Colorado, United States
15 years old
Being a female teenager of color who likes to put on makeup and wear dresses doesn’t sound like your typical engineer. I’m breaking every stereotype and going against all the rules. I’m Ishanvi. I know what you’re thinking. That doesn’t sound like a name an engineer would have, especially not on a spaceship. But, here I am in space as a sophomore in high school. Crazy? I know.
My mom and dad were both born and raised in India. They went to school just like everyone else and were brought up in a small one-room house. However, when they got older, they were rushed towards making money for the family and finding a job. As expected by the entire family, my mom and dad worked in the IT department. Ever since I was 3 or 4 years old, I’ve been taught leadership skills. I was being prepared for the day that I went into the IT department.
I was essentially taught to be extroverted in elementary school, which seems a little bit unconventional thinking about it now. However, at that time, I was having a blast. By the end of 5th grade, I ruled the school. I knew everyone in the whole grade, and frankly, I got all A’s. Let’s fast forward through summer; middle school is where things changed for me.
Middle school was rough. I ended up being president of the student government for three years in a row. I led the National Juniors Honors Society for two, I MC’d the talent show for three, and I still found time to do homework. The jump from elementary to middle school was brutal. I was stressed out, and there was a lot more homework, but I was always told that overachievers make it into the workforce, and I stuck with that through some of the worst years of my life. To help relieve some of that stress, I decided to pick up a hobby during summer break, and it ended up being coding. I know what you’re thinking, what type of Indian girl who wears dresses all the time would voluntarily code? To be honest, I was thinking about the same things. However, it almost made me feel like I was in control of my world. A world where I didn’t have to worry about running an infinite number of clubs, do homework, learn the piano, and still maintain a social life.
Coding soon turned into developing solutions to solve the problems that I faced, and my friends met. Soon I was creating AI engines in my spare time that was able to categorize bullying and non-bullying phrases over text. I never grasped the idea that I could absorb so much information and learn about so many new topics as a 13-year-old.
Going into my first week of high school, I joined the astronomy class with a clear goal to learn more about the application of computer science in space. I asked questions and listened to presentations, but I couldn’t find much about the computer engineers involved in space programs. In our astronomy class, a notice was put out, “Opportunity to go to space aboard the Vestigo spaceship! Looking for high schoolers that can lead and engineer a project that can change the world.” I couldn’t believe that this was an opportunity that was available to me! We were in this new world where high schoolers could now go to space. It was an unbelievable thought, and many sleepless nights were thinking about what I wanted to add to my application.
Immediately, I took the flier home to my parents, and the response was as expected, “Oh Ishanvi! You should be the director of the mission. It would be an awesome thing to add to your resume.” I casually accepted and went back to my room to start my application. I didn’t want to lead the mission; I wanted to be an engineer on the mission. Honestly, I just wanted to create something that would change others’ lives. I didn’t want to manage a team. However, I couldn’t go against my parents’ decision. They were training me to be their perfect Ishanvi, the IT manager they’ve been strategically raising. I reluctantly selected “Mission Manager” on the application sheet and started.
I heard a murmur of noise coming from the corner of the library. I saw a group of people bunched together, staring at a wall. Some emerged from the bunch happy and others disappointed. I ran over, realizing that the results for the Vestigo mission had finally been posted. I scanned the sheet to look for Mission Manager and didn’t see my name. Disappointedly, I looked at my phone to tell my parents the bad news. However, hoping that I was an alternate, I looked to the bottom of the page and saw my name under computer engineer. That was one of the biggest life-changing moments I had ever felt. The application committee realized that I was qualified to be an engineer on the mission more than a leader. I spoke more passionately about my work in the STEM field versus some other leadership opportunities. For some reason, I was more excited but also nervous at the same time.
Let’s fast forward a year. I had completed my space training, and it was a week out from launch day. I was terrified. My parents were excited that I could have the opportunity to go to space even though they were a bit annoyed that I wasn’t leading the event. By this time, I had my entire research project layed out. Since I was still a teen aboard the mission, I was only in space for a few weeks, and then we land back on Earth for the next group to go aboard. This project continues for 20 years, and I was excited to be one of the student ambassadors.
My research project is related to the growth of plants in a space environment. The Vestigo spaceship was designed with a plant growing area. Still, I wanted to use the latest genetic engineering developments to help the plants take advantage of a micro-gravity environment and feed astronauts for a prolonged amount of time. It was a risky idea but something that had the potential for the future of flight.
3...2...1... Blast off! I was finally aboard the spaceship after a thrilling blast off. I was more nervous than ever. Not only was I in space, but I was the only Indian female. I looked different, I sounded different, and multiple males encompassed me. I didn’t feel like I belonged there. However, it made me think back to everything that had happened before.
My mission is coming to an end, and I had figured out the details behind editing the IAA hormone in plants to help it grow faster in space. In the few weeks, I was there, I met with some incredible astronauts and learned about their research projects; however, I learned much more in the long term. Going aboard a spacecraft made me realize that I wasn’t like everyone else. I can be a genetic engineer or a computer scientist if I want to. I don’t have to look like everyone else on the spacecraft. I’m lucky to have parents who have been pushing me to be a better version of myself my whole life, but I also need the support and encouragement to discover and explore my passions. I’m breaking all the stereotypes I’m writing because it matters because my learning is not limited to new topics like genetic engineering. My name might be Ishanvi, and I might be of Indian origin, and I might have a little bit of extra melanin in my skin, but I’m still an engineer, and that’s my story.
Story submitted by: Gitanjali Rao