She was an aerospace engineer and an FAA Certified Flight Instructor. Chawla served as Flight Engineer and Mission Specialist 2 for STS-107. She received a bachelor of science in aeronautical engineering from Punjab Engineering College, India, in 1982, a master of science in aerospace engineering from the University of Texas-Arlington in 1984, and a doctorate in aerospace engineering from the University of Colorado-Boulder in 1988. As a member of the Red Team, Chawla, with CDR Rick Husband, was responsible for maneuvering Columbia as part of several experiments in the shuttle's payload bay. Chawla also worked with the following experiments: Astroculture (AST); Advanced Protein Crystal Facility (APCF); Commercial Protein Crystal Growth (CPCG_PCF); Biotechnology Demonstration System (BDS); ESA Biopack (eight experiments); Combustion Module (CM-2), which included the Laminar Soot Processes (LSP), Water Mist Fire Suppression (MIST) and Structures of Flame Balls at Low Lewisnumber (SOFBALL) experiments; Mechanics of Granular Materials (MGM); Vapor Compression Distillation Flight Experiment (VCD FE); and the Zeolite Crystal Growth Furnace (ZCG).
Selected by NASA in December 1994, Chawla was the prime robotic arm operator on STS-87 in 1997, the fourth U.S. Microgravity Payload flight. STS-87 focused on how the weightless environment of space affects various physical processes. Prior to STS-107, Chawla logged more than 376 hours in space.