| Interview with a Space Scientist
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Interviewer: Sarah Bucknall (SB) National Space Centre
Interviewee: Hazel McAndrews (HM) Mullard Space Science Laboratory
SB: Hi. My name is Sarah Bucknall from the National Space Centre. I’m here with Hazel McAndrews, a PhD student studying planetary science fom the Mullard Space Science Laboratory which is part of University College London. So Hazel, please tell us a little bit about what you do.
HM: Hello Sarah. As you said, I’m studying a PhD. This is a type of advanced degree that you can do after your main degree at university which is very much more specialised and allows you to become an expert in that field. My PhD is in planetary science and the planet that I study is Saturn. And I look at data from the Cassini spacecraft which arrived at Saturn in June 2004 which is 3 billion km away and each day I analyse and look at this data in order to be able to tell people what we’re seeing at Saturn.
SB: Have you always been interested in space?
HM: Yes, yes I have always been interested in space. My grandparents took me to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida when I was about 8 and just seeing all of the huge rockets and shuttles and the amazing things you can do in space, made me really really want to follow a career in space.
SB: So visiting the Kennedy Space Centre completely influenced your decision?
HM: Well yes. I think that when I came back from that trip, I was only 8 but this was pre-internet as well so I started reading books, writing to Space Agencies. The more information I found out about space the more I was determined that that was the field I was going to work in. I can’t imagine anything being more interesting.
SB: What qualifications led to your PhD?
HM: Well I did GCSEs. The Standard ones that school makes you do. I did double science at the time which was the most you could do. Maths, I took a couple of languages as well. Geography, which was also very useful. I then went on to do A-Levels in physics, chemistry and maths. The maths I was never very good at but I needed it to support the physics. Once I’d done that I was able to go to university and study physics with space science degree. This allowed me to study a core physics degree but with some really interesting modules which were associated purely with space. Once I’d got that degree I then went on to get a job in industry, at that time I’d had enough of studying. So I got a job in a space department where I looked at new technologies for looking at Earth from space and looking at power systems on Mars. And then after a while I decided that I’d like to go and do some pure science again so I came back to do a PhD.
SB: Where did you go to University?
HM: I went to the University of Leicester.
SB: Was that a good place to study physics?
HM: At the time there were only 5 universities that actually did the course with space science as well and when I looked at the different course content, because they were all quite different, Leicester just looked the best one and I really enjoyed being in Leicester itself as well. But there are many great universities now that provide you with excellent courses. You can do physics with medical physics, physics with space science, physics with astrophysics, all kinds of different options so there’s a wide range of universities out there.
SB: So you mentioned you worked in industry and now work in academia, what’s the difference between them?
HM: Well as I said when I finished doing my degree I decided to go and get a job because I was sick of studying and industry I found was very dynamic, very enthusiastic and it keeps you on your toes all the time. The problem with industry is everything ultimately that you do, all the projects that you do no matter how interesting they are, ultimately are to get money and make profit. The company itself will have to make profit, either by building a satellite, doing study reports, and then it’s always customer driven. You find that even if you find something really interesting to look at, if there are not enough hours on the project, you haven’t got time whereas in academia you have that time. I mean I can quite easily spend a week just thinking over a problem or looking at a subject purely because I think it’s interesting and I think it will help answer some of the unsolved questions that we have about what we know about Saturn. So it’s a very much more relaxed environment. I’m not saying I don’t get stressed, which of course you do, but they’re very different types of environment to work in. I think you have to really think about what you enjoy doing, and like I did, I moved from industry to academia and plenty of people move the other way so it’s not like you choose industry and that’s it you can never go back and do anymore PhDs or anymore studying, you can. It’s just worth having a think about how the 2 are different and what sort of person you are and what sort of environment you like working in.
SB: Additional to your qualifications, what skills are useful to a space scientist?
HM: You have to be dedicated; you have to find what you do interesting. But in terms of skills, you have to be able to communicate. It’s often the case being able to explain what you do to somebody is not always straight forward. As I said, a PhD is a very specialised area so sometimes you have to start from the very basics with somebody. So being able to speak clearly and present what you’re doing and really put forward that understanding is important. I suppose also a key part of it is organisation. People have this opinion of scientists, that they’re scatty and they have papers lying everywhere – which is the case to a certain degree – but you do have to be able to look at a large piece of research, break it down into a work plan, and organise it. And then of course I suppose you have to be literate with computers.
SB: What are your plans once you’ve finished your PhD?
HM: I would like to go on and carry on doing research on the planet that I’m working on so for that reason I’m applying to do post-doctoral positions which is a position that you can take once you’ve got a PhD and you’re a doctor. The mission that I work on is mainly an American mission so I will probably go over to the United States to work at a laboratory over there but there are plenty of different options when I finish there to come back and work at a UK university.
SB: So does your work involve a lot of travel?
HM: Oh yes a large amount. Space is inherently an international subject. Space missions are always involving many different countries purely because of the resources needed for both time and money and just also because different countries have different expertise. I mean this year I’ve been to Germany, Hungary, Austria, and the United States to work with people and attend conferences so there’s certainly a lot of international travel in space.
SB: Are there many female space scientists in the UK?
HM: Oh yes, loads. I suppose it’s always been a more male dominated subject. When I did my A-Levels and my degree there were more men than women but once you actually start working in the industry you can see that both at universities and in companies there are plenty of women either working in academia or in industry doing plenty of different roles. I know female engineers, female project scientists, people that are head of missions are female as well so yes, definitely.
SB: What would you say is the best thing about your career?
HM: The best thing I suppose about what I do is there can be times when I sit in front of my computer looking at a piece of data and I’ll suddenly realise what I’m looking at and after doing some analysis, I’ll finally click and think, that’s what’s happening, that’s the physical process behind what I’m looking at. And I’m the only person in the world to know that, I’m the only one looking at that data, and it really fills you with a sense of excitement, knowing that you’re at the cutting edge and furthering the world’s knowledge in this area. I just find it so interesting, it’s exciting and interesting.
SB: Is there a downside to your career?
HM: Yes, I mean it’s hard work, like any job. I suppose one of the most difficult things is you can spend a long time doing some analysis, working out what you’re going to do, writing programmes, and looking at the data only to find out that your initial idea was wrong. And the data doesn’t fit your idea and you were basically going down a blind alley. But that is part of what science is and having to start again and think, right how am I going to approach this problem this time, is inherently part of science.
SB: But when you get it right it’s an amazing feeling?
HM: Oh absolutely. Yes, definitely.
SB: So what is a typical work day for you?
HM: Well I sit in front of a computer, like most other people, only the numbers that I’m looking at are measuring particles around Saturn rather than an accounting spreadsheet. But I will get in, I will look at some data, either new data that we’ve just received or data that comes from a particular event where I’ve seen something interesting. And I’ll look at that data and I’ll think, right I want to look at this particular region more closely so I can do some analysis from it, do some calculations, look at those numbers and ultimately I put those results together and come up with a conclusion. If I see the same sort of process happening again and again I can then conclude that a certain process is dominant, for example. And then I can put together a paper and then I usually chat with my supervisor or other people in the office and we discuss what we think of the results. Gradually you get to understand more and more about what’s going on.
SB: What kind of person would make a good space scientist?
HM: Well I suppose with anything that people want to work in you do ultimately have to be interested otherwise you won’t enjoy it and therefore you won’t be as good at it. You’ve got to be interested in space science. I think enthusiasm helps but you have to want to understand problems rather than just looking at something and thinking, oh well I don’t know what that is. Being able to sit there and think, right I’m going to apply myself, I’m going to try these different ways of analysing the data and I’m going to try to really get a grip on what’s going on so problem solving – people that like unravelling mysteries of what’s going on in the data – I think that’s a very key skill.
SB: What would you say to someone at school who was considering pursuing science at a higher level?
HM: I suppose you would take the relevant qualifications. So do science GSCE, maths GCSE. I would always always suggest maths as a support, especially when you go onto A-Levels. Whatever science you want to do, whether it’s biology, chemistry, physics, having maths is always a very good back up. And of course they’re all very complimentary. Then as I said, there are plenty of universities that have really good space courses and good science courses, in all manner of science. As I said, you can do medical imaging, you can do space, there’s optical technologies – working with lasers. So looking around and really finding the right course that’s right for you and then going on to university and then seeing what’s out there.
SB: Thank you, Hazel.