Space researcher shares her inspiring story and advice to young women and girls hoping to work in STEM

Posted by: Jamie Sharp - Posted on:

To mark International Women’s Day, a young researcher at the University of Leicester is sharing her journey to becoming a planetary scientist.

Dr Hannah Sargeant, Research Fellow in Aerospace Engineering, works in the field of lunar exploration and space resources, with a particular interest in supporting long duration missions to the Moon and beyond.

Hannah explains the journey to finding her feet in space research, her passion for STEM outreach work, and her advice to young women and girls who may be considering a career in the field.

What sparked your interest in space, and what age were you?

I have always been interested in space from a young age; I was a big fan of the movie Apollo 13 and all things space-related. I was lucky enough to go to Florida when I was 15 years old on a family holiday and we saw a space shuttle launch, which blew my mind and made me think I would love to work in the industry.

Can you talk us through your career path to date?

My career path has not been the most conventional. I started out completing my undergraduate degree in Physics at the University of Sheffield, where I had a bit of tough time and did not do as well as I hoped. I thought that might be the end of it for me in terms of space research, and went on to train and work as a Maths and Physics teacher for students aged 11-18 years.

However, I decided to go back to being a student myself after I came across the MSc course in Space Exploration Systems at the University of Leicester and instantly fell in love with it. I did really well on the course which helped me to regain my confidence and prove to myself that I was capable. 

Inspired by this, I went on to complete my PhD in Planetary Science with the Open University. I then held a few different post-doctoral positions, including at the University of Central Florida, before joining Leicester in January 2023.

Can you explain your area of research?

My focus is around the search for and use of resources in space that help to support a Moon base, or other missions on or around the Moon or Mars. This involves the search for water or using alternative power, such as space nuclear power instead of solar power, if you are going to places without a lot of sunlight. Essentially it is about getting the different resources and technology that we need to support human space travel.

The University of Leicester has a high number of female researchers working in space, and, of course, we have Professor Emma Bunce as the Head of Physics and Astronomy. Then, there’s our Chancellor Dame Maggie Aderin-Pocock who is an award-winning space scientist. As a woman, how does it feel to be part of this group?

It feels like an absolute privilege to work at a place where women researchers are highly successful and celebrated. It really sets an example as to what our students and researchers at Leicester can go on to achieve.

Back when I was teaching, the whole Physics department was made up of women, and we had an equal split of male and female students in our classes – which is rarely seen elsewhere. I think this demonstrates how having that representation in leadership roles can really help to inspire the next generation.

What message do you think it sends out to young women and girls who may have thought space research was only for men?

I think it makes it clear that the door to the space industry is open to young women and girls, setting the tone that they can achieve what they aspire to and should not be intimidated by what is historically a male-dominated field.

With your STEM outreach work and education, how do you describe your research, which can be very technical, to young people?

I avoid focusing on the granular details and just stick with the broader, more interesting themes, and only touch loosely on the more complex areas. You do not need to explain everything otherwise it becomes too overwhelming and inaccessible. I try to keep it engaging with a hint of technicality where needed. As I come from a teaching background, it was important for me to continue working with schools and students as it is something I am passionate about. 

Is there one thing about space that bugs you? Do you have a question about the universe that you would love to know the answer to?

As you go farther out into space, the more it becomes theology rather than science. We do not know what is beyond the universe, but I think there is a kind of joy in the unknown.

Looking ahead to 100 years from now, what do you think might be the major breakthroughs in space science?

I would predict that 100 years from now we have civilisation on the Moon and Mars. Like how people first explored the next continent and it seemed like a huge new frontier, that is how I see the Moon and Mars for us in this generation.

You’ve been in the media quite a lot since you’ve been at Leicester. Have you enjoyed getting your voice out there?

I enjoy interacting with the public in lots of interesting ways, whether that be podcasts or commenting on recent space stories in the news, and it is great to have the support of the University in doing this. It is great fun working with the media to communicate interesting yet complex space research to the public. Also, if we can get people on board and they show interest in the science, it opens the door to more funding opportunities.

What advice would you give to girls and women who want to work in the space industry/academia?

I would say try to be as open minded as possible about what your career journey and path might look like. I struggled to decide what I wanted to do and did not realise that space exploration research was an option for me – I thought it was mainly studied in the US when I was younger.

The best advice I can give is to follow your interests and believe in yourself. As you go further through your education and career, interact with the people that interest and inspire you, as they can help to guide you along the way.

Watch Hannah’s TEDx Talk to discover more about her research.