Reaching for the Stars

Maggie Aderin-Pocock darts through a maze of dark corridors of the high-security satellite works at the space firm Astrium in Stevenage, U.K. A locked door opens into a vast, bright room, where the bones of a satellite hang overhead: a gigantic metallic cube packed with wires and electronics. “This is Aeolus,” she beams. The satellite is designed to monitor wind speed in Earth’s atmosphere, and Aderin-Pocock, who heads Astrium’s optical instrumentation unit in Portsmouth, designed an optical receiver for its wind-speed detector, the Atmospheric Laser Doppler Lidar Instrument. People in white coats are busy tweaking the space-bound shell. “It takes a different kind of electronics to work in space,” Aderin-Pocock whispers. A regular digital camera, she says, “would stop working up there.”

“[Scientists] get more passionate about their work than most, and people don’t see that. It’s up to [scientists] to go out, maybe back to their own schools, and tell people about what they do.” –Maggie Aderin-Pocock

Listening to Aderin-Pocock describe the satellite, it’s hard to miss her enthusiasm for space science and her knack for explaining technical information–a skill she uses in her outreach company, Science Innovation Ltd., which she runs in her spare time. Aderin-Pocock started Science Innovation to get people excited about science and space. “[Scientists] get more passionate about their work than most, and people don’t see that,” Aderin-Pocock says. She wants more people to share scientists’ enthusiasm for science. “It’s up to [scientists] to go out, maybe back to their own schools, and tell people about what they do.”

Astro aspirations

Born to Nigerian parents in Camden, north London, Aderin-Pocock fell in love with space at about age 6 when she came across a book in her local library. “It had this astronaut on the cover floating in space with the Earth behind him,” she says, “and I thought, ‘Wow, I really want to do that!’ ” Later, the young Aderin-Pocock was transfixed by Carl Sagan’s television series, Cosmos, which took viewers on a journey through space. “I remember sitting in my living room watching this supernova, and the whole room filled with light.”

In high school, Aderin-Pocock struggled with English and history classes but excelled in science and math. At 15, she saved up her allowance to buy a telescope from Argos, a British general-goods store, “but it wasn’t very good at all. … I was really disappointed.” So Aderin-Pocock enrolled in a build-your-own-telescope class in London, where she made her first space instrument. “I think that’s what led me to the career I had,” she says, “the idea that I could polish this mirror myself and point it up at the night sky and see the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter.”

One of Aderin-Pocock’s first jobs in the late 1990s was working on missile-warning systems, a job that involved her leaning out an airborne airplane door and photographing plumes of missiles tethered on the ground below. The work was “quite James Bond,” Aderin-Pocock says

Aderin-Pocock’s father encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine, but she was drawn to physics. “To me, physics is the study of everything, from the smallest particles known to man to the edge of the universe,” she gushes. “And I’m really inquisitive, so it was just the subject for me.”

During her studies at Imperial College London, she says she hoped to become a theoretical physicist, adding, “but with the dyslexia and everything else, that probably wasn’t going to happen.” So she earned a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering instead, designing optics to pick apart the components of engine oils. Aderin-Pocock “stood out from the crowd” as a determined, hard-working student, recalls her 1st-year tutor David Southwood, now director of science at the European Space Agency (ESA). “She had such enthusiasm,” he says, “and she wouldn’t let me off the hook if she didn’t understand” something.

When she finished her Ph.D. in the mid-1990s, jobs were scarce–the United Kingdom was emerging from a recession–but Aderin-Pocock was offered a job at the U.K. Ministry of Defence making missile-warning systems. The fieldwork was “quite James Bond,” she jokes: Strapped in by a harness, Aderin-Pocock leaned out of an aircraft door midflight to photograph and monitor the behavior of missiles fired below.

But Aderin-Pocock had qualms about working for the military: “I was a bit of a pacifist. I made sure I was helping people and on the defensive rather than the offensive side.” Such principles led her to focus on the company’s more humanistic endeavors, such as developing handheld land-mine detectors. The design for that was a huge challenge, Aderin-Pocock says, as the team had to pack three types of technology–metal detection, ground-penetrating radar, and nuclear quadrupole resonance–into a handheld box while keeping the cost and power consumption low.

Back to the stars

Aderin-Pocock still longed to work in space. So in 1999 she moved to University College London to work on instrumentation for the Gemini South Telescope, an 8-meter telescope based in Chile. The instrument she worked on–bHROS–was a high-resolution spectrograph used to “probe the heart of stars” and find out what elements are being generated inside. After building her own telescope as a child, Aderin-Pocock found working on the Gemini Telescope exciting.

Five years later, Aderin-Pocock moved to SIRA, a space-instrumentation company, where she specialized in optics. The company was later bought by Surrey Satellites, which in turn was acquired by Astrium, her current employer. Now her job includes everything from lab work to project management. “Sometimes I’m in the lab actually handling hardware and doing optical tests and things like that, which I find really good fun. I like the hands-on,” she says. “Other times I’m looking at putting bids together, [which] might involve putting a bid to ESA to propose an instrument, … looking at the electronics, and coordinating the team to do this.”

Recently, she’s been working on the Aeolus satellite, which will measure wind speed, one of the biggest unknown variables in trying to predict climate change, Aderin-Pocock says. “Weather is all interconnected. … Lightning storms in Ethiopia can be linked with hurricanes in the Americas,” she explains. “So if you understand the wind, you can actually see how it affects the bigger picture.” Aderin-Pocock is also helping to coordinate the development of the Mid-Infrared Instrument for the James Webb Space Telescope, the planned replacement for the Hubble, and working with Imperial College on other infrared instruments for monitoring climate change.

Aderin-Pocock talks with great fervor about every job she’s had. “Sometimes I wish I’d got into space earlier,” she laments, “but I think I’m glad I took the beta route, as that way I could pick up more skills along the way.” She adds: “It proves my Ph.D. really gave me a large toolbox.”

Selling science

In recent years, Aderin-Pocock has been using her enthusiasm to inspire children to pursue science careers via her outreach company. While not working on satellite devices, she visits schools, taking younger children on a computer-simulated “Tour of the Universe” and talking to older ones about the highlights of her career in science. It’s apparent that she’s passionate about the cause and saddened by the drop in children taking up sciences, saying that it’s getting harder to recruit people for her space teams. “I just don’t think we’re selling it very well to people at all,” she says.

In 2006, Aderin-Pocock was awarded a Science in Society Fellowship from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (now the Science and Technology Facilities Council). The fellowship enables scientists to devote more of their working time to public outreach work. This year, she helped launch She is an Astronomer, , an international campaign addressing women’s issues and part of the International Year of Astronomy 2009, in the United Kingdom. Aderin-Pocock has appeared on several TV shows and news programs, talking about science education and her work, and she’s currently working as a science consultant on a new BBC drama. Earlier this year, Aderin-Pocock was given a Member of the Order of the British Empire award for service to science, an honor bestowed by the Queen of England.

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