Among the stars

Antara Sharma & Navya Gupta
Monday, 11 June 2018

Shweta Kulkarni, CEO of Astron-SHK Trust, tells us how she is generating curiosity among the masses for space sciences and also plans to build an interactive dark sky reserve

Shweta Kulkarni, CEO, Astron-SHK Trust, is one of those few who is reaching for the sky, quite literally. From getting her first telescope, to organising stargazing camps and receiving a grant from Department of Science and Technology, Government of India, to produce astronomical videos, the youngster is trying to induce a curiosity among the masses for space sciences. Here’s chatting up Shweta, who has been handling the organisation since she was 16 and became the CEO at 18 in 2013:

How did your interest in astronomy develop?
My interest in astronomy developed when I was very young. My father used to tell me stories on the subject. Being in a Marathi-medium school, my study material was limited but learning astronomy provided a wide exposure. When I was 14, I joined various astronomy groups across Pune and participated and volunteered in their programmes. At 16, my parents gifted me a professional telescope which was absolutely thrilling. This is how my journey in astronomy began.

How did Astron take off and what are its main objectives? 
Astron is a part of an NGO called SHK Trust and was initiated on an informal note. When I first got my telescope, I gathered a few of my friends and family, and organised a small programme based on a lunar eclipse. From there, I moved on to organise a paid stargazing camp, for which 30+ people showed up. Then we got ourself registered under the SHK Trust.

How did it feel to be a CEO at 18? 
To be honest, becoming a CEO at 18 was not at all overwhelming because I knew from the time I received my telescope I had to pursue astronomy. I did not feel too young or under-qualified. But others did. People would talk to me on the phone to collaborate and arrange events with Astron, but when I went to meet them they would say, “Oh, you’re so young! Can you really manage this?” This underestimation was a challenge. 

How was it balancing your education and Astron? 
I decided that I wanted to pursue astronomy when I was in std XII. Unfortunately, due to the lack of options in India, I was only able to study astrophysics. So, I took admission at Modern College to study physics. However, being totally inclined towards astronomy and  Astron, I didn’t perform well. Modern College was not supportive of my ambition, so I shifted to University of Central Lancashire (UCLan). Even though it is a long journey — an eight-year course — I’d rather do this than anything else. It allows me to focus on Astron as well.  

What are your plans for expanding Astron?
Last year, Astron received a grant from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. The aim was to create 100 videos of astronomical education and spread them across various social media platforms. Astron also aims to create a portal called Astron Space, where these videos can be spread worldwide. My vision is to build an online and offline campus facility for the study of astronomy. Astron Space is the first part of that vision while the offline campus will be embodied as a dark sky reserve and astronomy park. Of course, creating the dark sky reserve will not be an easy task. There are only three places in India that have very little light pollution — Leh, Naxalite areas and Melghat Tiger Reserve in Nagpur. I plan to create an interactive dark sky reserve in Melghat where there will be a huge camp house for the study of astronomy. The park will be open to all types of people. Even a five-year-old will be able to visit and learn about renowned Indian astronomers like Aryabhatta. Professionals will be able to study the sky using high tech telescopes and also perform astro-photography with high-end cameras.

Tell us more about your astronomy courses on Udemy and other resources for aspiring astronomers.
To teach astronomy online is extremely simple, but it is hard to determine whether the source is authentic or not. One should try to read books and meet people who are famous in the astronomical field like Raghunath Mashelkar Sir. Look for opportunities to go stargazing and find astronomical programmes. The main objective behind Astron’s Udemy courses is to provide authentic and accessible learning for those interested in astronomy. Our courses generally focus on the basics of astronomy and can be studied by anyone. As of now, Astron has published two courses on Udemy: ‘Where do we stand in the Universe?’ talks about the Earth’s position in the universe, how large is the universe, etc and ‘Astronomy without a Telescope’ is about what people will actually see in the sky, away from the city. I created these very basic courses because I have seen that parents buy their children telescopes, but do not know where to point it in the sky. This gradually decreases their interest. I want to bring about a change.

Women and men both face unique struggles in the field of astronomy. Can you explain why?
Indian women are typically not allowed to pursue astronomy because families think of it as merely the ‘study of the night sky’ and nothing else. For men, the issue is that families think that astronomy has no scope in the country and that being in the field will only delay their process of settling down with a respectable job. They think the only career options available are to do a PhD and become a professor or do never-ending research. Lack of true knowledge and exposure are the reasons why astronomy has not evolved in India as much as it could.

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