F equals for women on the rise

Vinita Marwaha Madill


Posted on March 30 2016

This week's Wednesday Woman is Vinita Marwaha Madill ~ Space Consultant, Founder of Rocket Women, and advocate for women in STEM. Vinita has a diverse range of experience in the space field which includes designing spacesuits for the European Space Agency (ESA), working as an Operations Engineer for the International Space Station (ISS) at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) where she guided astronauts through experiments on the ISS, and where she was involved in astronaut training. Here's her story:

Newnham: Can you tell us what you were like growing up and what first sparked your interest in space?
Marwaha Madill: I’ve always being inquisitive about space and I remember being an enthralled six-year-old when I learned that the first British astronaut, chemist Helen Sharman flew to the Mir space station. She was, although I didn’t know it yet, a role model to me. She showed me at a young age that my dreams were possible.

I’m lucky to have had adults, both parents and great teachers, around me at that age who cultivated that interest and encouraged me to study space. My parents helped me greatly, taking me to the National Space Centre in Leicester, UK on the weekends to experience space hardware firsthand and thankfully let me spend hours reading about space.

I’m also fortunate to have realized my passion at a young age and told my Physics teacher in Year 7 that I wanted to work in NASA’s Mission Control. Throughout my education, this drive was supported and 12 years later led me to fulfilling my dream, working on International Space Station (ISS) operations at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR), Germany’s answer to NASA’s Mission Control.

Newnham: What led to your career choice and what requirements are needed for such a career?
Marwaha Madill: Rather than one larger decision, I’ve taken small steps over the last decade, and through secondary school beforehand, to be able to work in the space industry. Wanting to be an astronaut, I printed out the astronaut candidate guidelines from NASA’s website when I was 12 and glued them to the inside cover of my school folder, as a daily reminder of how to reach my goal and set my focus on achieving them. Those guidelines set the direction for my career. The first guideline said that a candidate had to have a Bachelor’s degree in Engineering, Biology, Physics or Mathematics.

Knowing this, I studied Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology at A Level and then went on to study a Bachelor’s degree in Mathematics and Physics with Astrophysics at King’s College London. Whilst at King’s, I heard of a fantastic organization called UK Students for the Education and Development of Space (UKSEDS). I was able to affiliate UKSEDS with The Maxwell Society, the King’s Physics society, and acted as the UKSEDS liaison. This led to attending the UKSEDS conference in Milton Keynes, at which I met both somebody from the International Space University (ISU) and met space operations engineers for the first time, including somebody I would end up working with 5 years later in Germany.

With a background in physics, I completed Masters degrees in Astronautics and Space Engineering at Cranfield University (UK) and in Space Management at the International Space University (ISU) in Strasbourg, France. ISU also has a remote summer course (Space Studies Programme-SSP) that I’d highly recommend for anyone interested in a career in space. It’s essentially a comprehensive overview of the entire space industry with specialized streams, technical and non-technical, taught by experts in the industry. I completed the course after my Bachelor’s degree and was also lucky to go back and teach Physical Sciences on the course in 2009.

Newnham: What have been the biggest obstacles, if any, you have faced as a woman pursuing a career in STEM and how did you overcome them?
Marwaha Madill: 
The biggest obstacles initially were knowing that I could successfully undertake a career in STEM and being able to have my questions answered about what such a career entailed. Allowing girls access to women in STEM is key. With movies and media portraying mainly male scientists, meeting one female scientist can change the life of a young girl as many do not realize that a career in STEM is an option. Their future options can be influenced by a decision they make at a very young age. 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 educations or career.

To encourage more women into engineering you also also need to inspire them when they’re young. Girls at the age of 11 decide to leave STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math), when they’re in an education system where the choice of subjects at school severely limits their options for working in other fields later. Girls need to be allowed to be creative and inquisitive from a young age, rather than being told to play with toys that are seen by many as more appropriate for young girls is key. At 8, I was learning to programme the VCR and encouraged to read voraciously about science. The key is to initially spark an interest in STEM and then to allow that to grow over years, overcoming gender bias, especially in the early years and secondary school. There are an increasing number of companies helping parents to encourage girls when younger and avoid toys that are infused with gender stereotypes, including Goldieblox which allows girls to build and become engineers.

Newnham: What else do you think we need to be doing to attract and keep more women in STEM?
Marwaha Madill: The typical stereotype of a space engineer or someone who works in tech is usually male and nerdy, which needs to change. Many men and women that work in STEM don’t consider themselves a stereotypical ‘nerd’. Girls also need to know that it’s fine to be nerdy, or simply smart, in fact as an increasing number of jobs incorporate at least a moderate level of technical skills, it’s going to be necessary for girls to learn to code and feel comfortable in a technical environment in order to succeed and thrive in any chosen career.

One thing that has always helped to portray this, is rather than thinking about the technology itself, think about the impact that technology will make on people. Humanize the technology itself. For example, consider the impact of satellites. Initiatives are now being undertaken to provide affordable internet access worldwide through a constellation of microsatellites, a project with the potential to have an unprecedented impact on those around the world without access to basic communication. Rural communities will have high-speed internet access where once there was none, providing education and knowledge to those currently without. The impact of the project is from where, I believe, you can inspire an increasing number of girls to study engineering and space.

Girls also need to know that there are lots of different pathways to work in the space industry. During a recent Rocket Women interview with Emma Hinds Lehndhardt from NASA, she rightly mentioned that although we need more female STEM graduates, “We also need policy wonks, like me, accountants, lawyers, artists, English majors, you name it.” Emma discussed a woman who really had an impact on her when she was an intern at NASA in 2007/2008, Lynn Cline. She only ever had one meeting with her, but was absolutely struck that a French literature scholar became the Deputy Associate Administrator for Space Operations.

If you look to the future, there’s a massive skill requirement for engineering upcoming over the next few years. According to a recent report released this month, one in five schoolchildren would have to become an engineer to fill that gap in the UK. With only 15% of UK engineering graduates being female and only 2% of engineering professionals, encouraging more girls to pursue engineering will help to fill this gap, ensuring that they make up 50% of engineering talent. We need more engineers and scientists as a whole.

The capabilities of technology and science will only reach 50% of its potential if only 50% of the population take an interest at a young age, which is one of the reasons why it’s so important to encourage young girls to pursue their interests in science.

Newnham: Who and why have been your biggest female role models?

Marwaha Madill: Both male and female mentors have guided me throughout my career and shaped my decisions. I’ve looked up to NASA astronaut Sunita Williams for years and meeting her while I was based at the European Space Agency (ESA) was one of the highlights of my career to-date. She was kind enough to take some time to talk with me and helped me greatly with my Masters thesis on Extravehicular Activity (EVA) or spacewalks. She’s also on track to become the first female NASA astronaut to fly on a commercial space vehicle.

This quote by Sally Ride, first American woman in space, sums up why I started Rocket Women:

"I never went into physics or the astronaut corps to become a role model. But after my first flight, it became clear to me that I was one. And I began to understand the importance of that to people. Young girls need to see role models in whatever careers they may choose, just so they can picture themselves doing those jobs someday. You can't be what you can't see."

After NASA, Sally Ride co-founded Sally Ride Science in 2001 to inspire young people in STEM and to promote STEM literacy. Their goal is to inspire more students, especially girls and minorities, to stick with STEM as they go through school.

“You can’t be what you can’t see,” by Sally Ride is one of my favourite quotes and is absolutely true and I really appreciate the messages I receive from girls around the world letting me know how Rocket Women has helped them to discover STEM. I’m glad the website is making a difference.  

The recent NASA astronaut class selected in 2013 was 50% female, the highest female ratio selected, bringing the percentage of female NASA astronauts in the NASA Astronaut Corps to 26%. This thirty years after Sally Ride became the first American woman in space. NASA’s really looking forward, which is fantastic.

Newnham: Finally what are you most proud of and what advice would you give young girls looking to pursue a career similar to yours?
Marwaha Madill: In the space industry we’re lucky to be offered the ultimate satisfaction, through a project that we’ve worked on for years actually getting launched into space and utilized. I’m proud of working on ISS payload experiments, especially helping to develop the installation procedures for a new and complicated ESA payload experiment called Electromagnetic Levitator (EML). The German ESA astronaut actually called down from the ISS and spoke to the operators on console to thank them personally after its installation, which is fantastic and usually unprecedented.

I’m also proud of working on a spacesuit project called the SkinSuit, whilst at ESA initially and also as a consultant. The suit was recently launched to the ISS and worn by an astronaut. Without the presence of gravity, astronauts on the ISS lose one to two per cent of their bone mass per month, particularly from the crucial weight-bearing spine and lower limb bones. In addition to bone loss, the microgravity conditions and lack of muscle use also cause muscle atrophy. To help to mitigate these debilitating effects of spaceflight, astronauts currently exercise for 2.5 hours each day on the ISS.

Astronauts on the ISS can also painfully grow up to 5-7 centimeters in height. The SkinSuit was designed to essentially mimic the effects of gravity by replicating adequate mechanical loading on the skeleton and thus preventing the lengthening of the spine. With a force close to that felt on Earth, the suit effectively squeezes an astronaut’s body gradually in hundreds of stages from the shoulders to the feet to help prevent bone loss. Bone responds to loading and the suit’s pressure on the skeleton could help to stimulate bone growth. After almost 10 years of research and development, SkinSuit was launched to the ISS in September 2015 and worn onboard the station by Danish ESA astronaut Andreas Mogensen.

In addition to the Skinsuit, I was involved in the spacewalk (EVA) training of the astronaut class at ESA’s European Astronaut Centre (EAC) in Cologne, Germany. The astronauts train to carry out EVAs or spacewalks underwater, in the Neutral Buoyancy Facility, a 22 m by 17 m pool, with a depth of 10 m. Training underwater provides a microgravity type experience, making it a good analogue for astronauts training for spacewalks.

Additionally, the messages I receive from girls around the world letting me know how Rocket Women has helped them to discover STEM are fantastic and I’m glad the website is making a difference.

The advice I’d give young girls would be to start thinking early about what you want to do in your career. It helps to look at the education and career history of role models around you that are on a similar career path to the one you’re considering. The choices that you make even as early as Year 9, whether you take Double Science at GCSE or not for example, can make a difference later on. Just be aware of the impact these small decisions at the time can make on your future career options.

It’s possible to achieve your goal, whether it’s to work in the space industry or otherwise. It takes hard work and dedication, but it’s absolutely worth it.

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