Tesh and Tanya Ken and Barbie dolls in individual boxes on top of a display ledge. A hand holds a small car and a limited edition price tag reads, “$20.22.”

Choosing a practical career that also nourishes your soul can be challenging. Of course, you want stability, but you also want to love what you do, right? Fortunately, these two goals don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Thanks to NYU’s collaborative approach to education and career planning, students and alumni have the space to explore professional trajectories that don’t compromise their passions. Sometimes, they can even activate cultural change.

Two years ago, Tandon School of Engineering alum Tanya Gupta met with Meet NYU to share her experience as a woman in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) and her two personal passions: space exploration and Barbie. Back then, the self-proclaimed Space Barbie was coming off an internship with NASA. Additionally, she was working as a hardware developer and XR engineer with IBM. Today, thanks to NYU’s global alumni network of more than 635,000 people, she continues to pursue her unique interests with a focus on creative product design and diversity in media.

Connecting STEM and Creativity

As a mechanical engineering student at NYU Tandon, Tanya studied abroad at NYU Berlin. There, she took a class on creative coding. Throughout the semester students explored projection mapping and virtual reality, created visuals for music performances, and developed digital art installations. “That was the first time I realized there was a direct connection between my STEM experience and my creativity,” the alum says. “Without a doubt, those few months radically changed the course of my career and my entire approach to art.”

As an NYU alum, Tanya began her professional life with a focus on more traditional engineering work. However, she soon found herself missing the connection between engineering and art she discovered in Berlin. What’s more, she longed for the freedom to create at their intersection. With this realization, she departed from IBM to go in an entirely new direction. “Some might find the jump from left brain to right brain out of the ordinary,” Tanya says. “But I believe my journey makes perfect sense in the timeline of my life.”

Tesh Ken Doll sitting on a sofa in a bright red room.
A New Direction, Strengthened by an NYU Connection

From summer 2021 through summer 2022, Tanya brought her love for technology and art together. As the first-ever South Asian to be named an Adobe creative resident, she gained invaluable creative and design experience. The Adobe Creative Residency is a highly selective incubator program that helps launch the careers of rising creative leaders. While the residency was incredible, Tanya experienced it in isolation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Fortunately, she leveraged that time to increase her artistic productivity and improve her Photoshop abilities. In turn, and thanks to her #QuarantineArt selfie submission series, she increased her presence on social media. As a result, she benefited from numerous high-profile brand partnerships and professional opportunities and landed on Forbes30 Under 30 list.

On social media Tanya uses her creativity to challenge Hollywood stereotypes and advocate for more accurate on-screen representations of marginalized populations. Consequently, she connected with actor and fellow NYU alum Ritesh “Tesh” Rajan. The two quickly bonded over Barbie. Tesh, who graduated from the Tisch School of the Arts, just so happened to voice the character of Ken in the animated TV series Barbie Dreamhouse Adventures. And Tanya, always influenced by Barbie and Ken, had experimented widely with their images. Her connection with Tesh took that experimentation to the next level. Drawing from her technical and artistic skills, she designed the New Ken Doll, a fresh perspective on the typically blond-haired, blue-eyed Ken.

The Tesh Ken Doll and Tanya Barbie jointly holding a bouquet of flowers in front of a window in a bright yellow room.
Increasing Visibility for the Underrepresented

Thanks to its more realistic portrayal of the “heartthrob,” Tanya’s take on the Ken doll challenges traditional media tropes. In doing so, Tanya and Tesh are modernizing the idea of the Hollywood leading man to better represent diverse populations. “As South Asian artists, we have the ability, talent, and knowledge to execute jobs at an extremely high professional level,” Tesh says, reflecting on Tanya’s and his message of diversity.

Tanya agrees and understands her art as a vehicle for validating and motivating more representation across all forms of media, including television. “Today, formerly underrepresented TV actors are showing up as authentic human beings. Finally, they’re three-dimensional characters,” she explains. Furthermore, she adds, this helps her feel more confident as an artist.

Tanya and Tesh’s partnership—and the creativity that has blossomed from it—is something they both hope will continue in the months and years ahead. And in the pursuit of elevating inclusion and representation in art and media, Tanya hopes to continue to discover opportunities to work with other artists, like Tesh, who have earned their breakthrough moment. And if the next artist happens to part of NYU’s vast alumni network, well, that would just be out of this world for this Space Barbie.