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Dr Rain Irshad

Dr Rain Irshad

Dr Rain Irshad, Autonomous Systems Group lead at the Science and Technologies Facilities Council RAL Space, designs instruments that explore planets in space and clear land mines back on earth.

When I was eight I wrote to NASA asking them if I could be an astronaut. A few weeks later a big yellow envelope dropped through the letterbox with an application form. Apart from being the most exciting thing to happen – ever – it was actually a very useful outline of everything I would need to do before I could apply. As I didn’t like blood, I decided I would follow the physics or engineering route, rather than medicine.

My interest in physics meant my school sent me on work experience to a textiles factory during my GCSEs. Thread counting wasn’t really what I had in mind, so I wrote another letter, this time to the physics department at Manchester University asking for a placement. I ended up shadowing a PhD student researching non-linear dynamics, or chaos theory. There was a sense at school that physics was difficult and girls didn’t do it, but this work was fascinating, exciting, and so different from the physics we did on a blackboard. I was hooked.

I learnt to fly a jet when I was 17. There was a large space for pilot qualifications on the NASA form, so I knew I had to fill it. The trouble was, coming from a single-parent family in Oldham, flying lessons were not easy to come by. So I applied for an RAF scholarship, which took me up to Dundee to learn to be a pilot. Being quite short, I needed two cushions with me in the plane, but the best thing about being young is that you have no sense of any limitations, so it didn’t hold me back.

Unfortunately, endometriosis put a stop to my astronaut plans when I was at university. The pain would be enough to knock me off my feet at times, and it was extremely debilitating. I decided if I wasn’t going into space myself, then I would design things that did the exploring for me, so I did a Master’s in instrumentation systems. Now I lead the robotics group at RAL Space. I always say my proudest achievement is my next achievement, but it was a particularly satisfying moment when I heard the seismometer I worked on landed on Mars last year and is now sending back data.

I went on holiday to Cambodia and was shocked to discover there are large swathes of land that are inaccessible due to landmines. These are not remote locations, but next to schools, on farmland and by roads. When I went back home it occurred to me we could adapt some of our light-weight rover technology at RAL Space to detect these remnants of war. I’m currently working on a project that brings together NGOs, the UN and local communities to design a system that uses sensors attached to drones and rovers to map out high risk areas.

Women shouldn’t be afraid to ask for things. If I hadn’t asked NASA, Manchester University and countless other places, I wouldn’t be where I am now, but there are times when I regret not asking for help. Receiving support doesn’t mean you are any less clever or the work you do any less valid. We also need to recognise there are different approaches to leadership, and it’s not just men that can hold these unconscious biases; women can too. A quiet voice doesn’t have less to say.