Priyanka Das Rajkakati (X2013) joins the 2021 Forbes India 30 under 30 list
Priyanka learned about École Polytechnique during her undergraduate studies in Physics at St. Stephen's College in New Delhi, India, and decided to pursue her scientific education in France. Fascinated by fractals, she joined École Polytechnique in 2013 to follow the footsteps of Benoît Mandelbrot. Having participated in several space projects, such as the Caltech Space Challenge, organized by the California Institute of Technology in collaboration with scientists from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Priyanka chose to integrate the track for a double diploma with ISAE-Supaéro in her 4th year of the Ingénieur Polytechnicien Program. She earned her second master, in Aerospace Engineering, at this renowned school in the aerospace domain in 2017.
Pursuing her PhD at ISAE-Supaéro, in collaboration with Safran, hasn't held Priyanka back from getting involved in multiple other projects: In 2019, she was admitted to the 5th cohort of the Homeward Bound Antarctica Mission, operating to increase the influence of women with a STEM background on decisions that will shape our planet's future. Moreover, she is also to send her artwork to the Moon.
Priyanka has now been intercepted on her flight to the stars to make a quick stop in Forbes India “30 Under 30” list 2021 (category "Science & Innovation"), an annual list featuring India's 30 brightest young achievers featuring under the age of 30.
Congratulations on your inclusion in the 2021 Forbes India “30 Under 30” list! According to you, what are the key factors linked to this nomination?
Thank you, firstly! I owe this award to all the people who have always encouraged me and believed in my slightly unconventional approach and outlook on life.
In the last decade, I have been quite involved with various projects that mix art and science, such as the "Moon Gallery" project with the International Lunar Exploration Working Group (ILEWG). My artwork has been heavily inspired by the first pieces of algorithmic art I had done nearly 15 years ago when I was first learning to code in C++. After all these years, this work will finally be exhibited at a very grand gallery: the Moon! I have also been an artist-in-residence at the European Geosciences Union and also took part in a lunar astronaut simulation at the HI-SEAS base in Hawaii where, among other things, I studied the importance of art and culture for human space missions. It is essential to consider that future space-civilizations will also require cultural development.
It's exciting to get this recognition in the science category but for my artwork. I believe it’s the fact that I have cultivated my love for art while pursuing a scientific career at the best institutes, with space as the glamorous backdrop, which has caught all the attention. I am honoured (and humbled) that my journey inspires the youth here in France and back home in India.
Would you like to tell us about your education and academic career? What made you aspire to study at École Polytechnique?
Growing up in Delhi, India, I had a dual interest in the arts and in science, with a passion for space, and I always dreamt of one day mixing all three in my work, and why not also becoming an astronaut!
After school, I was first accepted at the prestigious National Institute of Design in India, but I realized I first needed to explore a scientific career. Hence, I chose to pursue a Bachelor's degree in Physics at St. Stephen's College, a part of the Cambridge Mission to India, now a part of the University of Delhi. It's there that I heard about École Polytechnique and its multidisciplinary course from Prof. Jean-Marc Deshouillers (X65). He tells me still today that he remembers I had written in my application "Science is great, but I want to come to Paris because it is the capital of Art". I was very interested in École Polytechnique because of its incredible alumni. My fascination for fractals made me want to breathe the same air as Benoît Mandelbrot (1924-2010, X44), who contributed significantly to the field of fractal geometry. I was not disappointed. Studying a L’X has indeed opened a lot of doors for me in various areas!
For my 4th year of studies within the Ingénieur Polytechnicien Program, I studied Aerospace Engineering at ISAE-Supaéro in Toulouse, where I am currently finishing a PhD.
Could you tell us about the topic of your PhD thesis? To which domain of activity will it lead you?
During my PhD, I studied global navigation satellite systems (GNSS), a commonly known example of which is GPS (American) and Galileo (European). I explored various topics during this thesis, from understanding how GNSS works (signal transmission from the satellite segment to the receiver) to positioning and estimation techniques. The work itself focuses on the characterization of the asymptotic performance of GNSS time-delay, Doppler, and phase estimation, with the use of Cramer-Rao lower bounds.
Since it was a CIFRE (industrial) contract, it was an interesting mix of working in an academic environment while having one foot in industry. It gave me a deeper understanding of how a space-application-based system works, and I hope to use this in continuing to study space systems (and maybe become an astronaut).
You are very dedicated to promoting careers in science to young women. Would you like to tell us more about your commitment to this cause and Women in Science?
Yes, as someone who has experienced the dismal lack of women in their work environment for over a decade now, I feel quite strongly about the subject of promoting science, especially careers in the space industry, to young women.
In 2017, I became an ambassador for the L’Oréal-UNESCO "For Girls in Science" program. The activity to promote scientific careers to young women has also helped me grow as a person.
I even had the chance to do a live TV show at the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie in Paris - and the interaction was entirely in French!
In 2020, I was part of a fantastic team within the Space Generation Advisory Council (SGAC), which organized an event (SG[France]2020: Our Giant Leap) dedicated to the subject of women in Aerospace: Beyond merely encouraging women to join this domain, how could companies make the work environment in Aerospace more sustainable for women? I was in charge of the Mentorship working group.
Finally, in 2019, I was selected, alongside 75 women from all over the world, to be part of the 5th cohort of the Homeward Bound initiative for women in science. This leadership training program involves a collective trip to Antarctica, which aims to highlight the impact of climate change on the ice continent. Of course, we also aim to carbon-offset our travel through various activities.
Moving to France in your early 20s and studying “Sobolev spaces” entirely in French can be quite overwhelming for an international student having grown up in India. As there are many other Indian students on campus, not just in the Ingénieur Polytechnicien Program but also in the Bachelor, Masters and PhD programs, the idea sparked to found an X-India group. This branch of the Polytechnique Alumni association would revolve around the integration, aid, and assistance of students and alumni from the Indian subcontinent. Together with fellow alumni, Dhruv Sharma (X2013), Jean-Luc Minet (X95), Michel Georgin (X66), and other supporters, we started this initiative with the encouragement of Jean-Marc Deshouillers (X65).