Executive Director at The Earth Hacks Foundation
Hacking to Save the Planet: How Sanjana Paul is Applying Tech to Protect Our Environment
Sanjana Paul has always been drawn to STEM. Even from a young age, she was interested in being a scientist and as she got older, she realized her true passion was in climate research. Starting college, Sanjana realized the confluences of all her interests converged around physics and math. She decided to get her Bachelor’s in Physics and Electrical Engineering to get a strong foundation for all of her other STEM pursuits.
I thought nothing is going to matter if we don’t have a planet for it to matter on and we’re in a climate crisis. So I knew I needed to do environmental work and I realized that it’s not a one size fits all. We all have a role to play. And I think that my role to play is [in engineering] because I’m good at it, and I love it so much.
Whether it was as a Green Program Ambassador in Iceland or as a Conservation Innovation Fellow at Conservation X Labs, a digital makerspace dedicated to environmental conservation, Sanjana took advantage of a variety of internships, fellowships, and projects to explore how she could use her engineering skills to impact the environment. One of her proudest achievements was F.LO.A.T.I.B.O.I. (Floating Long-term Oceanic Autonomous Trawler Incorporating Buoyant Object Identification), a project she participated in through the Green Robotics Innovation Project, F.LO.A.T.I.B.O.I. is a robot that combats nearshore marine plastic pollution by using optical identification to collect marine plastic before it goes out to sea.
Today, Sanjana is channeling her engineering skills and love of the climate as a Junior Atmospheric Science Software Developer at NASA Langley Research Center. In this role, Sanjana supports and provides technical and science communication support to climate and Atmospheric Research at NASA. As if all her efforts weren’t enough, she is also fighting the climate crisis through hackathons. She is the founder and Executive Director of The Earth Hacks Foundation, an organization that hosts student-driven hackathons to combat the climate crisis. During her time at Conservation X Labs, Sanjana realized how valuable the efforts of STEM students could be to environmental conservation. After talking through the idea with her boss, she was inspired to start Earth Hacks in 2018.
I was ranting to my boss at Conservation X about how STEM students are brilliant and need to be mobilized to fight climate. Hackathons are such a great way to do this because there’s such a time intensive sprint and you can expose people to so many ideas so quickly. Why aren’t more people doing environmental hackathons? When I said that, he just turned, looked at me, and said, ‘I mean, you’ve got it all figured out. Why don’t you?’ And so that’s why I started Earth Hacks.
Sanjana is so driven by her passion for climate that when she doubts herself or her technical abilities, she reminds herself (and others) to keep focused on the prize. It’s not about loving every small detail, it’s about being driven by the greater passion.
You have to remember the goals that you’re working towards. Even though you might not like this one facet of what you’re doing right now, you came into space because you love so many other things, because science is beautiful, because math is the language of the universe, and you’re learning how to speak it. Focus on the long term.
For Sanjana, that prize is appreciating and conserving our climate. For others, that might be the prize too. Sanjana shares her story to leave readers with the reminder that there are so many ways STEM skills can be applied to protecting our climate. She is calling others to action, whether it’s by participating in their first Earth Hacks hackathon, donating their skills to solving environmental problems, or devoting time to organizations that help to protect our environment.
Simple things, the fundamentals of human life, the air we breathe the water we drink the land that we walk around on, are in danger, We want anyone who has a ‘technical’ bone in their body to really use their skills to work on environmental issues, because this is one thing that affects everything else.
This story was written by Natalia Gutierrez, Wogrammer Journalism Fellow. Connect with her on Linkedin. Support our mission to celebrate more amazing women in tech, like the one featured here, by donating to AnitaB.org.