Each month I shine the spotlight on some of my awesome, brilliant and incomparable readers. You lot are the best fans a blogger could ask for. This month meet Sreeja, Alex and Zeina.

Sreeja Nag

feb_sreejaWhere are you from?
India. I was born and schooled in a small town called Pune on the west coast. I did my undergraduate degrees in an even tinier town in east India called Kharagpur, albeit home to the oldest Indian Institute of Technology, my alma mater. I moved to Boston in US to pursue graduate studies a little over three years ago. I love to travel – both in the US and in India, and try to visit a few new countries every year.

What do you do?
I’m doing a PhD in Space Systems engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Until about half a year back, I was on a team for robotic mission operations on the International Space Station (ISS). We’d design, program and test satellite navigation algorithms on real satellites inside the low risk environment of the ISS (here’s a cool video of an experiment). For about one and a half years, I led a robotics programming competition called Zero Robotics where we built a free online interface for high school students to program our satellites on the ISS. The astronauts would execute the best of the submitted programs. I got to interact with hundreds of kids and spread the love for math and space. For the last few months, I’ve been designing shoebox sized satellites and their optical instruments to swarm in dozens and achieve science as a network in space.

What is it about space, science and engineering that made you dedicate your entire life to it?
I’ve always loved math and science. As a kid, I found these fields adherent to hard logic and very objective. It was very different from the otherwise subjective world where people consistently argued about what’s “right” or “wrong”. Math and the physical sciences came very intuitively to me and kids like things that are easy and fascinating at the same time. As I grew up, I realized that science is very subjective too, like all other things. But by then, I was in love with the incremental, cite-your-sources-or-shut-up, scientific process to answer questions on everything from DNA to the universe.

Why space sciences and engineering, specifically? Well, the celestial bodies have, since ancient civilisations, always intrigued man so much that the Divine and its dwelling have found their place among them. Looking at it rationally, let’s take an example … we gaze, every night, at the light that stars released millions of years ago so we’re essentially looking at each star from millions of years ago. So the night sky we see is actually a space so vastly separated in time that, put together, it is only a visual illusion. Scientists quantified this illusion as the Hubble Ultra Deep Field thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope. It is tiny nuggets like this that motivate me to find out more about these “real” illusions – what better way than build missions to fly into space?

What are your favourite Zen Pencils comics?
The first Zen Pencils comic I ever saw was the illustration of an Edgar Mitchell quote on the vastness of space inspiring global consciousness. I related to it instantly, much like Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot, and it still is among my top favorites. It’s really hard to pick favorites among Zen Pencils without listing at least 20 but here are some that are at the top of my mind: Robert Goddard for being a complete visionary, Charles Bukowski for reminding us that creativity needs no prerequisites, Robert Frost for showing us the infinite possibilities of roads not taken and Mark Twain for repeating how absolutely important it is for everyone who can, to travel.


feb_alexTell us a bit about yourself.
I’m 16 years old and from Gateshead, UK. I’m a writer, and despite my age I’ve been writing for five years now. I’m still in school but I do volunteer for my local football team by writing for their programme. My first love is writing stories, from novels to short pieces, and around this time last year I hit a buffer. I guess it was just writer’s block but it really drained my creativity away, and as an introvert I didn’t really have much else to fall back on. The only thing I had was a rough draft of a novel, but editing it to a better standard seemed like a mammoth task. As a result I spent most of the Spring wallowing in self-pity, and I only managed to get my act together thanks to some help from a friend.

Did Zen Pencils also help with that?
I’d started half-heartedly working on the editing, and then in June I saw your Dalai Lama comic on one of the meme websites. Impressed, I followed the link at the bottom and read all the other comics. It was of massive reassurance to me to see all of these motivational quotes in one place, and I returned to the editing with some drive and confidence. Whenever things weren’t working I’d just look back at the comics and that gave me enough energy to push on, and in December 2012 I finally finished refining that troublesome novel. And judging by the short stories I’ve written since then I’d say I’ve got my creativity back as well!

My favourite comics are Air and Light and Time and Space because I share Bukowski’s sentiments exactly, and Make Good Art which was the one that really struck me while I wasn’t going anywhere.

The only other thing I can say is that I think Zen Pencils should be shown to every artist in the world, writer or painter or filmmaker or any other type I’ve missed, because if it inspired me to keep going when giving up seemed attractive, then hopefully it can do the same for others lacking faith in their work.

Zeina, 15, from Cairo lived through the Eygptian revolution of 2011 and I was interested to hear more about her story.

For those readers who aren’t sure, what was the Egypt Revolution in 2011 and why was it so important?
The Egyptian Revolution started on January 25th 2011, with the sole intention of removing former president Hosny Mubarak from rule. For the previous 30 years, he had a dictatorial regime thoughout Egypt, and corruption was apparent anywhere you went. The revolution was led by the young people (18-30ish) but soon enough, the rest of the country had joined along. Everyone had one demand: get Hosny Mubarak out of power. The revolution, although considered peaceful, did see a couple hundred deaths. Mubarak stepped down after 18 days.

What was the feeling among young people and fellow teenagers like yourself?
It was amazing. Everyone was helping out the country in any way possible. Many people I know were staying in Tahrir Square (the focal point of the protests) for days, and excitement was in the air all the time. Since the police “disappeared” during the revolution, it was up to the people to keep the country in check. Many older men who couldn’t go to Tahrir Square were standing on the streets directing traffic, or helping compounds become secure. There was a day where all the prisons around the suburbs of Cairo were opened. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners escaped, and since there were no police, the people had to make sure everything was okay. Most people in the suburbs live in walled compounds, so men and kids would take shifts with armed guns guarding all the entrances and walls. Safety was a very big issue, and everyone had arms or weapons that they could defend themselves with if anything occurred. Roads leading into places with many villas and houses, and even small alleyways in Egypt, were all blocked by people, who wouldn’t let anyone pass without checks to the car or the people themselves. Everyone was really involved.

Were you involved in the protests?
I did go to Tahrir Square a couple times, but most of the time I was either at home relaying news to my father or sitting by the road blocks. We had two other families coming to stay with us, because where they lived was very unsafe. Since I was the oldest of the kids, I spent many days babysitting so our parents could go protest. Once, my dad and other men on our street caught eight prisoners trying to enter the house. Because of all the help, nearly every single prisoner that was released was caught and sent back to the prisons, all by the people. The compound in front of us caught a hundred on their own! That doesn’t mean the criminals hadn’t wrecked anything – many people we know had their homes robbed or burned down.

So now with continued reports of corruption and outrage at the new President Mohamed Morsi’s rule, are the youth of Eygpt losing hope?
The country right now isn’t in its best state. Morsy and the Muslim Brotherhood have turned into a worse enemy than Mubarak, and people who voted for him are now regretting their decision. Although more people are dying in protests right now, the youth aren’t losing hope. When one falls, a hundred more go to take their place. The country is fighting strong against him, which sadly leads to a terrible economy. More people are on the streets rather than working, so hardly any money is entering the country. That is the one thing that is making most people hesitate from taking to the streets as well. The country needs money. People need to work, but they have to protest as well. It’s a spiral that can only stop when Morsy obliges to the country’s demands. (You can find out more about the history of the Muslim Brotherhood in this informative comic strip.)

Many thanks to Sreeja, Alex and Zeina. If you would like to be featured as a Reader of the Month, send me an email.