Eloise with ESA’s INTERACT robot, operated by astronauts on-board the International Space Station (ISS). The Telerobotics and Haptics team aims to validate advanced robotic control developed for future exploration programmes.
Eloise Matheson can’t remember a time when she wasn’t interested in space. Her passion has culminated in her being based at the European Space Agency (ESA) as a Telerobotic Engineer! She recently shared her story with me.
On her path to get to where she is now:
I started working at ESA as a British Young Graduate Trainee in September 2014. This program is aimed at providing experience to recent graduates, allowing them to gain an understanding of the European and international space arena. I was placed in the Telerobotics and Haptics Lab at ESA under the Mechatronics and Automation Section. It’s a really wonderful lab of around 10 dedicated and passionate people. When my traineeship finished a year later, I was lucky to stay on as a contractor which is how I am here today. Working at ESA was always a goal of mine. Having previous industrial experience and a strong academic record helped to achieve this.
On the qualifications she needed to gain to become a Telerobotic Engineer:
By education I’m a Mechatronics Engineer. I completed a combined Bachelor’s degree in Mechatronic (Space) Engineering/Bachelor of Science at the University of Sydney, Australia in 2010. After 18 months of working and travelling, I started a 2 years European Master of Advanced Robotics (EMARO), an Erasmus Mundus program, which finished in 2014. In this program I studied for one year at Warsaw University of Technology, Poland, and my final year at Ecole Centrale de Nantes, France. It was a fantastic program where I learnt not only technical skills, but also had the unique opportunity to experience different cultures and make friends from all around the world.
My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments.
On her favourite things about her job:
My favourite thing about my job is how dynamic it is. Since the time I’ve started there, we have been involved in three different space experiments under the international METERON project. METERON aims to test telerobotic technology through a series of experiments from the ISS to robotic labs across the world. For us, the latest of these was INTERACT, an experiment where the Danish astronaut Andreas Mogenson controlled our rover on the ground from the ISS to localise and find a taskboard, before driving there and performing a peg-in-hole task with force feedback. It sounds easy to put a peg in a hole, but it is much harder when you are hundreds of kilometers away, controlling a robotic manipulator over a communications link with a nominal delay of 800ms and the peg tolerance to the hole is measured in micrometers! The experiment was a success, and proved that our control strategies, visual interfaces, haptic feedback and master and slave devices were able to complete useful tasks over a space-to-ground link. It was a very exciting, challenging and rewarding project for us. What I physically do each day changes – ranging from mechanical integration of parts, to testing of electrical circuits, to coding for embedded systems and documenting manuals and other procedures.
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be.
On how her interest in space grew:
I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in space. My sister would say that someone once told me as a kid that I couldn’t be an astronaut, so from that moment on it was decided in my mind what I would be. The notion of exploring what is beyond our world, of discovering where humanity came from and furthering the boundaries of known knowledge is, I believe, an entrenched human trait that everyone shares. Working in space helps us to achieve this one little bit at a time.
On whether there was anything unexpected about her career journey that was different to her initial expectations:
To be honest, I’m not sure I had initial expectations of what my career journey would be, except that I knew I wanted to work in space. I’m always planning what could happen in the future, but really, the future is impossible to plan in such detail! In hindsight, the steps that pushed me to be on the path I am now were all fortuitous. Of course it took, and continues to take, a lot of hard work, but I truly believe it’s important to be open to opportunities and make the best of every situation as it comes your way. Perhaps my only expectation is to one day experience what it is to look at the Earth from the outside of it…I fully expect this to be a difficult, but incredibly rewarding, path.
As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it.
On how important are role models to young girls:
I think role models, of either gender, are very important to young girls, so that they can see the myriad of options that exist from working in STEM. As a young girl I never considered that any particular job was more for men than it was for women, however it was clear that some industries like STEM were more male dominated than others. This was a challenge to change the industry, not a reason to avoid it. One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world. Just as inspirational was my undergraduate thesis supervisor – he said that if the motivation for a choice was to continue learning about the world, then it was the right choice. Of course having opportunities to meet and interact with women and men working in STEM that are supportive and encouraging of girls working in STEM is vital.
One of my role models was Nancy Bird Walton, a pioneering female aviator in Australia who I had the fortunate chance of meeting on multiple occasions. She encouraged me to fly, to follow my dreams, to explore and most of all to never lose a strong sense of curiosity about the world.
On if she had one piece of advice for your 10-year-old self:
When I was 10, I think my main goals in life were to be an astronaut OR a parking police officer OR a dermatologist – to me these were all incredibly exciting jobs. As I grew older I found I was good at maths and science, but I equally enjoyed English and music. After high school, I wanted to study science – believing it to be a good path to astronaut-hood, and falling into engineering happened almost by a lucky mistake (it’s a long story involving a potential move to a new city, a high school romance and last minute choices). My advice to my 10 year old self, or any 10 year old, is to listen to your instincts about your choices and know that your interests and dreams will change and that’s ok. It’s also ok to not know what you want to do…but if you don’t know, studying engineering is an awesome option as it probably gives you more choices for career paths after finishing than any other degree.
Don’t think you can’t succeed on a certain career path simply because you don’t tick all the boxes at that point. I failed my first programming course in C at university – I had never coded before at high school. In hindsight I would have changed when I started seeing computers as a tool rather than a box playing music and accessing the internet, but at that time of my life I didn’t know what coding was. Now I see it as a language, and a fairly universal one at that. I finished high school in 2005 – I think there is a huge difference between the online learning facilities that exist for children now compared to then, as well as a shift in educational curriculums putting more emphasis on technical skills. Would I have done things differently? I don’t think so. I’m very happy where I am now. I’m excited what the future holds. Probably the advice my 10 year old self would tell me today is not give up dreaming, not give up on optimism and maintain the strong belief that everything is possible with enough motivation and drive.