National Student Space Conference

Over the weekend, I attended the 32nd National Student Space Conference, at the University of Birmingham. The event takes place every March and is run by UKSEDS, the society of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space. There’s a big mix of attendees at the conference: undergraduate students, researchers from PhD to professor level, engineers, data scientists, space enthusiasts, and even astronauts!

The programme was jam-packed with student presentations, discussion panels, information sessions about different space companies, and talks, which ranged from black hole detection to a history of women in science to astronaut healthcare.

This year’s keynote speaker was the incredible Dr Kathryn Sullivan. Kathy is a retired NASA astronaut and was the first American woman to complete a spacewalk in October 1984. She’s spent 22 days in space, across 3 space missions, including the mission which deployed the Hubble Space Telescope on April 24th, 1990. Since then, the Hubble Space Telescope has been a key instrument for imaging objects at the edge of our Solar System and beyond, as well as helping physicists answer important questions about the age and expansion of the universe.


The Hubble Space Telescope, which was deployed on April 24th 1990 by the STS-31 mission, for which Dr Kathryn Sullivan was a mission specialist. Photo credit: NASA.

Kathy’s amazing sense of adventure really shone through during her talk. Kathy said that’s what has always driven her choices of what to do in life, whether it’s exploring the land through geology, the seas through oceanography, or our solar system by becoming an astronaut.

I also attended the Lunar Exploration panel, with Sue Nelson (Boffin Media), Paul Iliffe (Inmarsat), Ryan Wall (Lockheed Martin UK), and Hannah Sargeant (Open University). The panel discussed many aspects of future lunar exploration, such as the Lunar Gateway, in-situ resource utilisation, and whether water can be extracted from the lunar regolith. They also discussed the Moon Village Association, something that I hadn’t heard of previously, which is an initiative to ensure that Moon habitation is discussed on a global scale and in an interdisciplinary fashion. This was really interesting to hear about and it’s good to know that there are organisations that want to approach human space exploration in a sustainable and ethical way.

Finally, another highlight of the conference for me was the Diversity and Inclusion panel, with Eleanor Armstrong (UCL), Alfredo Carpineti (Pride in STEM), Anu Damale (Vertic), Sophia Lee Roberts (King’s College London), and Jessica Goldie (University of Leicester). It was amazing to see diversity and inclusion at the forefront of an event, rather than as an aside or afterthought. The panel talked about their experiences in STEM, why diversity and inclusion is important to them, and what we can all do to work towards a more inclusive world. It was fantastic to see how passionate the panellists were, but also how open-minded they were to each other’s ideas.


My conference lanyard with my pronoun badge and colour communication sticker – which were some of the great inclusivity initiatives used at the conference. Colour communication stickers were first used in the autistic community to signify how comfortable a person is being approached by others. The stickers use traffic light colours so green means a person is okay with being approached by anyone. Photo credit: Marissa Lo.

The world of STEM is far from being completely inclusive when it comes to gender, sexuality, race, economic background, and many other traits. In a recent report by Elsevier, it was found that women authored only 38% of papers between 2014 and 2018, and there’s still a considerable proportion of people who attribute gender inequality to the attitudes and lower ambition levels of women. Hopefully by promoting discussion about diversity and inclusivity, at events like NSSC, these statistics and attitudes can change over time.

Well done to the organisers of NSSC 2020; it was a really interesting conference with a great variety of talks and panels. I’d definitely love to attend again in future!

If you’d like to find out more about UKSEDS and NSSC, you can visit the UKSEDS website.


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