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.
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.
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.
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.
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.