Space women connect with Ayrshire female STEM students

For National Women in Engineering Day 2016, we are delighted to share the thoughts of three leading women in science and engineering who spent all of last week at Ayrshire College with 200 school pupils and students on the International Space School Educational Trust’s (ISSET) Mission Discovery Programme.

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Sarah Murray is Assistant Division Chief of EVA, Robotic and Crew Systems at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). On Monday 13 June, Sarah was the keynote speaker at the launch of Ayrshire Connects – a mentoring network for female STEM students across the college to connect to each other, to students in other colleges and universities, to employers and women in the industry sectors they aspire to enter, and to senior pupils in secondary schools across Ayrshire.

Here’s what Sarah and her colleagues had to say about women in science, technology, engineering and maths.


Sarah Murray, NASA’s Assistant Division Chief of EVA, Robotic and Crew Systems, speaking at the launch of Ayrshire Connects

It was my love of math that sparked the initial interest in electrical engineering for me. When I looked for something to study, the main thing I looked at was ‘where can I use my math?’ And electrical engineering was a great choice.

I am absolutely impressed by how Ayrshire College is engaging with young females into STEM. Especially when looking at the statistics that were shown of the small percentage of women in mathematics, technology and engineering.

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I thought it was a great idea to bring these young women together so they can network and hear my story. If they got something out of it – and it seems like they did – then I’m really glad I was able to inspire them. This is a great venue for an event like this.

If they could take just one thing from my talk it would be: know what your goals are and no matter what bumps you hit in the road, just get over them and keep pushing. You need support, determination, and perseverance to reach your goals. You’re always going to run into obstacles so whether you go over them, under them, or through them, don’t let them deter you.


Rhonda Foale, who worked at NASA for eight years, speaking during Mission Discovery 

I remember Neil Armstrong walking on the moon on my 11th birthday. That was really exciting.

I was really interested in Geology and the University of Houston had Space Geology, which I thought was fascinating. So, when the Space Science programme became known to me I was thrilled about that.

I worked for NASA for eight years in the Remote Manipulator System section. The arm was physically connected to the Space Shuttle and it would be used to lift things out of the cargo bay and then deploy them into space. I worked space missions in Mission Control and I also worked with the Canadians for a visual system that would help the astronauts use the arm to put the Space Station together. I enjoyed NASA very much. NASA has a great, almost family like atmosphere to work in.

I’ve also worked in the oil industry, which was definitely male dominated. It’s really good to just do your best, you don’t want them to treat you differently – you just want them to treat you professionally. Do your job really well. A woman is perfectly capable of doing these jobs. NASA, being a government agency, automatically want to set a good example, so they seek out women and minorities. It’s very fulfilling working on teams towards really interesting goals. Women can do it and it’s very rewarding.

My advice to young women would be to at least consider science and engineering. Because there are fascinating things you can do that can allow you to have a really fulfilling career in many fields. Come to a space school and get a great experience, learn to work in teams and give presentations. It’s something that you can try and be amazed by how much you like it.

I’ve been working loosely with Scottish space schools for about 15 years, and I’ve seen students get really enthusiastic and say “I never even considered this before, I didn’t realise and now I’m so glad I came to this because now I see all of these opportunities that are open to me”. We hear from these students after a year and they’ve just really blossomed and love what they’re doing.


Julie Keeble, Chief Scientist with ISSET, speaking at the launch of Ayrshire Connects

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First of all, I’d like to say this is probably the best Women in STEM event that I’ve been to during my career!

Having someone like Sarah Murray – who’s so inspirational to me (and I’ve been working in space for a while) – there’s no doubt that the students would have got something from it in what you can do if you believe in yourself and you keep on trying. If you don’t give up, and go through every door that opens, try your hardest in any position you do regardless of the tasks, you will get somewhere.

Last week one day I was part of a team scooping eggs off the floor, another week I’m sending experiments to the International Space Station. Working as a team means doing every part of that job that helps the team as a whole – regardless of what level the job is. People notice that you work hard and you never know where that will take you.

Events like Mission Discovery are excellent for young women. These events were not available to me when I was younger and so my career options were very narrow as a result of that – I had to get to university before I knew which options were available. To have young people from schools and Ayrshire College being able to see what is possible is brilliant. It shouldn’t be that you have to wait until you’re in your 20’s before you realise what you want to do. These events help you determine that at an earlier age and then you can look forward to having those aspirations.

The ISSET Mission Discovery programme encourages students to believe in their dreams, to work in their teams and believe that anything is possible. At the end of this week’s Mission Discovery – one of these teams will be having their experiment sent up to the International Space Station. You can’t beat that. What I say to winning students is – when you apply to university and apply for jobs, when they see on your CV that you’ve sent an experiment to the International Space Station – you’re going to get an interview!

Mission Discovery changes lives, regardless of whether the students taking part win the final prize or not. Everyone who enters the programme is a winner because they change over the week. They get team building skills, they increase their confidence, and we have different pupils on Friday to the ones who came on Monday. I still get inspired by Mission Discovery programme, and I’ve done several of the programmes, but it never fails to make me feel like we’re changing lives.


If you would like to find out more about Ayrshire Connects please contact Jackie Galbraith at jackie.galbraith@ayrshire.ac.uk

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