Based in Baltimore (USA), Sarah Kendrew works for the European Space Agency as an Astronomer. She tells Rocket Women how strong female mentorship and inspiration from the sports world has allowed her to achieve success.
Tell me about your journey to the space industry and to where you are now?
I currently work as an Instrument and Calibration Scientist at the European Space Agency (ESA), where I work on one of the instruments (called MIRI) for a next-generation space telescope for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The mission is a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), led by NASA; so even though my employer is European-based, I am actually based in Baltimore, in the United States. I also carry out astrophysics research into the formation of high-mass stars in our Galaxy, and how they impact their surroundings.
I work on one of the instruments (called MIRI) for a next-generation space telescope for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The mission is a partnership between NASA, ESA and the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), led by NASA; so even though my employer is European-based, I am actually based in Baltimore, in the United States.
I joined ESA early in 2016. My education and early career were in astronomy, and particularly in developing technology and instrumentation for telescopes, both on the ground and in space. After spending my childhood and school years near Brussels in Belgium, I studied at University College London, both for my undergraduate and PhD degrees. Between graduating in 2006 and moving to ESA in 2016, I worked at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, and the University of Oxford, in the UK. I actually started working on the MIRI instrument for JWST in 2007 already, alongside other ground-based instrumentation projects; since I moved to ESA I’ve been working full-time on JWST.
What does an average day look like in your role?
My work is incredibly varied, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it. I’ve worked on MIRI, the Mid-Infrared Instrument for JWST, for a decade, and the work has changed a lot throughout the life of the project. Right now, we’re only around 18 months from launch, which means a lot of my work is preparing to support the global astronomy community in their proposals for JWST, and ensuring that they’ll be able to get the best possible science from our instrument.
My work is incredibly varied, and that’s one of the things I enjoy about it.
That includes for example helping to build and test software tools, working on data processing algorithms and procedures, giving tutorials at conferences, and preparing for the critical 6-month commissioning period after launch, when we will be working round the clock to switch on our instrument, test all its functions and perform all the measurements that are essential for the first science observations. But a lot of my days look nothing like “the average day”. In recent months for example I spent a lot of time at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, where we were testing the telescope and its instruments in NASA’s test facilities there over a 3-month period. That included overnight shifts and irregular working hours, particularly while the Texas coast was battered by Hurricane Harvey!
What are your favourite things about your job?
Working on the more technical side of astronomy, either for telescopes on the ground or in space, can mean working on design studies, assembling and testing hardware in the lab, writing software, analysing data, travelling to observatories. The variety and the travel keep it interesting! I like that my work actually produces hardware – physical stuff, rather than numbers and journal articles – that will be used to make incredibly exciting scientific discoveries. The people I work with on large international projects are also almost invariably very intelligent, interesting and conscientious, they come from different countries and cultures and have so many interests and talents. I always feel very privileged to be in such great company.
Who were your role models when you were growing up? How important are role models to young women?
I actually came quite late to science. As a child I was a total bookworm (I still am!), I loved reading and history. I really enjoyed reading about people who explored the world and discovered new continents, and about the world’s ancient civilizations. I think my earliest role models were probably fictional characters in the books I loved: adventurous girls and women who broke the mould, defied expectations, and explored the world.
I think my earliest role models were probably fictional characters in the books I loved: adventurous girls and women who broke the mould, defied expectations, and explored the world.
I think role models are very important to young women, and I think inspiration and mentorship can come from many places. Some of the most valuable career advice I received particularly as a young scientist was from male colleagues and friends; only later in my career, when I became more sensitive to the particular challenges women face in STEM careers, did I seek out strong female mentorship and advice. Men can be excellent allies and mentors, but there are aspects of being a woman in science or engineering that I think only other women can fully relate to. I particularly admire those colleagues who are fantastic scientists, but also generous with their time and ideas for students, not ego-driven and honest in their work. I’ve been fortunate to meet and work with many such people in my career.
I also get lots of inspiration from the sports world, which is full of incredible women – I have learnt a lot from reading about athletes’ passion, work ethic, commitment to their training, dealing with adversity. Building a career in science isn’t that different: talent is helpful, but the key to success is persistence, hard work, plenty of recovery time and a dose of luck.
I would tell myself not to worry about fitting in, looking the right way, or being liked – instead learn, read, be curious, be passionate, and be kind to yourself and to others.
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 could nitpick over some decisions I’ve made over the years, but I don’t really think I would change anything. I don’t believe there is one right path when it comes to career choices. I would mostly go back to reassure my 10-year old self that everything was going to work out fine! I would probably also tell myself not to worry about fitting in, looking the right way, or being liked – instead learn, read, be curious, be passionate, and be kind to yourself and to others. And pay more attention in German classes: you’re going to live there one day!
[Disclaimer: The following represents Emma’s personal opinion, not that of her employer NASA]
Q) You work at NASA as an Operations Research Analyst, and previously worked at The Tauri Group as a Technology Analyst. What was the path to get to where you are now? How did you get your job at NASA?
The path started when I was in college & grad school. In college I studied Politics & Astronomy and in grad school I went to George Washington (GW) University and studied space policy. When you do a job like space policy, a lot of people are aiming towards NASA and I thought that after graduation I would go straight to NASA, especially since as I had done an internship at NASA Headquarters in my last year as a grad student. But it’s really hard to get a job in the US Civil Service. So what happened was right as I was graduating I was going to the International Space University and I wanted to make sure I had a job lined up for when I got home. Nothing was happening with the applications that I was putting in with the government and I got a job offer just out of the blue on the spot, a fantastic opportunity with Booz Allen Hamilton, the consulting firm. Booz Allen Hamilton, the government services company, worked a lot with the airforce, with DARPA and NASA. It was a really good first job for me.
I had wanted to go and work for NASA, but here I was consulting for them. I got to do some good projects for the applications division of the Earth Science part of the [NASA} Science Mission Directorate and also work for other government clients, but to be honest I had in my brain that I would always become a civil servant for NASA. It was just a long process to get there. So I worked at Booz Allen for about three years and then went to go and work for The Tauri Group, also aerospace consulting and contracting for NASA for another three years. During that entire time I was trying to get jobs at NASA, and it took that long to get the right match through the USA Jobs process and get hired.
So it was honestly a little bit of luck, but my work at The Tauri Group being an onsite support contractor helped tremendously. Because I got to spend two years doing basically the exact same job that I got to come into as a NASA Civil Servant.
One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.
Q) How did you choose to take politics & astronomy? Did you originally wanted to choose both and then figure out exactly which way to go?
That was a complicated decision. I grew up a complete space nerd. My parents’ dining room at home is their library. The table is right in the middle of all these books and they’re all classic science fiction. So growing up I loved space, loved science and got the opportunity to take geology and astronomy during my senior year at high school, which I don’t think a lot of people get the chance to do. I loved astronomy and thought that I wanted to go into that at college and a career.
I noticed that one of the questions that you have on the [Rocket Women] website is about ‘What piece of advice would you give your 10 year old self?’. For me it would be don’t listen to the people who tell you that you can’t do math. I firmly believed that I could not do math, yet I really liked astronomy. I got to Calc 2 in college and it wasn’t going so well. Right about then I discovered this thing called the Space Policy Institute. I’d also been taking some politics and political history classes, loved those too. I figured that if my college would let me do a major in politics and a minor in astronomy, instead of a major of astronomy, that that would be a really good combo to set me up for space policy in grad school. And they let me do that and switch things around.
One of my astronomy professors in college sat me down and asked me what I thought a career in astronomy was. I think I had very romantic visions of Jodie Foster in Contact, and observatories and seeing the stars overhead at night. And my professor said, “No it’s by yourself with a computer, running simulations with a computer. It’s not this romantic vision that you have. So if you are not actually interested in this maybe you should think of something else.”
There are lots of different pathways to working for an organization like NASA. We need more STEM graduates, absolutely, and I want to encourage young women especially to pursue those fields, but we also need policy wonks, like me, accountants, lawyers, artists, English majors, you name it. One of the women who really had an impact on me when I was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008 was Lynn Cline. I only ever had one meeting with her, but I was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.
Q) Can you tell me about when your interest in space grow when you were younger?
I’ve thought about this a lot and tried to figure out where it came from. I’m sure there must have been something younger than this. When I was in high school, my friends and I did not want to eat lunch in the cafeteria. So we used to go to the Astronomy Room, which was open and plastered wall-to-wall with images of Jupiter and Mars. And a big globe of the Moon. I found that really inspiring. My astronomy teacher when I took the class in my senior year of high school was Mr.Gallagher and I think about him a lot. Not only was it an astronomy class, we had star watching nights after school and we had a huge inflatable planetarium that we, the high school students, would take around to the elementary schools and do star shows for the elementary kids. We also went to the Space & Flight Museum in Seattle and I think they must have a Challenger Centre there. The astronomy class did a mock up Mars mission and I think I got to be the Mission Commander. All of that really just became such a firm foundation for everything afterwards.
I’m very fortunate that nobody ever said to me you can’t do X,Y and Z because you’re a girl.
Q) How important are role models to young girls? Do you think more need to be done to allow the younger generation to interact with women working in STEM?
It’s very important to be able to visualize someone like you. I honestly can’t picture who it was that I idolized or looked up to as a role model when I was a very young girl. I’m pretty sure they were all fictional characters. One of my professors recently posted on Facebook asking for book recommendations for his young grandson who had just devoured the Harry Potter books and was looking for something next, I went back and looked at the Young Adult and SciFi books that I had read when I was in middle and high school and found to my astonishment that my mother had given me all these fantastic books that resonate with me to this day, I’ve just gone back and re-read some of them, that all happened to have independent, fearless, female main characters. I didn’t know what she was doing at the time but I do now! It’s really important to see characters like Rey in the Star Wars film. I also thought about Ridley from Alien. They’re awesome characters, not awesome female characters.
Q) When you’re having a stressful and bad day, what helps you get through it?
I’ve been trying a lot recently to remind myself where I am, which is in a job that I’ve always wanted to have, and that I’m very fortunate and I’m very proud of myself. Even when I’m having a rough day, everyone has a rough day, I’m lucky enough to have a fantastic team that I love seeing everyday. That’s very helpful. Starting to take yoga about 5 years ago was fantastic and learning to breathe deeply is probably the most important thing. Taking a breath, walking away and then all of a sudden everything feels better.
Having a husband that you can talk through everything with, even silly office drama also helps a lot. We’re very mindful of the partnership that we craft. I really like the word partner and how you think of each other. Theoretical physicist Mary K. Gaillard was recently asked, “What piece of advice do you have for young women?” She said, “Do What You Like. Find A Nice Partner.” And that was it. I read that sentence over and over again and yes that was it! I like to think of myself as Kris’ [Emma’s husband] career manager and he’s my career manager. Every step is discussed and analyzed over glasses of wine.
I got to a point when I was pretty unhappy in a previous job, when I was coming home every day crying and complaining. Kris listened and was supportive but also said, “I can’t help you in this situation. You need to say something to the people involved.” It took months, but I finally did. Now years later I think I’m much better at speaking truth to power and being honest with my bosses when something’s not right. Because you have to make your own happiness. It take a lot time to get there, especially if you’re not naturally contentious. If you don’t good things won’t happen if you don’t speak you’re mind.
Q) Was there anything unexpected about your career journey that you thought would be difficult or different to your initial expectations?
Not getting to be a government employee right off the bat after grad school was certainly one of them, and the other was meeting Kris [Emma’s husband]. I went to ISU [International Space University] saying, I’m not going to be one of those girls, I’m not going to be an ISU couple. Now 7 years later we’ve just celebrated our 2nd wedding anniversary. It was unexpected for me, but more a major life upheaval for him having to move the United States. I’ve been in Washington DC now for 10 years and I’m so grateful that Kris was able to come down here, and that he’s had a rewarding career in the field that he wanted here. I think the next phase is going to be driven by his next decisions and that’s only fair. Because last time it was because of me here in Washington DC. It flips flops. People in our generation can have 2 or 3 entirely different careers in their lifetimes. They never know where things are going to go.
An interesting thing the other day when the Forbes 30 under 30 list came out. The website had some infographics where they asked ‘How do you define success?’ and 2% said ‘Wealth’. The majority said the equivalent of ‘Personal well-being’ and ‘Happiness’. I looked at that graphic and I thought that is the one thing I would show to people in my industry, at NASA, who come from a different generation and don’t understand this one. I think that would help them understand it to see that it’s a different way of looking at your life. Sometimes it takes you by surprise.
Another unexpected thing that happened to me was learning how much I like budgets. When I was in my first year in grad school, my professor heard that the Office of Management and Budget was going to have an internship for the summer. He said, ‘You’d be great for this, you should apply,’ and I think I might have rolled my eyes at him because I thought the Office of Management and Budget sounded like the most boring thing ever and do I really want to have my head stuck in an Excel page for all summer long? And I LOVED it and it’s what I love to do now still.
Senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.
Q) You work in Washington DC and we were talking about mentors earlier. Have mentors, both men and women, been influential in your career choices and path?
Absolutely. One of my favourite things to do now is go out to coffee with people and just talk about all of the options on the table. One of the surprising and best thing that I’ve discovered in the last two years as a civil servant is that you really have the opportunity to move around lot. I went on detail [at NASA’s Office of the Administrator] for 5 months, it seems like there’s always another option around the corner, something fantastic. I finally got over the nervousness of asking people for advice and help. People love talking about that. The thing I’ve discovered recently is that senior mentors and role models are fantastic, but people should also really value more near-peer mentors. People that are just 5 or 10 years older than you can be so incredibly helpful.
I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”
Q) Has NASA changed at all with the rise of the commercial space sector?
NASA really has changed. When I started in Washington DC the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program was still relatively new and hadn’t had a lot of successes yet, and there was a feeling within NASA, within the White House that this was a test. This was a brand new way of doing business, we’re not sure about these partners, let’s see how this goes. And now it is so ingrained as a way of doing business, that when we think about our next steps beyond the International Space Station we’re thinking about Public-Private-Partnerships and the Space Act Agreement Model, it’s not just a new and different acquisition mechanism, it’s a new way of thinking about how NASA can accomplish its mission.
We are at a bit of a critical juncture as an agency and over the past 5 months I had the opportunity to work at the Office of the Administrator. I got to see our senior leaders really struggling with some core questions, one of which is “What do we NASA want to do?” and “What do we the leadership want the NASA workforce to do?”. The idea that within ten years’ time, in twenty years’ time with looming huge massive numbers of retirements that the workforce would shift to become just an acquisition workforce is not the vision that we’re going towards, I don’t think. We just need to define our niches where our workforce will still be the technical leaders in the world, in these certain areas. So we will still be an R&D agency absolutely. Especially for the things that there is no business case for, yet. Planetary Exploration for example.
As a child I was an avid reader and read every space book I could get my hands on. At the age of 6, I remember reading that Helen Sharman was the UK’s first astronaut and had travelled to space a mere 2 years before, in 1991. That moment changed my life. Rather than astronauts being primarily American NASA Shuttle crew that I saw on TV, or hearing stories of the Moon landing 20 years ago from adults around me, suddenly in the image in front of me was a woman in her 20s with short brown hair. A British woman with the Union Jack patch clearly visible on her left arm of her Sokol spacesuit. I had heard of Michael Foale, born in the UK becoming a US citizen to meet NASA Astronaut qualifications, but never of a British astronaut. I didn’t know it was possible. But in that moment looking at the image of Helen Sharman in her Sokol spacesuit, I realised that that woman could be me. Being a girl born at the end of the 80s in the UK I realised right then that maybe, just maybe, I could be an astronaut too. That changed something inside me. Here was a woman in front of me born in Sheffield, who had studied chemistry, replied to a radio advert calling for UK astronauts, beat 13,000 applicants and had recently gone to space.
Even at the age of 6, I didn’t understand why nobody around me was talking about her mission. She had launched only a couple of years ago when I was 3 but I had never heard about it at school or on TV. I didn’t understand why this woman wasn’t treated like a star and talked about everywhere, possibly naively. I managed to find every scrap of information I could find about her. In an age before the internet I went to library after library (shuttled by my parents), reading about her story in small paragraphs as part of a larger book on space. What she was to me, even though I didn’t know it yet, was a role model. She had showed me that my dreams were possible. Even when I had wonderful supportive parents and teachers encouraging my interests, space went from an interest over the next few years to a career. Knowing that there had been a British astronaut, female at that, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger. Even if the career councillor at school wanted me to become a dentist, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human spaceflight. And eventually I did, even working with the next British ESA astronaut Tim Peake at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany along with supporting astronauts on the ISS. But I wouldn’t have had that impetus and drive if I hadn’t known that someone had come before me. There had been a female British astronaut and maybe there could be again. Here was a British woman involved in human spaceflight and that had flown to space. It was possible.
The importance of role models at a young age is immeasurable. Which is why I’m so excited for Tim Peake’s flight and the fact that Helen Sharman is finally being talked about 24 years on from her mission. The outreach for Tim’s Principia mission by the UK Space Agency has been amazing and has the highest budget of any ESA astronaut mission. Tim and his Principia mission will hopefully go on to inspire the next generation to reach for the stars and follow their dreams in space, knowing that it is indeed possible.
Today the first British European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Tim Peake launched to the ISS with London’s Science Museum hosting 2000 jubilant children following his every move. Simply fantastic. In less than 5 years the UK has gone from not contributing to Human Spaceflight through ESA, to having a high profile British astronaut launch to the ISS supported by a sustainable National Space Strategy, a first for the UK. That’s something to be proud about. Tim’s carrying a whole nation’s dreams with him but most importantly inspiring thousands of children to consider a career in space and follow in his footsteps. I wonder how many children watched the launch today and decided that they wanted to be the next Tim Peake?
“Girls To Build A Spaceship, Girls To Code A New App, Girls To Grow Up Knowing They Can Engineer That”
Lyrics from the fantastic new commercial by GoldieBlox, a company founded by Debra Stirling (Stanford graduate with a degree in Mechanical Engineering/Product Design), championing to “disrupt the pink aisle” with a toy that introduces girls to the joy of engineering at a young age.
GoldieBlox’s vision for this video was to “showcase the amazing inventive power that girls have”. They re-wrote the lyrics to the Beastie Boys’ Girls and hired six engineers, Brett Doar (of OK Go! fame) and three fantastic young girls to transform a house into a “princess machine.” It’s such a refreshing take on commercials for girls’ toys and made me smile all the way through (and it’s catchy!).
When first hearing about GoldieBlox last year I was pleasantly surprised that rather than developing something stereotypical, a pink lego sort of product per se, it really seemed to have a solid basis. Debra Stirling has certainly done her research concerning gender differences, child education and how children learn and interact. Stirling built GoldieBlox using the notion that boys were more interested in building while girls generally prefered reading and other verbal skills. Therefore having a book incorporated into GoldieBlox helped the girls to stay focussed on that whilst carrying the out the activity alongside it. She stated last year that the boys playing with GoldieBlox liked to spin the dog as fast as possible until it fell off after completing the build, whilst the girls spun it gently using the ribbon. The success of GoldieBlox will hopefully continue to grow, with the new commercial a finalist to be aired at Superbowl (vote for it here!).
Maykah, a company formed by a group of three Stanford grad students is also aiming to inspire the next generation of female technology innovators. Their first toy Roominate inspired by an early dollhouse memory, allows young girls to attach and custom-build a miniature room with working circuits to their dollhouse.
Influencing girls at a young age with toys like this, encouraging girls to build and engineer, really is the key to inspiring them and setting them on a course to consider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) at a later stage. LEGO, once described by Jezebel as simply making money through “girls conditioned to want pink and sparkly toys about ponies and princesses” rather than trying to change the status quo, has also released a new female scientist minifigure with a further set of female STEM career minifigures planned to come.
At a young age, I, although given Barbies to play with as a child, much preferred putting together train sets or toy car race tracks and playing with space shuttles, toys mainly targeted at boys with their product marketing and places in the toyshop aisle. I feel that being encouraged to play with these toys rather than shunned, played a large part in allowing me to start to understand physics and become inquisitive about how the world around me worked, especially when I was young before it feeling like simply school work (which it never was..). That wonder about the universe and how it was formed led me to where I am today working as Engineer with an background in astrophysics and space engineering. If toys like GoldieBlox had been around when I was younger, how many more girls would’ve decided to follow their true path towards learning about engineering and physics, rather than simply fitting in by playing with Barbies?
With girls deciding by the age of 11 to move away from studying science, toys like these are important to bring STEM into their lives in an enjoyable way when they’re young and to prevent stereotypes from forming in the first place.
Personally I hope that these toys sell out at Christmas!
Having been asked to speak at the first official Ada Lovelace Day (15th Oct) celebration in Canada this year, I spent some time thinking about exactly what message I wanted kids, parents, teenagers & women in tech attending to hear. I decided to tell them my story. But more importantly why I decided to start Rocket Women; to give back to the women that had inspired me along my journey, helping me to reach where I am today. I’ve decided that the best way to do that is by inspiring others.
Focusing on role models, I believe that positive female role models are essential to provide women with examples to look up to when they’re making the most critical decisions in their education, lives or careers. For myself Sunita Williams has always been an inspiration and I was lucky enough to meet her whilst working at the European Space Agency. She went on to give me some fantastic advice to write my engineering Masters thesis on Future Lunar EVA Suit Design and Operations. What should be highlighted though is not only the number of female role models available for women right now, but ensuring that there will be role models in the future for future generations to look up to and aim towards.
In the year celebrating the 50th anniversary of the First Woman In Space, Valentina Tereshkova (& the 30th Anniversary of the First American Woman in Space, Sally Ride), NASA also announced their new astronaut class with the highest percentage of female astronauts ever selected by the agency. Four out of the new eight astronauts are female with a breadth of experience among them, with women now representing 26% of NASA’s astronaut corps. The four women chosen are Christina M. Hammock, NOAA station chief in American Samoa, Nicole Aunapu Mann, US Marine and F18 fighter pilot, Dr.Jessica Meir PhD, Assistant Professor of Anesthesia at Harvard Medical School and Anne C. McClain, US Army and OH-58 Helicopter Pilot. Dr.Jessica Meir PhD is also a graduate of the International Space University (ISU) (MSS00), making me proud to be an ISU alumnus myself!
Taking into account the significant impact that this decision will have on future generations, hopefully this trend towards equality will continue. Each decision, whether it be that a new astronaut corps has a 50% male-female ratio or whether companies decide to promote and hire women into high profile and visible leadership roles, will influence the future of these industries and their overall success to come.