In her current role at the CSIRO, Sarah leads the national science agency’s space program.
When Dr Sarah Pearce was a child, she wanted to be an actor for a little while, and at one point dreamed of growing up to become a barrister. It was about mid-way through high school in the UK that she became increasingly interested in science. Then a week-long summer stint at space school when she was 17 set her on a trajectory that would eventually lead to her current role leading the CSIRO’s space program.
After high school, Sarah kicked off a physics degree at Oxford University in 1990 – intentionally seeking out a college that she had been told was particularly welcoming of women in the male-dominated field. It’s an approach she feels has held her in good stead throughout her STEM career.
“As I’ve worked in different jobs, I’ve always tried to choose places I knew were supportive not just of women, but their staff in general. My advice would be to find an organisation that is flexible and really values what you do,” she says.
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After her undergrad, Sarah completed a PhD at Leicester University – spending much of that time, she recalls, working in a basement vacuum chamber lab. Her research involved calibrating one of the detectors for the Chandra telescope that would be launched in 1999.
During her PhD, in 1994, Sarah also spent 10 weeks on a summer program in Barcelona as part of International Space University – which, like that week back when she was 17 – proved to be formative.
“It was an amazing experience and also a great introduction to the whole range of space activities because you do everything from engineering to social science,” she says. The program was also an opportunity to meet like-minded people – many of whom, like Sarah, now have leading roles in the space sector all over the world. And one of whom was an Australian who Sarah would go on to marry, eventually leading to her relocation to the clear skies of Down Under.
“If you look at the start of my career and where I am now it looks like a linear path, but it hasn’t really been like that at all,” says Sarah. Instead of going straight into research or the space industry after finishing her PhD, Sarah pursued her growing interest in policy implementation, and spent a couple of years working in the UK government and parliament as a science advisor.
“I didn’t have the standard research career progression,” she points out. Sarah wants to stress that there is no one right way to build a career. “You don’t have to necessarily do what people expect , you can do what you’re interested in.”
Sarah says her experience in policy and government has been extremely valuable in her current role at the CSIRO, where she not only leads the national science agency’s space program, but is also responsible for CSIRO’s engagements on the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) – an intergovernmental radio telescope project, proposed to be built in Australia and South Africa. “That’s a lot of international negotiations, planning and research and development,” she explains. “My experience in policy and government has been really useful in my work on the SKA.”
This year, Sarah was awarded NSW Telstra Business Woman of the Year. She applied for the award partly to raise the profile of Australia’s world-leading radio astronomy work, and partly to be a more visible role model for young women with their sights set on a STEM career in space.
“There weren’t a lot of women as STEM role models when I was growing up and there weren’t a lot of women in my physics classes when I was at university,” she says.
“I think it’s important that people get a more inclusive view of what a scientist looks like and that this could be a career for them.”
Asked if there has been a highlight of her career thus far, Sarah points to the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moonwalk last year in 2019. She hosted the celebrations at the Parkes Telescope, famous for its role in 1969 helping to transmit images back to Earth of Neil Armstrong taking humanity’s first steps on the Moon. More than 20,000 people visited the observatory over that anniversary weekend, and the original moonwalk footage was streamed to the crowd.
“It was very exciting to see not just people who’d been alive during Apollo 11, but whole new generations being inspired about space and what might happen next.”
Mini space race
As for what does come next – Sarah says she’s excited to see the increasing democratisation of the space industry, with technology enabling entrepreneurs, university groups and small businesses and start-ups to launch their own miniature satellites, called CubeSats, into space.
But not all space careers are about looking out into the cosmos – in fact, Sarah says there’s probably a space career to match any passion, whether its policy, law, archaeology or the environment and combating climate change.
“Whatever you’re interested in, if you’re interested in space as well, you can find a career in that area,” she says. “Everyone thinks space is about rockets, but a lot of it is about solving problems here on Earth.”
Author: Gemma Chilton
Gemma has a degree in journalism from the University of Technology, Sydney and spent a semester studying environmental journalism in Denmark. She has been writing about science and engineering for over a decade.