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The inside story: How a Bengal girl got ‘NASA’ internship’ and ‘Oxford scholarship’

After NASA, now Oxford also clarifies she might not have been awarded admission after all.

Written by Hemani Bhandari |
Updated: April 6, 2016 3:39:26 pm
Sataparna Mukherjee/ Facebook Sataparna Mukherjee/ Facebook

Sataparna Mukherjee is appearing for her Class 12 exams, but instead of being immersed in studies, all that this 18-year-old from Madhyamgram in West Bengal has been doing over the last week is answering scores of calls from reporters and smiling into TV cameras swarming outside her home.

The reason is no secret. In fact, she was the star of many headlines recently — ‘Making India proud’, ‘India’s prodigy kid’, ‘Indian kid who got prestigious NASA internship’ — for her theory on “making a time machine”. But amid all the reports that went viral, a Facebook post raised the first question mark over Mukherjee’s claim.

IndianExpress.com has been pursuing the story since it became viral, accessing and studying documents linked to Mukherjee’s claims. Now, it is clear that the authenticity of each document the claim was based on has been questioned by the very people and organisations whose names they bear.

In short, as Facebook user Ayoti Patra alleged after raising that first question mark: “either she is fooling the media or is herself a victim of Internet fraud”. Patra, incidentally, is a PhD research scholar in physics at the University of Maryland, College Park, near the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

Mukherjee, however, still maintains that she is preparing to “leave the country” later this year to attend the “program”, even claiming that NASA would send her to the UK for studies. Speaking to IndianExpress.com, she said, “This is not for publicity. I am unable to concentrate on my studies because of constant calls and interviews. Why would I do that to myself?” Ruling out suggestions of Internet fraud, she claimed that she hasn’t spent any money so far while pursuing these offers.

And yet, there’s a lot that doesn’t add up in her story. In a nutshell, this is what Mukherjee claimed and what we found:

CLAIM 1: Letter from NASA stating that Goddard Space Flight Centre (GSFC) has offered an internship. NASA asked that the letter “be kept confidential”.

FACT CHECK: NASA has denied having offered any internship or scholarship to an Indian student named Sataparna Mukherjee. It said that it did not offer any internship under GSFC. It clarified that NASA does not fund internship, fellowship or PhD programs to foreign nationals. But as an Indian national, one can work as a post doctoral candidate, a contract worker, or as a graduate student of a US university.

Besides, the “offer letter” is riddled with grammatical errors, which is unusual for what’s widely recognised as the world’s leading space research agency. It states: “NASA OBSERVATORY CENTRE cordially invites Sataparna Mukherjee from India for Goddard Internship Program as an employee and researchist.” It adds: “She has been the only one taken from India this year. She is the most young Indian ever taken.”

CLAIM 2: The purported letter from NASA, which Mukherjee has produced to back her claim, states that “she will be sent to London Astrobiology centre, where we are giving her an opportunity to complete her under graduation and post graduation as our faculty in Oxford university department of science with full scholarship”. Mukherjee says she will be studying at the UK Centre for Astrobiology (UKCA), from where she has purportedly received a separate offer letter.

FACT CHECK: The UKCA is affiliated to the NASA Institute of Astrobiology. But the letter allegedly send by them is unsigned and bears the name of Charles Cockell, Chair of UKCA. It also, unusually, requests confidentiality. The letter, which starts as a declaration before switching tone to directly address Mukherjee, states: “We are taking Sataparna Mukherjee for a prestigious project this year 2016. We want this project to remain confidential till we get in touch with you after you come over here and your theory gets published. We are welcoming you with best wishes and You are the First Indian ever taken for the internship.”

CLAIM 3: Mukherjee received full scholarship from University of Oxford and will be studying English Language and Literature. She has produced an email to support her claim. This one, allegedly from Undergraduate Courses at University and College, states: “We have now distributed all Open Applicants to colleges and can confirm that you have been allocated to St Anne’s.”

FACT CHECK: In an emailed response to The Indian Express.com, a spokesperson for University of Oxford stated: “While we do not comment on individual applications, some of the courses mentioned in media coverage are not offered at Oxford.” Mukherjee’s email, purportedly sent by Undergraduate Courses at University and College and referring to her allocation at St. Anne’s, was sent in October 2015 — Mukherjee told The Indian Express.com that she appeared for her English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT) in November, 2015.

CLAIM 4: Mukherjee told IndianExpress.com that NASA officials informed her that she would be studying under European Space Agency (ESA).

FACT CHECK: It is well known that NASA and ESA work closely on many projects. But when Mukherjee was informed that the two were completely different organisations, she appeared confused and admitted that she didn’t have any more details. Besides, all communication to Mukherjee, purportedly from NASA, was sent from a generic email id without any names of officials or administration staff mentioned anywhere.

It began with a Facebook post

Hailing from Madhyamgram, Mukherjee is the only child of Pradip Mukherjee, a government school headmaster, and Sandhya, a junior employee with the state revenue department.

And the teenager’s NASA story begins in February 2015 when, she claims, she posted a few lines of her “theory” on the “making of a time machine” on a Facebook group called ‘Astrophysics’. Soon, she adds, a scientist named Florence Ketty got in touch with her via Facebook messenger encouraging her to post her theory on a “website” — Mukherjee refused to name the website.

In March 2015, she claimed, she posted the theory on “that website”, following which NASA officials got in touch with her offering her an opportunity to join a science program. “I couldn’t afford it back then because they were not offering me the internship amount,” she added.

In August 2015, NASA contacted her again, offering her fully covered internship and other perks, said Mukherjee. In the first week of September, she claimed, they conducted her interview via Skype. The interview, she claimed, was taken by five people. She added that she partially recalled the names of three of them — Lawrence Ketty, Smith and Brown.

“After getting through NASA, I thought I should apply to Oxford for Literature because I’ve always wanted to study it,” said Mukherjee, adding that she applied to the University of Oxford by September-end. In November, Mukherjee claimed, she appeared for the English Literature Admissions Test (ELAT) (a pre-interview admissions test for applicants to English undergraduate courses at the University of Oxford) in Chennai, following which she “received the (Oxford) scholarship”.

How the story went viral

Mukherjee said that last August, as soon news spread in local social circles about her “internship”, she was “felicitated by All India Student’s Association” following which news of her “achievement” was reported in a Bengali regional newspaper she named “Ganashakti”.

“In the last days of February this year, another regional paper Ei Samay got in touch with me for an interview. After that particular interview, I started getting calls from many reporters across the state,” she said. “The NASA programme starts in September and I will leave the country by August-end,” said Mukherjee.

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