Today we would like to introduce you to Belinda Rich. Belinda undertook a graduate traineeship within the European Space Agency, working in the Advanced Concepts Team. During her time in the Netherlands, she worked in an interdisciplinary team who were developing novel technology, specifically for building infrastructure on the moon. In this interview, she tells us the honest truth about her original lack of interest in the space sector, and her experience of working in all female teams within ESA.
1. What did your work with the European Space Agency involve, and what did your day to day look like?
In my graduate traineeship I worked with the Advanced Concepts Team, which is ESA’s thinktank for research into disruptive technologies. Our work focused on novel technologies that had the potential to make a long-term impact on space activities. This meant that I was working on concepts in their very early stages, that may not be applied in the space sector for 50+ years, if at all. It was a really exciting team to be a part of, especially because it was multidisciplinary – meaning that I, a materials engineer, was working closely with computer scientists, bioengineers, quantum physicists, architects and many others. Within the team we would propose disruptive technologies that we wanted to investigate, ranging from machine learning to biomimetics to 3D-printing, and design research projects around those technologies to examine their feasibility for specific space applications. Our daily activities were primarily focused on research, so I spent a lot of time reading scientific literature and performing experiments in the lab. In particular I worked on two projects proposing methods for building infrastructure on the Moon, so I had to have in-depth knowledge of the lunar manufacturing environment and how this affects material properties. We collaborated a lot with universities and institutions across Europe, so I also got some experience managing international teams – a big challenge, especially through the pandemic! The most rewarding part of the job was getting to meet so many experts in the field on a daily basis. I was based at the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in the Netherlands, ESA’s largest site and home to more than 2000 space specialists, so wherever you turned there was an opportunity to meet prominent scientists and learn more about the industry.
2. What attracted you to your role within ESA?
My not-so-secret confession about working at ESA is that, before getting the job, I had almost zero interest in space! I think before applying I’d always had the impression that space scientists should be interested in astrophysics and far-flung galaxies. While studying these things is a fascinating part of what space agencies do (and I admit I love a good Brian Cox documentary) I realised I was far more motivated by topic areas that directly affect humans. While searching for graduate opportunities I came across a role entitled “Advanced Materials for Space Habitats”. The language used itself was enough to pique my interest – often when we consider a ‘habitat’, images of animals spring to mind, so it was interesting to me to see this language presented in a space context. The job description spoke about a research area called ‘in-situ resource utilisation’ which is the idea of using materials available locally to manufacture necessary resources and infrastructure. In a lunar exploration context, this means using the moon dust, a.k.a. regolith, to build everything we need to help humans survive. I had always been intrigued by novel materials at the frontiers of research, so the idea of researching ways we can utilise a material that is literally extra-terrestrial was really exciting to me and was a major motivator for me to apply. Another big draw for me was the opportunity to work abroad and join an international organisation. Moving to a new country for work was a challenge I was really keen to take on, and an experience I would highly recommend to anyone for whom the opportunity presents itself!
3. What has your career path looked like to lead you into this work?
As I said, growing up I had no plans to join the space industry, so my career path to get there didn’t involve any experience in space. Before ESA I completed an integrated Masters degree in Materials Engineering at the University of Birmingham, which I decided to pursue because I was interested in how materials science affects every part of our daily lives – and also because one of the demonstrations I saw on an open day was the Charpy impact test, essentially breaking things with a giant hammer! As part of my studies, I did a six-month industrial placement with Tata Steel in Port Talbot, where I studied the steel manufacturing process and completed a laboratory project diagnosing why some automotive steels weren’t performing as well as expected. I also did a summer internship between my 2nd and 3rd year working with the composites research group at my university, where I investigated how we could make carbon fibre from naturally occurring polymers as an alternative to using crude oil products. So, my experience included an internship working with polymers, a placement working with metals… and then I joined ESA where I worked with lunar regolith, which is essentially a ceramic! I guess what I learned the hard way from my career journey is that even when I thought my past experience wasn’t relevant enough to what I wanted to do next, you can always provide value in applying your skills to a new field or topic.
4. Do you find that being a women in engineering makes a difference to the way you are treated or the way you choose to work?
I don’t think I’m treated differently in my work because I am a woman… is what I originally wrote down when I started to answer this question. Things are changing and I am really emboldened to see more visible women in fields that I care about. While at ESA, I was lucky to work on two project teams that were entirely female, an experience that I really cherish. In my materials degree around one quarter of our cohort were women, which at the time was very high compared to other engineering subjects. Looking back, I can see clearly where other women in my field have positively influenced me, even times when I’ve sought opportunities to work with other women, and I’m really grateful to them . But one unfortunate truth about why we look to these women is that, despite changing attitudes, gender does still affect our treatment and our perceptions of ourselves in the engineering world. It happens in subtle and unintended ways, so much so that it’s hard to realise until you really think about it! The occasional dismissal when speaking in a group setting, the look of shock when I talk about my job, the ubiquitous mansplaining. I’m glad to say that, more often than not, these experiences happen in interactions with people outside my workplace rather than with colleagues. But even positive discrimination in the workplace can lead to doubts in yourself – on multiple occasions, I’ve had people imply that I am not deserving of positions I’ve earned, that I only got a job because the hiring manager needs to meet their female quota. Women and non-binary people have highly valuable skills and perspectives to bring to the engineering world and my word of encouragement to people who feel underrepresented would be to place your confidence in the value you hold. I think STEM fields have the potential to be pioneering in achieving diverse workplaces, not for the sake of it, but because we can recognise the benefits of having diverse contributions. While we’ve already come a long way, attitudes take a long time to change, so supporting each other in constructively challenging those attitudes will always be a priority for me.
5. What does the future look like for you?
Since leaving ESA in the summer I have been taking a break to spend some time at home. For almost all of the pandemic I was living in the Netherlands unable to travel back for a visit, so it was important to me to reconnect with my UK family and friends once I had the chance. Since then I’ve also taken part in lots of voluntary outreach and science communication opportunities, talking to young people about space and my experiences being a woman in STEM. I find chatting to kids about science to be so insightful, because they always have the most fantastic ideas and intriguing questions – I think my favourite conversation I’ve ever had was when someone asked how to throw a birthday party on the Moon! A lot of my interest in engineering started with experiences I had in school taking part in workshops with STEM ambassadors, so it’s amazing to now be one of those people for ‘the next generation’. Right now I’m applying to jobs in the space sector where I can continue to apply my knowledge of materials science, so I’m keeping fingers crossed the right job comes along soon. Working in the space industry has been an amazing experience and I am keen to contribute to the worldwide space effort and work abroad again. But I’ve also learned to expect the unexpected in terms of career paths, so I’m keeping my options open!
Interviewer: Daisy Bradley
Blog Editor: Mehar Aziz