Grad Talk: To infinity and beyond the bubble with astronaut Jenni Sidey

When it came to deciding on a career, Jenni Sidey took blue-sky thinking to a whole new level. Having completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering at McGill University and later a PhD and Fellowship position at Cambridge University, in July, Sidey was announced by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as the latest astronaut to enter the Canadian Space Program after a gruelling, year-long selection process. Here she talks determination, diversity in STEM and a training schedule that includes ethics, exercise and Russian conversation.

Interview by Kitty Grady

So, what do you do now?

I’ve just started a new role as Astronaut in the Canadian Space Agency. Prior to that, I was a lecturer in the Cambridge University Engineering Department and a fellow at St. Catharine’s College. For the next two years, I’ll be learning about the systems of the International Space Station, the Russian language, how to do a space walk, and much more as I prepare to eventually fly in space.

….and how did you get there?

I got here by learning as much as I possibly could in my previous roles, working very hard, and by being fortunate enough to have the opportunity to pursue my passion.

Describe a typical day.

Currently, a typical day involves attending the Astronaut Candidate Course at NASA Johnson Space Centre. I arrive early to train in the gym specifically to improve my strength and mobility in a spacesuit before I settle down into lessons for the day. Lessons can include anything from the ethics, law, and history of space flight to the Russian language. Each day is varied.

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Jenni Sidey during the astronaut selection process this year (Photo credit: Canadian Space Agency)

What skills does it take to be an astronaut?

To become an astronaut, you need a wide range of skills. You must have a background in a technical subject, such as science, engineering, or medicine. You must be healthy and physically capable to work under difficult circumstances. You must be able carry out tasks when things get tough. Aside from this, it’s also important to be the type of person others can live in close quarters with for a long period of time.

Continue reading Grad Talk: To infinity and beyond the bubble with astronaut Jenni Sidey

#summerstories: Summer Loving

Xanthe Fuller 

The season: Summer

The location: The beach

The cast: Boy (cute as can be) & me (crazy for aforementioned boy)

Points of contention: He said I ‘nearly drowned’, but really, he just jumped into the sea and started splashing around. Plus, his evasiveness about whether or not he had a car.

Oh wait! As is often the case, I have confused my own summer with the iconic summer described by Sandy in Summer Nights from Grease.  I didn’t go to a single beach nor did I meet any heavily coiffed boys who love to dress in monochrome, but I wore a lot of pastel colours and enjoyed seeing in the summer evenings with the occasional apérol spritz – plus my entire summer was spent in Paris (aka City of Love) – so cut me some slack. But I’ll take this opportunity to parallel my summer with Sandra-dee’s in anticipation of the start of the new year and of the questions that I may be asked. (Hoping that by September 2018 I will have miraculously become the kind of cool girl who can integrate the phrase ‘tell me about it… stud.’ into daily conversation.) So here, ladies and perhaps gentlemen, is the story of my atypical summer of love.

As I have already casually dropped into this piece, I have been living in Paris this summer but actually it’s just a continuation of my year abroad. By 30thAugust, I will have spent an entire year – to the day – renting a flat in this wonderful metropolis and being eternally surprised by the fact that almost everyone around me is French. So, I thus confess that the first object of my affection is the city I’ve been living in. I am in no way revolutionary in writing about living in Paris (sorry for treading on your toes, Baudelaire). It’s the absolutely classic year-abroad location, but my feelings really developed from June onwards. Few students stay on for the summer and Parisians notoriously flee the city the moment that the breeze suggests that July is on its way, so I had the authentic summer-in-Paris experience of being largely abandoned. The summer months consolidated my love for the city, I got to know where you can find the drinking fountains that miraculously spout sparkling water, or the fact that some parks’ opening and closing times coincide with the rising and setting of the sun.

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Summer here did bring something completely new though. My year was spent predominantly at university and waitressing on the side, but with summer came an expanse of time and opportunity. I chose – as many of us do and indeed feel obliged – to spend my summer doing an internship, prowling office corridors, sweating heavily on the morning cycle to work and lamenting the evidence of my skin’s exposure to vitamin D fading. But this internship actually turned out to be one of the most interesting and formative things that I have done so far. I was working as an editorial assistant for a TV show, a current affairs debate on prime-time weeknight television. I had the opportunity to do a wide range of things, from researching statistics and quotes to shape the discussion, to sitting in between the head producer and the editor-in-chief during the daily filming, wielding my laptop as a sort of justificatory golden ticket, as I sent off the latest dispatches to the editorial team and googled any kind of query. I would have to find out the exact agenda of Macron on his state visit to Austria in the drop of a hat or aggressively nudge my boss about a new development that might change the direction of the debate. Although my role was in French, I would occasionally be called in, as the resident Anglophone, to help with the pronunciation of something particular in English, e.g. hilariously, the pronunciation of Dr Dre… Each time I repeated the word back with a crisp English accent, people would gasp and say that I spoke English so well! All of the above might suggest to you – and rightly so – that I also got very into the world of broadcast journalism, and was also bemused by the fact that my mother tongue was exposed as a skill I didn’t realise that I already had.

And the final thing that I’m deeply enamoured with is friendship. Silly as it may sound. Friendship came in many forms this year, from finding new foreign friends, to infrequent but extended phone calls with old friends. When summertime arrived and the French vacated the city, I was living with a very wonderful friend from Cambridge. We created a blissful little cocoon of domesticity and feigned adult life of sharing packets of salmon fishcakes and waiting for the weekend. However, I recently realised that I had not spent time in a group of more than two actual friends since June, a bizarre epiphany that hadn’t really crossed my mind.

Most of the time summer is just a pause, but for me it’s been a year-long break and bloody hell I’m ready to have multiple friends within walking distance and to accidentally bump into distant acquaintances in the milk aisle of the Sainsbury’s. This year has given me space to realise how much I’m looking forward to being back in Cambridge, to the certainty of seeing friends and knowing that by the end of the year I will know more than I did at the start. I may have forgotten all of the hours in the library and deadlines that come with the return, but I actually can’t wait for it all to begin again. Ask me about this in May and we’ll see whether I’m still all sunshine and rainbows about my return, or whether I just nonchalantly respond with (what will by then be a trademark phrase): ‘tell me about it… stud.’

 

Photos are author’s own.

#summerstories: Between Cambridge and a hard place

Abigail Smith

As the summer rolls on, I’ve started to think about my place in life. Maybe this is a symptom of being a recent graduate, and seeing how young all the freshers are (is it cool to be 21?)

More likely, it’s because I’m entering a strange limbo — to quote Blazin’ Squad, at the crossroads. I have just graduated, but will be returning in October as a post-grad student to the same college — a fresh start in an old setting.

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This summer has been something of a blur, filled with the warm haze of sunny days and doing nothing. Each summer activity I’ve done has passed by quickly, as if rushing me towards this next step on my life ladder, sending me headfirst into a course filled with theses and manuscripts.

The world around me, filled with the blue of Cambridge, is at once old and new. I feel at home in safety of Jesus college, but will I still feel so in September? As new faces fill the hall and old friends move on with their lives, I am stuck in the middle, overstaying my welcome. Many of my closest friends are moving out and upwards, travelling or starting jobs. I can’t help but worry that I am being left behind, in a rut of formals, libraries, and bad club nights.

I sometimes find myself worrying that I am getting the worst of both worlds: the anxiety and stress of a new course, without the thrill of a new environment. I have suffered with anxiety for many years, and starting university again brings back the feelings of unsettling trepidation, making me feel once more like an 18 year old, desperate to understand everything there is to know about Cambridge.

But this seems like an unnecessarily pessimistic way to look at it. Doing a masters means I can dedicate myself to a topic I love in a place which, despite my fears, will always be my home.

My MPhil topic is looking at the writing of an almost unknown woman, Katherine Austen. Her manuscript was written during “her most saddest years”, a compilation of prayers, household tasks, and poetry. She was widowed, and left vulnerable, yet expected to manage the estate and raise three children. Austen’s writing is characterised by an uncertainty, a sense that this estate deserves a better record than her words can give it:

“Tis an unhappy fate to paint that place
By my unpolisht Lines, with so bad grace
Amidst its beauty if a streame did rise
To clear my mudy braine and misty eyes.”

Writing about Cambridge always feels a little similar; trying to explain the “bubble”, trying to encompass the weird and wonderful world is almost impossible, and leaves me with a muddy brain and misty eyes. But maybe that is what so exciting about coming back for a second round; maybe now I can come to Cambridge with those misty eyes and not expect to understand everything.

So I stand at my crossroads, feeling like I’m about to do a U turn back to the beginning. There will be new people to meet, new books to read, and a new place in life for me to settle into. There is nothing left but to embrace the known unknown, and meet it when it comes.

#summerstories: On Taking a Hiatus from Purpose

Mishal Bandukda

This is my summer truth: I’ve been bored, broke and alone for two months. The summer vacation crept up on me and before I knew it, I was about to spend ten weeks at my parent’s new home, in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, with practically no money to speak of. Now, as September approaches and I prepare to move into an attic room in Cambridge and softly weep into a copy of The Canterbury Tales, I feel happier and more like myself than I can ever remember being.

The anticipation of seeing my home friends morphed into disappointment when one by one they told me they had fully-booked summers. There was nothing to distract me from the inevitable spam of people pretending not to hate their lives which Instagram relentlessly seems to regurgitate at this time of year. The initial weeks of my boredom were not only frustrating, but painful, as I was suddenly confronted with the strained family dynamic I had been avoiding all year. Living at home for three months with your parents when your views on every topic known to man are at odds with each other means that the safest mode of conversation is small talk. It killed me to sit through dinner-table discussions about groceries, the weather and the never-ending saga of my extended family. I became so under stimulated that I started reading for my dissertation as a means of diversion – and that is perhaps the most worrying indication of my mental state.

On top of this, my parents began pestering me to re-start driving lessons, having moved to a place where the public bus is basically a glorified mobility scooter for senior citizens going to and from the local Spar. My desperation for some form of stimulation began to drive me mad. I used Google Maps to direct me to a gym a couple of miles’ walk from the house in a downpour. Hoping to regain some sense of purpose and independence, it turned into a scene from a horror story when:

  1. My umbrella collapsed.
  2. The spare umbrella I had so cleverly brought along also collapsed.
  3. My damp socks slipped down my ankles, prompting my trainers to cut into the back of my feet and draw blood.
  4. Google Maps played Judas, leading me astray for 40 minutes; the deep gashes in my ankles now making me cry out in agony (in the middle of the pavement).

My public humiliation peaked as I stood in my driveway and cried “I hate my life” and was greeted by a nod from a surprised gardener emerging from behind a hedge. It was finally time, I decided, to find myself a driving instructor and ensure that such horrors were never repeated.

Yet a surprising reality hit me as I sat bandaging up my feet back at home: I had been granted the luxury of a summer with nowhere to be and no one to impress; with nothing to do but get to know myself in the most basic, honest capacity. Accepting that fact allowed me to turn my boredom into the most effective kind of mindfulness I’ve experienced. I’ve tried mindfulness techniques before, where I felt that the process of listening to meditative tapes had done nothing but make me overthink every intake of breath and half-formed emotion. I never bought into the voice from the audiobook encouraging me to go to my ‘happy’ place – all it ever did was make me resent the reality I knew I’d be confronted with when I opened my eyes. Sometimes the concept of ‘taking time out’ or ‘making time’ to be mindful in an otherwise hectic day is just another thing to tick off.

I have found creating a ‘happy’ place is in no way helpful to dealing with reality, and as much as I wish I was wrapped up in a pink cloud with a mind as clear as the miles of sky beneath my feet, I’m not. I’m in my living room typing up an article, my lips are chapped and I’ve just worked my way through a family-sized bag of Doritos. I can hear the faint sound of car tyres as they hit the speed bumps on the road outside and the soft slaps of slipper-fabric as my mum rearranges clutter in the conservatory. That’s my reality, and the more actively I allow myself to encounter it, the more my mind feels an overwhelming sense of balance and restfulness.

Not that this is how I want to live. I think, if anything, this hiatus from ‘purpose’ has made me keen to return to my normal, hectic life with more energy and drive, and for once not resent the idea of the holiday period drawing to a close. I feel like I finally know what being well-rested really means, and all it involved was stopping, for a period of time, and not expending energy in chasing a good time, or anyone’s approval. Despite not looking, I somehow managed to find myself this summer, and it wasn’t in Cambodia or Vietnam, it was in Hazel Grove, Greater Manchester.

Song for the summer: 

Stage Talk: Cassia Price on being a woman at the Fringe

Cambridge theatrical communities are well-represented at the Edinburgh Fringe every year. This year there are about 25 shows from current or recently graduated Cambridge students at the Fringe, and countless others from alumni. And they are in good company. Alongside those performers sent from Fen to Firth each year we are joined by Oxford, Bristol, Durham, London, Exeter, Leeds and many other high-achieving universities. Despite any diversity within university communities, a large portion of shows at the Fringe are either all-male or male-dominated.

Walking down The Royal Mile a flyer was thrust toward me saying “All-male acapella group – you look like you’d love it, ladies!”

As we walked away, I thought “why all-male?” Male performance is hardly a unique selling point here at the Fringe. A performer in this year’s Footlights Tour Show, Ania Magliano-Wright pointed out to me that the finalists of the Chortle Student Comedy Award were exclusively male, accompanied by a male compère. The final took place here at the Fringe, and in the website review of the event, there was no mention of the lack of female and non-binary representation. It’s as if it is taken for granted that comedy is a male space. As the make-or-break platform for comedy in the UK and arguably worldwide, it suffers a remarkable lack of diversity.

Because of problems like this, Ania has been working with fellow Fringe performers Ruby Keane and Emma Plowright to create Stockings, an inclusive comedy troupe for women and non-binary people in Cambridge.

Here at the Fringe, rubbing shoulders with the upcoming heroes of performance art from all over the world, Emma points out to me that as Co-Director of the Cambridge Impronauts she had to learn that her opinion was one of the most important in the room. Having authority over male colleagues in theatre can be quite a shock, and Emma and I have both found that directing, especially at the Fringe, has made us find more respect for our own talents and opinions. We have found that relying on our own gumption while working with male cast or crew members can be a challenge, and having female flat-mates or friends to support us has been essential.

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“Having authority over male colleagues in theatre can be quite a shock” (Photo Credit: Charlee Murphy-Frost)

Continue reading Stage Talk: Cassia Price on being a woman at the Fringe

Contribute to Cambridge Girl Talk this summer!

Whether you’ve been exploring far flung places, lounging on the beach, cutting your teeth at an internship or just soaking up some post-term calm and recalibrating, we want to hear your summer stories.

Now accepting articles, fiction, art and photography, please email cambridgegirltalk@gmail.com with a brief introduction to your ideas – we can’t wait to hear from you!

Join us!

Cambridge Girl Talk are looking for a group of enthusiastic self-identifying women to form our 2017-18 committee. Positions include Events Director (x2) Sponsorship Organiser, Social Media Co-ordinator, Blog Editor and Head of Visual. Please send a brief email to cambridgegirltalk@gmail.com introducing yourself, stating which role you are interested in and why before 25th June.

Image: Rose Finn Kelcey, The Restless Image (1975)