Sarah Beardsley

Dr Sarah Beardsley is the Head of Space Engineering and Technology in the RAL Space Department of STFC, part of the UK Research and Innovation organisation.

She heads up a team of 60 engineers and technical project managers who design, build and test scientific instrumentation to go into space, furthering the understanding of our Earth and our place in the universe.

Sarah began her career as a planetary scientist, holding fellowships through Research Councils and the Royal Society. She has represented her scientific community on several national and international committees and working groups, elected by her peers to work with the Royal Astronomical Society and European Space Agency in particular.

More recently she has developed her career as a senior project manager and leader of groups of engineers, culminating in her current role as Division Head. She has overseen the recruitment of almost 70 people in the last five years and developed a collaborative style of leadership, demonstrating empathy and a culture of inclusion within her Division that is well respected. She leads by example – for example Sarah was one of the first in her organisation to share her maternity leave with her husband – long before it became a statutory right; she continues to work flexibly to accommodate caring duties, and is highly supportive of requests to work part-time and flexibly by members of her team. She is a member of the Graduate Training Panel within her organisation and is passionate about development of talent that secures the future of science and engineering in the UK. She regularly gives inspiring talks to encourage the younger generation, both female and male, into STEM fields.

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

I’m a scientist by training – astronomy and astrophysics degree and PhD, moved into studying the Moon (which is my favourite thing!) and then transitioned into project management when I realised I liked working in teams more. I now run a team of around 60 engineers and managers who design, build and test instruments that go into space. It is simply the coolest thing to be able to say that I have sent something into space!

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Yes – I always wanted to be an astronaut when I was little, and all my career choices were based around that. I write to NASA to ask how to be an astronaut – it appeared you needed to have a career first and then become an astronaut. There were two choices for me – pilot or mission specialist. I realised I was going to be too short to be a pilot, so mission specialist it was – I researched the most likely career routes for that, and astronomer and astrophysicist were high up there. Looking up at the Moon and stars was my favourite thing, so I went for that. Although I never became an astronaut, I still work on things that end up in space and I would never have made it here if it were not for my aiming for that goal of being in space myself.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Challenges were two-fold. The first are those from outside. I remember well a quote from a teacher who said “you’ll never be an astrophysicist – you have to be clever to do that”. That never stopped me, but I could imagine such comments really putting off other people.  I was also the first in my family to go to University, and looking back I recognise that was quite a challenge who would have been made oh so much easier if there were family members to talk to about it. The internal challenges are those from within – the self-doubt, the lack of confidence and holding yourself back. Although I did not realise it at the time there were many self-sabotaging moments I can look back on which explain very clearly why I never pursued the dream of being an astronaut as far as I could.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

On a personal level, it has to be achieving a work-life balance that is simply amazing. I have a great career, two wonderful children, an amazing husband and spend lots of time volunteering with Scouts – it is possible to do it all, but you have to have help and support in doing so.

At a work level, it is the fact that I have 40 per cent females in my team of 60 people in an area that typically has 13 per cent. It gives me great pride that such things can happen, we just have to make it so.

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

Making it happen – asking questions and not making assumptions. Then asking another way if you don’t get the answer you want first off. Keep on trying and don’t give up. Also, I have had many supporters over the years – some obvious, some in the background. When I look back at my career I can spot a number of key moments and can identify those people who made those possible. It is really important to have those supporters, and it is important to become one of those people yourself as you rise through the ranks.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I think it is incredibly important to have someone to turn to – especially those who have been there before. They can listen, offer advice and can ask those challenging questions of you. It is important to understand what you want to get out of a formal mentoring relationship in order to get the most out of it and to make sure you are paired with the right person. I am a mentor to four people in my workplace and wish there were more mentors out there – it is a great way of helping others to get to where you are, so please do consider giving your time.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Parity, what would it be?

Wow, there’s a question! The problem we have is that it isn’t just one thing. It’s many things, and many of those things taken in isolation are seemingly so small and insignificant that that they couldn’t possibly make a difference, right? Wrong. I think every change starts with us as individuals. We have to call things out when it’s wrong, correct people making stereotypical remarks, changing the language we use, and also helping each other. Let’s create the culture we want to live in, let’s change our behaviour to reflect that and not be afraid to do things differently if we think it’s right – and others will follow when they see it working!

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

Don’t worry about what others think of you. You will never be the perfect little girl you were always told you should be. You will never please everyone, but you can be a person that you want to be. Be accountable to yourself and hold yourself true to what you believe in, you won’t go far wrong.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

My next challenge is working out what I want to do next. If any of you have any ideas, please let me know…!