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.
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.
What do you like about it? / what’s the coolest thing you’ve done so far?
I love the challenge that my new job brings. Every day, I’m pushed to explore new subjects and new tasks with some of the most motivated, encouraging, and positive people I’ve ever encountered. The coolest thing I’ve done so far has been settling down with my new team in the flight operations and astronaut office. This diverse group has achieved outstanding things while remaining welcoming and open.
…and what do you dislike about it?
How did your Cambridge experience prepare you for where you are now?
Cambridge prepared me with the technical background I need in my new role. While in Cambridge, I also had the opportunity to work in another motivated and diverse team. My previous lab was full of outstandingly intelligent scientists and engineers from all over the world. I’m glad to have had that experience while studying and working in Cambridge.
Cambridge is a unique environment. I’ll miss the students the most. They’re engaged and interested, making my job as a lecturer and supervisor straightforward.
What needs to be done for more women to careers and degrees in STEM?
We need more visible female role models in STEM fields. We also need to change the reputation of these careers and subjects. They involve employing creativity and science to improve peoples’ lives. They are for everyone.
What are your hopes for the next year?
To absorb as much as I possibly can in this new environment.
What’s your pipe dream?
Name three women you look up to and why.
Professor Dame Ann Dowling, Professor Dame Athene Donald, and Professor Mary Beard. These women are inspirational, successful, and interactive role models in highly technical and often male dominated fields.
Do you have any advice for current undergraduates and recent graduates deciding on careers and worried about job prospects?
I would advise people to stay hungry and determined. True grit is important for success as setbacks are numerous and inevitable. Choose something you love and commit fully.
(Main photo credit: Canadian Space Agency)