An Interview with Shantanu Naidu

Meet one of Dawn's research assistants, Shantanu Naidu.
The following interview is a written interview conducted by the Outreach team at Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
Shantanu Naidu, UMD

Where do you work? And, what do you find most interesting about working there?

SN: I work in the Astronomy Department at the University of Maryland. The most interesting thing about working here is that there is always excitement in the air. There is a lot happening here with everyone working on space missions. When I was a kid I used to see the work of the scientists and all the discoveries in space on TV. And, now, I feel like I am part of it.

What is your role in the Dawn mission?

SN: I am working as a Research assistant with Dr. Lucy McFadden. Having recently joined this field, this mission is mainly going to be a learning experience and a launch pad for my career in this field. I will be working with the science team in analyzing the data obtained from the spacecraft and build tools that will help in the analysis.

What is your everyday work life like?

SN: Work life here is like learning something new and exciting everyday and I am always amazed by the things I learn. My main task is to write computer codes to solve problems. It includes breaking down the problems into mathematical equations and functions, developing logic to manipulate images and arrays, and wrapping these codes with a good graphical user interface so that many people can use it.

Can you share one of the unique aspects of the Dawn mission that fascinate you most?

SN: I am fascinated by the fact that we are visiting the two biggest asteroids for the very first time in one mission. I am looking forward to the number of new discoveries we will make at these asteroids and all the questions it will answer to help us in our goal of understanding the origin of the solar system.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

SN: As a child I wanted to be a soccer player. But it was my father who wanted me to be a scientist, and believe it or not, he wanted me to work at NASA! I was always interested in Math and Science but working at NASA seemed a distant dream living in India. Although I haven’t yet accomplished my father’s dream, I guess working on a NASA space mission is close and hopefully I can still achieve that

At what point did you determine that you would pursue a career in astronomy? Tell about the path that led you to this field.

SN: Actually it was quite recently that I decided to pursue a career in this field. While doing my M.S. in Telecommunication, I got an opportunity to work as a student assistant with Dr. Rosemary Killen in the astronomy department here. I grabbed that opportunity. Since then, I have so many questions about a lot of things in space and I wanted to learn something new all the time. That is why I want to pursue a career in astronomy—;to answer all these endless questions which come up all the time.

Who inspired you?

SN: Most of the great scientists and inventors about whom we learn in school have inspired me. People who have inspired me the most would be Einstein, Newton, Edison and Tesla. It is amazing how much these people have changed the world with their work. If I could contribute to the world even half of what they did, I would consider myself a successful

What subjects were you interested in as a young student?

SN: I was interested in Math and Science because I didn’t have to mug up anything (Brit slang for studying hard for a subject, especially for an exam) and solving problems was like solving puzzles. It was fun.  

What was your favorite book as a child and why?

SN: I didn’t read many books outside of school. But, still I was a fan of The Hardy Boys because they used to be very gripping and you could finish reading them quickly!

What advice would you give to aspiring engineers or scientists?

SN: Whatever you do in your life as engineers or scientists will go a long way in helping us lead a better life and understanding things better. This is one of the best ways in which you can contribute to humanity. Also just being an engineer or a scientist is not enough. You have to be good at what you do. So, try to be good at whatever you do now. You may not realize it now, but this will help you in your career.

What are your leisure time activities?

SN: I love to watch and play soccer. I also love excursions to the woods or national parks. It’s like a refresh button I need in my life.

Do you have a yet-to-be-achieved life goal?

SN: My career has just started and I will always have unachieved goals in my life. Right now, my goal would be to be a regular in space missions, both as an engineer and a scientist.

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