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From Shantytown to Space: Jaykumar Vaidya’s Unlikely Journey From Mumbai Slum to NASA

From Shantytown to Space: Jaykumar Vaidya’s Unlikely Journey From Mumbai Slum to NASA

  • The 24-year-old engineer who’s pursuing a Ph.D at University of Virginia, is currently interning as a research scientist at the space agency.

This is no Bollywood masala film story. Twenty-four-year-old Jaykumar Vaidya’s journey from a slum in Mumbai to the University of Virginia in the United States to pursue his Ph.D, is the ultimate feel-good story and a testament to a mother’s resolve. Speaking with American Kahani via telephone, Vaidya talks of the difficult road he traveled to get here and his internship with NASA.

Vaidya remembers times when the local school refused to release his results until his mother paid the fees. His mother would then approach multiple nonprofits and trusts to help her out and in some instances received rather unwelcome advice that her son become a driver. But she neither gave up nor let her son’s desire to rise above his circumstances die. And today, it is because of her struggle and grit that Vaidya is pursuing his dream in the U.S. 


“She didn’t always believe that I would succeed,” says Vaidya, adding, “and I don’t blame her for that. She has faced betrayal by her own husband, and family, so she didn’t believe that these good days would come. But, today, she is very happy and proud of me.”

Vaidya is now studying nanotechnology, nano-oscillators, nanoscale device applications and architecture at University of Virginia’s Department of Electrical and Computer Science Engineering. He started an internship as a NASA research scientist on May 17.

Vaidya’s journey began in a tiny 8×10 sq. feet home in a slum in Kurla, Mumbai living with his mother, Nalini, who’s life is a profile in courage. After her in-laws threw her out of their house, she subsequently divorced her husband. She took shelter with her son the the room that belonged to her mother, which they called home. Nalini took a clerical job to provide for Vaidya’s upbringing and education. Things got harder when Nalini’s own mother fell ill, and eventually passed away. She was forced  to give up a clerical job in 2003. “She did many odd jobs to put food on the table, besides regularly visiting the court to attend divorce proceedings that went on for a grueling nine years,” as per a report in The Better India.

Vaidya recalls surviving on vada pav, samosas, bread and chai at the end of the day with his mother. “I had to sacrifice myself and so did my mother to get here. I did without food and sleep, giving tuitions to other students to earn money,” says Vaidya, who started working odd jobs from a very young age to help ends meet.

However, their luck did change when assistance came from a local temple trust, who helped them with rations and second hand clothes, which the family wears till this day. Vaidya’s home consisted of a refrigerator and a room which saw him through his school and college exams.

Despite his struggles, Vaidya knew that a better day would come with hard work and patience. “The worst was my Kansa (Mahabharata reference) mama (mother’s brother),” says Vaidya. “He treated my mother terribly, even though she looked after him, just because she was female,” adds Vaidya, who has resolved to adopt a girl child and invest in her future, to break away from the misogynistic attitude of his male family members, now estranged.

Reliving painful memories (which he is loathe to do) Vaidya says, his uncle “tried to kill me and my mom on multiple occasions. That was my life. Even on my worst day, the day that my nani (maternal grandmother) died, he harassed my mom who was trying to soften the blow of her death for me. I was so young. He didn’t care.” 

Fortunately, Lady Luck smiled and the mother-son duo got in touch with the MESCO Trust, which helped pay a portion of his school fees besides assisting him with interest-free loans during college. “I also got around 30-40 scholarships,” says the hardworking Vaidya. However, unhappy about living on charity, Vaidya took up soldering work in a local TV repair shop, which paid him Rs 4,000 per month. He also worked at a clothes shop in the Kurla area and did assignments for other students.

After years of hard work and study, he finally graduated in Electrical Engineering from the KJ Somaiya College of Engineering. It was in college where he made his mark, winning three  national and four state- level awards in Robotics. This was his ticket to an internship with the infrastructure giant Larsen and Toubro.

Post-college, however, he joined the prestigious Tata Institute of Fundamental Research (TIFR), where he was paid Rs 30,000 per month as a researcher. He used this money to renovate his house and buy an air-conditioner. “One of my best memories, and there are not many, comes from when I got my first real paycheck from TIFR, I wanted to take my mother out to eat, but she didn’t want to waste money. So, in stead she made basundi and ladu at home.” Vaidya adds, “You have to understand we never had food like that. We used to make chapatis every 3-4 days to save on cooking gas, which was expensive. So that’s why this day was so special.” 

Teaching International Students

Besides spending his hard-earned money at home, he also applied to write for the GRE and TOEFL tests, which burnt a big hole in his pocket. To make up for this shortfall, he began coaching international students online. Teaching these students was amazing. In junior college, I used to teach school students. This wasn’t a new profession for me. I needed to pay off loans, renovate my home and pay for my flight ticket to the U.S. and carry some pocket money, recalls Vaidya.

His first student was from Imperial College in London in 2017, but multiple requests started coming in when, in February 2019, he posted an advertisement. Vaidya ensured his international students got a CGPA of at least 8.5 out of 10, thanks to the timely assistance from TIFR and Prof. Mandar M. Deshmukh, a mentor and his “support system.” One of his students even scored a 9.7. The parents of these students thanked him for his mentoring, and in them, Vaidya found people who he could count on in the U.S.

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And today, Vaidya has paid back all his loans. Vaidya’s interest in all things space started with space movies and Discovery Channel that he watched at other people’s homes, sowing the seeds of curiosity in the sciences in him. He also remembers discussions in the neighborhood about eclipses, and how people would lean on astrology. Instead of settling for unscientific answers, he wanted to know the real reason why these events happen. Thus, the desire to learn more about the universe drove his initial passion for science. 

“However, in my engineering college, I realized that my interest lay in nanoscale physics. Take the example of microelectronics or microtechnology. You are using it right now to speak to me over WhatsApp. Here you have a large number of transistors implemented in a 100-micrometer square area. The subject I took up for my post-engineering research was also related to nanoscale physics. Now, I’m researching how to make nanoscale devices and other stuff,” Vaidya told The Better India.

Working in TIFR for three years set the foundations that would propel Vaidya toward his PhD program. “He is an unusually hard-working person, and I have not seen many like him,” Prof. Deshmukh told Mumbai Mirror.

During his time at the TIFR, the budding scientist published two scientific papers in reputed international scientific journals in 2017 and 2018 respectively. These papers caught the attention of the University of Virginia where Vaidya joined as a graduate research assistant. And today, Vaidya’s dreams are about to come true as he embarks on a dream job at NASA.

An honorable young man, Vaidya knows he owes his success to many. “There were individual citizens, friends and mentors like Mr. and Mrs. Subramanian, Anil Moraka, Baldev Sir, the Tata Trust and India Development Foundation, who helped me,” the young scientist says. But it is to his mother, Nalini, he gives the lion’s share of the credit. “She is the only person in my life who motivates me to live for the next day. I cannot ever repay the debt I owe her. She motivated me, and I did the same for her as well. She is the reason why I never gave up. There were times when I thought about disappearing from home, but I couldn’t leave my mother. Until she’s there, I have to be there. She is my motivation to live, become successful and help the world.”

Vaidya’s plan for the future is to make India self-reliant in hardware technologies, and in the next two years, bring his mother to the United States. He is currently applying for a passport for her and once the Covid crisis in India subsides, hopes to bring his mother to the U.S. so she can see how far he has come.

Today, he earns a monthly stipend of $2,000, of which he spends only $500 for hostel fees and petty expenses while sending the rest to his mother. “After my PhD, I want to get an industrial job and eventually set up a company in India. I want India to become a self-reliant manufacturing hub of technology. I also want to help girl children and underprivileged students in fulfilling their potential,” says Vaidya. And if that doesn’t materialize, Vaidya plans to join ISRO as a faculty member. “I want to be involved in academia and research – working on groundbreaking and challenging new problems.” Vaidya’s journey is truly an inspirational tale of grit and sweat.

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