Representation Matters: A Luxembourg Scientist Hannah Rana On Shooting For Space

Listed in Forbes’ 30 under 30 in Science, Luxembourg researcher Hannah Rana talked to Silicon Luxembourg about working for NASA, gender diversity in science and her hopes to one day travel in space. 

Tell us about your research.

I work as an Applied Physicist in space instrumentation. The aim is to develop cryogenic instrumentation for detectors to be used in space that will enable us to be able to detect in space and to work on discoveries at the cutting edge of astrophysics research.

Why is temperature control so important in space?

The detectors that we send into space and use in telescopes in order to be able to detect signals in space need to be brought down to incredibly low temperatures in order to pick up those signals. The field of cryogenics involves anything that enables bringing those detectors down to a very cold temperature. Typically, anything below -120° Celsius is considered cryogenic.

The kinds of temperatures that we face in space are very extreme. If you have a surface that’s facing the sun, there’s no atmosphere there to serve as a kind of filter for the impinging rays. So a surface facing the sun will become incredibly hot. On the flip side, a surface that’s not facing the sun, in deep space, will be incredibly cold. So, depending on the design of the mission, how it’s going to orientate itself when it’s in space, what kind of orbit it’s going to be in, you have to think very carefully about where you’re going to put the telescopes, where you’re going to put your instrumentation, what orbital trajectory the detectors will be taking so that they’re ideally facing a side that’s not going to be facing the sun. 

Among other things, you have worked with two public space agencies: ESA and NASA. How do your experiences here contrast with the private space sector?

The space agencies can focus more on scientific objectives, they can do more space exploration for the sake of furthering knowledge, for the sake of understanding more about the universe and so on. I’ve yet to hear about a space startup that’s going to take money from venture capitalists and send up a telescope purely for the sake of doing astrophysics. There’s no return on investment there. That’s the key difference.

I think for me as a researcher I truly enjoy the ability to be able to work for the sake of science. Having said that, I also work with a startup in Germany called Neutron Star Systems. Their aim is to develop electric propulsion thrusters, an alternative to chemical propulsion, and can generate high thrust through applied-field magnetoplasmadynamic (AF-MPD) propulsion. In our technology, this is achieved by using cryogenic high-temperature super conductors. Hence they’re a very suitable propulsion technology for future high power class space missions. I work as a Cryogenic Lead for the project development.

“If you were to look at my career path and studies, none of it was planned.”

Hannah Rana

Last year you applied to the ESA astronaut recruitment drive. Tell us about that. 

I was quite fortunate to get to the final 6% of the selection process. For anyone working in the space industry, getting to travel in space is definitely something that everyone would dream of. I do hope that it might be possible for people to go commercially one day. 

You are flourishing in a field where there is little gender diversity. Who was your first mentor?

I studied at the European School Luxembourg I in Kirchberg. My mother is an English teacher and she’s a huge role model in my life. I think that the ethos and atmosphere that she nurtured at home was always one of being interested in information and understanding. Even when we went on holiday, for example, she would always make sure to also take us to educational places in the destination vicinity. 

What have you learned from the mentors that you’ve encountered in your career and higher education?

While I was at CERN, I had the pleasure of getting to know Dr. Fabiola Gianotti, the first female director. She’s a phenomenal woman who was the spokesperson for the ATLAS experiment, which was one of the experiments that announced the discovery of the Higgs boson particle back in 2012, which won the Nobel Prize the following year. Peter Higgs and François Englert theorised the Higgs boson, and the experiments run at CERN – the ATLAS and CMS experiments – were then able to test and verify the theory. Despite her high status, she’s incredibly humble. 

Generally speaking, there’s this conversation being had these days about what kind of leadership people want to take on. Typically there would be these stereotyped masculine qualities one must adopt to be more cutthroat in order to get to the top and be an effective leader. But I think there are so many examples nowadays of leaders who demonstrate empathy, demonstrate compassion, demonstrate humility. The conversation is definitely changing. And I think she’s [Dr. Fabiola Gianotti] an example for me of someone who really embodies these wonderful qualities. 

To what extent have you encountered gender bias in your field? Are things changing?

I’ve definitely faced discriminationatory attitudes for many reasons from among my peers. I’m from a different ethnic background and I’m a female in a male-dominated field, so I don’t have the stereotypical stature kind of stature and deep voice for commanding people in a meeting in the more traditional masculine way, for example. People may try to put you down, people try to make you feel like you shouldn’t be proud of your achievements, and I think often as a woman, people can feel the need to keep you in your place and under ‘control’ because they feel threatened or insecure in themselves. And confidence and high self-esteem in a woman gets erroneously fed to women as ‘arrogance’, whereas those same attributes are praised, encouraged and accepted in men. This is what I have observed. But, in general, I’ve been lucky in that my line manager, boss or supervisor has not been like that at all; in fact, I have always been very supportive, open-minded and encouraging work environments and I’ve thankfully never faced those kinds of issues in the workplace. It is a credit to those male leaders who enforce equality.

What do you see as being the steps that we can all be taking to have the next 30 or 3,000 or 3 million women doing what you’re doing?

I think it comes down to education and I think having role models to look to, who have done things that maybe females can look to and say, ‘well, they’ve done it so I can do it’. 

Representation matters. I worked with a STEM educator in outreach while I was in Oxford, and I gave some assemblies to primary school children on space. And one thing she told me from her findings is that it’s actually at a very young age, almost pre-teen, where girls feel like they’re not able to do STEM. So at that kind of age we need to identify those girls who want to do STEM, but simply feel that there’s some sort of psychological barrier there, who feel that they’re not allowed to do it or they won’t be good at it. They don’t believe in themselves. Those are the girls we want to be targeting. 

What are your hopes for the future?

If you were to look at my career path and studies, none of it was planned. I never thought I’d be where I am now. I think for the moment I want to stay in research, to continue to push my field and I want to have an impact in my field. I want to see that impact in scientific research. Thereafter, I guess I will continue in the space industry: in research or startups. I have an interest in business and quite like the startup world so, I think that might be a direction I take but nothing is planned.

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