Women Engineers

Out Of This World: Young Female Engineer Of The Year Rockets To Mars

Dr Hanna M. Sykulska-Lawrence has lived many engineers' dream: she travelled on a NASA mission to Mars. But the young woman isn't done yet. Next up is a trip to Venus, hears Elena Doncheva.

After flying to Mars, Dr Hanna M. Sykulska-Lawrence is on a mission to Venus

After flying to Mars, Dr Hanna M. Sykulska-Lawrence is on a mission to Venus

It is many engineers’ dream to work for NASA. EngineeringBecause met Dr Hanna M. Sykulska-Lawrence, who not only reached for the sky, but got to leave her mark on Mars – and is now heading to Venus.

From a very young age she knew what career path to choose.

“I loved building things, whether it was from Lego or from things lying around. And I loved understanding how things worked,” says Dr Hanna.

“On top of this I had a fascination for exploring space – the excitement and challenges of going somewhere new and the technical challenges that would bring.”

She became the youngest female engineer in the UK group to be sent to Phoenix, Arizona, to participate in missions to Mars. She designed technology and equipment, and she lived for five months in Martian time.

“My role was to help develop a microscopy station, which included two microscopes, to investigate the soil on the surface of Mars,” Dr Hanna explains.

“I designed and manufactured tiny disks to collect the dust and prepare it to be imaged. Once the hardware was on the spacecraft and safely on its way to Mars, we spent nine months preparing for the mission and learning how best to control the microscopes during the mission itself.”

“This involved many trips to the US to rehearse with other instrument teams how we would operate all the instruments on the spacecraft together,” she continues.

“Finally the day came when we landed on Mars, and the years of work came together – and the real excitement began.”

She adds: “My specific roles were, first, as an Instrument Downlink Engineer checking the instruments’ health, inspecting the data returned to Earth and deciding the next day’s operations and, second, as a member of the Science Team where the overall direction of the scientific investigations of the mission were decided.”

As part of her PhD program, the mission to Mars helped her evolve, and granted her incredible opportunities.

“It was a real privilege to be the first person to see new images coming in from another planet – 140 million miles away. And it was amazing to me that hardware I had designed and made was now sat working on the surface of another planet,” Dr Hanna says.

Now she is working on another space project. After successfully reaching Mars, the inspiring engineer is focusing on designing equipment for a possible Venus mission.

“This project is different to the work for the Mars microscopy station,” Dr Hanna clarifies. “First, the microprobes will be deployed as small independent probes throughout a planetary atmosphere, rather than sitting on the surface of a planet, so the design considerations are different.

“Second, as my current project isn’t associated with a particular mission, the microprobes have the potential to be useful on a number of [different] missions and planets once they are ready. And third, I am leading the project; designing the microprobes.”

Dr Hanna is a keen promoter of the engineering profession. By giving talks and attending various science fairs, she manages to inspire and attract the young minds.

“My hope is to promote engineering in general, to breakdown stereotypes – to help get past the picture that engineers are men in overalls with spanners and that engineering in not glamorous, and in particular that engineering is just for men,” she adds.

“Though I try to promote engineering for women, I believe we need more good engineers – men and women.”

She reveals that both of her my parents are engineers, “so it was natural for me that women could pursue this field, and it was only later that I became aware of the stereotypes”.

Being awarded Young Engineer of the Year and a Royal Society Research Fellowship to fund her further research, Dr Hanna earned her place on the IET's Board of Trustees.

As the youngest member, Dr Hanna feels that she has been given the chance to promote the views of a younger generation, whom she advises: “Don’t be put off by any stereotype. Engineers can make a direct and real impact on our world.”

“There are some very interesting and glamorous fields in engineering, working in some very exciting areas that have a real chance to change our world, and make it better,” she adds.  

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