Working your way to the top after a 10 year hiatus is no mean achievement. For Shashikala Sinha, Scientist G and Project Director of the Endo Atmospheric Interceptor Missile AAD (Advanced Area Defence) — a supersonic ballistic defence missile system that was successfully tested for the second time recently — getting back to work proved successful not just for her, but for the country as well.
Growing up all over the country, thanks to her father’s posting in the army as a mechanical engineer, Shashikala schooled in Hyderabad when her family decided that she and her siblings needed to focus on their education.
Studying at St Ann’s High School, St Francis College and then Osmania University, Shashikala, 56, says that math was always her favourite subject while growing up.
"When we were kids, my sisters and brothers would always be top rankers in the house, while I would be in the 85-95 per cent category. But my dad encouraged me a lot; he’d say that the others were just sitting and memorising, while you’re able to do your math mentally!" she recalls.
Joining the DRDO for about a year at first, she quit the job to pursue a Master’s degree from IIT Kharagpur and then began working at the Society of Microwave Engineering, but had to quit when she was expecting her first daughter, Pavithra, in 1989.
In 1997, a tragic accident led to her husband’s death (an Indian Navy officer himself). With two daughters to take care of, Shashikala says she had the support of her family, but chose to restart her career to be as self dependent as she could. "I didn’t want to depend on anybody — I wanted to be a self-made person, like my father."
Joining the Research Centre Imarat in Hyderabad in 1997 as a contract engineer, Shashikala quickly made up for lost time with her perseverance and was appointed as a full-time scientist in 2001.
She began working on the ballistic missile defence systems programme, working on the RF sensors subsystem. "At that point of time, we were importing these sensors. Nobody really wanted to venture into it, because everybody was in awe of it, and also the way it was promoted by them. They would demonstrate the stabilisation systems by placing a glass of liquid on the antenna to show that it was steady!" she says.
Shashikala’s team managed to create indigenous ways of working these sensors, delving deep into advanced coding and programming, for which they were awarded the Agni Award for Excellence in 2007.
By 2012, when Shashikala was made the project director for the AAD programme, a rehaul of the system was required. "We had done about 90 per cent of the job, but we needed to work on the remaining 10 per cent and that called for a whole design change," she explains, adding that they had to overcome challenges such as endoatmospheric (below 100 kilometres above sea level) manoeuvring, kinetic heating and more.
Shashikala, who says that her team is now working on a project that’s a first of its kind in the world, proudly says, "We’re the third country to achieve a direct hit with this test after the US and France, so that’s a big achievement for us."
Shashi’s mentors and bosses have been her pillars of strength. "In 2002, my younger daughter Roshni had to be hospitalised for almost a month. My boss (Project Director, Wing Commander Sharma) would visit me everyday. Dr Saraswat (the BMD programme director) too, would call to make sure everything was okay. That’s the kind of support system we have at the office."