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Reflection on 'Blasting Off: A Panel Discussion with Women in Space and Tech'

Updated: Mar 12, 2022

Anna Shortt and Oriana Pateiro reflects on the panel hosted at the University of Birmingham for World Space Week this year, with the theme of Women in Space.

This year’s theme for World Space Week was Women in Space. In collaboration with SATNAV, WiSE and PPS, AstroSoc hosted Blasting Off: A Panel Discussion with Women in Space and Tech with panellists Dr Emma Taylor, Christine Vincent and Niamh O’Neill-Berest. All three are at different points in their space journey; Dr Emma has 30 years’ experience, Christine has worked in the space industry for 2 years, and Niamh is working towards a degree in Aerospace Engineering! Topics such as the space industry and the challenges of being a woman in STEM were discussed, with specific focus on the intersection of skills from different backgrounds and the space industry. Below, two attendees, Oriana and Anna, reflect on the event.

How did the event inspire you?

Oriana: I have considered the space industry as a potential field of work after graduation. However, I’m not sure if I want to jump into it right away. Dr Emma’s journey back to the space industry after a long 20-year pause settled my worries. As Christine said “Professional careers are not linear” and any steps I want to take will eventually lead me to a job in a field I enjoy. The fact that these 3 women with different backgrounds and paths found their way to space at different points in their career really inspires me.

Anna: As a final year maths student, I spend a lot of my time considering the career possibilities after graduation. Finance doesn’t interest me – I would love a job that helps me understand the world a bit better, and with lots of opportunities to learn! Brian Cox always amazes me with his space programs, but I’ve never considered space a viable industry for me. It was inspiring to hear the different routes of the panellists into the space industry, and just the sheer number of roles available! It was also interesting to consider the crossover with different industries; I especially related to Niamh’s previous interest in cyber security. My parents are of the job for life mentality, so it was exciting to hear the women talk about moving from one interesting job to the next.

How did the event make you excited about Space and Tech?

Oriana: We are in the second race to space with all these new private companies trying to commercialise space travel – It seems that is the only goal for young aspiring scientist nowadays (and Mars of course). However, we must find balance. Panellists talked about the importance of safety, sustainability, and the concerning topic of space debris. Space debris describes the way waste in space is increasing at a rapid rate causing astronomical observations and space travel operations to have a higher risk of failure. Despite these negative consequences, companies don’t seem to put enough effort into finding solutions for this problem. Awareness must be spread about space debris and the threat that it represents for the future of the space industry. Reduction of space debris is without a doubt a scientific advancement people in STEM should look forward to!

Anna: Maths is very theoretical, so it always amazes me to consider what can be achieved in the tech industry. What excited me most was seeing the level of collaboration between different industries and how skills and knowledge built in one area can be used in the next. I think space and tech are a good frontier for diversity because it really seems to value the diversity of experience and knowledge, for example Dr Emma Taylor’s experience in the transport industry, and Christine’s degree in Biology with Psychology interlinking with space and tech. Working in space and tech will be a great opportunity for me to keep learning!

How did you relate to the challenges the panellists faced as women in STEM?

Oriana: I related the most to Niamh when she talked about Impostor Syndrome. Multiple times the thoughts “I don’t belong here” or “I’m not smart enough” have run through my mind. As a woman in a male dominated degree sometimes I feel I must prove my worth to my peers. It shocked me when Christine said that most women will only apply for a job if they meet all the requirements, whereas men will apply even if they only meet 70% of them – That perfectly describes the how global the issue of impostor syndrome is among women. It’s important to be brave, make mistakes, ask questions, and go for opportunities. As a POC woman in STEM, the lack of representation described by Cristine was a big issue for me growing up. We need more events like this and other types of EDI in STEM programs, so we keep making a powerful impact of girls all around the world who are interested in science – Thanks to all women in STEM for being an inspiration!

Anna: Similar to Oriana, I related to the feelings of Imposter Syndrome. When I have these thoughts and these insecurities inside my head, it feels like I’m the only one experiencing them, and admitting to thinking them is but another form of failure. But only through having these conversations can I learn how prevalent they are – knowing that imposter syndrome is a shared experience helps alleviate the issue. So I personally related to challenges the panellists mentioned of just opening up and having these difficult but necessary conversations.

What did you learn?

Oriana: Quoting Anwesha – Chair of AstroSoc “Determination does create paths”, what I take away from this event is that hard work and passion will open doors for you in any field. Women in STEM face challenges particular to our gender, but more and more people are learning how to overcome them and guiding the future generation to a world with equality in STEM. The space industry is growing fast and it is open to anyone who wants to contribute, no matter what background they have, all set of skills are welcome in the journey of figuring out what is out there!

Anna: I learnt that I have more friends than I think, and if you speak someone will listen. Dr Emma reflected heavily on how throughout her working life she has made unlikely allies, and how mentoring and collaboration has really benefited her journey as a woman in STEM. I think what I will take away from this panel is to really reflect on the importance of diversity, especially in a growing field, and to consider how I can help facilitate it. Also space is really cool!

From SATNAV Issue 23, pages 12-14, For World Space Week 2021

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