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Community, mentors inspire astronomy student to excel

Nivedita Mahesh stands in the front of a classroom, with a presentation displayed on two screens behind her.

Nivedita Mahesh

December 06, 2022

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series of profiles of notable fall 2022 graduates.

Originally from Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India, Nivedita Mahesh says she was encouraged by her family, teachers and mentors to follow her lifelong passion for science. 

Mahesh graduated this past summer with a PhD in astronomy from the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University.

Her decision to pursue this degree was a result of a collection of opportunities, beginning with her first field experience at the Gauribidanur Radio Observatory in the remote areas of Bangalore, India, where she built and tested her first instrument designed for radio astronomy.

In addition, Mahesh gained valuable experience at Raman Research Institute during her final year as an engineering undergraduate.

“I was simply enthralled to be in the company of amazing minds at the RRI and wanted to follow in their footsteps. It was here I learned the possibilities of leveraging my engineering skills to solve the unsolved mysteries of our early universe, and from there, there was no looking back,” Mahesh says.

Her decision to attend ASU was based on the desire to work under the guidance of Judd Bowman, professor at the School of Earth and Space Exploration and researcher with the Edges experiment.

“Knowing that my ultimate goal was to stay in academia, he gave me important skills to thrive in the field,” Mahesh says. “He kept saying he would pass on everything he has learned along the way, and he continues to do so.”

Mahesh gives high praise for Bowman’s presentation skills and as a result.

“My favorite thing is to talk about science as outreach or public talks. And I have been able to grow and get more opportunities to do it because Judd was crucial in teaching me how to communicate science effectively,” said Mahesh.

“Nivedita was an outstanding leader and scientist while at SESESchool of Earth and Space Exploration, and a mentor and champion of others,” Bowman says. “She embraced SESE’s unique fusion of science and use-inspired engineering, elevating the state of the art in electromagnetic modeling of antennas for the EDGES experiment and conducting sophisticated statistical analysis of observations to explore how the first stars formed in the early universe.”

Not only did Mahesh thrive in her field, but she is also the recipient of several awards, fellowships and grants during her academic career. She is a NASA Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology Fellow and was awarded a three-year grant for her research “Lunar radio prototype array for exoplanet and cosmology studies.”

Mahesh received a Graduate Excellence award from the Graduate College in 2018 and 2022, and a GPSA board scholarship where she served on the executive board for three years.

“As an international student, this scholarship helped me in numerous ways: meeting and networking with graduate students from various departments, helping me grow my professional development skills, bolstering my professional resume, and supporting me monetarily when things can be very expensive to get by with just the stipend,” Mahesh says.

In the summer of 2017, through recommendations from Bowman and Rogier Windhorst, Regents Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration, Mahesh was awarded the prestigious ASTRON/JIVE fellowship to work with the LOFAR team at the Radio Observatory in Dwingeloo, Netherlands. She was also awarded travel grants from International Union of Radio Science twice to present her thesis work at their conference.

After graduating, Mahesh took some time off to refresh and reset. She will join Caltech as the David and Ellen Lee Postdoctoral Fellow to work with the Long Wavelength Array at Owen’s Valley in California to search for signatures from our early universe. Her goal is to stay in academia and expose more people to this science. Here, she share a few thoughts about her time here at ASU.

Question: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you or changed your perspective?

Answer: I loved how at SESE learning something new was an everyday thing for me — it wasn't just in classrooms — it was the amazing coffee talks, discussions at happy hour, lab meetings, and I have learned a lot even at SESE parties. I learned the importance of networking, exchanging ideas and learning from my peers, and SESE/ASU made that easy for us. The friendly and welcoming rapport at SESE made everyone more approachable — it was easy when I had questions, and (they) never stopped me from sharing my ideas; I never had a fear of “sounding stupid.”

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: Never stop hustling. Go that extra mile for the passion that gets you out of your bed each morning.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: Our ISTB4 sixth-floor balcony. You can take in the view of the entire campus from there, and what a breathtaking view it is! I have taken everybody I know to that spot, and I love seeing their reaction when they see the sunset and the city lights from there.

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle?

A: Invest all of it in tackling homelessness. It's simply sad something as basic as a solid shelter is hard to come by for so many. With that kind of money, I could create and build self-sufficient homes for the needy — where they can live, grow the needed produce, make food and provide for each other.

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