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January 2018

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Niamh Shaw, Space Communicator, Artist & Engineer

21 January, 2018
Dr. Niamh Shaw

Dr. Niamh Shaw – Artist, Scientist, Engineer & Communicator

Dr. Niamh Shaw has dreamt of becoming an astronaut since she was a child and is actively making steps towards achieving her goal. She tells Rocket Women about realising that her passion involved combining science and the arts, ultimately leading her to create international theatre shows and outreach to ensure that the public are brought along and inspired on her journey to space.

Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now?

It’s a very long story. Basically when I was very young, I was very clear that I wanted to go to space and as a child I wanted to be an astronaut. Because there were no role models in the town that I grew up or in Ireland indeed, apart from what you would see on television coming from NASA and the Moon landings, it was like I knew that I didn’t have permission to achieve that. I actually couldn’t figure out how to do it either. So it was a fear of failure and no one really pointing me in the right direction to do that.

It became very clear to me that I hadn’t really let that dream go and I had to do something about it.

So, I forgot about it for a very long time. Then I was making my very first theatre show, which was combining science and the arts together. I was looking at all of these decisions that I’d made, and one of them was about me wanting to be an astronaut as a child. While I was figuring that out, I realised that I got very upset because I’d done nothing about it. It became very clear to me that I hadn’t really let that dream go and I had to do something about it. That was in 2011 and since then I have been actively making steps towards ultimately achieving that goal.

Making theatre is a big part of it. It allows me to share my personal story and I’m now on my third theatre piece. The second piece toured internationally – it toured to Edinburgh and it toured to Adelaide, and it help get the message out there. Every time I do a show it gives me more confidence and more belief that I can move forward. The latest show, ‘Diary of a Martian Beekeeper‘ is set in the future this time, as I’m on Mars and I’m conducting an experiment about bees. Because, as I’m on this space journey, bringing this environmental message into it has been very important to me.

I’m always talking about space and bringing to as many people as possible.

As well as the theatre shows, I participated in the ISU Space Studies Programme, a 9 week intensive programme in 2015 and then out of that I was invited to participate in a simulated Mars mission in the Utah dessert in early 2017 and I was also participated in a zero-gravity flight in Star City in Russia. I’m always talking about space and bringing to as many people as possible.

Dr. Niamh Shaw performing

Dr. Niamh Shaw performing

Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young girls?

I think they’re hugely important, we don’t realize that every time you’re around a child, you could potentially be a role model, they’re just picking up signals from us all the time. There was nobody really around me from the space perspective that I could call a role model. I think that’s why I didn’t achieve it until now.

My Dad really encouraged me to embrace that technical and logical part of my brain.

Other than that, a role model for me was my older brother – he was mad into space and science fiction, so anything he liked, I liked. My parents as well were really important role models for me. Dad really encouraged me to embrace that technical and logical part of my brain. He bought us a small personal computer when we were very young and I taught myself coding on that using Basic at the time which was the code. He showed me how to change a plug and he set me projects in the Summer where I would pick a planet and I would write a comic about it. So he obviously saw that in me and they were a big influence for me.

Some of my teachers at school too, my English teacher, Sister Lee-Mary showed me that I was a lot more creative than I’d realised and encouraged that in me. My chemistry teacher Mrs.Greer loved chemistry and it sort of rubbed off on me and because of her it just copperfastened my confidence in STEM and wanting to pursue that field of study after I finished secondary school.

Niamh on a zero-g flight in Russia with the Stargazing Lottie Doll

Niamh on a zero-g flight in Russia with the Stargazing Lottie Doll

I love that you bring the Stargazer Lottie doll along with you on all of your expeditions. How do you hope Lottie will inspire the next generation?

I think the ethos behind the Lottie dolls, all of them, is that children design them. So they wait for children to come up with suggestions about the kind of doll that they want to see, which is great. So you’re not getting one kind of doll that’s supposed to suit one million, or one billion girls. The girls themselves are dictating what kind of dolls they want, which is how Stargazer Lottie came about. A girl went and said, “Why isn’t there a doll who is an Astronomer, because that’s what I do.”

[Lottie] dolls mirror the expectations and dreams that young girls want.

So they are very much open to making dolls that mirror the expectations and dreams that those girls want. I think it’s just a fantastic initiative and I’m really proud that I bring her with me everywhere. When I go and talk to young girls in schools, the reason why I like it is that the doll – they attach with immediately and the fact that she’s also an Astronomer kind of shifts their perception of what a doll is for them.

[The Lottie doll] is hopefully feeding into the message that they can be anything that they want to be.

When I go in to talk to them we do a workshop around space and I map out the scale of the Universe, but we also talk about what they want to be when they grow up and all of that is positively attached to space, which is great, and also to the Lottie doll, so it’s hopefully all feeding into the message that they can be anything that they want to be.

What does success mean to you?

Success means to me without a doubt, that I didn’t give up on myself, that I was brave enough to live the life that I wanted. That I bet on myself. It’s been so many years that I’ve wanted to do this, and I never allowed myself to dream that big or to give myself that big a task without that big an objective. Every year that I work on it, that fear gets smaller and smaller and I’m able to take stronger and more brave steps forward.

Success means to me without a doubt, that I didn’t give up on myself, that I was brave enough to live the life that I wanted. That I bet on myself.

To me success would be knowing no matter what the outcome, that I didn’t give up on myself and the reason that if I achieve it or don’t achieve it, wasn’t because I gave up. I think that’s what success means to me and happiness – that in succeeding in what I wanted to do with my life, I’ve managed to bring as many people as I can with me along the way. So it can’t just be the action of me getting say to the Moon and looking back, it has to be something of much bigger value that that. That I can bring the general public with me and hope to get them to see the Earth from a new perspective.

Niamh taking part in a Martian simulation in the Utah desert

Niamh taking part in a Martian simulation in the Utah desert

Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be different to your initial expectations?

I think because my career journey is so bizzare, to take you through it – I went to college and did a degree in Engineering, and then I did a Masters in Engineering and then I did a PhD in Science. This was around the time that I’d kind of forgotten my childhood dreams at the time. I was always a creative person and when I finished my PhD I was in full-time research – I really didn’t enjoy it and knew that I had to make a change.

I was going to emigrate to New Zealand to take up a new job in the same field of research and I thought that maybe it was the geography that was wrong. But it wasn’t, it was something in me that was wrong, there was something missing. I thought that it was the artistic part of my brain, so I stepped away from full-time research then and I started pursuing performing and getting work in that way, which was great. I think the thing that I didn’t expect was that after I was doing that for a couple of years, I really missed science terribly. I got a bit of a fright and thought that I’d made a major mistake, but I hadn’t. It was when things started to make sense for me.

I realized that the person I am is this combination of loving information and loving technical details, but wanting to make them human and wanting to represent them in an everyday way so people who have no relationship with science whatsoever can find a way to understand it, and hopefully that be a springboard for their own curiosity to kind of take off.

It was around the same time in 2011 that I realized that the person I am is this combination of loving information and loving technical details, but wanting to make them human and wanting to represent them in an everyday way so people who have no relationship with science whatsoever can find a way to understand it, and hopefully that be a springboard for their own curiosity to kind of take off.

I realized I wasn’t that bad in it, as the combination of those two skills made me literate in science but also literate in how to communicate it in an everyday way, because that’s what I’d been doing for a number of years. The lovely thing about that is that it’s really helped me in telling my Space story as well as me also being able to bring people along with me on my journey, because I’m able to humanize as best as I can – I’m not saying I’m perfect at it, but I’ve been able to humanize all of that science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM). So I didn’t expect it to all work out, I just thought that with all these things that weren’t joined, I’d finally get to the point where they all kind of worked together.

Niamh on-stage at InspireFest 2017 [InspireFest]

Niamh on-stage at InspireFest 2017 [InspireFest]

How did your family help to shape your career path in STEM?

Completely. Totally and utterly. There’s no doubt in my mind that they were the main influencers. My Dad is an Engineer and we were mad science fiction fans. He showed us the Moon landings and he showed me how to change a plug. It was just everywhere and I was very comfortable with science and technology from a very young age. I had a personal connection with it, so I was never afraid of it, or intimidated by it.

I don’t think I was the absolute strongest in the class in maths by any means, but I was never intimidated by it and would give it a try and hope for the best, so they are totally and utterly [responsible for shaping my career path in STEM]. My teachers at secondary school too, but my parents had a huge impact with my relationship with STEM and my comfort with it.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

I think all I would say to my 10-year-old self was that you were right, you should’ve said it to people and not be afraid to say it out loud. Just because you were a girl didn’t mean it couldn’t have happened for you.

I don’t think I could’ve changed anything about the course of my life, I think I should’ve just believed in myself more then that I could do it. Because I went right back to it anyway, so it was always there.

I wanted to go to Space Camp and I wanted to go to [NASA’s] Kennedy Space Center, but we just weren’t a family that could afford that. So I guess if my parents were wealthier I would’ve put my foot down and insisted that we went somewhere like that, but we didn’t have that so I never did. So I don’t think I could’ve changed anything about the course of my life, I think I should’ve just believed in myself more then that I could do it. Because I went right back to it anyway, so it was always there.

Read more about Niamh’s journey and recent events here.

Inspirational women, Meet A Rocket Woman

Meet A Rocket Woman: Olga Stelmakh-Drescher, Director of Business Development and International Affairs

10 January, 2018
Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

Through a highly successful 14-year career in the space industry, Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher has lived and worked on multiple continents. Olga is impressively fluent in 5 languages, with experience in Europe at the European Space Agency and the German Aerospace Center, before relocating to North America, living and working in Montreal, Canada. She has most recently been based in Washington DC, USA as the Director of Business Development and International Affairs at the International Institute of Space Commerce.

Olga talks to Rocket Women about her path as an aerospace lawyer, why she is inspired by space entrepreneurs and how her family is a perfect model of the international space community.

From growing up in Ukraine, to now being based in Washington DC – how have your international experiences helped to shape your career and personal life?

During my school years I spent summer and most of my winter holidays in France with my French family. These people actually have been the ones who shaped my French identity and paved the way to my international professional future. As I was fluent in French and English I easily managed to enter the French business school and in parallel to my law degree in Ukraine over five years pursued business degree learning from the best. At that time, I already started working in the space sector providing legal support to the international space projects that also implied a significant international exposure strengthening thereof my cosmopolitan integrity.

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility.

Upon my graduation I had been offered to join an international law firm but decided to first get an advanced space and telecommunications law degree in Paris for which I was granted a scholarship of excellence by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The strong professional touch of that program further opened me the doors to the European Space Agency, German Aerospace Center and later on helped me with relocation to North America making me competitive for the job positions in Montreal, Canada (Institute of Air and Space Law, McGill University) and in Washington DC, USA (GWU Space Policy Institute and currently the International Institute of Space Commerce).

My life is spread over the continents; that implies lots of travels and high flexibility. I believe that my international experience, including the network I have created, actually played a decisive role in many opportunities I have been given throughout my professional career. In addition to the job opportunities mentioned above, the latter included invitations to speak at different fora, nominations and elections to high profile professional associations, selection to leadership programs, recognitions and awards etc.

My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalized space community.

This has also influenced my personal life. My husband, a German aerospace diplomat, and I, an aerospace lawyer with mix of Ukrainian and Armenian bloods, residing in Washington D.C. and communicating with each other in three languages, are a perfect family model of an internationalised space community.

Olga at a conference in the UAE

Olga at a conference in the United Arab Emirates (UAE)

Describe a typical day at work for you.

It is hard to describe a typical day for me as every day brings something new, especially keeping in mind that I am very often on foreign travels.

My day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

Not going into much detail my day can be described as: Dream. Visualize. Rationalize. Implement.

This is supported by the following common elements without which the day would not be complete: reading news (political, economical and of course space ones) and books (mainly business or innovation related), drafting, checking emails, having telecons and meetings, networking at space events.

I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Last but not least, when shaping my agenda, I make sure that it allows for personal “upgrading”, recharging and expanding of my horizons. I value the opportunities that enable looking at what I normally do through a different prism, encountering people whom I would more likely not met otherwise.

Who were your role models when you were growing up?

In general, I think it is wrong to consider someone as a role model in its entirety. I would rather say that someone’s qualities, behaviors and accomplishments can serve as an inspiration for personal and professional growth. And to be honest in my case these are not “famous” people, but simply strong personalities with charisma and driving energy who are not afraid to take an action and be accountable for it. In one word (ok, four;) – I am “smart” addicted!

When looking at the space sector the most inspirational to me are space entrepreneurs, I admire them for their powerful belief in their somewhat “out of this world” dreams and all the risks they take.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

Personally, I come from a highly-educated family and therefore I was blessed to have my family members as role models to me. They have achieved a lot, each of them in their specific field. My mother, who is a medical doctor, by her example, taught me to be fully dedicated to what I do; my father, who is a nuclear physicist, taught me to set the bar super high and always strive for better; my sister, a smart engineer and mother of three, – how to make the right choices and set priorities in life.

My husband inspires me by his strength, power of generating great ideas, making impossible possible, strategic and comprehensive thinking, networking and presenting skills.

In moments of self-doubt or adversity, how do you build yourself back up? 

Self-doubts and adversity are part of existentialism; without them we would not 1) become more self-confident and mature, 2) duly appreciate our achievements and 3) enjoy taking the risks, making new steps and going further. The “perfect” world is utopia and consequently the “perfect” people who seem not having such moments are the most fake ones.

I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

We learn much more out of critical and stressful situations, this is where we see our real limits and strength. I am convinced that the turbulent times are the most promising ones, this is “where and when” we can most grow and evolve.

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

Olga speaking on an expert space panel

How do you think the space industry has changed for women over the years? Has it become more inclusive?

The space industry remains dominated by men, however I am very pleased to see more and more women in leadership positions, especially if they manage to become influencers. However, the level of inclusiveness still highly depends on cultural differences and domestic “in-house” traditions. Not naming specific countries, it is evident that in some of them space industry is the men’s world, i.e. “space patriarchate”, where women are given mainly the support functions.

What are the biggest legal gaps and future challenges that the space industry is facing? 

Nowadays the space industry is facing numerous legal challenges, many of which occur as a result of a very fast pace of space technologies development and failing of a legal system to adjust accordingly to these NewSpace calls.

What we observe today is that a space law capacity-building is following the developments of technologies, not playing a proactive role and therefore not ensuring the needed legal certainty (or even jeopardizing it, as the entrepreneurs will not wait for a legal framework to be shaped but instead will set precedents acting experimentally, making their own “wake-up” calls for an adequate legal enterprise).

An appropriate legal enterprise should be established in parallel to (if not anticipating) major technological advancements, not allowing them to evolve detached paving their way in legal limbo.

Olga in the UAE

Dr. Olga Stelmakh-Drescher

What would you recommend to someone looking at a career in space law to focus on?

To someone looking at a career in space law I would recommend to first of all acquire a solid international and business law background combined with interdisciplinary space related studies (e.g. Space Studies Program of the International Space University).

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors.

Ideally, theoretical knowledge should be combined with legal practice, some academic work and strong emotional intelligence that is needed when dealing with various actors. Very importantly, the successful space lawyer should not be skeptical, but rather has to foresee all possible scenarios with associated risks and opportunities and diligently guide towards the most appropriate way ahead.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture.

I always advocate for global thinking that provides for transforming numerous puzzles into one holistic picture. Similar to the data that can be acquired by means of remote sensing, a lawyer can much easier comprehend the problem if thinking big and not in the dimensions of a concrete case.

If you had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self, what would it be? Would there be any decisions that you’d have made differently?

Honestly, I do not like to think how something would have been if … Perhaps if I would have done something differently, I would have been a different person and honestly I am happy with current myself. Projecting and visualizing the future, especially successful implementation of my ideas and plans, this is what I prefer. Past is something that did happen to us but the future is what excites me more as we can influence it.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently.

As a piece of advice to all 10-year-old kids I would say: dream, demonstrate more curiosity, be passionate about what you like doing, be open and hungry for new knowledge, be a personality and do not be afraid to be different / think differently, be creative, challenge yourself, strive to become an educated person and not a nerd, do not anticipate time and do not look for a universal algorithm of success, instead create your own story, read more and learn more languages as it is a constituent part of culture and mentality and therefore an enormous facilitator for your future.