F equals for women on the rise

Interview with Sirisha Bandla

DANIELLE NEWNHAM

Posted on May 09 2018

This week, we're delighted to bring you the next in our STEM series in collaboration with Vinita Marwaha Madill's Rocket Women.

Sirisha Bandla’s career has risen from starting out as an intern to positions including Associate Director of Washington DC based Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a Government Affairs role at Virgin Galactic to her present role as Business Development and Government Affairs Manager at Virgin Orbit. With a background in Aerospace Engineering and an MBA from George Washington University, her passion for space and outreach is paramount.

In this interview, Vinita Marwaha Madill talked to Sirisha about her start in STEM, the importance of role models and more about her impressive career trajectory in the space industry. (This interview originally appeared on Rocket Women blog here).

Marwaha Madill: Could you tell me a little about your journey from choosing to study aerospace & astronautical engineering to how you became involved in the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF)? How did you get started?

Bandla: How I got to CSF is completely by, I would say, coincidence. I know I’ve always wanted to be part of the space industry since I was little. I think it’s kind of unique in the sense where that I’ve never had that turning point in my life saying YES this is the industry that I wanted to be in. I’ve always wanted to go into space since I can remember. That being said, I also wanted to be an archaeologist or a marine biologist, or whatever movie was hot at that time. Going into space and being an astronaut was something that I never grew out of no matter what phase I was into, and that really drove my decision.

Going into space and being an astronaut was something that I never grew out of —  no matter what phase I was into —  and that really drove my decision.

In high school I played the cello and was a debater on the speech team. I liked math, I was good at math; it wasn’t my favourite thing to do. But because I wanted to go into space, I decided to study Aerospace Engineering at Purdue [University]. 

Actually [as for] how I got to CSF — after graduating I went to work for a defense company out in Texas and, by chance, my professor at Purdue that I flew on the Zero-Gravity aircraft with, called me and said. “Hey this opening came up in DC, I know you’ve always wanted to be part of the commercial space movement. This is probably a good stepping stone, what do you think?” I said “Sure”, and I interviewed and that’s how I ended up there. So it wasn’t something I planned at all, I just took some chances.

 

                       

Marwaha Madill: Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different?

Bandla: I will admit that I’ve always wanted to be an astronaut, but when I was in High School I looked at the traditional route of maybe being a pilot or at least an engineer, being great in my field and applying, but my eyesight is awful. So by the time I reached high school, it reached the limit where I could never be a NASA astronaut and I was a little bit disappointed, but I still wanted to be in the space industry. 

My sophomore year in 2004 was when Spaceship One claimed the XPRIZE and when I saw that, I was revitalized and refreshed. One of the draws of that was that I didn’t have to go through NASA to go to space, and I could still be a part of something that’s expanding humanity’s outreach into space without going the traditional route. So when I decided there was still hope for me to go into space, I joined the commercial space sector.

Marwaha Madill: Who has been your inspiration throughout your life?

Bandla: It was a combination. I was pretty lucky to have been surrounded by parents and teachers that support their students and encourage them to reach as high as they want to go. It wasn’t, “Hey Sirisha, reach for space or for the stars.” It was: Whatever you want to do, you can do it. And I think that really shaped how I thought, it wasn’t them telling me to reach for the stars and go above and beyond. It was whatever you wanted to do, there was nothing that prevented you from doing it if you put your mind to it. I think a message that’s getting increasingly important —  and one that really appeals to me about the commercial space side is that women or children in general, don’t need to be engineers or don’t need to be the best mathematicians to be a part of the space industry.

The commercial space industry is very business oriented. We need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

I was speaking to students about space, and this young girl came up to me and said that she really loved space and wanted to be an astronaut, but she wasn’t not really that great at math. It was really discouraging to see that kind of thinking, ‘I’m not good at math, so I can’t go to space or join the space industry’. Whilst math and all the STEM fields are important, I think the messaging that you can do anything that you can put your mind to is very important. Someone that’s passionate about business, or passionate about the arts can be a part of the STEM field. Especially the commercial space industry, it’s very business oriented and we need designers, we need business people we need finance people. You don’t need to be an engineer to be part of the space revolution. I think that’s really exciting and a message that will resonate with the younger generation.

Marwaha Madill: One my favourite quotes is by physicist and astronaut Sally Ride, “You can’t be what you can’t see.” and inspired me to start Rocket Women. How important do you think role models are in today’s society and are they fundamental to ensuring future generations in STEM?

Bandla: It’s very important. It’s very easy for someone to tell you and it’s important that message is heard. But it’s not as powerful as having someone there, having someone tangible to show you that that message it true. It’s the difference between hearing about it and actually seeing it — there’s something that I think we’re wired to see. Something physical resonates with the younger generation and myself, rather than just reading something on paper and hearing that you can do it. As an example, my old boss at CSF has a daughter and when she was five years-old, I actually went and spoke to her class about space and what they can do in space. After the class, his daughter came up to me and said that it was “so awesome but can girls be astronauts?”

My boss was like yes of course, there’s tons of female astronauts, astronauts can be anybody! She took that to heart and when she got to meet Sandy Magnus, an astronaut and a woman. It was one thing for her Dad to say, “Of course you can be an astronaut, girls can be anything they want to be” but there was another facet of it of it when she actually met an astronaut, who’s a powerful woman in the industry and has been to space and the ISS [International Space Station] multiple times. Actually meeting Sandy really resonated with her on another level so I think it’s very important to have that role model and that physical evidence that you can do anything that they can.

Sandra Magnus. Image Credit: NASA

One of the reasons that his daughter actually asked him if there were female astronauts, was that every time she saw astronauts either speaking at an event or on TV, it was a male. That’s what she got in her head that there weren’t any girl astronauts because of that lack of visibility. So even having some female astronauts speaking to them, it resonates in a different way.

Marwaha Madill: What has been the proudest moment for you in your career?

Bandla: When I was doing more engineering work… I think one of the things that’s a little bit tough about engineering is that you can work on a project that you’re passionate about, but it’s a long way down the road before you see the project come to life. Sometimes engineers don’t even get that moment because programs can be cancelled. But when I was working as an engineer, I did the Finite Element Analysis on CHIMRA, basically the dirt scoop [used for sample acquisition] of the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL), and now Is on another planet. So one of my proudest accomplishments is that some of my engineering work has landed on another planet. And something about that makes me very excited and proud that I’ve done a small bit to further exploration of our universe.

Marwaha Madill: What was the most difficult phase of your career? Was it transitioning to another role or not achieving something you wanted to do?

Bandla: Throughout people’s careers, they get into ruts or have to re-evaluate their lives to figure out what they’re doing. And for me, I have a MSL sticker on the wall, that was given to me by the project manager at the time. And any time that happens (get stuck in a rut), I can just look at the sticker and remember that what I’m doing is something I’m passionate about. It just takes that one image to boost my morale for the day.

Marwaha Madill: How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

Bandla: I think it’s definitely changed from when it started. Just looking at the astronaut class, which has gone from all-male, to the recent classes which are 50/50, which was unheard of. In general, women getting positions in the aerospace sector is fantastic because women are excelling in the field and landing jobs just as well as the men. That being said I don’t think it’s a completely equal playing field just yet but I think it’s a better environment for sure and everyone that I’ve ever worked with has been amazing. I’ve never felt that I’m less qualified than the next person and that’s because of the people I work with who are fantastic. But I have run into people in the workplace people who may make comments or speak down a little bit because you may be a woman. 

So I think the struggle for our generation is that it’s hard to speak up sometimes because when you do, it’s taken as you being a hardcore feminist and you’re being sensitive. I think with our generation there’re still some lines that you need to make sure aren’t crossed and we need to pave the way for the next generation. Like the previous generation made sure that it’s an equal playing field to get jobs, we now just need to make sure that that playing field, in terms or how women are treated, is a little more equal. I think that in the US for instance, maternity leave is still an area of improvement for sure. Even outside the aerospace sector in the US, there’s definitely areas for reform for women.

Marwaha Madill: What’s the best piece of advice that you’ve been given or worst?

Bandla: I think the best piece of advice was to take chances. I think you can get into a position where not everything is ideal and I think there are times where you should factor in- what’s good in terms of salary you can live off, your happiness in the job, your proficiency? But I think there’s another consideration — Are you passionate about the job? When I was moving to CSF, which is a non-profit, I was leaving a very stable job to move to DC where I didn’t really know anybody, and hadn’t done anything in policy, but I knew what I wanted to do and how I could definitely help the industry move forward. It was a very big chance that I was taking there but it was one of the best outcomes I could’ve imagined. So I think at that point it was my parents saying that I should take a chance and, at that stage if anything happens, you can recover… you’re not done. I think that was the best piece of advice.

On the other hand when I was leaving this company to go to DC, my boss who had been an engineer for his entire life at one or two companies at most, actually had told me in my exit interview that what I was doing was a stupid idea and if I failed I could come back there. That was some of the advice given to me about going to DC too and going into space, I know it wasn’t the most stable or 100% successful decision I could’ve made but I think because of that, I will continue to take my chances and follow my passion.

When you’re young you definitely experience as much as you can. I thought it was always a little bit interesting to decide at 18 what degree to do and decide your career for the rest of your life… which to me is a little bit ridiculous, because I had no idea how I was going to get into space, because the NASA route had gone away. And for other students that unlike me may not know what they want to do for the rest of their lives, to choose a degree at 18 seems a little bit ridiculous. So outside of that, you take time and chances and experience as much as you can, you’ll find what you want to do and what you want to be.

In order to make these decisions, they need to have exposure and role models in different areas of STEM. Really seeing what’s out there and knowing what’s available so they can make an informed decision is really important. I think schools are trying to do better at that, but there’s so much more we can do. I’m really happy to see that with the rise of social media and connectivity,there’s a lot of ways you can transmit that information. You can have astronauts from the ISS speak to young [school] grades and I think there’s so much more potential that can be built on that.

Marwaha Madill: If you had one piece of advice for your 10 year-old self, what would it be? 

Bandla: I think that every decision I made since I was 10 years-old had a consequence which whether it was a good outcome or a bad outcome, I think it taught me something. I don’t think I would go back and change anything, unless I could change my eyesight, but that’s something that’s completely out of my control. 

If I could go back and give myself some advice, I would say that I’m learning —  that I had lessons to learn from each outcome whether it was good or bad now. I think that if I was cognizant of that when I was young, even if I failed, I would’ve gotten a lot more out of it. So my advice would be, no matter what, just keep learning. You make a decision that ends up in total failure or you make a decision that ends up in complete success, and you might learn a lot more from the failure than the success. But no matter what, completely take in the lessons from your decisions and keep learning. There’s lots to acquire from skills and knowledge, role models and mentors. You can learn from everyone and everything, and I think that’s very valuable. I’ve gained so many mentors just from being in DC. I learn from my job, but I learn so much more from the people that surround me everyday.

Header Image Credit Sirisha Bandla

Sirisha Bandla on Twitter / Instagram 

Rocket Women website / Twitter / Instagram / Facebook

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