Meet Elisha Jhoti, PhD student in geophysics and space physics

"Hi there! My name is Elisha Jhoti and I’m a Geophysics & Space Physics PhD student at UCLA. My research is focused on planetary science, specifically a mission concept for an ultra-low altitude lunar orbiter. I use gravity and topography data to write orbital simulation code to model a spacecraft orbiting very close to the surface of the Moon. I am also involved in lunar surface science research and I am a team member on two NASA lunar instruments, one is called Diviner which is onboard NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and has been collecting data for over a decade, and the other is L-CIRiS, which will be sent to the lunar South Pole on a lander in 2022.

If you told me as an undergraduate that I would be working on not one but two NASA space missions within a year of graduating I wouldn’t have believed you! When I was younger, I always wanted to work for NASA, but it was a very faraway dream since I grew up in the UK where there weren’t many opportunities to get involved in space science. I ended up studying Astrophysics at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland because I wanted to learn about space, but I realized my interests lay in planetary science, which wasn’t really covered in my astrophysics degree.

This switch to planetary science was mainly motivated by my internship experience. I searched everywhere for the opportunity to do an internship at NASA as a non-US citizen during my undergraduate degree. I finally found the Lunar and Planetary Institute/NASA Johnson Space Center internship where you could go to Houston to work on a research project with expert planetary scientists and get tours of Johnson Space Center. I actually got rejected the first time I applied but I reapplied the next year and was accepted; persistence pays off! This experience was probably one of the most impactful on my career so far, it made me discover a love for planetary science and I learnt that most of planetary science is actually geoscience, such as geology and geophysics. I was working with data from a far-UV spectrograph onboard NASA’s LRO called the Lyman Alpha Mapping Project (LAMP), to look at cold spots surrounding fresh impact craters on the Moon. I learnt so much during my internship and was inspired to apply for a PhD in planetary science in the US.

As a mixed-race Indian and English woman, the topic of diversity has come up many times in my short career in STEM. Having experienced being on engineering teams in Scotland, attending classes in the US and the UK in physics, engineering and now geology, it can be quite isolating. I have often been the only woman in the room, let alone the only non-white person. Being mixed-race also adds to the nuances to navigate, especially in the US where I am still learning about the history of under-represented groups in STEM. I try to participate in as many talks, events and outreach as I can, from TedX talks to Amazon Prime documentaries. I believe seeing visible STEM role models that young girls and under-represented minorities can relate to is very important, I know I wished there were more people who looked like me in the UK space industry when I was young. This year at UCLA I was elected to the board of the Society for Women Geoscientists where I focus on institutional reform. I hope to make a lasting impact in my department and at UCLA as a whole to improve the environment for under-represented groups in the geosciences. There is still a lot of work to do, but I am optimistic for the future!"

- Elisha Jhoti (she/her)

Instagram: @elishainspace

Twitter: @eishainspace

LinkedIn: Elisha Jhoti