Maddie StedmanMaddie Stedman is a Research Scientist in the Climate and Earth Observation Group. She joined the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) after graduating from the University of Exeter in Summer 2020 with a Master’s degree in Natural Sciences.

As the UK’s National Metrology Institute, NPL develops and maintains the national primary measurement standards. Maddie’s work contributes towards tackling the climate emergency by improving the confidence in and quality of Earth Observation satellite measurements. Maddie is currently working to support the development of the Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies (TRUTHS) mission, a climate satellite mission led by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) and developed by the European Space Agency (ESA). The TRUTHS mission will help deliver improved confidence in Earth Observation data to enable future change in the climate to be detected from a background of natural variability in as short a time as possible.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role

As a Research Scientist in NPL’s Climate and Earth Observation group my work contributes towards climate action by improving the accuracy and quality of Earth Observation satellite measurements of the climate. This kind of information feeds into things like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report which is used to advise policy makers on the science related to climate change.

I’m currently working to support the development of the Traceable Radiometry Underpinning Terrestrial- and Helio- Studies (TRUTHS) climate satellite mission. The special thing about the TRUTHS satellite is that it will provide data at a much higher accuracy than the current satellites used.  Having this unprecedented level of accuracy means Earth/climate models can be improved and we can better understand what will happen in the future. My work contributes to the design of TRUTHS to ensure it is as accurate as possible. I will also play a role in developing algorithms to analyse the data once the TRUTHS satellite has been launched.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Prior to starting at NPL I studied Natural Sciences with a focus on physics modules. Deciding what job I wanted to do after University was difficult as, even in my final year, I didn’t have a clear idea of what field I wanted to pursue. I ended up deciding to apply to the Climate and Earth Observation group after breaking down which aspects of my degree I’d enjoyed the most. For me, this had been learning programming and undertaking more climate science modules in my final year.

I also knew I wanted to pursue a career that contributes towards tackling the climate emergency, and so when I found this job it felt like a perfect fit for me. Earth Observation monitoring includes data from satellites, instruments on the ground, and also airborne devices like drones, to provide robust, long-term observations of the Earth at both local and global scales. This monitoring of the planet at many scales consistently over long periods is essential to inform climate action at a global level and provide evidence to track and monitor which climate action solutions are working. Knowing the work I’m doing is helping to support climate action in this way is really motivating.

Have you faced any career challenges along the way and how did you overcome these?

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced in the first few years of my career has been starting my first graduate job completely virtually. I graduated from university and began my job in 2020 at the peak of lockdown, and it wasn’t until over a year later that I’d meet the whole team in person and start going into the office regularly. Hybrid working is becoming increasingly common, and while there are many benefits to this, in my experience one downside has been that it made the transition from working largely independently in my Master’s degree to working as part of a team much more challenging.

One of the best ways to overcome this that I am trying to do more is to make an active effort to regularly discuss your work with colleagues and ask for feedback at early stages of development, which can feel more intimidating when working remotely. Over my first few weeks my manager set up 1-1 meetings for me with each of my colleagues which I found really beneficial as it gave me the opportunity to work out who is best to ask for help with different problems. It also helped me to identify the ways in which I could provide help to them.

What has been your biggest career achievement to date?

My work supporting the development of the TRUTHS climate satellite mission has involved undertaking analysis to evaluate how some aspects of the mission impact its performance. My biggest achievement to date has been presenting some of this analysis to our international partners, including the European Space Agency (ESA), in my first six months after joining NPL.

I found the experience really nerve-wracking as I was worried the meeting would be spent pointing out flaws in my work or asking questions I didn’t know the answers to. However, I think having opportunities like this to discuss my work with much more experienced scientists and receive their feedback directly, even if it had been negative, is invaluable for progression as a scientist. I left the meeting feeling much more confident in the work I had done and with greater clarity on what further work would be beneficial.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success? 

Having good mentors is something I have found really beneficial, both at university and now at work.

As an early career scientist I’ve found it really beneficial having good role models at work who have experienced being where I am now. They can offer invaluable guidance on your specific career path, whether that’s through general career progression advice or their tried-and-tested book/scientific journal/course recommendations for learning a new topic. Receiving technical mentoring through activities like code reviews and pair programming with more experienced colleagues has also pushed me to learn more, despite feeling quite intimidating at the time.

While at University it was really helpful hearing advice from students on a similar path a few years ahead of me on things like module selection, possible careers paths for after university, and even technical feedback on the work I did for my Master’s project. Some of my friends also benefitted hugely from formal mentor schemes the university set up with alumni. They provided the opportunity to hear more about potential career paths, start to build connections in those areas, and gain experience from mock interviews etc.

What top tips would you give to an individual who is trying to excel in their career in technology?

Find opportunities in your work to expand your skills. For example a good piece of advice I was given recently to develop my programming skills is to aim to use a new feature of the programming language in each project or piece of work.

Do you believe there are still barriers for success for women working in tech, if so, how can these barriers be overcome?

While I do believe that there are still additional barriers present for women in any workplace, and particularly for women working in tech, I’m grateful to have had an overall really positive experience so far as a woman in STEM. I do think the profile for someone working in STEM has become a lot more diverse, and in my experience, I’ve felt the same as any other member of the team.

It can feel more intimidating attending meetings or external conferences where the majority of attendees and speakers are men, but within my team I’m fortunate to work closely alongside a number of talented women scientists at various levels of seniority. Having them as role models and seeing their contributions in the wider field has definitely helped me gain the confidence to hopefully do the same throughout my career.

What resources do you recommend for women working in tech?

I’ve found YouTube to be a really useful resource for learning about tech topics, particularly for programming, as there’s loads of really well-explained tutorial videos available for learning both features of a specific programming language and more general software design concepts.

In my experience the most effective way to learn a programming language is to try using it. YouTube is a really good resource for ideas for programming projects, for all levels of experience, to attempt yourself, accompanied by tutorial videos going through potential solutions.

I also find it inspiring listening to podcasts or TED talks, both relating to STEM and addressing more general topics. If you find a speaker particularly interesting, I recommend following them on social media (usually LinkedIn or twitter) as this provides the opportunity to engage further with their content and connect with other people around topics you’re interested in.