Interview with Suzie Imber

The Leicester space physicist on winning Astronauts, exploring uncharted mountains, and scientists’ social skills

October 12, 2017
Suzie Imber
Source: James Cheadle/BBC

Suzie Imber, associate professor in space physics at the University of Leicester, studied at Imperial College London, moved to Leicester for her PhD and then took up a position as a research scientist at the Nasa Goddard Space Flight Center. She returned to Leicester in 2011 and, three years later, secured a Leverhulme research fellowship. A keen mountaineer, she was the first person to chart a number of remote peaks in the Andes. She is the winner of the BBC Two television series Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?, in which candidates vied to show that they had the right stuff to go into space. Her reward will be a reference from astronaut Chris Hadfield for when the European Space Agency next takes on recruits.

Where and when were you born?
Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, in May 1983.

Did you always dream of being an astronaut?
As a young child, I wanted to be an explorer, and I was fascinated by stories of early 20th-century exploration in the Antarctic. When I became interested in space, I realised that astronauts were the contemporary equivalent of the early explorers, daring to push the boundaries of our knowledge into the unknown.

What did it mean for you to take part in – and then win – the Astronauts series?
This process has allowed me to take one more step towards actually going into space and doing science up on the International Space Station, or even on Mars.

What will you bring back from the experience for your teaching and research?
I was interested to see how I would cope with the barrage of tests that would come my way through the process, and overall I really enjoyed the challenges. Having said that, I wouldn’t be human if I wasn’t stressed out by such a process of continual testing, and I think that facing and coping with that environment has helped me to remember what it’s like as an undergraduate, facing assignments and exams spanning a period of several years. I am sure that this process will help me to better understand the fears and concerns of my students, and I hope to be someone they can approach if they need a friendly ear.

What spurred your passion for space science?
My parents did engineering and maths at university, and they encouraged my twin brother and me to have a keen interest in science from an early age. James (my twin) is now a neutrino physicist and I’m a space scientist, so their interest clearly rubbed off on us.

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I was a really studious undergraduate, but I also was an avid sports player. I played lacrosse, captaining the university and going on to play for England under-21s, I ran every day and I took up wushu kung fu.

What did you gain from working at Nasa?
My supervisor and mentor, Jim Slavin, was heavily involved in the Messenger mission to Mercury, which went into orbit during my time at Nasa. This gave me the chance to be the first person to analyse data coming back from another planet and equipped me with a unique expertise in this research field.

What is it like to climb an uncharted mountain?
To climb a mountain that nobody has ever ascended before has an unusual allure for a mountaineer. In the Andes, I felt this especially strongly, because at the summit of some of the mountains we climbed, we discovered Incan ruins that [were] last seen by those who placed them there hundreds of years before.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
That physicists are not sociable, well-rounded people. More than half of the Astronauts candidates were scientists, and they were some of the most interesting, balanced, broad-minded people I have ever met. Having a passion for science doesn’t mean giving up on sports, hobbies and socialising.

What advice would you give to your younger self?
That it’s OK not to fit in. In hindsight, I see that my road was never going to be the straight path that others travel, and I no longer shy away from being unconventional.

What are the best and worst things about your job?
My research area is extremely active, with new missions to the planets and bodies in the solar system being planned spanning the next 20 years. I am able to travel all over the world to meet other scientists, talk about my latest results and share ideas. The downside of my job is that it can be all-consuming. Particularly during term time, the hours can be very long, and the pressure is high. I find myself checking my emails at all hours of the day and night, although I counterbalance this by doing extracurricular activities in the evenings that allow me to escape from work for a few hours at least.

If you weren’t an academic, what do you think you’d be doing?
If I lost my job tomorrow, I would love to spend my time living simply and climbing mountains. When I’m up there, I’m worried about the real things in life, like whether my tent is about to be blown away by a storm, whether I have enough food, and whether I’m strong enough to keep climbing.

If you were the universities minister for a day, what policy would you immediately introduce to the sector?
I would immediately find a way to ensure that the interest rates on student loans were lowered. I think it’s outrageous that students are paying so much interest, particularly given that interest rates are so low at the moment.

Do you live by any motto or philosophy?
A colleague recently told me that Neil Armstrong used to say that every human has a finite number of heartbeats, and that he did not intend to waste any of his – and I wholeheartedly agree.

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com


Appointments

Award-winning poet Simon Armitage has been announced as the University of Leeds’ first professor of poetry. The appoint­ment sees Professor Armitage return to the university’s School of English, where he obtained his first job in academia teaching creative writing almost 20 years ago. Professor Armitage, who will continue in his part-time role as the University of Oxford’s professor of poetry until 2019, said that he was “honoured” to take the new role at a department with a “long and proud poetic tradition”. The Huddersfield-born poet, who has published more than 25 anthologies, as well as numerous books and translations, returns to the university that holds his archive: Leeds’ library contains papers dating back to 1984, when Professor Armitage was just 21. John Whale, director of the University of Leeds Poetry Centre, said that it was “wonderful to welcome back to Leeds a poet of international standing and with such a deep imaginative affinity to Yorkshire”.

Jonathan Grant has been named vice-president and vice-principal (service) at King’s College London. The former director of the Policy Institute at King’s will take on the part-time role to develop the university’s civic engagement, one of five priorities identified in its Vision 2029 strategy. “If there has ever been a time for universities to step up as public institutions and fulfil their public service ethos, it is now,” said Professor Grant, who will continue in his role as assistant principal for strategic initiatives and public policy at King’s.

Mike Cantlay is the new chair of the Scottish Funding Council. Dr Cantlay, a successful business­man who is chair of Scottish Natural Heritage, will lead the funding organisation, which has an annual budget of £1.6 billion, until April 2021.

Jonathan Van-Tam, professor of health protection at the University of Nottingham, has been appointed deputy chief medical officer for England by the Department of Health.

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