‘Learning naturally’: MIT’s Mizanul Chowdhury exploring space science and art

April 26, 2024

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Meet Mizanul H Chowdhury who has been working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in multiple capacities since 2013.

In 2020, Bangladesh became the first South Asian country to collaborate with the Japanese space programme at the ISS, with a team participating at the Kibo-RPC, an Asia-Pacific space Robot Programming Contest arranged by Japan’s Space Exploration Agency (JAXA).

Bangladesh’s entry was not out of the blue.

The brains behind it had set the wheels in motion a while ago.

Meet Mizanul H Chowdhury who has been working at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in multiple capacities since 2013.

At present, he is a Nasa “Astrobee” scientist at MIT. He has also been the architect and chief administrator of the institution’s space systems laboratory. Between 2021 and 2023, he was a satellite scientist at the Space System Division in MIT Lincoln Laboratory.

The feathers in his cap just continued to grow. Mizanul was also at the forefront in designing the hardware and automation of “Astrobee” – a group of three space robots operating at the International Space Station (ISS).

As the head of MIT’s Zero Robotics project, his team grooms middle- and high-school children for brainstorming solutions to complex space technology problems.

It was these solutions that led to the Bangladeshi team landing in Japan.

Students under his tutelage successfully programmed a message to be transmitted in space through the Astrobee robots.

On their very first attempt, they sent the message “AmaarShonar Bangla”. The team stood second, beating big names like Australia, Japan, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia.

Mizanul and his organisation STEMX365 mentored the team for this momentous achievement and it’s something he continues to do till this day.

In a conversation with The Business Standard, Mizanuldemonstrated more sides than just his knack for science as he took us through a journey, encompassing cities, countries and even space.

An artist at heart

“My online gallery was the first website that I designed in the early 2000. I was self-teaching computer programming and all at that time,” he said, beginning the conversation with his passion.

His artworks consist of city landscapes, abstract painting, natural beauty and 1971 Liberation War. “I simply follow nature’s way. I feel that there is a deep harmony among designing scientific methods, and creative attempts – painting.”

But art is one thing. A quick search of his name on YouTube reveals another dimension to the artist: his penchant for tunes.

Mizanul loves covering songs by Manna Dey.

Astrobee, Zero Robotics

Zero Robotics is an MIT platform for teaching coding and programming with robots at ISS to mid- to high-school children.

But how does he get the children invested? Through gaming.

Students use programming to operate robots at the ISS as part of completing a series of challenges. Preparing children for code-based space-gaming is a complex task, Mizanul said.

As its architect and systems administrator, Mizanul maintains an online simulation environment, alongside mentoring, and programming space games.

“On a broader level, we try to spread the STEM [science, technology, engineering and maths] education among school children so that they get skilled in coding, problem solving, and also leadership and teamwork – before they leave school.”

Since 2022, the project has been collaborating with the Astrobeerobots.

What are the Astrobee Robots?

These are three cube-shaped, rechargeable flying robots [Bumble, Honey and Queen] designed for performing monotonic maintenance, documentation, and labour-intensivetasks at ISS. This way, astronauts can focus on more complex tasks – like space research.

These robots can be autonomous, or remote-controlled by astronauts and researchers on the ground.

This is what is done through initiatives like the Kibo-RPC, or Zero Robotics.

Mizanul developed and designed the online virtual platform that supports operation and research of Astrobee, and its predecessor – SPHERES.

He said the ultimate plan was to minimise humans in space. “The robots will travel distances, while astronauts will guide them from a safe place.”

From Buet to MIT: An unusual path taken

Mizanul Chowdhury graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering from Buet in 1986.

In a few years, he started his professional career as an engineer for Petrobangla and then Water Development Board – before eventually departing for the US.

After earning a Master’s degree in Natural Gas Engineering from Texas A & M University in 1993, he worked as a valve design engineer in rural Texas.

But a dearth of mechanical engineering jobs was in place. So he had to think about alternatives.

With the little programming experience he gained during his valve engineer career, Mizanul eventually did take the bold step.

His first IT job was in American Airlines, where duties mainly involved maintaining existing software.

In his free time, he was self-teaching advanced computer skills.

By 2007, his expertise in computers got him working for Jericho Systems – a company that partners with the US DefenceDepartment on cybersecurity.

Keeping the machine run

When Mizanul is not working, he is thinking about a design, or painting a picture, or recording a new cover.

Now in his early 60s, his passion for learning new skills continues unabated.

He puts special focus on education ventures his organisation is exploring in Bangladesh now.

“In space robotics, Bangladeshi students are actually ahead of MIT students in terms of participation.”

So now, STEMX365 does sessions, virtual labs, and courses on space science and programming.

Their Facebook page compiles all the tutorials and training session videos.

“And we will continue training Bangladeshi students for international space programming competitions”, he said.

Mizanul is immensely optimistic of the raw talent of this generation of Bangladeshi students, but warns about certain deep-rooted practices that he believes hinder the growth of these bright minds beyond universities.

“We really need to get over the idea of ranking in classes. I do not see anything like this in the US. For me, it is hard to accept that it still exists in Bangladesh.

“Be it STEM education, or space science – these are all about collaboration. Competition serves only a few, but collaboration serves everybody. We need to build a culture where students cooperate, work as teams and do not compete against each other.”

Because, as he says, “this is how everyone involved improves to a certain level, so should be the goal.”

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