Case Study: Sian Cleaver
“Going back [to the Moon] is going to be inspiring for a whole new cohort of people. A large proportion of the world will being seeing this for the first time and I hope that will inspire young people and do wonders for the world of engineering.”
An astronaut in the making
Sian grew up fascinated with the vastness of space: she even remembers a book about astronauts that was at her nursery! When she was five years old she had an opportunity to visit the Kennedy Space Centre with her family, and from that day onwards her mind was set on becoming an astronaut. She joined an astronomy club in school, built and launched rockets in the local park: all of her education journey was shaped around her ambition of one day becoming an astronaut.
“Because I always wanted to be an astronaut and was interested in space, that end goal shaped my career. I did certain GCSEs and A-Levels (physics, maths), I chose certain hobbies.”
Sian hasn’t achieved her dream job yet, but for her it’s all about the journey:
“Whether I achieve that or not [being an astronaut] it allowed me to carve a really, really interesting career and I feel really lucky that I’m doing the thing that I am doing purely because of a decision that I made when I was 5 years old.”
Sian is a spacecraft engineer at Airbus working on the Orion Programme: part of a series of missions which will return humans to the moon.
She is currently working on the support module, which is the bit of the spacecraft just behind the capsule where the astronauts live and work. The support module is a critical part of the vessel, as it provides water, oxygen and power… and propels the spacecraft to the moon. It is powered by four solar panels.
Sian has to be organised and logical at work because part of her job is to manage a list with every single step that is required to put the module together. It’s a bit like the instruction booklet that comes with a Lego set, but Sian’s list tracks 20,000 pieces and 12 kilometres of different-colour wires that needs to be put together in a very specific order, all inside a compact cylinder.
“I think it’s beautiful! It takes my breath away how complex it is, but how beautiful it is at the same time!”
Sian is also responsible for ensuring all the equipment going inside the module arrives on site at the right time so that her team can build it in the correct order. If there is something wrong with an individual part it needs get resolved so it doesn’t compromise the rest of the assembly.
Beyond the Moon… Mars!
Going back to the Moon is a stepping stone to the next stage of space exploration: Mars. The Orion Programme plan is to build a space station around the Moon. Once infrastructure is up and running – perhaps even using resources from the Moon – then future Orion missions could go from the Moon onwards to Mars. That’s something Sian hopes to see in her lifetime.
“There is a generation of people who weren’t alive at the time of the Moon landings. Going back is going to be inspiring for a whole new cohort of people. A large proportion of the world will be seeing this for the first time, and I hope that will inspire young people and do wonders for the world of engineering.”
That said, Sian also believes that the time has come for a more diverse group of people to have the chance to experience the Moon and contribute towards the development of space technology:
“Now is the time for women to go to the Moon. It’s time for Europeans to go to the Moon. It’s time for a whole diverse crowd of people to start accessing the Moon and opening up to the whole world!”
The power of languages
Sian learned Russian at secondary school. She thought the language was super cool and linked well with her love of space.
“When I was younger, I was very dismissive of languages. I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted to do physics and really didn’t think I needed languages. But now, I’m like: of course you need languages! The more languages you know in Europe the more opportunities it opens up for your career!”
Working in the space industry often requires a global collaboration between many countries such as Europe, Russia, USA, UAE – all sharing knowledge, working together for a common goal. Sian really enjoys this side of her job, as it makes her open-minded to others from different backgrounds.
“You learn about food, culture and jokes in other languages, it’s really fun. It adds a whole new dimension to the office having people from different nationalities and cultures.”
Outside of work
When she’s not building her way to space, Sian enjoys gliding and scuba diving. She says Scuba diving transports you to another world, and is the closest experience on Earth to being in space!
logical, open-minded, organised
A-Levels, Degree, Physics
Case Study: Sophie Robinson
“One of the good things about engineering is that there are a lot of opportunities where you can use your skillset to make a difference, and make a difference in lots of different fields as well!”
Sophie grew up in a working class family from a mining village in the North of England. As a child, she remembers wanted to be an astronaut and being fascinated with Lego (she claims to have had the equivalent of her body weight in Lego!) and Meccano. Her parents encouraged her to go to university: they saw it as a good route to a professional job. Sophie recalls:
“When I was young I was always really into maths and science. I would have done a pure maths degree but there was something always nagging in the back of my mind […] I always wanted something more practical.”
With this combination of academic interests and practicality, she thinks engineering became an “inevitable” career path.
After she finished a PhD in flight mechanics from the University of Liverpool, Sophie got involved in many projects as an aerospace engineer. It’s a job she describes as being involved in the whole lifecycle of anything that flies: design, certification, operation, maintenance and safe disposal (decommissioning).
Sophie’s currently a senior flight dynamics engineer at Vertical Aerospace, a company working on creating the world’s first commercial eVTOL aircraft – electric vertical take-off and landing. It’s planned as an air taxi, to transport people and goods on short journeys.
Vertical’s aircraft will be 100% electric, affordable, and could help ease road traffic in densely populated areas.
“All of the technologies to make this kind vehicle happen exist, we are not conjuring things out of thin air that don’t exist at the moment. It’s all about bringing those technologies together into a package to make it happen.”
A lifetime achievement
In her current role Sophie is responsible for the simulator that will train pilots to fly the aircraft: she needs to be creative and logical. She also studies the performance of the air taxi, in particular how manipulating the controls translates into aircraft motion. The air taxi will be a once-in-a-lifetime achievement for Sophie and her colleagues, so she tells us that hard work is essential.
“Why did I become an engineer in first place? Because I wanted to be involved in projects like this, it’s completely innovative! That is human nature, we always want to find the next step, the next new thing. How can we put together the different technologies we’ve developed?”
Nothing great is easy
Outside of work. Sophie enjoys travel and particularly swimming. In 2012 she swam the English Channel, inspired by the first person to do so, Captain Webb, who said, “Nothing great is easy”. She has his quote as a tattoo.
“I am a mermaid when I’m not an engineer!”
She often colours her hair a different colour as this makes people notice and remember her. She says it‘s a good conversation starter!
Case Study: Rory Harris
Rory is a Science Communication placement student with UKRI Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)
Rory studies Physics at the University of Manchester. As part of his degree, he has taken a one year placement with STFC as a science communicator. He loves science and after finishing his GCSE’s he chose to study Maths, Further Maths and Physics at college.
Communicating science with the public
Rory collaborates with scientists to tell the public about the work they are doing. He has great communication skills and can explain why science is important and what it all means in an easy way.
“My job is to tell everyone all about the great work being done by particle physicists!”
Science communication is very important, a scientist’s work is a lot more useful if everyone knows about it and can understand it too! As part of his job, Rory is also hard-working as he ensures he meets deadlines for news articles and social media updates during his placement.
Whilst studying at university, Rory volunteered at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, giving public tours and answering questions about exhibits.
He really enjoyed doing this and found it was great helping engage people with science. Now, on his placement Rory has helped to create some exhibits for their visitor centre as well!
Science Communicator (Placement Student)
collaborative, Communicator, hard-working
A-Levels, Further Mathematics, Mathematics, Physics, Physics, Placement
Case Study: Emmanuel Olaiya
Emmanuel is a particle physicist working at the Particle Physics Department with STFC.
A passion for physics and travelling
Emmanuel studied maths, physics and chemistry for his A-levels. However it was his passion for physics which push him into university and beyond.
“Physics was always my favourite subject and for further education I wanted to do something that I enjoyed so I studied physics at university and then completed a particle physics PhD”
After finishing his degree at university, Emmanuel continued to study towards a PhD in particle physics. This opportunity allowed him to travel the world. He lived in Geneva in Switzerland for a year to do his PhD. Then after that he moved to California, USA to work on a particle detector for 4 years.
“Another one of the great things about my job is it has enabled me to live in other parts of the world.“
He lived in Geneva, Switzerland, for a year to do his PhD. Then after that he moved to California, USA to work on a particle detector for 4 years.
Being a particle physicist
According to Emmanuel the job of a particle physicist can be described as follows:
“I investigate the smallest particles and the forces they interact with. To do this I work with physicists around the world on experiments that detect what happens when you collide particles together at very high energies.”
Emmanuel is logical as he programs hundreds of computers to help him identify particles that are produced in accelerator collisions. He needs to be self- motivated because these experiments create so much data which needs looking through carefully. Emmanuel looks through the data creatively hoping to find missing particles that can explain how massive the Universe is.
“My main ambition is to detect particles that could explain Dark Matter which we believe form the majority of particles out there in space.”
Always learning new things
Emmanuel is always learning physics through his job. He also gets to teach physics and write research papers which he enjoys a lot. Other tasks involve spending time computer programming and working on detector development which he finds very interesting.
“I really love how varied and stimulating my job is.”
In his spare time, Emmanuel loves to explore his beautiful surroundings by hiking or cycling. He also loves to go skiing, something that he found he really enjoyed whilst working in Geneva.
creative, logical, self-motivated
A-Levels, Chemistry, Mathematics, PhD, Physics, Physics, Research
Case Study: Mika Shearwood
Mika is a Software Engineering Apprentice with the STFC.
Route into software engineering apprentice.
Mika studied maths, further maths and physics at A Level and they knew that university wasn’t the right pathway for them. Mika decided to take a gap year to gain work experience and save money to prepare for the future. During their gap year, they have applied to lots of apprenticeships before being successful at securing a STFC placement.
“I knew for a long time that I wanted to be an apprentice instead of going to university, so I spent a gap year getting work experience “
The many roles of software engineers
Every day is different for a software engineer. Sometimes they are writing code, talking to databases, fixing websites and more. These are the types of task that Mika does during their apprentice: learning bits of everything. Mika also gets opportunities to deliver talks to the public about coding or being an apprentice:
“I do lots of things, work with lots of lovely people, and there’s always lots of talks, events and news to join in on. With all the stuff going on the word I’d use is ‘exciting’. It creates so many opportunities for me to take if I want to! “
Creativity is important
Mika believes that creativity is an important skill for their apprenticeship:
“I am a creative person and I am able to apply this in a lot of ways to my work: designing websites and software for others to use, and my personal favourite of writing and hosting a virtual Python workshop for work experience students”
A passion for media
Mika takes their creativity beyond work and into a lot of hobbies: music and video-making are two of Mika’s favourite hobbies and they can be mixed together for musical theatre which Mika loves to be involved with!
On top of all of these hobbies, Mika still has time for friends and loves to play video games with them.
Software Engineering Apprentice
creative, organised, self-motivated
Apprenticeship, Further Mathematics, GCSEs, Mathematics, Physics
Case Study: Dr Juna Sathian
Juna is a photonics physicist working at Northumbria University.
Photonics is the branch of physics that studies light and the technologies that create it. Juna is curious about finding new applications of photonics technology. She is particularly interested in improving a type of laser which uses alexandrite crystals to make these lasers more affordable and compact. She explains:
This technology should play an important technological role as the next generation of low-cost, high-brightness light sources in a range of scientific, medical and industrial applications.
Masers: microwaves + lasers
After finishing her physics studies in Australia, Juna moved to the UK, where she worked on masers and lasers. Masers are like lasers but they produce beams of microwaves instead of light.
The downside of masers, Juna says, is that they only work at very cold temperatures. Juna was part of the research team that developed a maser that could operate at room-temperature. This will make masers cheaper and easier to use.
As part of her job, Juna has been teaching physics to undergraduate students for a few years now and really enjoys it:
I love the freedom for scientific research, teaching and mentoring students, all in one job!
Juna’s advice to young people
Focus on your goal and be honest at work, you won’t be disappointed.
Outside of her work, Juna is a big fan of history. She loves reading about past civilisations and visiting places of historic interest. One of the favourite places she visited was the Taj_Mahal. Juna also enjoys pencil drawing and drew the diagram below showing all different aspects of science and STEM.
collaborative, curious, passionate
A-Levels, Degree, PhD, Physics
Case Study: Melinda Baptista
Melinda is currently studying for a Mathematics Degree at the Dundee University.
Melinda took maths, further maths, physics and chemistry for her A-levels and she had great support from her teachers and family to explore maths and physics:
“I had a female Physics teacher, which I thought was really cool”
Looking back at her own education she mentions that ” I think science taught me to be more inquisitive […] a lot of people thinks that maths is about finding an answer, but it’s not. It’s about how do you find the answer, and how you can then use that answer in other scenarios.”
Women in Science Society
Her own experience of being the only girl in her Physics class at secondary school led Melinda to join forces with others at Dundee University to co-found a Women in Science Society. She is happy to take the lead in projects, and is very proud of the society.
We started last year, and it’s nice to get lots of women in STEM together and talk about the issues we face […] We have a series running called My future self where we have women at different stages of their careers coming in and giving talks about their career progression, where they started, where do they want to be and I think it really inspires everyone to pursue their career aspirations [..] We want to start doing outreach with primary schools and secondary schools in the area to really encourage the growth of science capital.
Melinda’s advice to young people
Keep being inquisitive, keep asking questions and keep making contact everywhere you go […] always writes people’s emails down and try to find out ways to further progress in STEM. […] Ask your teachers if they know of any summer schools or programmes and things [you] could get involved in.
Reading books & travelling the world
When she is not busy with her studies Melinda likes to to spend her time reading and travelling: “I recently challenged myself to read a book a week and it’s going well. I am currently reading a book called algorithms to live by which is about human decision-making and is really interesting because then you start looking how to to plan your day […] I live in Scotland which is a really beautiful country and I love travel around the Highlands […] in Europe, Berlin is my favourite city to go to every summer.”
Confidence, Leadership, Tenacity
A-Levels, Mathematics, Physics
Case Study: Milly Kelly
Originally from Durham, Milly took a two week work experience placement with Think Physics to support her in finding out more about physics at university. Milly also volunteers at Kielder Observatory, one of our project partners, where she enjoys learning more about astronomy and helping other people learn more too. Her other hobbies include singing, playing the guitar, spending time with friends and –rather randomly – working as a ‘beater’ for the grouse shooting! She offers a key piece of safety advice for anyone interested in that line of work:
“Don’t get shot.”
A former student of Wolsingham 6th Form, Milly studied A levels in Biology, Chemistry and Physics, originally aiming towards a career in medicine. However as the courses progressed she started to study areas such as quantum physics, and physics became her favoured subject. Her studies have allowed Milly to develop skills including:
- An understanding of physics and astrophysics
- Physics has cemented Milly’s interests in astrophysics and volunteering, thus allowing Milly to indulge her passion further as well as meet new friends with similar interests
- Develop investigation, analytical and questioning skills
- Become a more accomplished researcher
In late 2015, Milly started a foundation degree in physics at Kent University. Having not studied Maths at A level she’s having to do this extra year, but she reports that she’s loving it, and the time is allowing her to explore the options available later in the course. She currently thinks she’ll focus on astrophysics and space science.
Milly reports her inspirations as:
- A talk by Princeton University’s Professor Jenny Greene in 2014 at the Centre for Life, about stars, galaxies and black holes
- Gary Fildes from Kielder; his talks and passion for astronomy are inspiring
- Her mum, who has fully supported her desire to pursue physics (even more so after the talk by Greene)
- Brian Cox and his ‘night with the stars’ series, which she watched with friends
- Physics teacher Mr Coates, whose enthusiasm was infectious, super supportive and encouraging
Milly’s advice to others:
“Don’t pick a career, rather take subjects that open up pathways and keep your options open. Studying science has allowed me to consider a number of different options.”
Physics student and volunteer at Kielder Observatory
Guitarist, physicist and astronomer, Milly is studying a foundation year to cover what she missed by not taking maths A-level, before going on to a full physics degree at the University of Kent.
communication, independent, leader
A-Levels, Degree, Physics
Case Study: Caitlin Pugh
Originally from Doncaster, Caitlin began a BSc degree course in Physics & Astrophysics at Northumbria University in 2014.
In year 12, Caitlin studied Physics, Maths, Chemistry, Biology and General Studies AS Levels. She carried on with Physics, Maths and Chemistry to A2. Physics was her favourite subject:
“I find it fascinating how much we know about the universe, and equally how much there is still to learn. It’s such a fast-developing subject and I want to play some part in it. To me, physics is the most important subject, and that’s why I chose it.”
As for her studies at Northumbria:
“I am really enjoying the course, it’s structured well and our grades come from a mixture of exams and coursework. Most of the content so far has been consolidating the things I learned at A level and then taking them slightly further. I have enjoyed this because I expected to be thrown in at the deep end and swamped with work from the start, however the course really eases you in and lets you settle into uni life before becoming more challenging.
“One of the best things about studying here is the support available, I know where to find my tutors and I know they will be happy to help if I’m having a problem with the content. If you send them an email, they always respond quickly and with helpful advice. Also, there are no shortage of places to sit and work or just to sit and talk to your course friends.”
Caitlin might stay on for a Master’s course after her BSc degree — an extra year of study that’s more about independent learning than a taught course, and is often a stepping-stone to a research career. She’s looking to use her astrophysics knowledge, so her dream job would be working for a space agency, but before she has to make any decisions she has a year in industry as part of her course. So everything could change!
Caitlin’s advice for others
“Choose something you enjoy, but also something that opens lots of doors. University is a huge investment, not just of money, but time as well. There’s no point studying a subject for three years that you might really enjoy, but then at the end of it not being able to find a good job afterwards. I chose Physics because I know that even if I don’t get a Physics-related job when I graduate, I’ve still gained an array of useful skills that employers look for. Choosing a degree subject should be a balance between what you enjoy and what is going to benefit you the most in the future.”
Undergraduate Physics student at Northumbria University
When not in the lab or lecture theatre, Caitlin watches a lot of Netflix, drinks a lot of tea, and sits in the kitchen chatting to her flatmates. Sometimes all at once.
Her favourite topic within physics:
“Particles, Waves and the Big Bang. We learned about what the universe was thought to have been like tiny fractions of a second after the Big Bang, and what’s caused it to be the universe we know today.”
curiosity, passion, resilience
A-Levels, Degree, Physics, Physics
Case Study: Ann Cairns
Ann was born and raised in Ashington, Northumberland, and is now President of International Markets for the global financial services company MasterCard. In our film, Ann recalls feeling inspired in 1969 when she looked up to the moon and tried to wrap her head around somebody standing on it. She went on to study Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and took degrees in maths and statistics at Sheffield and Newcastle Universities. Staying in the North-East, she worked for Transco in Killingworth, and became the first woman to work offshore on the oil rigs.
Ann was born and raised in Ashington, Northumberland, and is now President of International Markets for the global financial services company MasterCard.
In our film, Ann recalls feeling inspired in 1969 when she looked up to the moon and tried to wrap her head around somebody standing on it. She went on to study Maths, Physics and Chemistry, and took degrees in maths and statistics at Sheffield and Newcastle Universities.
Staying in the North-East, she worked for Transco in Killingworth, and became the first woman to work offshore on the oil rigs.
Like many people, Ann switched paths, in her case moving from engineering and statistics into management and the finance industry. She’s now risen to the post of President of International Markets for MasterCard Worldwide, and is a regular presence on lists of the most powerful women in business (Forbes list; BBC list).
When Think Physics caught up with her on one of her regular visits back to the North-East, we expected a hard-nosed, hectic businessperson – but instead found Ann both approachable and entertaining. Chatting to us, she described how the skills she learned serving coffees at Newcastle Central Station in her teens are still useful to her today.
Her achievements are clearly the results of hard work and determination, but Ann also reckons business success stems from how you relate to and communicate with others; to resilience; and to having a great sense of humour. All qualities, she notes, for which people from the North-East are renowned.
President, International Markets, Mastercard
Ann began her career by studying physics, maths and statistics and nearing the end of her career is the President of International for MasterCard… wow! She loves sailing and travelling; her favourite place is the Galapagos Islands. Ann currently lives in London, but travels back to the North East regularly with her husband (a former Marden High School teacher) and their pet, Dog.
analytical, communication, Humour
A-Levels, Chemistry, Degree, Physics, Statistics
Cookie and Privacy Settings
Click on the different category headings to find out more. You can also change some of your preferences. Note that blocking some types of cookies may impact your experience on our websites and the services we are able to offer.
These cookies are strictly necessary to provide you with services available through our website and to use some of its features.
We provide you with a list of stored cookies on your computer in our domain so you can check what we stored. Due to security reasons we are not able to show or modify cookies from other domains. You can check these in your browser security settings.
These cookies collect information that is used either in aggregate form to help us understand how our website is being used or how effective our marketing campaigns are, or to help us customize our website and application for you in order to enhance your experience.
If you do not want that we track your visit to our site you can disable tracking in your browser here:
We also use different external services like Google Webfonts, Google Maps, and external Video providers. Since these providers may collect personal data like your IP address we allow you to block them here. Please be aware that this might heavily reduce the functionality and appearance of our site. Changes will take effect once you reload the page.
Google Webfont Settings:
Google Map Settings:
Google reCaptcha Settings:
Vimeo and Youtube video embeds:
The following cookies are also needed - You can choose if you want to allow them: