never gonna find it.’

At the time, an astrophysicist in Berkeley, California, who had his own telescope at the university, reported spotting rain in the Orion Nebula. There was so much water and the signals were so strong, it pointed to the fact that masers are extremely unusual [and therefore unlikely to be found] … When I heard that story, I decided I wanted to do something unique that nobody had looked at before. That’s what drove me to these formaldehyde lasers.

What happened after your PhD at Urbana Champaign? How did you get to Harvard?

After my Ph.D., I had planned to do a postdoctoral fellowship and look for a faculty position. I got a position at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and moved to Boston. My work was still related to masers. But now we had moved on to a different type of masers. We were looking at methanol, a type of alcohol. So I started working using a different technique, very long baseline interferometry, a complex engineering feat of equipment in the early days of this technique. We would go out to the observatories, record the data and bring it back to Harvard. We would combine it and analyze it. It was then at Harvard I met the person who would become my husband. In the midst of my postdoctoral fellowship I also got married. And after three years at CFA, I moved to the University of Massachusetts in Amherst for a second postdoctoral fellowship where I focused on the chemistry of certain star-forming regions. I spent a lot a lot of time in the middle of the Quabbin reservoir in western Massachusetts where the university had a telescope. That’s when I had my first child.

So in your family life a different type of star was born?

That’s right. She has spent a lot of time at these various observatories, tagging along with me because I couldn’t leave her alone at home. After my three years at UMass, I was fortunate to get a position at the MIT Haystack Observatory, and we moved back to the greater Boston area – to a little town called Boxborough. My daughter was two at the time. I started working at Haystack. I was running the undergraduate education programs. In addition to that, I was using that program to bring in students and continue my research.

Share with us your thoughts what we are learning from the universe? It’s an endless place of new discoveries.

There was a time when the Big Bang Theory was a little controversial. But that has proven to be the truth about how the universe came about. But there are still a lot of unanswered questions. And as we improve our technology and build better instruments, better computers, we’re learning more, and changing the way we think about the universe. And that, to me, the beauty of science. Science lets you not be rigid and locked into one position. As you get more data, you are allowed to change your theories and your thoughts about how the how everything works. And the universe is no exception.

Science evolves, but science endures, right? The laws of gravity still hold. Einstein’s theory of relativity still holds. What did you think of the Higgs Boson discovery?

I thought it was fascinating. I think that whole that whole area is what is now the new frontier. Because we are getting to smaller and smaller particles. There was a time when we thought was the atom is the smallest particle in the universe. And now we’re finding even smaller particles.

You’re now at Raytheon. Tell us a little bit about your journey from Harvard and MIT to Raytheon.

I spent 12 years at MIT. I did a lot of great research with students, I got involved in a lot of STEM education initiatives. And all those initiatives, all those programs were funded by the National Science Foundation. And after a while, that funding sort of started to run dry. The economy wasn’t doing well. So I stopped and took stock of what I wanted from life. I had a second child while I was at Haystack: my son was born. I needed a new challenge. A friend of mine had moved to Raytheon. And she said, Why don’t you look at Raytheon? So I applied and got in – and the rest is history. I changed my path from pursuing a faculty position, which would have had me move away from the family, to being in a corporation where there was a lot more of the stability I was looking for at the time.

Tell us a little bit about what do you do at Raytheon.

At Raytheon, I helped design missile defense systems to help our soldiers stay safe. That uses my background in physics – my background in astronomy – to some extent. I felt like that was a natural transition to my where I came from,

And how long have you been at Raytheon?

I have been at Raytheon for 12 years. I have come up through the ranks. In my current position, I work with customers all over the world.

My current portfolio is focused on the Indo-Pacific region, Southeast Asia, Australia, and India.

Preethi Pratap
Preethi Pratap atop Green Bank Observatory in Virginia

What is your view about education and teaching youngsters, and inviting them into careers in science?

When I was growing up, my father made no difference in how he dealt with me and my brother. If we were bored, he would ask us to do some math problems. I didn’t grow up thinking that a woman could not do science or … physics. When I came to the U.S., I realized there was an inherent message that gets sent out to young girls in particular – about math being hard: “Girls don’t do math.”

When I went to MIT, my focus was on undergraduate education. But soon I realized that you really need to bring the message that science is fun and that science is good very early on in the upper elementary and middle school.

I believe that science education should be brought to students, especially girls, at a very young age. The message that society gives — that girls don’t do science — seems to get entrenched. The girls who do go on to do science are the ones who have some kind of support and encouragement. So my goal going forward is to be involved in STEM education, and to volunteer to bring science to students and kids everywhere.

That is a great mission. Why do you think there is this image? How can we actually turn that around?

When I was at MIT, I worked with a program at the MIT for girls in STEM. And the leader of that program told me that girls learn differently. They need to have a human connection to what they’re doing. When we teach hard sciences — math and science — we have students just sit at a computer and a textbook and do problems. But where the human connection? When you provide that human connection, girls get much more involved in the harder sciences. There are more girls who go into biology because you can “sell” cell biology by saying, you’re going to save lives, you’re going to help somebody make medicines, and that will cure people’s problems. But with physics, you need to be extra creative to bring that kind of connection into the problem.

That’s really important, as I’m sure are role models, champions and mentors. What’s your message to South Asian women and young girls?

My message is not to be afraid to seek out things that make you look different. Going into math and science is setting you apart, especially in high schools here. So pursue that passion. If you’re passionate about something, and if you think that’s something you can do, just go for it. Seek out mentors and people who will support you in that decision.

Well, that’s good advice for everybody. And I have to ask you this question before I let you go. Do we think that we have uncovered all the secrets of the universe yet or not?

Oh, absolutely not. I think in the last few years we’ve seen activity with the Event Horizon Telescope, where they’re starting to understand black holes… The technology is getting such that you can actually start getting close to the edges of a black hole. That’s certainly one part of it. And then the other part is you were talking about the Higgs boson. And, you know, the whole gravitational wave theory, I think. [There are questions about the] far universe, and the origins of the universe itself. That’s where it’s going to be – the next frontier and discovery.