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

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Hi, my name’s Chloe Rowland and I’m the Manager of a really exciting research project going on at the University of Plymouth called the Cyber-SHIP Lab. This is a £3 million Research England and industry funded project that is addressing the complex – and growing – cyber security threats that affect today’s maritime industry. That covers ships, ports and over 90 percent of just about everything in the global supply chain. So it’s important.

We are bringing together the connected maritime IT and OT computers that look after things like navigation, and the operational technology such as engines or steering on a ship, or huge cranes at the dockside.

Cyber-SHIP Lab is all about connecting and stress testing IT and OT kits found on actual ship’s bridges – real systems, real equipment – rather than simulation. And, of course, a lot of that kit relies on satellites to function properly.

We’re using the Lab to determine key vulnerabilities when the equipment is subjected to a range of cyber attacks, which will lead to the development and demonstration of safeguards at technical, system, and operational level. Ultimately, we are about improving global shipping security while providing training for those working in the sector. Not exactly a modest mission, but a very important one!

I often think to myself ‘how did a girl with a French and Spanish degree, who wanted to be an archaeologist but ended up training as a lawyer, come to be managing a cutting edge research project in maritime cyber security’?! Well, it’s kind of an interesting story so I thought I’d share it with you to mark International Women’s Day this year. You never know, it might just inspire someone in the future or help give someone the confidence to give something a go that they otherwise might only have dreamed about. Even if not, it’ll kill five minutes of covid lockdown boredom at least!

Some might say I’ve come at this by what you might call a bit of a ‘non-standard’ route, but I think that’s actually stood me in good stead because I’ve gained quite a wide base of experience to draw on when I need it.

It started off in a fairly standard way actually, before things got a bit more interesting: I went to an average state comprehensive secondary school in the Home Counties, did my GCSEs and A-levels and then went to uni. My family is big on languages and we’d spent a lot of time in France as I was growing up so I was interested in the idea of the European Union. I found a degree course called European Studies which combined practical modern European languages with learning about the structure, history and policy-making structure of the EU institutions. So off I went, thinking maybe I’d get a job in Brussels afterwards or something. By the time my four years at uni were up, I’d had a change of heart and abandoned the idea of working for the policy makers in the EU (a good decision as it turns out!) and decided instead I wanted to be a lawyer.

So began probably the toughest couple of years of my life studying for the post grad law conversion courses at the College of Law, where you effectively cram an entire law degree and the legal practice course into about 18 months. Let’s just say I didn’t have much of a social life for a bit there! Anyway, I came out of the other end of that with some more qualifications and a training contract with an international law firm, which I duly completed and launched into a career as a litigation solicitor.

Over the next few years, I helped settle disputes about all manner of things: property deals worth millions, all sorts of IP infringements, construction work gone wrong and many, many breaches of contract. There was even one memorable occasion when I found myself standing in front of a judge in Exeter representing someone whose neighbour had allegedly stolen their cat – don’t ask!

It was certainly interesting work but it was pretty stressful and the work/life balance definitely wasn’t something I’d got right at that stage. I was on the pre-7am train to the office one day, sipping my coffee and trying to wake up, when I had one of those life changing moments that you sometimes read about. I happened to glance out of the window and suddenly saw a man lying face down on the opposite tracks as we sped past. There was nobody around as it was so early so, after a momentary panic wondering what on earth to do, I dialled 999 and gabbled all the details I could before the train went into the next tunnel and we got cut off. I got to work and tried to carry on as normal but I was desperately wondering what had happened to the guy I’d seen. Later on that morning, I received a phone call from the police to thank me for acting so quickly – he explained that the man on the tracks had been very unwell and had lost consciousness and that, if it hadn’t been for my call, the 7.15 from Penzance to London would have been the end of him. It’s not every day that you can say you’ve saved someone’s life and it got me thinking about my life and what I wanted out of it.

Pretty soon after that I decided I needed to step back from the legal profession and try something with a slightly ‘gentler’ pace, so when a role in commercial project management came up at the University of Plymouth I went for it. That was more than eleven years ago and I’ve never looked back. I have worked on all sorts of projects for the university, and moved over to my current role for the Cyber-SHIP Lab in March last year. It was a steep learning curve to get up to speed with the maritime cyber threats and space-related contexts but both the languages and legal training have been invaluable to me and I wouldn’t change the way I’ve done things, even if I could.

Recently, things have been a bit more stressful again with covid and home schooling small children alongside a full-time, full-on job but I can take it all in my stride these days as the balance is there between work and free/family time. So, I guess what I wanted to say for this year’s International Women’s Day theme of ‘#Choosetochallenge’ is maybe use this recent upheaval to take a step back, think about what you want, and then challenge yourself to go for it! You’ll never know what you might be able to achieve if you don’t give it a try.

Oh, and I still love archaeology – any free time I get you’ll find me covered in mud in a trench somewhere, trowel in hand 😉


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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