Shining bright: ISRO’s solar mission chief Nigar Shaji on her eventful career

Nigar Shaji, project director of ISRO’s Aditya L1 solar mission, discusses her professional journey as a space scientist over three decades

Updated - October 27, 2023 04:30 pm IST

Published - October 27, 2023 02:31 pm IST

Nigar Shaji, project director, Aditya L1 Solar Mission.

Nigar Shaji, project director, Aditya L1 Solar Mission. | Photo Credit: M. Moorthy

“Yes, I’m a very strict boss,” says Nigar Shaji, project director of Aditya L1, the solar mission launched by Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on September 2, and then giggles ... “but only at work.”

ISRO’s recent missions have raised the profile of the nation in the world, based as they are, on a unique blend of frugal engineering, innovation and meticulous planning.

And Nigar, 59, is one of the many women scientists who have successfully steered ISRO’s missions without much fanfare.

On a brief visit to Tiruchi for an award programme hosted by Tiruchirapalli Regional Engineering College Science and Technology Entrepreneurs Park (TREC-STEP) recently though, Nigar Shaji got a rock star’s reception. She patiently posed for selfies and group photos and then quietly made her way out of the hall for a chat with MetroPlus.

“That’s the only thing that has changed after Aditya L1; I seem to have become more famous,” she laughs. “It’s still very new to me.”

Solar weather

Aditya L1 is the first space-based Indian mission to study the Sun. “There is no life on Earth without the Sun, but even now we cannot say we have understood it properly. Our mission will focus on phenomena like coronal mass ejection, solar plays and solar wind,” Nigar says. “It would aid in creating a better space weather model; accurate predictions will save our space assets.”

The mission’s science payloads have been indigenously developed by different laboratories.

“Collaborating with outside agencies was an interesting experience. They had to adjust their working style to the schedule-oriented culture of ISRO, and we also learned a lot in the process of guiding them in the instrument manufacture. The mission’s success or failure is everyone’s responsibility — from the scientists, to the canteen, transport services and even the vendors who sell the smallest components. It is a team effort where everyone is equally accountable,” says Nigar.

Humble beginnings

Nigar credits both her parents and ISRO for her professional growth. “I come from a farming family in Senkottai, Tenkasi district, but my parents were very keen on all four of their children getting educated, because it signified empowerment,” she says.

Her father Sheikh Meeran, a Maths graduate, would help her prepare for exams, and at times, even write up her notes when she was tired, she recalls. Her mother Sythoon Beevi, has been her biggest support.

Nigar was a bright student from her school days, coming first in her district in Class 10, and a topping the school in Class 12.

After graduating in Electronics and Communications Engineering from the Government College of Engineering, Tirunelveli, she earned her master’s degree in Electronics from Birla Institute of Technology, Mesra.

“I applied to an ad from ISRO when I was in my seventh semester, but was interviewed and selected six months after graduation. This was the first job I got, and I just stayed on, because I love it so much,” she says.

Nigar joined ISRO in 1987, and continued to work after marriage. “I was quite determined to keep working, and I was lucky that my husband has been as supportive as my parents,” she says.

Gender equity

Having spent more than three decades in the field, Nigar has seen the changing nature of the job market. “When I was studying, women were not even offered mechanical engineering courses. Now you have women fighter pilots in the Air Force. Gender is not an issue in ISRO; what matters is your technical aptitude and passion for the job. I personally have never felt the glass ceiling in my career,” she says. “But I wish more women, especially in rural areas, would stop holding themselves back and raise their self-esteem. They must know that they are not inferior in any way.”

Off-duty, Nigar likes to go trekking with friends, and is a voracious reader of Tamil and English novels. “I like the magic realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I’ve read his One Hundred Years of Solitude so many times,” she says.

Having become a programme director at ISRO, she will be overseeing all the lower missions, including the inter-planetary ones.

“At present, we have the SPADEX space docking experiment, and lunar sample return mission, coming up and several more in the pipeline; there’s no dearth of work at ISRO,” Nigar says.

0 / 0
Sign in to unlock member-only benefits!
  • Access 10 free stories every month
  • Save stories to read later
  • Access to comment on every story
  • Sign-up/manage your newsletter subscriptions with a single click
  • Get notified by email for early access to discounts & offers on our products
Sign in


Comments have to be in English, and in full sentences. They cannot be abusive or personal. Please abide by our community guidelines for posting your comments.

We have migrated to a new commenting platform. If you are already a registered user of The Hindu and logged in, you may continue to engage with our articles. If you do not have an account please register and login to post comments. Users can access their older comments by logging into their accounts on Vuukle.