February 01, 2018

Some Thoughts on Women in STEM

Kalpana Chawla was born in 1961. She was born in Karnal India. This was a time and a place that was rather less conducive to a woman's career  than North America or Western Europe in 2018. 





Kalpana Chawala had a goal. She wanted to go into space. Little is written about Kalpana's childhood, but one can rest assured that in India in 1961 her experience in growing up and the hurdles she faced were both rather different from that of a young lady in Boston, London, or Paris today. 

Now in today's more "enlightened" age an upper middle class woman in Miss Chawala's position might have noted the disparity in Male versus Female acceptance and graduation rates for STEM in India in the 1970s and taken positive steps to rectify the situation, such as getting a degree in women's studies, and pursuing a career in activism by smearing the walls with her menstrual blood to protest the patriarchy. 

Kalpana Chawala was not one of them. Instead this young lady who dreamed of going to the stars did something that, to some, might seem downright non-intuitive today. 

She studied Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

In the 1970's 
In INDIA...
This modern Hypatia tested into and graduated from Punjab Engineering College in Chandigarh India. It is the top engineering college in India. One can be reasonably certain that this scholars ladyparts did not get her excused from mastering partial differential equations. 

in 1982 she moved to the United States, and pursued and received a masters degree in engineering from the University of Texas at Arlington. She went on to get a PHD from the University of Colorado

Dr.Chawla was an engineer who made it through some of the best schools on the planet to pursue her dream of going into space. She worked for NASA where she worked on VSTOL technologies and later became the Vice President of Overset Methods, an aerospace contractor looking at fluid dynamics issues. 

She returned to NASA in 1994 when her application to the U.S. Astronaut training program was accepted. In 1994 she had no access to Tumbler, Twitter, and her resume was devoid of any liberative pedagogies in engineering education yet this immigrant woman of color deftly avoided being amongst the many wash outs of this most demanding of programs. She did so by the now outre' method of being one of the best, smartest and most level headed people on the planet. 


Dr. Chawla was an engineer. She was one of the very best on the planet. As such, she understood that engineering does not care. Physics does not care if you have ladyparts. Metalurgy does not care how intersectional you are. The vacuum of space is unmoved by how much melanin you have. Radiation is unconcerned with your childhood trauma. 

And foam insulation does not give a flying fuck that the reason some bureaucrats  chose it over the type that the engineers recommended was because because they wanted to feel smug about choosing an environmentally friendly product instead of the one that wouldn't break off and damage the heat shield. 

If one ignores these self evident truths, one will likely be faced with far worse consequences than being "triggered". 




15 years ago today, Kalpana Chawla and her shipmates aboard USOVColumbia  were ripped asunder and their ashes scattered across north Texas and Oklahoma.

Anything that has any consequence carries a degree of risk and the quest to make us a multi-planet species is both more fraught and more worthy than most. But this disaster was no learning experience or tragic discovery in materials science, this was a decision made for what amounted to reasons of fashion.

Cultural, societal orindividual values can be dissonant, yet valid. People can come to different conclusions about public policy, symbolism, culture or etiquette and arguably both can be right.

Engineering and science however, do not conform to the results laid down by sociologists, politicians or academics. If one is dealing with structures at the edge of our technological capacity and one chooses a fashionable choice over a technically sound one then there is a high probability that it will end in tears. 

Like Madame Curie, Hypatia, Admiral Grace Hopper, Dr. Sally Ride , Maria Mitchell, Mary Anning and countless others, Dr. Kaplana Chawla shows that women can hack it in the technical fields. We do not need to lower standards for women in science to meet some asinine and arbitrary goal of parity. 
It seems frankly insulting to suggest otherwise. 

Moreover, the deaths of her and her shipmates stands as an eloquent and tragic testimony of what happens when we lower standards or listen to those who would ignore the science. In this case the result was a wrecked ship and a dead crew, but if we continue to pollute our engineering schools with the notion that science and engineering of secondary importance to feelings, then we risk a catastrophe of civilizational proportions.


Posted by: The Brickmuppet at 08:52 AM | No Comments | Add Comment
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