Working at NASA is something that kids grow up dreaming about. But when you get the itch to do something different, where do you go? For Neel Savani, the journey led him back to a place he’d been before: Imperial College London.
Journey to NASA
It was 2011, and Neel was landing in Washington D.C. to grasp the opportunity of a lifetime. He was about to start working with a group of renowned scientists, drawn from all over the world. At an organisation synonymous with innovation and ambition.
He was about to work with NASA.
After just one application, Neel had been accepted as a NASA Research Fellow. Just a few months earlier, he’d headed out to Japan to take up a prestigious Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS) Research Fellowship. But this was NASA. It was too good an opportunity to pass up, after completing the fellowship in Japan. He was stationed at the US Naval Research Laboratory, Solar Division. He was part of a large, established team, and had the opportunity to visit the storied NASA centre once a week.
“It was a really prestigious place to go”, he said.
Here Neel began his career in Space Weather studies, a branch of space physics and aeronomy that looks at the time-varying conditions within our solar system. And that was just the start. After his two year fellowship, he continued his work with NASA in the research faculty of George Mason University, as a visiting scientist to NASA’s heliospheric and space weather divisions.
Neel was offered a more permanent role at NASA in 2015 alongside the University of Maryland. He took the lead in developing new technologies in virtual reality to drive new scientific innovation and evolving medical MRI technology for NASA’s use. In eight years, Neel had enjoyed a fascinating ride. But he started to contemplate how his next chapter might unfold.
“People talk about having three careers in their lifetime. And I was ready to move.”
Landing back at Imperial
When you’ve spent years exploring the outer reaches of space and technology, planning an exciting next move is a challenging task. But Neel had a few places he wanted to explore. “I wanted to do something innovative”, he said.
In truth, that was something that had motivated him for years. He’d moved from his hometown of Brighton to study physics as an undergraduate at Imperial. From there, he’d found himself going into investment banking. But after five months, he knew he wanted something more than a big pay cheque. So he returned to Imperial to complete a PhD in Space Physics.
“I wanted to be involved in a PhD that improved my computational skills and used the data side of things, so I chose space physics. It was the perfect mix between what I wanted as a career element and something that I truly love doing.”
So as he sat at this crossroad, he knew what he was looking for next. “I wanted a place that had diversity of people, thinking and methodology.” And that’s how he ended up back in London.
Neel decided to return to his alma mater, and pursue a Full-Time MBA at Imperial College Business School. He had friends that had attended the likes of LBS and Harvard Business School, and knew about their strong reputation. But most of all, he was looking for an experience where he could learn from other students as well as teachers, and an environment that would encourage him to think differently.
“I didn’t want to go through a machine and be regurgitated as someone made to go into management. I wanted to do something with the freedom of thought which, for me, is a starter block for all innovative ideas.”
Neel had also heard good things about the community at the Business School and knew it was the right fit for him. “When you’re working in the real world, you’re working as part of a team and strong collaboration is really beneficial. On the MBA, we all want to help each other improve but we don’t do it at the expense of each other.”
The character of the MBA – and the city it was based in – also gave him the chance to learn without losing sight of the innovative environment he’d been working in.
Imperial is a world leader in science and innovation and it’s all on your doorstep. For anyone who loves tech and innovation, London is an adult’s playground.
Since being back in London, Neel’s been able to relink with old friends and connections, as well as discover what’s new on the tech scene.
Neel is set to finish his MBA in August 2019. It’s given him the space to think about his next career steps and how he can make an impact. He knows the space sector is where he wants to be, but Neel is waiting for the right opportunity.
“I loved my time in the space sector, as it’s all so new and innovative. I’ve been spending time figuring out what I can do that maximises what I have done before, still makes an impact and can then be reused and re-skilled and has benefits back into the commercial space sector.”
But his time at the Business School has allowed Neel to broaden his interests, and channel his skills into new fields. “I love marketing analytics. It really maximises the data analytics and machine learning work that I have done previously. What I love about it is that there’s a lot of focus on being client-facing and adding value, and there are so many different ways of chopping up data, which I really love.
“I’d like to think it’s my new wild card.”