I Need Space episode 2 – A life update + thesis topics I LOVE, but won’t be using

Please note this episode includes references to mental health issues, including abuse.

In this episode, Courtney talks a bit (a lot) about the space between her ears! She shares a bit of her mental health story and how it led to her studying with the Open University, as well as five topics she considered pursuing for her MSc thesis but didn’t in the end.

Find images to accompany this episode on Instagram @ineedspacepodcast.

Intro and outro music: “Ticking Away” by Cranston (used under an Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 United States License)


[Intro music]

Hello, and welcome to I Need Space, the podcast for people who… just need a bit more space. My name’s Courtney and you’re listening to episode 2.

This is actually the first episode I’ve recorded since I launched the podcast. Those other two episodes actually were recorded quite a while ago, so I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who’s listened so far. Presumably if you’re listening to this, you’re interested enough to keep tuning in, so thank you very much! And those people have given me really positive feedback, that’s really appreciated as well. I’m also very open to constructive criticism, of course.

But for today’s episode I’m gonna talk about something that’s kind of a bit personal but also, obviously, I will also talk about space, because that’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it? You know, you’re not here for me, you’re here for the space. But there is something that’s kind of personal that I wanted to address before moving on with the podcast.

I’ve mentioned previously that I study space science. I’m doing the Masters in space science and technology at the Open University and when I last recorded an episode, I think I mentioned that I was working on my thesis and… I decided to take a bit of a break. So, I’m going to be- well, if all goes well, I’m going to be restarting that thesis module – “project module” is what the OU calls it – going to be restarting that in autumn. I’m not going to go into the exact reasons why I decided to delay the thesis, but it does relate to something that I wanted to mention, which is kind of just, why I decided to study with the OU.

So, if you’re not familiar with the Open University – the OU, I’ll use those interchangeably – it’s a British university that was set up to give people the opportunity to get a university education even if they don’t follow the traditional educational path. There are no formal entry requirements, so literally anyone can start a degree. You can go straight- right down from the foundations up.

I almost forgot to mention, as well, that the OU is a distance learning university. It does have a campus and research labs and all that kind of thing, but there aren’t lectures, as such, so you do a lot of self-directed learning. You do online tutorials, online group projects sometimes, if your course includes that, but it’s all virtual these days.

As I said, I’m going to mention a little bit of why I study with the OU. I actually originally followed that very traditional educational path. When I did my A-levels, which is the kind of final exams that you do before university in the UK, I did those and I went to Imperial College London, which is specifically sort of science/technology university, and I went there and things were going really well and then I… [laughs] pretty much had a breakdown. Well, I mean, that’s kind of not fair. I mean, I’ve had mental health issues my whole life and some of that stems from my experience of abuse. Again, I’m not going to go into detail, but that was very difficult, and it meant that I couldn’t complete my degree, essentially. It’s a long story, but… but that’s where the OU comes in, because I was able to transfer my credits from what I’d studied already to the OU, so I could skip the first level of OU study and go straight into something else.

And I remember when the possibility of doing OU study came up. At that point, I was so burnt out with physics, I genuinely didn’t want to do physics any more, because I had had such a bad experience. What was especially frustrating was that I actually did really well while I was at Imperial, even though I was experiencing severe mental health problems. I got a high 2:1 in my exams, I won two academic prizes, I got results that I think most people would be proud of, but ultimately it didn’t matter because it wasn’t the right environment for me at that time. Much as I do have quite severe… what some people would call impostor syndrome, to me I think, “well, no, I’m just stupid”, when I think about those results logically, I know, well, I can’t be stupid, because if I was stupid how could I get 68% in my exams at Imperial while experiencing severe depression and anxiety?

But that’s life, things happen… And… you know, we find new ways to try and fulfil our potential in whatever way. You know, as I’m talking about this now, it is upsetting to think about, and it’s frustrating because I could have reached that academic potential but ultimately, if I’d made myself even more ill doing it, then it wouldn’t have been worth it. So, you know, ultimately, it all worked out, but it’s, you know, it is still something that makes me a bit sad to think of.

Moving on to something more positive. So, with the OU, I realised, well, you know, I’d actually studied the second year of Physics at Imperial, and I couldn’t transfer those credits. What I decided to do was, for my Level 2 courses, follow what’s called the Open Degree. Basically you can just pick whatever you want to study and I remember just, suddenly feeling excited to study again, and that hadn’t happened for a while. And studying had become such an anxiety-provoking thing and just, you know, I’ve always loved learning. The fact I’ve started a science based podcast for fun probably shows you that I really love learning. I looked at this OU catalogue and I thought, “ooh, there are so many things I want to learn now”. And I studied, gosh, Level 2 I did archaeology, mental health, geology, and a course called “Planetary science and the search for life”. So it was, kind of, a lot of this stuff that I’d always wanted to study, but because – you might recall in my introduction episode, I mentioned just that feeling of like, “oh, I have to specialise”, but it was like, “no, but I want to study all these different things!” and suddenly I had this opportunity, and it was so exciting.

So that’s how I, kind of, got into the OU and then, kind of, did my Level 2 courses, went up to Level 3. Just, again, to explain, Level 2 is kind of equivalent to the second year of a bachelors, and Level 3, the third year of a bachelors. So, by the time I got to Level 3, I was excited to do physics again, so that’s what I did.

So I studied, kind of, part-time-ish, I worked at the same time, but the OU was so flexible. There were times when I needed to take a break in my undergraduate degree, and I could. It was easy to just organise that, really easy to get extensions for assignments if you needed them, and it’s just all set up, the OU is so set up for people who don’t fit that traditional profile, which as a- as a young person, I always just thought I’d follow that linear path of, you know, sixth form, then top university, then PhD, then I’ll be a physics professor, and my life will be perfect. And it didn’t quite work out like that, and things went a bit differently and it’s not perfect, but, you know, that- that old path wouldn’t have been perfect and I’m pretty happy with where I am now, so that’s good.

But yeah, so that was undergraduate and then a couple of months after that I got my first full time job, which is what I’m still doing to this day. My original plan was, again, as I mentioned previously, I was going to work for a few years, save up some money and then quit and do a Masters full time but I, for lots of reasons, I decided to do it part time instead.

The Open University is a teaching institution, but it’s also a research institution, and one of the things that it’s really, really renowned for is its Space Science department. It’s involved in a lot of big missions, including the Rosetta mission to the comet… see if I can remember this name: 67P/[Courtney butchers the name Churyumov–Gerasimenko]? I’m sure someone will correct me. It was involved in the Beagle landing, which obviously didn’t go as planned but, you know, still very exciting and just lots and lots of other missions as well. So, I already had a great experience with the OU, but the fact that they were also this great research institution really swung it for me in choosing where I was going to study.

So… yeah, again, I started in 2019 and, overall, my degree is going to have taken me about five years, just under five years. Originally, I was hoping for it to take three but… the thing is, life happens, and in my opinion, the OU is one of the best universities to be studying with if you’re in a situation where life happens a lot [laughs], which if you have mental health issues, that is the case. I mean, for me, I had a pretty significant mental health crisis last year and, to be honest, at that point, I should have delayed my degree a bit, but I was really keen to just sort of crack on, and I actually got a distinction in the next module that I did after that. But doing a thesis and doing a taught module are two very different things. And yeah, doing a thesis while I’m, to be honest, I’m still recovering from that crisis last year, it was just a bit too much and I thought, I can force myself to do this and I can complete it, and not do very well, but complete it, or I can delay it and take some rest, come back to it and take a bit of a financial hit but, considering I’m still in a position where I could get a distinction in this degree, I want to go for that.

So that is just a quick look at the situation at the moment and, kind of, why I decided to study with the OU because, as someone who’s taken a non-traditional educational path, it’s valuable for me to talk about it and kind of say, like, “Look, there is another option”, like, you don’t have to do that very linear path and, you know, that… that’s a great path, and it’s a great path for a lot of people, and it would have been a great path for me if I had had the help that I needed to deal with the kind of mental health issues that I experienced, and the abuse that I experienced as a child and as a young person. And again, this is a podcast about space, It’s not a podcast about mental health, but mental health is also very important.

[Transition music]

Hello again! Welcome to the ‘space’ portion of this episode. I thought we’d never get here, but here we are. And, just to explain a bit about this episode and the idea behind it, the idea actually came to me while I was watching YouTube videos.

If you’re anything like me, your YouTube watch history and your recommendations are just all over the place. There’s that thing where, like, you watch one video that’s to do with something and then it just, kind of, constantly throws more videos like it at you, even if you just accidentally click something and just watch like five seconds of it. It’s just- I guess that’s The Algorithm for you.

But one thing that I seem to find myself watching quite often is a type of video that’s generally titled something like “Baby Names I Love, But Won’t Be Using”. And this is strange because I am child free by choice. I suppose, maybe, at one point, The Algorithm realised that I’m a woman in her 30s and thought, “Oh,” you know, “I’m sure she’s interested in babies”, and then maybe I watched one video from someone and it just snowballed from there.

I actually quite like the idea of the video, but I thought, “applying it to baby names is boring. Let’s apply it to space instead!”. And so, instead of talking about baby names I love but won’t be using, I’m going to talk about space science thesis topics that I love but won’t be using [laughs]. Ah, I mean, I’ve… Sorry, I’ve been trying to say that so many times and, just, every time it makes me laugh because… I’m just, like, “Wow, look at your… look at your life, look at your choices”.

Anyway, I’m going to be looking at five topics that I was interested in pursuing for my thesis, but ultimately decided not to. And I hope by doing that I can, number one, show you a few of the different things that I’m interested in in space science. I’m not going to be going too deep into any of them at this point, it just kind of gives you a bit of a flavour of different things. And two, I wanted to kind of show all the different things that space science and technology is involved in because, as I’ve said previously, it’s not just about moon landings, it’s about all sorts of other things, and I’m going to be sharing some of those with you today.

So, without further ado, let’s get onto the first topic, which will be familiar to you if you’ve listened to the last episode. So, in the last episode, I shared a talk that I developed for the Science Museum all about the planet Mercury, and the BepiColombo mission that is currently on its way to Mercury. BepiColombo and the other two missions that have visited Mercury have all been orbiting missions. So scientists have never sent a landing mission to Mercury, so we haven’t had any spacecraft land on Mercury and investigate it from there. But that’s potentially an interesting thing to do, because it means we can do in situ measurements, so we can do measurements on the surface of Mercury. We can look at, sort of, rock composition, seismology, all that kind of thing, which is interesting ’cause it helps us, kind of, learn more about the solar system, more about rocky planets – including the Earth – and how they’re formed.

And so, the topic that I was actually planning to pursue before I took a break from my studies was the idea of a Mercury landing mission and the technical requirements to do that, whether it’s possible, and in particular whether it’s possible to do with commercial-off-the-shelf technologies. Essentially, it’s technology that you can just buy and adapt to what you need rather than having to kind of build it from scratch.

And this sort of technology is really exciting because it means that it’s cheaper and easier to send something into space. There are these things in particular called CubeSats that are little, exactly what it sounds like, sort of small, cube satellites that are a lot cheaper than, say, like, a massive NASA mission, and it’s a way for, say, universities and less well-resourced countries, other kind of groups that might not have the same budget that NASA or ESA have, to send something into space and to do real science up in space. So the question was, “can we land on Mercury using this kind of technology?”. And it’s really interesting to me because I am really in favour of the democratisation of space and the idea that space is for everyone and everyone should be able to access space. It shouldn’t just be the purview of very well-resourced governments and international collaborations. I mean, obviously, they should do it as well, but there should be room for others as well. Again, you can listen to episode 1 to find out more about why Mercury is really interesting, but the kind of idea of, oh, this thing that we’ve never been able to do before, could we do it and could we do it with this kind of technology that would be deployed from, say, an orbiting mission to explore Mercury from the surface.

It was really interesting and the project was progressing quite well, but I decided not to pursue it again when I go back to studying, just because… I just wasn’t feeling enthusiastic about the project, and part of that is just, you know, other reasons rather than the actual subject, but I felt that, you know, if I’m going to be going back, I want to make sure that I’m going to be super-enthused about the project, and there’s, kind of, other ideas that I’m just a bit more enthusiastic about. But it’s something that I’m certainly going to be continuing to read about in my free time because… I’m a bit of a nerd.

Moving on, topic number two! This actually relates a bit to my day job because I work for a scientific organisation that focuses on reducing and replacing the use of animals in research and also improving the welfare of animals that are used in research. And in, kind of, doing this job and doing my degree as well, I suddenly realised, “oh, wait, animals have been used in space research as well, and in space exploration, and I thought as well, “oh, I could also bring in the idea of, you know, how are they currently being used and how could we find alternatives in the future?”.

This is partly interesting to me because I think a lot of people will know about Laika, the dog, and Laika was the first animal to be in orbital flight around the Earth, and some people might know that NASA sent chimps into space, but actually animals have been used so much more than that. So, the first animals to be sent into space were fruit flies, there was a cat sent into space. You know, many dogs, many, kind of, non-human primates as well, so that aspect, really, is one of the reasons it interested me. Also, the fact I could combine it with my day job, something that I’m also really interested in, but ultimately I realised that it would be difficult to fulfil the, kind of, criteria that I have to fulfil in order to get, like, a good mark and do this project, which might sound a bit bad, but I think I don’t want to do loads of work and then find that I’ve just not fulfilled any of the criteria that I needed to get a good mark. You know, this is, again, something I can research myself and learn about myself. So if I’m doing this thesis, I want to make sure that I’m doing something that really fits the criteria that it needs to. And also I did realise upon talking to other people that it would be good to keep a separation between my day job and my studying and, you know, combining the two is very interesting, but also it is good to, kind of, keep them separate as well. But still, animals in space is something I’m really fascinated in, and I think it’s something I’m going to cover in a later episode, so… look out for that, I guess!

Moving on to topic number three, and this is another thing that came to me in a slightly weird way, sort of fitting the theme of this episode. So, I was doing the washing up one day and our kitchen window looks out over an area that has lots of trees and lots of foliage, and it was autumn, and I idly thought, “oh, I wonder if the timing or the intensity of autumn foliage has changed at all over the years, in response to climate change, and I wonder if that’s something I could do for my thesis, I could look at that. I could look at satellite images and study that“. It’s something that, again, really interested me, because of the climate change aspect, and it’s just, again, one of those things that I think, oh, we kind of look out at foliage and think about it, but actually, space science and space technology can help us study it on a more macro level. It can look at sort of trends across the world, and climate change, and all that kind of thing, which is really cool… to me, at least.

The main reason I decided not to cover this was just that I looked into how I could do it, and it just looked a bit too complicated for the project scope that I needed to have, which is quite important ’cause you don’t want to take on too much and then find that you can’t do what you set out to do. And it just looked like the sort of thing where there wasn’t really a middle point of, “oh, I can do like this little bit.” It was just, like, “oh no, this is way too complicated”. And, to be honest, it is also something people have done before and they’ve done it in different ways so it just felt like, “oh, this is not really a novel enough thing for me to be doing”. So, super-interesting, again, but just not something that I am going to be pursuing.

Now, topic number four involves a bit of a throwback for me to my misspent youth of science fairs and research projects. So when I was 17, I did a Nuffield Research Placement at the University of Sheffield, and it was in the area of particle astrophysics. So, particle astrophysics I always like to think of it is using the tiniest things in the universe to study the biggest things in the universe. And in my case, the project I was working on looked at neutrinos, which are absolutely the tiniest constituents of the universe. And I was working on a project that was a proposed detector to look at how they could be detected in water. So, neutrinos are very, very tiny, almost completely massless particles. For a long time people thought that they didn’t have any mass at all, but they discovered that actually they do and it’s just very, very tiny. And neutrinos, as the name suggests, they are also electrically neutral, so they don’t have any charge. Neutrinos are produced in a lot of different astrophysical events, but one of the things that they are particularly produced in is nuclear fusion in the centre of stars. Looking at the example of our sun, in the centre of the sun, small elements gradually are fused into bigger and bigger elements, and this releases energy which keeps the sun shining, and it also releases particles, including neutrinos.

Just to show you how many neutrinos: if you hold up your thumbnail and look at it, a hundred billion solar neutrinos go through your thumbnail every single second. That’s a one with eleven zeroes after it. So they are very numerous, but they’re also really difficult to detect because they’re neutral and because they’re so light, they just don’t interact with things very much, and that’s why a hundred billion can go through your thumbnail every second, and you can just not notice it at all… and [laughs] you’ll definitely notice it now that I’ve told you!

So, here on Earth, neutrino detectors tend to be very big and they can involve water, or ice, or various different things, but what I was interested in was, could we build a neutrino detector in space? How could that be achieved? I honestly haven’t looked into it very much, because I just had so many other ideas that I did pursue, but my instinct is that the answer is it’s going to be even more difficult than it is on Earth, essentially.

Again, it’s still something that’s very interesting to me, but I think just not for this thesis. I think that I need to be a little bit less ambitious than to, kind of, set myself the goal of imagining something that has only really recently been achieved on Earth, so…

My final topic that I’m going to mention today is, again, something that involves a bit of a throwback for me. So, when I was doing my GCSEs – so, I was 14/15/16 at school – when I was doing those exams, I also had the opportunity to do an extra qualification just as, like, a, a thing in my free time. I was really lucky to go to a school that gave us a lot of extra opportunities like that. So this qualification was called Science for Public Understanding, and it was really cool. We studied things like alternative medicine, we did a mock clinical trial and learned all about how clinical trials work, we also looked at how ideas of the universe have evolved over time, we looked at climate change, we looked at probability and risk, all this kind of stuff. So, kind of, it was science, but it was the more societal, ethical, historical, cultural side of it, and it was absolutely brilliant, and definitely played a role in me deciding to become a scientist… along, of course with Agent Scully, as I have already mentioned.

But, as part of this qualification, we had to do a couple of pieces of coursework and one of them was a book review, which I did on a book called “Warped Passages” by Lisa Randall, which, again, aw, that was really instrumental in me deciding to become a physicist and look into theoretical physics. And the other piece of coursework that we did was a scientific report on any area of science that we were interested in, and I decided to do mine on life on Mars, and whether there once had been, or whether there could currently be life on Mars. And I’ve still got a copy of this, and I read it recently, and [laughs]… it’s very sweet because I’m doing my kind of best scientist impression. But, at the same time, I did a pretty good job of it, and really put forward the argument that, yes, it was important to, to investigate this kind of thing. And so, astrobiology, the science of life on other planets, is something that’s interested me over half my life at this point. And, again, yes, “The X-Files” definitely played a role in that but, in the show, the alien life is more about the, sort of, government conspiracy hiding it, whereas, for me, I’m more interested in the scientific aspects of, like, oh, actually, you know, we can’t be the only life forms in the universe, life must have evolved elsewhere as well.

And, yeah, that just really fascinates me and, of course, I was interested in studying it as part of my thesis, but then I, kind of, realised that I just… I don’t think I have the biology background to be able to do this justice. Once again, it’s the same story of, “this is something that fascinates me, but it’s just not quite right for this thesis”. But I will obviously continue to read up about it, and I think I do want to cover this in the podcast as well, because it’s just, as I said, something that’s fascinated me for years and years and years and it’s just super cool! I don’t know what else to say, it’s just, space is really cool, isn’t it?


I left a bit of space for you to agree with me. I hope you don’t mind [laughs].

Anyway, I’m not sure how interesting this episode will have been to be honest. I think, with this podcast, I do want it to be a mix of episodes that cover a broad range of topics, and then some episodes that cover one thing very specifically in depth, and this obviously has been one of the former type. If any of these topics are particularly interesting to you and you’d like me to cover them a bit more, then please let me know, but I think, for now, that’ll be it.

I Need Space is written, hosted and edited by me, Courtney Williams. Links to the transcript, images and the music I’ve used in this episode can be found in the description. You can also visit my blog, astrocourt.space – it’s like “astronaut”, but it’s “Court”!

Thanks again for listening, and don’t forget to give yourself some space.

[Outro music]

[Outtake] …trends across the world, and climate change, and all that kind of thing, which is really cool, to me at least, and… and I have to admit as well, like, I am [laughs] the, sort of, ‘Basic White Girl’ stereotype, I do love a bit of autumn, I do love a Pumpkin Spiced Latte [laughs], so I thought, “Oh, well, I don’t, you know, if climate change is [laughs]… if climate change is going to affect autumn, suddenly I care about climate change”. No, I’m joking. I care about climate change a lot, but… [sighs at own inability to be serious for a minute at a time]

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