Meet NASA astrophysicist Lika Guhathakurta. Lika has been fascinated by our closest star, the Sun, from an early age. Lika is the lead program scientist for NASA’s Living With a Star initiative as well as program scientist for another heliophysics mission. As part of her work with teachers Lika has helped prepare a series of textbooks on heliophysics with the idea that by understanding how the Sun influences the Earth humanity will progress from an ocean-faring to a space-faring civilization.
What is your earliest memory of wanting to be a scientist?
When I was very young (7) in Kolkata I used to watch the night sky. As I looked at the stars I had the same question that NASA puts in big labels, as one of its quintessential problems: “Where did we come from?”. Even in those early years I’d drive my father up the wall asking this question. As an adult I know how difficult it is to answer this question. Maybe after three or four questions even an adult will have to say “I don’t know.” You can’t really take recourse from science. You just can’t say “Big Bang” because the question remains, well, what was there before the Big Bang?
My father never stopped me from asking these questions. He did not want to curb my curiosity. Being a mathematician, with knowledge of logic, he knew that some questions are unending, but how do you tell that to a child? This was how he got around it and that would satisfy me for a while: He drew a circle for me asked me if I could tell where the beginning and the end of the circle was. It kind of stopped my unending questions and allowed me to think that not all questions have answers in the way we think answers should be. But I never gave up the quest.
What lead you to studying the sun and the Living With a Star initiative?
I finished my masters in Cosmology and Astrophysics at University of Dehli and then came to Colorado to do PhD. It was at this point that I chose a thesis topic that was related to the study of the Sun. Eventually, I finished my PhD and was a research associate at University of Colorado. In 1993 I joined NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt Maryland and in 1998 I went to NASA Headquarters in Washington, DC. It was during this time that Living With a Star(LWS) Initiative was formulated and funded by Congress as a new initiative in 2000. I became the first program scientist in 2001 (and continuing)
What’s the most exciting part of your research?
As a scientist bureaucrat I do not conduct personal research but rather enable and establish research portfolio for hundreds of scientists all over the world. I have been fascinated by the goals and objectives of the LWS Program: Science that is relevant to life and society. It has been exciting starting a new discipline titled “Heliophysics” and creating the first ever text books for this discipline. I believe that knowledge of heliophysics will be vital as we move out of low earth orbit into interplanetary medium and explore the solar system.
I have also loved sharing some of my knowledge with the general public. That is something that if I were just a pure researcher I wouldn’t have time for. That has been extremely joyful. At NASA, we are privileged to see, to know so many things that ordinary people don’t get a chance to experience – some of our imagery! I came up with a story line to share the LWS program and show some of these exquisite images. I helped in the creation of two major planetarium shows, “Cosmic Collisions” and “Journey to the Stars” in partnership with American Museum of Natural History in New York and National Air and Space Museum in DC. I also helped in the production of a 3D IMAX and planetarium show featuring the STEREO mission, “3D Sun”. These shows are running all over the world. Children, general public, older people, are learning something about the cosmos that they had no way of knowing otherwise. So these are some of the excitements, I would say.
From 1993-1998 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, I was the project scientist on “White Light Coronagraph” (WLC) experiment which was part of a payload on SPARTAN (Shuttle Pointed Autonomous Research Tool for Astronomy) 201 missions. This was a free-flying payload that studied the solar wind and the sun’s corona to increase our knowledge of sun’s effects on the Earth. This was truly a unique experience in that I was able to work in a laboratory for instrument and spacecraft development as well as interface with astronauts who were assigned to deploy this payload. In addition the science from these series of missions and Ulysses mission established the beginnings of sun-earth connection science that formed the basis for “Heliophysics”.
When you encounter frustrating situations or dead-ends, what keeps you going?
Interdepartmental and international cooperations have shown me that tenacity and negotiation transcend borders and can break down bureaucracy. With a touch of self-irony, I would like to reference the Indian Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen’s book, Argumentative Indian, to illustrate that discussion is the only way to discover “the many-sided aspect of truth.” I am an incorrigible optimist and tenacious and never let dead-ends frustrate me. My motto from my favorite poet Tagore: If I can’t make it through one door, I’ll go through another door – or I’ll make a door. Something terrific will come no matter how dark the present.
What’s the strangest place/situation you’ve been?
I am both scientifically (because it is easier to take new ground-based instruments to eclipses than it is to send them into space – it’s very expensive!) and aesthetically tied to total solar eclipses of the Sun. I have traveled to places as far as Mongolia (1998) and as remote as Libya’s Sahara desert (2006) and everything in between.
The expedition to Libya not only generated scientific papers but it also helped Department of State in re-establishing full diplomatic relations and scientific cooperation with Libya. It was wonderful. Who better to use than scientists, who work without boundaries anyway?
What aspect of your research/science would you happily do away with?
Anything that is process oriented.
Where do you see your research taking you?
Heliophysics is a brand new science. However, today we are still an ocean-faring civilization. The field of meteorology came into existence as an interdisciplinary scientific study that was a combination of different disciplines, like atmospheric chemistry, oceanography and others that led to the significant breakthroughs in weather forecasting, which made traversing in the ocean possible for an ocean-faring people. Of course, today we also use planes, but it takes an understanding of the environment in which we can put ships, planes, etc, whatever we want.
Similarly, I would like to see heliophysics as a branch of science that’s going to help the human species go from earth dwellers to, really, space farers. We are planning to send astronauts out of lower orbit to asteroids, maybe to Mars, and that’s the big goal of exploration of space: to help science and perhaps commerce. And then we also have robotic spacecraft –spacecraft all over: to Jupiter, to Mars, to Saturn. You just name it. We are even sending a spacecraft – and that is the mission perhaps closest to my heart – it’s called Solar Probe Plus, which is actually going to go and touch the sun. Our first visit to a star! And so in order to be able to do all this we have to be able to understand the environment in which we will have our robotic spacecraft and human astronauts. And I would like to see heliophysics as that science, a hybrid of astrophysics and meteorology that will enable breakthroughs in space weather forecasting throughout the solar system much like meteorology did for earth.
How have your friends/relatives who are not scientists reacted to your career/research?
My friends and relatives are fascinated by what I get to do for a living! They also understand the significance and importance of this research to their technological way of life. They know a lot more about space weather and the vulnerabilities it poses for us.
What advice do you have for students considering a career in the Earth and space sciences?
Develop tenacity – do not give up. Do not go after instant gratification– nothing is instantaneous. If you really want something, if you really believe in something, then I would say you should doggedly pursue that. Don’t stop and listen to people who say you can’t do it. In my book I don’t think I use those words “no, you can’t.” There is always another way. Study hard. Try to listen to yourself and find out where your passion is. Find a mentor. Look for internships.