Season 6 - Episode 631
From a childhood in Nebraska, to Baylor, to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Richa Sirohi pursued her dreams and is achieving significant goals as an engineer. A 2018 Baylor graduate, Sirohi is Baylor’s 2023 Young Alumna of the Year. In this Baylor Connections, Sirohi takes listeners inside her work and shares what it means to serve as a role model for students hoping to follow her footsteps into the STEM fields.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections. It's a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor Leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research and student life. I'm Derek Smith, and today we are talking with Baylor's 2023 Young Alumna of the Year, Richa Sirohi. Sirohi serves as an end-to-end information system engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, working on a project called NISAR, a spacecraft that utilizes radar imaging to understand how the Earth changes over time, advancing climate science and resource management and more. A 2018 Baylor graduate, Sirohi pursued a mechanical engineering degree and was sparked towards a career in aerospace when a SpaceX engineer spoke in one of her Baylor classes. She went on to earn master's degrees at Cornell University before joining NASA, and she's with us today on the program. Richa, congratulations on your Young Alumna of the Year award. And more than that, all you're doing with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Thanks for joining us on the program today.
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, thank you for having me. This is exciting.
Derek Smith:Well, looking forward to diving in, and we'll give people a little bit of the abbreviation inside lingo. I know you'll talk about JPL a lot. That's the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California for NASA. And to get us started here, I wonder if you'd take us on a tour of your world just a little bit. If we followed you into work, if we walked around with you once you're there, what are some of the things we'd see? What are some of the sort of things we'd see you doing?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, JPL is a really special place. It's one of the many NASA centers. And as you drive up to the lab, we call it the lab, you'll see just a cascade of mountains behind it. It's nestled right up against the San Gabriel Mountains on the north side of Los Angeles. And when you drive up, I always see this signs that says, "Welcome to our universe." And it really is kind of a special place where we're all committed to these scientific endeavors. There's all these unique minds, technologies you've never even thought of, and it's just an exciting way to start my day. It's very much like a college campus. Imagine it's the size of Disneyland, and so I park my car and I get to walk in and enjoy a little bit of nature. Sometimes I see deer frolicking all around. It's very picturesque, just a very cool place and very much a community. There's different work happening across various buildings. There's R&D, operations, there's mission control, testing. The area that I work in is mostly development, so I sit with my team on my mission, NISAR. And that's a fun environment too, especially coming out of the pandemic because it's not just us getting to collaborate on technical questions and problems, but it's very much a community. We do social events, we support each other. It's been a really cool experience.
Derek Smith:How long have you been with NASA and what took you specifically to JPL?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah. I've been at JPL full-time for four years. After Baylor, I really didn't know what I wanted to do. I applied for investment banks. I had previously interned with JP Morgan. I looked at graduate programs, I looked at fellowships. I really wanted to knock on every door and be absolutely sure. And what I found was, when I met a JPL engineer at a conference, I was just struck by their passion for the work that they do, and I realized that's an element I hadn't really pursued yet. And that brought me to JPL. I interviewed, I had an opportunity to work here and I wanted to do grad school, so it worked out really well that I could intern. I worked on the Mars Mission, the Mars Rover, did grad school at Cornell and then came back full-time just before the pandemic.
Derek Smith:It sounds like there's a degree of versatility to your approach in the sense you were a mechanical engineering major, you even looked at finance after attending Baylor, and you're an engineer, but it's not specifically mechanical, is it? It seems like you're not afraid to tackle different kinds of problems.
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, that's a good way to put it. I'm what they call a systems engineer. So, in many ways, a jack of all trades, but systems engineers always have a deeper technical vein. My background is mechanical and material science. I did my master's in software robotics, but all of that just means that I can approach problems from different perspectives. Doing different things, working in different areas has given me a breadth of knowledge, which gives me the ability to work across different types of systems. We call it systems engineering. What I do is the end-to-end information system. So, it's a really bird's eye view of how data flows through our spacecraft and our mission, and that's why those skill sets apply really well, even though what I do now isn't mechanical engineering.
Derek Smith:Now, as a child, were there any signs in your work or in your schoolwork or in your own time that maybe pointed towards aerospace at NASA?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, I didn't ever have an aha moment where I said, "I want to work for NASA, or I want to be an astronaut." Like a lot of people do. But there were definitely signs. I had big space posters on my walls. In the eighth grade, we were assigned an astronomy project and our teacher said, "Pick one astronomical body and do a page on it and make a drawing or something." And I did every body in the solar system, made a whole book. I was so into it. But it really never struck me as a career option. I grew up in Nebraska. There weren't a lot of aerospace institutions. I didn't know a lot of engineers. The idea of NASA seemed really far away. But at Baylor, it's really close to the SpaceX test facility. And so we often had speakers come in. I started to realize this is an entire industry that's in fact growing, and then going to conferences with the Society Women Engineers just gave me more and more introductions.
Derek Smith:Tell us about your path, the path to higher education and Baylor and...
Richa Sirohi:Sure. Yeah. I mean, college is expensive. So, needing support. I come from an immigrant family. In Nebraska there's a great engineering school. There's a state school, but I really wanted to experience new things, see if I could go elsewhere. My parents went halfway around the world for opportunities. I felt like I could jump a few states. I started looking around. I applied to a lot of places. And Baylor has these great scholarship programs, and I remember there was this invitation to excellence, and my dad was supposed to go with me, both my parents, but he got stuck with work on the East Coast in some snowstorm, and my mom was unsure. She'd never really driven in Texas. She was like, "Oh, do we have to go? UNL's not a bad school, just to stay in Nebraska." And we had a little come to Jesus, and I was like, "If I don't do this and one day I look back at a missed opportunity, I'll always regret it. But if we go and we don't like it like, then at least we'll know." And so I think if she hadn't driven me that day, I would've never known. I would've never liked Baylor, right?
Derek Smith:Well, obviously we're glad that you came here and you chose Baylor. What was your life like at Baylor? What were some of the organizations you were involved in or were there people or organizations who were particularly influential for you?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah. I mentioned SWE. I was really involved in that in the engineering school. It's a group for women in engineering. I stay involved to this day, just supporting other interns that come into JPL, supporting the conferences. It's a great community. I also was really involved in some of the diversity work that happened, and that has also stayed with me. I care deeply about creating a culture of inclusion on my teams and influencing that in any way I can. Baylor at that time was starting up all these different activities and multicultural affairs, pure leadership. I just tried to get involved because I felt like if I could create space, then the experiences of the next generation would be better. The biggest impact we can have is by having conversations, breaking down barriers, sharing culture, and I just became really passionate about those concepts. So, Baylor taught me to take up space and share my voice, and that was very, very powerful.
Derek Smith:I'm intrigued. Obviously organizations like you describe are enriching for the students who were part of them, but you did a lot of the work going into building those up as a student. What did that mean to you? How did that shape you as you were helping create opportunities for others?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah. It is often thankless because the generation that will benefit, you likely won't meet them. It can be very trying because every space you try to occupy will not necessarily be welcoming. People are afraid of what's different. That's true everywhere. And so it is sometimes just taxing. And I think it's important to recognize the energy that'll take, and also find communities where you don't constantly have to fight. Finding places where you're accepted for who you are, and there are those pockets as well. Getting to know the other people who did that kind of diversity work was really wonderful because they were often... they understood those experiences. They were passionate about the same things, in the same way that I liked being involved in engineering because my fellow peers were going through the same experiences. I think it's important to have not one community, but multiple communities that identify with different parts of you.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Richa Sirohi. And Richa, I want to ask you a little bit more down the line to extend that about as a scientist now, what it means to be role model for others. But before we get too far afield from your Baylor time, I want to ask you, in engineering, what were some of your favorite classes or were there some key moments for you or things you look back on that you use most regularly now?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, yeah. Some of the design classes I took. I took a biomedical design class. And even though I didn't go into biomedical as an industry, that was a great course in teaching design thinking, iteration, how do you present and communicate ideas? How do you work through technical challenges, leverage different skill sets? Those are very tangible skills that I've carried into the workplace. It wasn't so much about the actual technical concept, but the skills that I was able to draw from that. I also just fondly remember some of my professors who took a personal interest in my life, and I think that's what is powerful. Those professors that stayed in touch through grad school, that came to my award dinner for the Baylor Young Alum, and just stayed connected all these years, because that kind of support is what makes you a good student. When you feel like someone genuinely is invested in your success, you tend to try a lot harder. I also took courses in leadership. I took an orchestra class. It was fulfilling experience because it wasn't just academic. Being able to go play an instrument for a few hours as part of a group made me a better engineer because I was practicing being a part of something bigger than myself.
Derek Smith:Well, you challenged yourself, whether it was playing an instrument. You mentioned seeking out some classes that would challenge you, the challenge of finding a space at Baylor for you and really letting others share your voice. It seems like you seek out things that will stretch you. Is that accurate? And if so, how big has that been for you as you've pursued your career with NASA after Baylor?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, that's a good... You're perceptive. I tend to find things, roles, tasks that will be challenging. I don't like to do something that I'm already qualified to do because I just feel like I'm not going to learn enough. It's maybe not the best use of my time. I want to make the biggest impact I can with the knowledge I have, of course, but I always want to be learning. I think that's the key driver behind everything. I have a hard time just taking it easy. Yeah, that's perceptive.
Derek Smith:I saw in the article, the Baylor Magazine article on you. You talked about the fact that at JPL, they talk about daring mighty things. That's sort of a mantra there. Did that resonate with you immediately when you heard that?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, I liked the ethos of it, the idea that there was space to make mistakes. The idea of daring mighty things is that sometimes you'll fail, and that's okay because at least you tried and there's something to be gained from that process. And I think it's not just about taking a leap... For me, I'm not maybe always the most courageous at first glance. I don't like risk as much, but this idea that risk can be something that should be accepted, and cherished even, was really exciting.
Derek Smith:This is Baylor Connections. We are visiting with Richa Sirohi, Baylor's 2023 Young Alumna of the Year. She serves as an end-to-end information system engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. You talked about the fact that a lot of the work you did here at Baylor would benefit future generations after you left, but it seems like you're still being intentional about sewing into those generations behind you. As you talk to school groups and it seems like a number of levels, what does the idea of being a role model mean to you, and what are some of the ways you sort of intentionally try to cultivate some of those relationships?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, I love this question. I'm really passionate about doing outreach. I've spoken at a number of schools, that mostly started in the pandemic, and I found that it was so rewarding because growing up in Nebraska, I mentioned I didn't have those kinds of role models. I didn't know women in STEM. I didn't have anyone kind of turn around and say, "Hey, you could do this as a potential option." And I realized that the power in that, and going back to these schools, is I can kind of redefine the image of what a scientist is, of what someone could look like if they're successful or they apply themselves. We often see people who are really successful, but they're at the end of their career. What does it look like to be somewhere earlier on, to be hitting challenges? And that's kind of why being a Young Alum of the Year is so valuable to me too, being that role model, because it's an accessible step they can take, and I feel like I can go back and open their minds to new possibilities. I don't go and expect everybody to go become a NASA engineer. That's not the purpose and that's not the goal. The idea is to go and say, "Hey, you're capable. We believe in you." To sort of broaden their perspective and hopefully encourage young people to consider new opportunities, to challenge themselves and really apply themselves to their academics.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Richa Sirohi here on Baylor Connections. And Richa, I want to shift gears a little bit and ask you about the work that you're doing. You gave us a great description of the things we would see if we followed you into work at the top of the show. So, if you were in line talking to someone at the DMV, from another industry, and they said, "What do you do?" And you wanted to tell it in a way they could understand, how would you describe that?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, the title is long. End-to-End Information Systems Engineering, but all that really means is everything from when a scientist says, "This is the data I want to be able to write my papers, do my analysis. This is the data I want, NASA." All the way through when they actually get the data back, is technically in my purview. I don't own any of the subsystems or I'm not writing any of the software. There's other teams who do that. But everything from how we command a spacecraft, how we send that data up to the spacecraft using our telecom systems, those big antennas on the ground, how those commands get executed, how our instruments on the spacecraft collect data, regardless of what they're studying. It could be looking at another planet, maybe a satellite around Earth, looking at Earth, all of that data, how it gets stored, processed, how it gets encapsulated, maybe there's encoding put on it. There's all these protocols that we have in the international space community. And then I make sure that it's all downlinked correctly to our ground stations and that that's compatible. And then post-processed on the ground so that when it reaches the scientists, we don't lose any of it and it's understandable. What I'm looking for is really how we gotten all our data. Does the entire flow work or are all the interfaces tested before we launch the system? Does it meet our scientists' needs? Do we get the data fast enough that we can respond to it? These are the kind of big picture questions I get to ask, especially sort of later in a mission's development where a lot of this testing happens. Right now I work on a mission called NISAR. It's a joint NASA-ISRO synthetic aperture radar. And all that means is the United States and India are collaborating on this big Earth science satellite, I think the biggest one yet, that will study Earth for about three and a half years, once it launches next year. It can be super high impact climate change science, very excited. It's going to study land masses, how land changes, coastal erosion, ice shelf melts and movements, volcanic activity, biomass changes, impacts from the Amazon, just unimaginable amount of data. And it's more data that we've ever brought back on an Earth science mission, which makes my job pretty tough, but also very exciting.
Derek Smith:What does it mean to you to be a part of a project that is so... I mean, those are very big things, but they're also very practical in some ways. I think most people could wrap their arms around the need for them. What does it mean to you to be involved in a project that's going to help provide answers or at least information to some of these big problems we face?
Richa Sirohi:As an engineer, sometimes we can be removed from the purpose of the work or the impact it'll make, but in the case of this project and the work NASA does, I get to be so close to the science. I get to enable the diagnosis. We can't really respond to a problem if we don't understand it. And so being able to enable this portion of the mission, getting our data back, really enables scientists to make accurate conclusions about what is the highest priority for us to respond to. For example, if there's coastal erosion, cities can respond to better fortify cities or better plan for urban development, change agricultural practices. It's a big reason India's really interested in this mission and collaborating with us. In many ways, it's also diplomatic. It's an international effort. It really furthers our global space community. So, being part of it in all of those different ways is extremely rewarding. We talk about climate change as a major risk to future generations, and all NASA can do is sort of provide the diagnosis. It's really on the public and our policymakers to respond to that information. But it's very rewarding to be a part of something that can have major impacts if we choose to act on it.
Derek Smith:Well, you're addressing major challenges and problems globally, but when you're working on the project, I'm sure there are regular problems to be solved, questions to be answered. And what are some of your favorite types of those? What are some of the problems that you particularly enjoy digging your hands into and looking for answers?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah. I love when there's a mystery to be solved and I get to come in and be the investigator or detective. I own that whole end-to-end flow. So, if something's going wrong with our data, sometimes we don't know where that's happening. I sometimes describe myself as the data plumber because if there's a leak and we don't know where the leak is, you would call me. And so this happens sometimes on missions, right? There's a clog. We're not getting all our data fast enough. Maybe there's a leak, we're losing data. Maybe the data's getting corrupted, right? We're getting gray water. I'm basically a data plumber. And that keeps it exciting.
Derek Smith:Great description. Well, Richa, as we head into the final couple of minutes of the program, I want to ask you, as Baylor's Young Alum of the year, when did you discover and what did it mean to you? How did you react when you found out that you earned this honor?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, it was very, very exciting. I started just telling my coworkers who are around me, and they were confused at first, but it was kind of a big celebration. It was a little bit unexpected. I haven't been back to Baylor since I'd graduated. Mostly there was the pandemic in between. And so I think also it was very full circle for me to be able to come back and do outreach at the Baylor's campus, reconnect with the students. Because when I was a student, I was so influenced by these guest speakers who came from the aerospace industry. So, to now be that person who comes back to the university and maybe have an influence on a student in that room, that was probably the most powerful part and the most exciting part of everything.
Derek Smith:Well, certainly well deserved, and we're excited to celebrate that with you and to share that through this interview and other ways. And a kind of broad question for you as our final question. From your seat as a young alum, there's a lot in your career you still have yet to accomplish, but you've forged that path a little ways. And for students who are 18, 19 years old, maybe you're a little closer as they look on the horizon than maybe some people they might hear from. I'm just curious, what have you learned about pursuing your dreams or just for students, broadening their sense of who they can be when they think about what's in the future for them?
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, I think for me, I almost spread myself too thin sometimes. I had goal, dreams, but I always wanted to hedge my bets. I wanted to knock on every door. I applied to tons of schools. I did lots of school activities. And maybe if I were to do it all over again, I mean, it's hard to say I'd cut out any piece of that, but I would stay maybe more focused on my goals. I wouldn't count myself out. I would ask myself, "What can I do if I really want to go work in the aerospace industry?" I probably would've been taking some aero electives a little bit sooner. I would've been seeking aero internships sooner. There's different ways to get involved and stay closer to your goals. And I think in my process, I got to experience a lot of things, and that's exciting. But yeah, I always just felt like there was an ounce of doubt, right? I wouldn't be able to achieve it, so let me always have something in my back pocket. But that's not really in line with this idea of daring mighty things, right? I think I leave that concept with students.
Derek Smith:Well said. I hope we could bring you back here to Baylor one of these days and have you talk to students. And I know those that you visit with benefit from it wherever that may be. Well, Richa, I really appreciate you taking the time today to share. Congratulations on the award, and thanks for letting us get to know you a little bit better.
Richa Sirohi:Yeah, thank you for having me. This was wonderful.
Derek Smith:A lot of fun. Great to visit with Richa Sirohi, Baylor's 2023 Young Alumna of the Year, end-to-end information system engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Our guest today on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. Thanks for joining us. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.