Interview: Sunkara Ashish (ISRO Scientist,ECE-2015)

Please state your current profile.

I am currently working in a space application center in Ahmedabad. There are 8-9 Major centers. I am working as an Electronic scientist, which is the starting grade a person enters. My work profile is Satellite Baseband Substation and satellite communication terminal development, basically related to the ground segment.

Please describe a typical day as Space Scientist ‘C’ at ISRO.

Usually it is a 9 to 5:30 job. Official timings are 8 hours, half an hour for lunch. But the working times get stretched as the deadline of the payload subsystem approaches and if it’s nearby, the working hours will increase. It’s on a personal basis, if you are passionate enough and want to deliver it before the deadline then you can stay for the whole day. It is a 24-hour lab. You can go at any time to the center.

My work on a normal day would be working with the hardware complexities, how to miniaturize the hardware which is already done. Then comes the firmware loading and its coding part which I usually do in embedded C. My work profile would be to write embedded C code because it is used by the embedded system mainly. So that the loading, optimizing and testing gives the final end product. This is the typical day job usually, as the deadline approaches then we would go for intensive testing of humidity test, normal temperature test and repeated cycles of these which will go on in the late night also.

How did you go about preparing for the various exams namely  GATE (Electronics), UPSC ESE (Engineering Services (Preliminary) Examinations) in Electronics, ISRO and BARC’s entrance examinations? How different were the strategies of preparation for each of these exams.

I prepared for all the exams briefly, but my main focus was on GATE and ISRO. GATE is a 3 hour exam with 65 questions and a total of 100 marks while ISRO is an 80 question exam with the time limit of 90 minutes so you want to relate it through an analogy. Gate is a one day match and ISRO is a 20-20 match and UPSC is a test match. UPSC exams are a long process of one year- Prelims, Mains and Personality test. My preparation for GATE was with an aim to score the highest but for ISRO it’s not like that, once you pass the written test, those marks are not considered. Only Interview marks will be considered for the final test. So, my focus for ISRO was only to cross the cutoff. GATE tests your in-depth knowledge, so I prepared concepts in-depth accordingly, whereas ISRO demands knowledge and speed, so the time constraint is more.

(Reading material) After 2015 maybe the question and answers are merging like that but in 2015 I got placed in a company where I worked for a few months after which I left it and took coaching for 6 months on a crash course on electronics, which was again like NITT. I mainly focused on crash course material as well as past year papers of GATE and ISRO.

How did you go about preparing for the interviews for UPSC ESE, ISRO and BARC?

In ISRO the questions are mainly on the technical side whereas in ESE the interview was focused on determining your personality, wherein you have to focus mostly on current affairs, like that of Tech and other happenings. In ISRO there is a panel of nine members, and everyone get to give marks, whereas only the Chairman of the committee in ESE will allot marks. In ISRO every member will be asking questions, you will be standing in front of a board and they will ask you to write some equation, or draw a state machine diagram, design some antenna based on some parameters given by them. My strategy for ISRO was to focus on three/four subjects because you are given the choice of choosing your favorite subjects. I focused on 3 subjects, Signals and system, Analog circuit, and Digital system, so the questions were mainly on that.

Many students often go for placements or higher studies, mostly abroad. What motivated you to enter government services by taking this prestigious, unconventional path?

I took the placements; I attended some interviews also during my placements and got placed in a company. Having worked in Chennai for a few months, I then left the company and during that time I realized. My family is staying over here and to balance my interest and my personal life I decided to stay here itself. After joining the software company I didn’t like it there, so I thought of working on an Electronics profile, so then I came out and there were only a few options. There was ISRO, DRDO, BARC, ESE mainly so I had to have a common strategy. I took the crash course and then appeared for all the exams. Before writing ESE itself, I got selected and I joined ISRO.

Coming to electronics also there are companies, what made you go to the government services?

I thought of joining a few companies but my pointer was initially very low. During my third semester I was at 5.9 and after that I pulled It up to 9 in the 6th semester since I learned from my mistakes. But there was a pointer gap during the placement session of Qualcomm and a few electronics companies. That was the main reason for which I couldn’t go to those companies. Later I got to work for the government because my parents were also in government schools. Even the then Director Mr. Sunderrajan said that DRDO and ISRO are giving very good platforms for electronics, so director sir had motivated a lot which made me go there.  

India attained a proud moment in February 2017 when it launched 104 satellites in a single rocket (PSLV-C37), just before you joined the organisation. It later launched GSLV-Mk III, part of Mangalyaan Mission, during June 2017. As a novice in the field, how did you feel about the next immediate launch and what was your role in the same? 

In April 2017, I joined the organisation and got placed in the Ahmedabad space application centre. As soon as I entered within two months on June 5th, there was the launch of GSLV-Mk III. It was called the Baahubali rocket by the chairman. It was like any other day to me because I didn’t know much at that time. All the scientists gathered in an auditorium hall at my centre, and a live telecast happened from Sriharikota. I was really excited to see the launch, and once the payload got separated, everyone congratulated each other, and it was a great moment. I didn’t have much role in it at that time. We were all induction program trainees in the first year. Everyone who joins has to go through the induction training program for the first few months during which we are not assigned main developmental work.

Did you have any role when GSAT-29, the world’s heaviest satellite, was launched from Sriharikota or were you still in the training period? 

No, GSAT-29 happened later, my role was mainly in the ground segment development sector. Every scientist has a particular role in the station, and for GSAT-29 there were 8-9 entities in the organisation like phase application centre, ground segment development, etc. As soon as the satellite is sent, the ground segment receives the signals. The terminals perform voice communication with satellites; a phone is required for that. ISRO develops it. The signals are sent to a satellite which is then received by ground segment. Every part of the system is important.

India reached its stardom when Chandrayaan 2 was launched. However, Vikram Lander lost its connection later due to technical glitches. How did this affect you personally, and how did you and your colleagues cope up with it? 

During that time, a lot of media monitoring was taking place. To me, personally, all my family and friends were messaging about the situation. When it happened, I was in the office too. It was late in the night that we stopped receiving signals, for a moment there was a brief silence across the room. There was huge emotional pressure. It happened during a fine breaking, and the issue of the glitch occurred. As of now, scientists are working on it. It took a few days for us to cope with it, but in ISRO or any other organisation for that matter, people learn from failures. Our director motivated us a lot. We had daily video conferences with him. We have come up with Chandrayaan 3, which was supposed to happen at the end of the first half of 2020. We took time, but we will come up.

How is lockdown affecting you and your fellow scientists, and how is the workflow now during such tough times, and how will it affect the future workflow of ISRO? 

Lockdown affected quite a lot of projects in ISRO, Chandrayaan 3 being one of them. It was a really ambitious project supposed to be coming up soon but got delayed to the end of 2020 because of the lockdown. We can’t actually work from home as it is mostly in-person work. Work from home is tough. We are reading, and surveying but most of the developmental activities are on hold, only the tracking of the operational services like the satellites which are already in orbit, is being conducted which is essential. Those operational works and other crucial chambers are working. Still, the rest is in halt for now.

Now that you have been part of ISRO for three years, could you shed some light on your professional growth arc?

Sure, I joined in 2017. After joining, the first two years were mostly spent in ISRO induction training program. I was in the 29th batch. First, we went to Trivandrum, where the Vikram Sarabhai space centre is present. Most of the launch, propel and fuel activities happen there. I’m in electronics, but still, all the people are given knowledge of all the technologies which are used. For training, in the first two months we were in Trivandrum. Then we were sent to Sriharikota where we were trained on launchpad activities and the transportation from assembly place to launchpad. Further, we went to Bangalore and Ahmedabad. In Ahmedabad it was mainly focused on satellites. The satellite-related centre, cameras, remote sensing applications and ground segment applications training were given. This training part is really important. In the next two years, I started working on developmental activities on which most of the learning happened. I already knew MATLAB in my first year but the applications part, like making MATLAB code into the software and loading into the hardware, I wasn’t aware. This full cycle of development I got to learn only after I joined ISRO. In college, we just learnt and worked with only a part of it, but in ISRO, it was a more integrated thing. Over time the growth was good. Especially for people who are computer science, electronics and mechanical graduates, who are passionate about modern technology and to work for our nation simultaneously, ISRO can be really helpful.

ISRO has set up a Space Technology Incubation Centre(S-TIC) to promote space research across India. From the previous year, NITT has one in place. In what ways would this initiative help the students? How can students derive maximum benefit from the same? If this centre had been present while you were at college, how would you have been benefited? 

This is my personal experience; at times, I’ve seen there is a huge gap on what we learn and what is actually done in practice when it comes to hardware. In software, we are good enough. Maybe it has changed now I cannot say, but in my time things were like that. Students interacting with the scientists will help them know the advanced technologies when such incubation centres are present. Constant technical tours to the ISRO facilities would provide good exposure to the modern equipment that is used in space technology. They’ll become interested in working on space applications which would motivate them in the future, to even make their start-ups. These will provide good opportunities for students on developing space applications and inculcate innovative ideas. We are a little behind when it comes to space segments so involving the young generation will boost that. 

What was your third year internship experience like at BSNL?

That was just a mandatory internship that we had to do for academic requirements, it isn’t significant.

Space technology in India has grown tremendously in the last two decades. What are your thoughts on accelerating it forward in the coming years?

Recently Nirmala Sitharaman made changes in the policy that has allowed the private sector to enter into Space Technology, if you had followed the news. Most of the private sectors are going to boost the money and the segment as well. That will be a good boost in the segment as the production and maintenance work as I had mentioned earlier- tracking of the satellite and all that- can now be privatised. ISRO can now focus on R&D- Research and Development; the ISRO scientists will now be free from maintenance work. ISRO and private sectors must go hand in hand as this will accelerate the space technology. By this we can deliver more societal applications; ie, more payload, more satellites, for the society.

What are some of your future plans, either say continue with your career or otherwise?

I’m planning on doing my M.Tech, or M.Tech+PhD integrated depending on the availability of time. ISRO provides 2 years of study leave; sometimes it is a paid study leave and ISRO pays the salary and covers the cost, but that requires approval from their committee. If not that, you get 2 years leave anyway, which can be used for pursuing higher studies. As of now, I am planning to do that. Also a few seats in IISc and IITs are dedicated to ISRO scientists. This is for ISRO, BARC, and DRDO- DRDO I’m not too sure, but ISRO and BARC have a few dedicated seats. 

Since you mentioned about BARC, how does an engineer apply his or her skills to nuclear science, since it’s very physics oriented?

I didn’t specifically write the BARC exam. I got it through my GATE; my GATE rank was 185, so I applied through GATE. There are two ways; through the BARC exam you can apply, or through GATE. I applied and I got an interview call, but before that I was in ISRO so I wasn’t able to attend. It wasn’t specified that I’d be a nuclear scientist, I had just gotten selected.

Could you shed some light on what benefits space scientists receive from the government?

This varies from centre to centre, that is, the location of the centre. It depends on the pay scale also. The centre government  pay scale is level-10, once you enter into the organisation. This is the pay scale that gets HRA, DRA and travel allowances- these are the basic things. Apart from that, specific to ISRO, there is a 40% bonus on the basic pay which is given only to the Department of Space and the Department of Atomic Energy, which is inclusive of BARC. As far as I know, ISRO, BARC, DRDO- ISRO gets 40% bonus on the basic pay as a part of the Performance Related Incentive Scheme, called PRIS. This is an added salary benefit, but apart from that, in a few centres like the Hyderabad centre, scientists are selected for Antarctica, exploration of satellite tracking and other functions. That will be for a duration of either 1 year or 6 months depending on the availability. Apart from that, a few centres give you the opportunity to travel to Germany or Russia, depending on the projects available. On top of this, you’ll be given a Diplomatic Passport and royal treatment because you’re representing the country when you go there.

You had mentioned you are a black belt in Kung Fu. How did you manage your academics with fitness, or any other club activities?  

The black belt I got when I was in school, but I tried to maintain it. As soon as I came here [NITT] I was interested in dance and performed in Horizons. In my third semester, my grades went low, and I couldn’t manage it. From fourth semester, I started managing it. I was an E grade in signals and systems, and then in fourth semester digital signals and processing I studied a lot in the third year break and got an S grade. Now signals and systems is my favourite because of my work profile. I managed my academics after a failure by reading one or two weeks before the examinations.

In retrospect, what do you wish you had known when you were doing your B. Tech that would have helped you?

I should have focused more on the practical side of development. I did a lot of book reading and all that, but I wish I had focused more on internships and practical things related to core like signal processing as it would have given me more exposure now. But I focused more on theory. I feel even the students now have to focus more on the practical side of things. Even if you’re not strong in theory, start with practical and theory comes on the way. However people start with theory and neglect practicals which I feel is not correct, especially right now. It was a lot of struggle in my first year at work, getting to know all the hardware things which I feel I skipped in my B. Tech. Also, clarity on what to do after your B. Tech- whether it be higher studies, placements, MBA, government positions- that clarity is very much important. Brainstorming and thinking about what to do is very important. I wish I had started my preparation one or two years before finishing my B. Tech. That would have given me more time at ISRO.

Sunkara Ashish can be reached at: ashishraosunkara@gmail.com

Transcribed by Sunil, Shrikar and Piyush.
Coordinated by Swedha.

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