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!