‘Don’t Give Up on Your Dreams’: Rendezvous with Kashmir’s Aerospace Girl

Faiqa Anbreen

FAIQA Anbreen is an aerospace engineer pursuing doctorate in Engineering and Mathematics in United States.

As a young girl fascinated by physics and mathematics, she made up her mind to be “among stars” after watching televised crash of the celebrated Indian astronaut’s space shuttle.

Her resolve to make a name in a male-dominated profession has already made Faiqa an inspiration for many youngsters back home.

In a candid chat with Kashmir Observer, the aerospace girl talks about her passion and profession. 

Please tell us something about your current professional engagements and your academic journey?

Well, I’m a Ph.D. student in aerospace engineering and computational mathematics at California State University and Claremont Graduate University. I also work for Safran as a proposal engineer.

Safran is an international high-technology company catering to aviation, space and defense markets.

I did my initial schooling from Shiekhul Alam Islamic Model (SIM) School, Charari Sharief and later on joined Delhi Public School (DPS), Srinagar where I passed my Senior Secondary School Examination.

Both these schools had a constructive role in shaping up who I am today. SIM offered a decent environment to be able to ask questions but DPS offered more resources and a platform to develop a multi-dimensional personality.

Later on, I started my career at Amity University where I finished Bachelors in Aerospace Engineering, and then I came to US for Masters at California State University.

Aerospace is one of the toughest engineering streams, how did you get into it?

As a curious child, when someone used to ask me about my career goals, my response would be “a scientist”.

When you start learning about great scientists like Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, it gets quite fascinating to know how they came up with such complicated laws and equations. Only with time, one realizes that it takes an enormous effort and dedication to be a scientist.

I’ve always been interested in reading about planets, stars, and creation of the universe and would ask teachers questions to which sometimes they wouldn’t even have answers.

In 2003, I watched space shuttle Columbia disintegrating on re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. Returning from a space mission, it took precious lives of six astronauts. It may sound counterintuitive that a disaster helped me shape up an idea in my head that I want to become an aerospace engineer.

Kalpana Chawla, the first Indian astronaut, got killed in that accident. Reading her biography has always been exciting. What she studied and how she reached NASA always intrigued me. It was this event that in some way helped me to decide and pursue Aerospace Engineering as a career choice.

But now, all the research I am doing is more motivated by working on something that furthers the aerospace technology and solve some of the unexplored problems of computational fluid dynamics.

Throughout your academic journey, what kept you motivated, focused and energized to keep going?

I feel as humans, we continue to keep finding the meaning of life. There’s a curiosity and inquisition that keeps pushing you to know more about this universe and existence. And I consider science feeds to that curiosity within me.

Aerospace is all about physics and mathematics. Those things keep me interested and motivated.

I still sometimes go back to read Class 9 Physics textbook, where we start understanding physics at a detailed level. Physics is at the heart of the whole universe. The manifestations of the subject amaze me, from the order of the universe to the music; it keeps me glued to what I’m studying and what I want to do in the future.

Besides, I have always tried to be well-balanced in everything I do.

Data shows that there aren’t many women in this area. So how does it feel to create a niche in a male-dominated field?

Taking up aerospace engineering after Class 12 was like jumping into a dark well. I didn’t know anyone in this field I could consult, I hadn’t checked any statistics. All I was doing was following my instincts and believing in myself. I always focused on the work rather than the difficulties and limitations.

I have had situations where I have been the only woman in a group of male engineers doing projects or working with them. This not only inspires me in many ways but also makes me realize that we should have more women in this field.

When I look back, I don’t see many precedents among women to follow from Kashmir but I think there are a lot in the coming generation who have demonstrated enormous interest in the field who look up to me as a precedent. And I try my best to pass on my experiences to whoever approaches me.

Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom. What’ve you learned about yourself in this journey?

It’s certain that we live life forwards but it’s amusing that we learn and understand about life backwards.

When we look back at the phases of life we have lived, the reflections of those become the steps of the staircase of experiences we climb on, towards more meaningfulness. It has been a natural progression towards learning about sensitivities and human biases, only after being exposed by living on my own in foreign lands from the last 11 years.

The most important learning that I would like to share is being open to criticism. Thank your critics for they are the people who help you in becoming better and bigger.

Taking criticism is very hard and people usually get offended by it, but for me, I’ve only realized how important feedback is for personal as well as professional growth.

Also, we are unknowingly wrapped up in a number of biases and the whole struggle is to take yourself out of them one by one.

I see life in pieces. For a moment I live in those small pieces. And it’s only when you look back, you’re able to see what the journey was about.

You said since your childhood days you were keen about giving back to the society. How do you intend to do that now?

Well, my idea of giving back to humanity is to develop faster planes one day. It’s one of my core interests.

I’m part of JK Scientists, an NGO run by Kashmiri scientists and professionals all over the world. Also, whenever I’m home, I try to be part of student outreach programs to interact with students and mentor them.

With all the work you’ve done, are you interested in going up in space one day?

I’ve always had this dream of traveling to space and wanting to be an astronaut.

But being an astronaut is like one in a million jobs which literally takes a lot of learning and experience to get selected. The work I have done so far is just the stepping stone, but to go to space one day I have a thousand miles to go. For now, it looks like a distant dream, but I will keep dreaming.

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced as a woman in aerospace industry?

It’s very important to have good self-esteem and to keep reminding yourself that you’re not alone, and there’re other women out there in diverse fields. You’ve to keep feeling it and be confident that you can compete with men at the same level.

That’s a bit challenging when you talk in general terms but personally speaking, I haven’t faced any challenges that I can count on. I’ve found great mentors and colleagues who I learn from every day and who’ve always been there to guide me through.

What’s the most memorable opportunity you have had as an aerospace engineer?

Well, it was to work as a design engineer for A350 which is the latest Airbus aircraft. I have designed some parts which are flying onboard. I cherish that most memorable opportunity.

How long will it take for the aerospace industry to recover from the impacts of Covid-19? 

As per the estimates by the aircraft manufacturing giants Airbus and Boeing, the aerospace industry is expected to recover by 2023.

Already, the pandemic has impacted the aerospace industry very badly. We are seeing grounding of fleets, thousands of planes that should be in the sky are lying on the tarmac. There is the cancellation of orders of new planes, slashing down of expected aircraft deliveries for this year, and retiring of old fleets like Boeing767.

Also, airlines around the globe are seeking help from the governments to avoid a potential collapse. The number of aircrafts in passenger service fell by more than 60 percent from the start of the year. It will take time to bring the production rate back to what should have been now.

Any word for people back home?

My interactions with Kashmiri students make me believe that children aren’t allowed to pursue their dreams easily, especially girls.

Parents impose their opinions and career choices on their children without considering what talent and interest the child has.

Students should stay persistent with what they want to do in life. They must believe in themselves, and make the people around them believe in their talent. Don’t give up easily on your dreams.

For parents out there, I would say believe in your children, empower and guide them by letting them learn on their own by experiencing and exploring.

Family is the one of the most important influences in a child’s life and family support plays a significant role in our success as individuals and as members of the society.

Personally speaking, my parents especially my mother always supported me to do what I was passionate about.

For those who want to pursue a career in aerospace, I would say read and familiarize yourself with the field and understand what you are getting into. It is a very vast field and has a lot of opportunities to explore.

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