Long gone are the days when science was the domain of just a single gender. Women all around the world have proved that they’re on an equal footing when it comes to any field, especially science. In a country like India where STEM remains male-dominated, Tessy Thomas has engraved her name in golden letters in the history of science.
Known as the “Missile Woman of India” and “Agni Putri” (the daughter of fire), she has assumed the position of Director General in the Aeronautical Systems at the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO). She is also the first Indian woman to head a missile project, back when she took charge of the Agni-IV missile at the DRDO. She was then appointed as the Project Director of Agni-V, a 5,000 km range missile she and her team successfully tested in 2012. Not only this, she also designed the guidance scheme for long-range missile systems, an invention used in the Indian Defence System to date.
Born in April 1963, she grew up in the small district of Alappuzha in Kerala. The 56-year-old has spent three decades of her life working in the STEM field. Since childhood, she had a knack for science and mathematics and was fascinated by rockets and missiles, which later guided her career choice as well. She studied at St Michael’s Higher Secondary School and St. Joseph’s Girls Higher Secondary School in Alappuzha and later did her B. Tech in Electrical Engineering from the University of Calicut, Kerala. She has completed further degrees such as M.Tech in Guided Missiles, MBA in Operations Management, and PhD in Missile Guidance. Although her interests lay in STEM subjects, she was also a great sportsperson and a badminton champion at the school and college levels.
Thomas had a tumultuous childhood; her father suffered a stroke that left him paralysed, and her mother had to raise her six children, including Tessy, all by herself. But she never compromised on the education of her children. As a result, two of Tessy’s siblings pursued engineering while one completed MBA. Later, when Thomas joined the Defence Institute of Defence Technology, Pune, she met Saroj Kumar Patel, who’s now her husband and a Navy Officer.
Thomas started her career at the DRDO (in 1983) under Dr APJ Abdul Kalam’s stewardship, joining at a time when it was not considered a place for women to work (visible from the fact that there were only five other women there apart from her). She is the recipient of the Agni Award for Excellence in Self-Reliance. In 2018, she was appointed Government Nominee Director of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Apart from this, Mrs Tessy Thomas has received various other awards such as the DRDO Award for Path-breaking Research/Outstanding Technology Development (2007), DRDO Scientist of the Year Award (2008), DRDO Performance Excellence Award for Agni-4 (2011), DRDO Performance Excellence Award for Agni-5 (2012) and many others.
If there’s anything we should take from the life of Tessy Thomas, it’s her relentless determination and her strong will that helped her pursue her dreams by breaking all stereotypes against women.