HomeBad Ass AsiansIndian American scientist launches telescope for NASA

Indian American scientist launches telescope for NASA

Growing up in India, where the night sky was dark and clear of pollution, Hashima Hasan was fascinated by the stars. As she recounted in an interview with NASA’s STEM Stars video series, her life reached a turning point in 1957 when Sputnik launched, becoming the first artificial satellite in space. Standing in her backyard with her family, watching the satellite streak across the sky like a shooting star, she decided to become a scientist.

Decades later, Hasan has achieved her dream. Today, according to her NASA bio, she works as a Program Scientist for initiatives such as the Keck Observatory, NuSTAR, and ADCAR. Most recently, Hasan served as the Deputy Program Scientist for the James Webb Space Telescope, which launched on Christmas day, 2021.

According to NASA, the telescope will “fundamentally alter our understanding of the universe” by using infrared radiation technology to study the cosmos, including exoplanets, nebulae, stars, galaxies, and other astronomical bodies millions of miles away from the earth.

“I wanted nothing more than to explore space,” Hasan wrote in a blog post for Women in NASA. “[Later], when NASA landed a man on the moon, I promised myself that one day I would work for NASA.”

On her road to working at NASA, however, Hasan was forced to overcome numerous barriers to further her scientific studies. In her blog post, Hasan recounted the difficulties she faced learning about STEM, a field reserved for men when she was a child. Students at the Roman Catholic girl’s school she attended in Lucknow were restricted from learning any scientific subject except for botany. Hasan was only able to begin learning science when an overseas teacher joined the faculty.

Even then, qualified female science teachers were hard to find. Hasan and her classmates were forced to study together from their textbooks, talking with each other to learn the subject material. At home, she would teach herself mathematics from her brother’s textbooks.

“I had no formal mentors while growing up, no one to guide me or tell me what step to take next,” Hasan writes. “In fact, it was an almost hostile environment where a young woman wishing to pursue a scientific career, rather than getting married and raising a family, was viewed with suspicion.”

NASA photo via NASA

Hasan’s hard work paid off. She won a scholarship to Oxford, receiving her doctorate in physics in 1976 and winning a Gold Medal for academic excellence. After returning to India to continue her research, she was selected for a prestigious position as a faculty member at Poona University. Hasan credits her success to her dogged determination to achieve her scientific dreams, as well as the support of the community of women who surrounded her.

“I had a mother and school teachers who were motivators,” Webb recounts in her Women in NASA blog post. “They did not have enough knowledge to provide me direction, but they taught me to believe in myself, to dream, and to succeed.”

However, as Hasan was still a single woman, the familial pressure to become married grew. In her blog post, she recalls how her father introduced her to a man in Bombay, asking her to marry him. She consented. The marriage forced her to give up her promising career in India and move to the States, where her opportunities were severely limited by visa restrictions. Still, Hasan pushed through, doggedly continuing what research she could.

“It was sheer willpower that helped me keep my scientific abilities alive,” she recalled.

This sheer willpower, powered her into her dream job in 1985: becoming a scientist at NASA, where she worked on the landmark Hubble Space Telescope. On NASA STEM stars, Hasan recounts her work writing software that updated the telescope’s outdated technologies, which had caused an optical error. She still considers her contributions to the Hubble Telescope one of her greatest accomplishments.

Today, Hasan remains a key part of NASA’s staff. She is now a Deputy Program Scientist, applying her expertise to Hubble’s successor, the Webb telescope. However, she also prioritizes teaching others, serving as the Education and Communication Lead for Astrophysics. Remembering the women who supported her throughout her career, she places a special emphasis on mentoring female graduate students and technicians who are as passionate about space and STEM as she was.

“When I think of the unlikely dream I had as a little girl in an underdeveloped country, I marvel at where I am today,” Hasan writes.  If my story inspires others, then I’ve continued [the women who supported her] legacy.”

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