This month our Young Woman to Watch is currently a kick-ass International Space Station Operator in the selection process for the MarsOne candidate team. With a degree in Mechatronic Engineering from the University of Adelaide, Andrea Boyd is a woman with an almost eidetic memory and a real, live space station to take care of. We asked her about her ambitions as a young woman in engineering and her plans for the future.
“I’m not great at self-promotion and I was naturally introverted as a teenager, but through travel abroad and taking part in the extracurricular activities my industry has to offer I’ve gained exposure and recognition. Assuming leadership roles and learning to secure the opportunities which improve my skill-set have helped along the way. The space industry is small and if you’re good at what you do word soon gets around. To succeed you need to be informed, set clear goals and propel yourself into the limelight at conferences and high-level meetings – there’s no time to be passive.
Engineering is one of the few sectors where work performance is evaluated on merit alone. In that way gender isn’t a big issue. Last year, on a panel discussing “Women from developing countries in Aerospace” at the IAC (think Olympics of the space world), I represented Australia. Participants from Iran, China, South Africa, Uruguay and Georgia, chaired by a female engineer from Spain, all came to the same conclusion: gender is no longer an issue in our workplace. Engineering is about results. It turned out that NASA’s first female engineer was also present in the audience: delighted to meet a generation of young women for whom space engineering was just another everyday career choice.
Of course, gender ratios in engineering are still quite skewed. I used to work underground in the mining industry – flying to and from work by plane – as a Control Systems Engineer before moving to Brussels. At the time, the women present were mostly admin, finance or metallurgists counted in the stats. Otherwise it would have been about 90% guys on my site. In my current job though, over half the operations team for the ISS programme in Brussels are women. Even better at the South Australian Space School programme there is a 50/50 gender ratio. Good news for the future. I hadn’t thought about it much, but the space industry clearly inspires both young men and women.
There’s no real space industry in Australia, so I knew for many years that I would have to move overseas to pursue my dream career in either the USA or Europe. I left for Italy as a teenager where I have dual citizenship. I know I’m not ever returning home, which is sad because Australia is ideal in almost everything except my atypical career aims, but working in the space industry was always my dream.
“I watch the Earth rotate and the sun rise every 90 minutes
over the horizon from cameras in space”
So, what’s cool about being a young woman in aerospace work? It’s probably the same for anyone. It’s an amazing field in which I get to control experiments taking place on the International Space Station as my day job. How cool is that? I participate in voice loops that encompass the USA, Europe, Russia, Japan and Space-to-Ground. I watch the Earth rotate and the sun rise every 90 minutes over the horizon from cameras in space and I work with crazy amazing people who dream big and have the drive to make things happen which are, literally, out of this world.
What advice would I give other young women considering a career in engineering? There’s no set path, no fixed parameters and no glass ceiling. Just decide and make it happen. Volunteer a lot. Do extra things outside of study and work and get involved in industry groups and young professional organisations. If an opportunity doesn’t exist, create it. Take part in Erasmus or an exchange program. Live away from home, out of your comfort zone, and get international experience. Everybody has a degree – what else do you have? Life skills are always considered alongside qualifications.
My mentor? Everyone names Dr Andy Thomas or an astronaut as their role model but, while they’re great public figures, my role model is a lot closer to home and, over the years, has become a great friend. Dr Kimberley Clayfield was finishing her PhD in Mechanical Engineering when I started my first year at Adelaide University. She went on to have an amazing career and is currently the Executive Manager of Space Sciences and Technology within Australia’s national research organisation, CSIRO. 7 years ago we crossed paths at the student aerospace club on campus and she invited me to join the South Australian Space School and National Space Camp as a teacher. The same camp I attended at age 15! I had a fantastic experience with the other teachers and, at university, decided to take part in an official mentoring programme. I was accepted as a Women in Innovation and Technology protégé, which was the perfect way to learn life skills from senior individuals who had “been there and done that”. My mentor revamped my CV and challenged the rigidity my career plan. I remember him saying, “That’s your Plan A. Come back next week with Plan B, Plan C and Plan D”.
In the future, I want to take an other year off and do an Engineers Without Borders post: helping with solar energy in Nepal or microcontroller projects in Kyrgyzstan and I’d love to be a crew member for an interplanetary mission preparing to play basketball in space! I’m currently in the selection process for the MarsOne candidate team to be decided in 2015. Becoming an agency astronaut isn’t a viable option as, geo-politically, a female with Italian citizenship will not be selected by the European Space Agency again, but I am working towards becoming a suitable crew member for one of the private space companies. Ultimately, I’m driven by my desire to understand the entire world, to know how things work, why they work and how to make them work better. Where better to do that than from space?”
Article by: Laura Hemmati