The engineer preparing for lift-off
Jenni Sidey grew up inspired by Canada’s first female astronaut. Now she’s undergoing selection tests with the Canadian Space Agency to be an astronaut herself. She’s passionate about women and engineering — and fascinated by fire.
I’ve been shortlisted to be an astronaut with the Canadian Space Agency. There are two positions and 72 of us taking part in a rigorous selection process. It involves interviews, written exams and a range of physical and mental fitness tests. I feel fortunate to be on this list with so many incredible Canadians. Meeting them has been a phenomenal experience and I’m looking forward to seeing where all of us end up.
My inspiration was Canada’s first female astronaut, Roberta Bondar. She completely captured my imagination when I was about seven years old. I read as much as I could about her. She was a true trailblazer in an intense and competitive profession where she was in a clear minority. Her success sets an outstanding example. When my mum heard that she was giving a talk nearby, she took me out of school so that I could be there to see her.
I’m passionate about encouraging more women into engineering. Despite efforts to increase the diversity of the engineering profession, women remain seriously under-represented. We need a more varied group of people to train as engineers in order to tackle the huge problems the world faces.
Engineering is often misinterpreted. People tend to associate it with construction projects and hard hats — or with mechanics. Of course, both are important strands of engineering but there’s so much more. Think, for example, of the development of materials to mimic bones for biomedical engineering or sensors to monitor air pollution in electrical and chemical engineering.
Outreach is vital to redressing the gender balance. We need to catch kids early on to get the message across that engineering is a broad and creative profession. As a PhD student I co-founded the Cambridge branch of an international outreach project called Robogals. I continue to contribute to Robogals Cambridge by giving talks to students and planning events in collaboration with companies like Amazon.
In 2016 I won the Young Woman Engineer of the Year Award from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET). The award is given to a successful woman under the age of 35 working as an engineer in the UK and I was thrilled to be selected. It has given me a bigger platform to teach from and made me even more determined to do all I can to encourage more girls to take STEM subjects.
My research looks at ways to reduce the environmental impact of combustion. As long as combustion is part of our energy and transport sectors, we need to work to limit any damage it’s causing. We can do that by improving existing technologies, developing alternative fuels, and working to mitigate pollutants.
Even as a child I loved the idea of solving problems and coming up with new ways of doing things. My uncle is a civil engineer who often involved me in his work projects when I was a teenager. I learned to contribute to tasks such as designing a baseball pitch that would drain effectively during rain storms or a passive water treatment plant.
My mum made everything possible. She encouraged my interest in science by working to understand what I was interested in and involving me in related activities, including taking me to museums, seeking out role models in science and engineering professions, and sharing my enthusiasm for the unknown. She isn’t a scientist herself but she gave me the confidence to do whatever I wanted.
In university all but one of my lecturers were male. I took my first degree in Mechanical Engineering at McGill University in Montreal. I was one of 12 or so female students in an intake of 150. Although my male lecturers were very supportive, female representation in academia would have been very encouraging.
In the Engineering Department, I have many mentors. I’m in Division A where the focus is on research into energy, fluid mechanics and turbomachinery. My senior colleagues include an exceptional role model, Dame Professor Anne Dowling, who studies noise and emission reduction in combustion technologies. My male colleagues too are also incredibly encouraging.
For the last four years, I’ve been exploring the history of fire and its role in our development as a species. It’s a tool we’ve been using for nearly a million years and, beyond its direct scientific use, it features so strongly in our religion, literature and culture. Considering its central role in our lives, the fact that we still have more to learn about it is testament to its complexity.
I like being physically active. I’ve always been an outdoors person, I did a lot of hiking when I was growing up, and while I was doing my doctorate I joined the Cambridge University Women’s Rugby Football Club. I met a fantastic group of women who became a wonderful part of my time here. We remain great friends.
A third of potential astronauts on the Canadian Space Agency’s shortlist are women. This is really encouraging and speaks volumes about the progress women are making in the fields of science and engineering, and shows how much can be achieved though dedication to a goal.
Dr Jenni Sidey is University Lecturer in Internal Combustion Engines, Department of Engineering, University of Cambridge. This profile is part of our This Cambridge Life series.