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Apeksha Bagchi

IWB Blogger

Shweta Kulkarni, Who Became An Entrepreneur At 18, Wants To Make India Proud Through Her Passion For Astronomy

  • IWB Post
  •  August 28, 2019

Gazing up at the night sky in amazement – this is something each and every one one of us has done in our childhood, wondering about the secret behind the blinking stars and the bright moon. But there are some who get attached to the mystical skies and desire to explore it further. For them, the sky is not the limit but the beginning, a mantra on which 23-year-old Shweta Kulkarni lives her life.

Shweta was 16 when her passion for astronomy led to the foundation of Astron, an organization via which she one day dreams to leave India’s mark in astronomy. Handling the organization from the age of 16, she became its CEO at the age of 18 in 2013. She is currently pursuing her education in astronomy through the University of Central Lancashire, UK.

Excerpts from our chat with the young entrepreneur:

So, why astronomy would be my first question for you, what was it that fascinated and attracted you towards the field?

My family has a history of participating in freedom fights. So love for the nation runs in my veins and while listening to stories of freedom fights I learned how Rakesh Sharma sang “Sare Jahaan se achha, Hindostaan hamara” when he saw our country from space and that just made me want to go to space. I wanted to see how the earth looks from space. Just as my interest in being an astronaut was growing, the news of Kalpana Chawla’s death took over. I started reading about her and how she became an astronaut. The mysteries of the universe awed me and one day I had an opportunity to attend a talk by Dr. Jayant Naralikar when I was in sixth standard. I was so was inspired by his talk that my decision of becoming an astronaut one day was cemented.

When Sunita Williams went on expedition 14, it was the trigger for me to take my first steps in the field. I started attending stargazing programs and astronomy lectures. Initially, my parents thought that my love for astronomy was just a hobby but when they realized how passionate I was about it, they finally bought me a telescope on my 16th birthday.

Do you think that girls are discouraged from aspiring to make a career in astronomy?

Maybe, but I am of the opinion that girls shouldn’t wait for opportunities or exposure; they should themselves take a step ahead into the field. Their enthusiasm matters the most. The lack of awareness about the field only worsens this problem. At least, today we can see a lot of women scientists in ISRO working hard on our space missions and a lot of initiatives are being taken all around the globe to involve more women in the field of astronomy.

But women also have to be passionate enough for this field, look beyond the stereotypes, and not victimize themselves.

I remember reading that because of your particular interest in astronomy you didn’t perform well in other subjects and thus your teachers complained about it to your parents. Do you think schools don’t really encourage children’s’ passions and curiosities?

I think that schools are bound with their own rules and regulations. Even though a lot of schools consider providing a lot of activities outside of the curriculum, it mostly depends on the parents of the child to convert the experience into something better. My parents understood me and guided my way when the school had too many students to look after. Every single child is different.

My teachers didn’t think that I was a good student because I was dedicated to astronomy and arts and was inclined towards that more than regular studies. But there may be some other students who were benefited by that curriculum. I think the school, the student, and the parents are always doing the best they can, it’s the communication and understanding between these three that would benefit the child more in the future.

What led to the foundation of your organization Astron?

The conception of Astron Era stemmed from the disappointment I faced when I found out that dedicated educational portals for astronomy were quite scarce. Since the age of 16, when I bought my first telescope in 2011, I have been trying to popularize astronomy. When I turned 18, I registered a non-profit organization, Astron-SHK Trust and met with some like-minded people who became my team!

The idea of an astronomy-dedicated e-learning platform was conceived about five years ago and Astron Era was finally incubated by IIM Bangalore and IIM Nagpur under the women startup program 2018.

Astron Era, a private limited undertaking, offers both elementary and sophisticated concepts of astronomy explained in a creative and insightful manner. Curious beginners can make good use of the introductory courses while ardent admirers of celestial bodies can benefit from the advanced courses. Impressed by its “uplifting” purpose, Shweta earned a grant from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India – a highly acclaimed recognition.

Certain fields, education-wise and career-wise, are considered quite ‘elite’ and not accessible to children from underprivileged and tribal sectors. How are you rectifying this error?

We have recently provided our online courses in Marathi and Hindi to 500 tribal schools in Maharashtra in association with Tribal Development Department, Govt. of Maharashtra. We hope that through these courses, scientific temperament will be incubated in tribal students and eventually wipe out superstitions.

I believe what all these children lack is the chance to prove their passion. Like, once I was invited to organize a big stargazing program in Pune, however, I was short of team members. I had visited a tribal school located in a remote area where I found that the girls were interested in studying astronomy. So, I called up the tribal school and asked if the girls can make it to Pune and handle the telescope as our volunteers. There, when my mentor, Dr. Raghunath Mashelkar asked the girls what they wanted to be when they grow up, they said, “We want to be like Shweta Didi when we grow up”.

She is currently incubated by IIM Nagpur under Women Startup Program 2018 for the expansion of astronomical activities. She has traveled to most of India and was one of the two Indian participants to attend International Astronomical Youth Camp (2016) in England.

How do you think women’s achievements can be made more visible and more popular in the field of astronomy?

With blogs like yours, a spotlight can be given to the women striving to make a mark in this. Incubation centers supported by Department of Science and Technology and hosted by national institutes like IIMs can be a grand help for the same. Moreover, it’s the women who need to make their story heard!

As your dream is to spend your time gazing at the stars, if you were to wish upon a falling one, what would it be?

To enable me to make a mark of India through Astron in the field of astronomy.

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