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In profile: Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE, space scientist and science communicator


Known to many as co-presenter of the BBC’s long-running The Sky at Night programme, Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock is an award-winning space scientist, physicist and renowned science communicator.

As well as her broadcast work, she is also the founder and director of her own company, Science Innovation Ltd, and is currently serving as President of the British Science Association.

Drawing on her knowledge of cutting-edge developments in space exploration and the effects of climate change on the planet, she delivered an inspiring keynote speech at the Future Logistics Conference at Farnborough International last week (11 May 2022), before giving an exclusive interview to Logistics Magazine.

AN EARLY FASCINATION WITH SPACE

Aderin-Pocock says her love of space started before she can remember. What does she think was the catalyst that sparked her early interest in space and science?

“I think the moon landings played an important role, as did The Clangers", she said, “All these things triggered a desire for me to get out there. I think lots of kids think about getting into space but they grow out of such nonsense. But for me, I didn't grow up so I still want to get out there.”

A DIVERSE CAREER PATH – WITH ONE GOAL IN MIND

Although she always wanted to work in the space industry, Aderin-Pocock’s career to date has spanned an unusually broad range of sectors – academia, defence, space and media.

Initially she pursued a career in academia, completing a PhD at Imperial College London, following an undergraduate degree in physics, also at Imperial. However, her dyslexia put her off from pursuing her academic career further.

“I realised early on that I’m quite hands on, quite logical, but my written work is not the best,” she readily conceded, “A life in academia means that you are reliant on your written output, that’s how they judge you, and so I think I decided early on that that’s not the way that I wanted to go.”

Instead, she accepted an opportunity to work for DERA in Farnborough, then a branch of the Ministry of Defence, to develop missile warning systems and hand-held instruments to detect land mines.

By 1999, she applied to work at UCL to develop a spectroscope for the Gemini telescope.

“I’ve always wanted to get into the space industry, but I took a very convoluted route,” she said, “I did lots of different jobs, but you pick up skills along the way. So, although you have the goal in mind and the route may be convoluted, I was able to pick up some management skills working on the missile warning system, and the landmine detection, and that came in very handy when I applied to UCL because I had experience of project management.”

CLIMATE CHANGE CHALLENGE

Aderin-Pocock has a broader perspective than most on the importance of decarbonising industry, having worked on satellite observation instruments to help measure climate change, the effects of which she has witnessed at first hand through her work.

While the weather data doubtless makes for sobering reading, she confessed to being excited by the transport sector’s efforts to decarbonise its own operations. “The transport industry is critical to decarbonisation,” she said, “but it’s wonderful being here at the Future Logistics Conference because everybody’s on board. Everybody wants to find ways of doing it and so, yes we look at the impact of climate change and climate change gases going into the atmosphere, but I do find it exciting to see the novel solutions that the industry is coming up with.”

When she first started talking about climate change, many in industry remained sceptical about its effects and even questioned whether it was even happening. Today humankind’s role in climate change is an accepted scientific fact, she said, and very few people are not on board. The challenge now is how to tackle the issue.

HOW SPACE HELPS INFORM OUR UNDERSTANDING

Space is one of the key technology drivers in terms of our understanding of climate change, Aderin-Pocock believes, and offers two key benefits over Earth-based monitoring.

The first is that while you can monitor climate change from Earth, you need to send people and vehicles out, which has a carbon impact. With space, you can send a satellite out, which following an admittedly carbon intensive launch will stay there for many years using solar energy. “So it’s pretty green when it gets up there,” she said.

The second is that climate change is not a local issue, it involves looking across the whole globe. So, as well as monitoring it also looks at the impact. When disaster strikes, during Hurricane Katrina for example, some satellites went into disaster mode. They took images of the affected areas and sent them to NGOs on the ground so people could get help. Similarly, when homes have been destroyed or washed away, satellite phones can be deployed to enable people to communicate with each other.

“There’s a whole infrastructure that satellites give us that can help understand climate change, but also help mitigate against the penalties of climate change,” she said.

TECHNOLOGY IS KEY TO UNLOCKING THE DECARBONISATION PUZZLE

The role that technology and innovation have to play in the logistics sector’s journey towards net zero is critical, Aderin-Pocock argues.

“As we’ve seen with COVID, it’s technology, it’s innovation that changes things,” she said, “The net zero challenge in 2050 almost looks like an impossible mountain. The peak is in the clouds and we don’t quite know how to get there.”

However, she remains optimistic that when people know what the goal is, industry sectors will work collaboratively to find new ways of solving problems.

“That’s where the innovation comes in because people come up with novel ways of doing things,” she said.

INSPIRING THE NEXT GENERATION

Aderin-Pocock is committed to inspiring new generations of engineers and scientists and has spoken to tens of thousands of schoolchildren about pursuing careers in these sectors. She is an ambassador for STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths), encouraging children, particularly girls, to consider choosing STEM subjects at A level, where they are currently under-represented.

What does she think it is about STEM subjects that put girls off from studying them? One reason, she believes, is that they cannot always see a direct application for science in the world of paid employment.

“If you study medicine, you can see where you’re going to go, if you study accountancy, you can see where you’re going to go,” she said, “If you study something like physics, it is the study of everything in the universe, and people can’t see a very clear career path.”

More role models are needed, she believes, to go out to schools and show children that STEM A levels can have a multiplicity of applications in the world of work.

“I think we’re not selling it, it’s a PR campaign, we need to do a much better job. But that involves more of us getting out there and saying this is what I do with my A level physics, what will you do with yours?”

COMMUNICATING SCIENCE IN THE RIGHT WAY

Aderin-Pocock has been reported as saying that you do not need the brain of a small planet to understand and enjoy science. What lies behind this passion to communicate science to a general audience who can often prove largely indifferent to a topic that may appear too technical, specialist, and inaccessible?

She started in science communication after finding it hard to recruit people whilst working as a space scientist. But the challenge, she believes, is much wider than that.

“It’s a societal challenge,” she said, “We talk about not enough women going into STEM, and looking at logistics, again it’s fairly male dominated. I think we need to sell it to the public. Science is seen as this sort of dark art almost, shrouded in mystery and acronyms. So it’s debunking that myth and showing that science can be accessible if we just communicate it in the right way.”

THE STAR APPEAL OF THE SKY AT NIGHT

Following Sir Patrick Moore’s death in 2012, Aderin-Pocock took over as a co-presenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night programme in 2013. Having been broadcast continuously since 1957, it holds the record as the world’s longest running television programme. How does she explain the show’s extraordinary longevity?

Incredibly, the programme was only supposed to run a for a few episodes when originally broadcast in the 1950s. “But then people went into space and so it changed the zeitgeist,” she said.

As the programme is about space and astronomy, it has reported on new research and charted discoveries as they are made for more than six decades.

“It’s quite interesting to look at a timeline of our understanding of the universe,” she said, “One of the things I find interesting is the fact that every culture across the world has been fascinated by space and astronomy, about looking up and seeing what’s out there. And I think that continues today. The Sky at Night gives you a snapshot or a flavour of the latest research or the latest discoveries. And I think people love that.”

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock delivered the keynote speech at the Future Logistics Conference, part of the ITT Hub event, on 11 May 2022.

*https://logistics.org.uk/events/itt-hub

Published On: 19/05/2022 16:00:56

 



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