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The Interstellar Adventurer

Jul/23/2023 / by Abhijit Masih

Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja’s work contributes to space exploration

Photo of Mamta Patel Nagaraja
Official portrait of Mamta Patel Nagaraja, Wednesday, July 8, 2015 at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Photo Credit: (NASA/Aubrey Gemignani)

In the 1980s, three-year-old Mamta was dreaming of space, imagining herself to be the first kid to land on the moon. Today, Dr. Mamta Patel Nagaraja is the associate chief scientist for exploration and applied research in the office of the chief scientist at NASA. In this role, she advises the chief scientist in exploration and science performed by humans in space.

Nagaraja’s parents came to America in 1978, worked as factory line employees, saved up, and became part of the Patel-Motel invasion. Once while cleaning rooms at their motel, her mom told her, “Mamta, if you don’t want to clean toilets like I do, stay in school and do well.” This resonated with the young girl, where many in her family did not attain higher education, and fueled her towards academic pursuit, which would take her as far as exploring space. 

In her time at NASA, Nagaraja has held several roles. But her most notable recognition is being selected twice for an interview to become an astronaut. She has also earned the NASA Exceptional Service medal for her contributions to the International Space Station.

In an interview with SEEMA, Nagaraja shares her passion for space exploration.

How did you get interested in science and aerospace?

My elder sister Daxaben was practically a genius.  In 1983, when she was eight years old, she saw the space shuttle launch with America’s first female astronaut [Sally Ride]. She declared that she would fly into space too. Of course I copied her at the ripe age of three. 

While my sister outgrew her ambition to rocket through the skies, my interest became an obsession.  I read encyclopedias (there was no Google then), spent entire days at the library reading books on space, and found every space-related article in the local newspaper.  I memorized specs of the space shuttle, and I made up adventures I embarked upon in my head.  I flew through clouds of stars and galactic dust, visited the Andromeda galaxy, and became the first kid to land on the moon. 

In my imagination, I could be anything I wanted.  The best part was no one discouraged me when I came back to reality.  It seemed everyone around me thought I could become an astronaut.

Was NASA always a dream and how did you make it come true?

I became infatuated with exploring the unknown at an early age.  Even today, 20 years into my career, I am astounded by discovery, finding new things, and innovating to learn more about the world and our universe. 

Making my dream come true wasn’t quite the straightest path.  I think I had some stroke of luck.  But diligence, perseverance, and learning from failures probably led me throughout my life. 

Specifically for NASA, I participated in the student programs which I highly recommend to anyone still in school.  In most fields, there are internships, externships, shadowing, and other ways for you to learn about companies.  Take those opportunities – most professionals will do anything for students.  And you are only a student for so long.  So don’t be afraid to ask.

How would you describe your job profile at NASA?

I am the associate chief scientist for exploration and applied research in NASA’s office of the chief scientist.  This means I advise the chief scientist on medical and biological research for space missions, including the International Space Station and Artemis missions to the Moon. 

My research expertise is on the molecular effects of microgravity on bone cells, which helps the field team find ways to counteract bone loss that happens in spaceflight.  Previously, I worked as a program scientist for space biology, led science communications, served as the lead mechanical engineer for a scientific instrument, trained astronauts for their missions in space, and worked in the Mission Control Center.

My most coveted recognition is probably getting an interview to become a NASA astronaut myself.  I learned the most about how to succeed after failing (twice!) to achieve this dream.

Lastly, I am quite passionate about increasing diversity and inclusivity in science, and I love mentoring others to help them find their best career path.

Did you ever face any pushback in your career as a woman of color? If yes, how did you handle it?

Yes, in my younger years. I wasn’t quite brave enough to say anything and instead rolled these micro aggressions off my back.  As I have climbed the ladder (and likely, as I have aged), I am much more likely to speak up. I don’t have the patience anymore for such atrocities, both in my personal and professional life. 

The pushback was more when I became a parent.  But I was also fortunate to have champions who went to bat for me, and more leaders who supported me than not.  While I could focus on the one or two people who negatively impacted my career, I choose not to.  I have been fortunate that more people encouraged my career progression than the other way around. 

Any advice you would like to share to young South Asian girls who aim to go beyond the stars?

Decide what you really enjoy in life and how that overlaps with your natural skills.  Pick that field.  Don’t be afraid to switch fields as you progress.  Previous generations stayed in one job their entire careers, but the world has changed, and you can find ways to match all your interests. 

If you decide to become a parent one day, don’t fret about the “do it all” mantra.  You can do it all but not all at the same time.  Be patient with yourself and give yourself grace as you turn down opportunities because you prioritized your family. As older parents tell me, one day, you will take on all those opportunities you once gave up. The kids grow up and leave the house and most likely, you’ll still be working. 

‘Mamta, we’ve a problem.’ If you received this message from a member of your family and a co-worker, what will your response be to both?  

Whether at work or at home, my approach to problems is simple and effective.  I first ensure I understand the problem.  This sometimes requires me to calm the other person, ask for them to repeat, and sometimes in different words. 

Once I know the problem, I ask some key questions– who needs what information, by when do we need to fix this problem, what are the consequences if we cannot fix the problem, does this problem require fixing or can we live with the consequences, and is there a workaround I can put in place now to temporarily fix the problem? Depending on those answers, I develop a strategy to proceed.

At work, I always document along the way.  Most importantly, I try to stay calm (by breathing), shift my perspectives so I can see things from other vantages, and be honest with myself (“can I fix this, do I need to fix this, whose help might I need?”). 

Most importantly, if the problem cannot be fixed or I feel that I have “failed”, I give myself some grace to fail and learn from those mistakes.  This is how I stay resilient.

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