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Choosing to Challenge yourself: forging a new career path in the space sector (Alice Bird)

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Hi, my name is Alice and I am the Mining Lead at the innovative South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

My role at South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications focuses primarily on raising awareness for, and promoting, the uptake of space tech and satellite applications in the fields of geoscience and mining. It’s a diverse role with a range of different faucets to it; everyday is uniquely challenging, and I love it.

My role is diverse, that’s for sure – but that’s also what makes it so enjoyable.

Part of my role focuses on offering support for businesses wanting to engage in space tech; answering key questions, connecting people and businesses to others with similar goals, and helping businesses to support each other through solving each other’s challenges.

Another aspect of my work that I particularly enjoy is helping businesses to refine their space tech ideas and supporting them with writing project proposals as part of the process of making bids for funding.

An exciting part of my role revolves around education; giving talks, hosting webinars, and running workshops. The educational side of my role allows me to put space tech in the field of vision for many businesses within traditional industries.

Going to an all girls school, where 99% of the teachers were women, propelled me towards a career in STEM. There wasn’t an atmosphere of ‘this subject is for boys and this subject is for girls’; we had the option of doing every subject without the pressure of ‘gender norms’ that can
sometimes be felt in coed schools being problematic.

When I heard the statistics about women not going into STEM, I struggled to understand why. I realised that I wanted to be part of the solution, and be an active part of changing that statistic. I knew that I wanted to be a woman in science. God forbid we let the men do all the cool stuff.

I knew that when it came to choosing a degree it had to be a science-led subject.

When I was at school I pretty much loved every subject, kind of was a massive nerd. But I chose all science A Levels because I had this idea about women in science, about stem subjects being for men, about women being underrepresented.

After graduating from my undergrad in BSc Engineering Geology in 2016, and was absolutely convinced I wanted to be a teacher. However, the role just didn’t feel right for me; the fit wasn’t quite there. That and the incredible pressure teachers are put under by parents and government meant that I found myself changing paths and looking for a job working in geology instead.

I took some time out and started waitressing while I re-assessed things. As luck would have it, I ended up serving the Canadian executive team from the exploration company that owned South Crofty Mine, and somehow the topic of mining came up and I was able to slip in that I was looking for a job in the field. When I landed the role, it felt like fate.

I spent the summer in the role and then I chose to return to university to get my masters degree in Exploration Geology. I felt like I lacked the knowledge to hold my own in a geology career, and knew that a master’s degree would give me the foundations I needed for a more successful

Once I graduated, I landed an internship at CSM within the university, which was the ideal role for me. It meant I could remain in Cornwall and was working at the university, which is a fantastic place to source new opportunities. I also felt that I fitted in well in an academic environment. When the internship came to an end, I got a role within the same department as a researcher.

As that role came to an end, I saw the role come up at the Catapult and the South West Centre of Excellence and jumped at the chance. Physics had always been a key interest of mine, particularly the space-related stuff, so the concept of working in space tech seemed like a fantastic opportunity.

At the time, I was looking for a job either in geoscience or mining, preferably in Cornwall. I wanted to find a role that would allow me to utilise my degrees and the experience I had gained, while also providing me with the opportunity to continue learning and developing within the role.

When I saw the job, I realised how much of an unusual opportunity it was – and I felt intrigued by the space aspect of the role and knew that I wanted to apply. I feel really lucky to have landed this role, especially as it’s turned out that I am extremely passionate about space tech and hope to spend the entirety of my career working within the sector.

I feel that space tech is the future. Take video games as an example, a few decades ago people playing ‘Pong’ probably couldn’t have imagined where video games would go, how extensively people would use consoles, how many companies and people would be involved in the industry of video games, and look at the gaming sector now.

That’s where I feel we are now in space tech. We are at the ‘Pong’, ‘Pac-Man’ phase of space tech, and satellite technology, and in a couple of decades we will hardly be able to imagine a world that wasn’t powered by space tech – everyone will be using it.

We will use space tech to find a place to park, this tech will be driving our tractors and guiding the harvesting of our food, it will be monitoring our oceans and forests, it will be the reason criminals get caught and governments are held to account. It’s a sector that has incredible
potential; now is the time to get in.

For women in mining and space tech, there are hurdles to overcome, starting with the fact that both industries do tend to be male dominated. It would be naive to think that as a young woman that doesn’t have an impact on me and my career. While there are some incredible women
within both industries, doing some exceptional things, it’s still a very male dominated sector. I have ended up being the only woman in the room on many occasions; usually I am also the youngest.

I often feel like people just see a young woman like me, trying to pitch in ideas to a discussion and your voice just doesn’t get heard. Often, people are quick to snatch responsibility away from you, only give you minor tasks and jobs, to not let you take the lead. It doesn’t happen all the
time, but it happens enough for me to get annoyed by it regularly, and that in itself is problematic.

As a woman in STEM you have to be brave, bold and proactive about your career. Be brave enough to say ‘I can do that’ and always ask for more. I’ve invited myself to loads of meetings that I was overlooked for. I’ve inserted myself into projects and wormed my way into trips, talks,
conferences, and meetings that no one had thought to invite me to. I think the sooner you come to terms with the fact that you are at some disadvantage for whatever reason, you can find that resilience to defend yourself and not take no for an answer.

Of course, it sucks that as a woman you have to do this at all, but it’s worth taking a stand. We are walking now, so that the next generation can run.

What do you enjoy most about your role?
My role at South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications is one that I am so grateful for. Being part of such a fantastic team, where you aren’t simply left to burn out, is incredible. My colleagues are fantastic.

I have worked with people that actively try to sabotage you, knock you down, talk down to you, try to belittle you; at the SWCoESA and Catapult no one has done any of that. The team is
seriously supportive. If you need help or advice, everyone is happy to have a chat and help you with whatever the task is at hand.

Now that we are all working from home, being part of such a supportive team is even more important. Working from home is lonely, and being part of a team where you are all friends and can talk openly over Zoom makes a big difference.

For anyone thinking about forging a new career in space tech, just do it. You won’t regret it.

There is plenty of space for you, pun entirely intended, have a look at there is something for you out there. And hey, if you shoot for the moon, even if you fall short, you will land amongst the stars.

The South West Centre of Excellence in Satellite Applications is based in Cornwall with the University of Exeter as the lead delivery partner.
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