Dr Jackie Bell – space ambassador (#61)


Jackie is a Senior Teaching Fellow at Imperial College, London. After graduating with a PhD in theoretical particle physics for the University of Liverpool she went on to manage a host of national STEM programmes before being named the North West, Wales and Ireland’s ‘STEM Rising Star’ at the 2018 Forward Ladies Regional Awards. In 2017 Jackie took part in the BBC Science production ‘Astronauts: Do You Have What It Takes?’. For this she was selected from over 3,000 applicants to take part and to undertake tests similar to those used in the astronaut selection process at major space agencies.

Twitter: @sciencesummedup

Instagram: @drjackiebell

Describe something that has recently amazed you and how it made you feel.

Lately, thanks to a friend of mine who runs the Bristol Nature Channel, I’ve become more interested in the world around us. The more I taught my friend about space science the more she taught me about nature, and before long nature became a passion of mine also. I hadn’t realised before just how much fascinating science was happening all around us, in our parks, in our trees, underground, in the air, in our oceans, etc. This excitement and interest led to me buying a book about weird animals by science-writer Becky Crew that I finished a few days ago. I learnt about all kinds of crazy animals, including the Lord Howe Island stick insect (or tree lobster) that was thought to be extinct in the 1920’s after rats were brought over to the island by a British supply ship (sigh). These once very common insects were chased from their habitat and every last one was killed and eaten by black rats. It wasn’t until 2001 that a group of scientists climbed Ball’s Pyramid (fourteen miles from the island) and discovered 24 of the insects supported by a single shrub. How they got there no one knows to this day!


How would you personally define wonder, awe and curiosity? And how do they relate to each other?

For me, wonder is something that stems from curiosity. When you see something that sparks a feeling of excitement and awe inside of you you begin to wonder where that could lead. For example, you hear about the Big Bang. Your curiosity leads you to learn about the beginnings of the universe, but the more you learn about it the more you become curious. You discover that matter can neither be created nor destroyed, so you wonder how it could be possible that the universe was created, or how there seems to be more matter than antimatter in the observable universe? You become more curious and you wonder more. The more you wonder the more curious you become. And all this time your friends are in awe of how much you’ve learnt about the big bang in such a relatively short amount of time 😉


What inspires you to be creative? What environment aids your creativity?

I think continuing to learn new things and meeting a range of people each day aids my creativity. Finding out about other people’s interests or research and how they’re solving real problems in unique and creative ways inspires me to be more creative with my own work. I remember, whilst revising for my undergraduate exams I used to go and study in the World Museum Liverpool. This was a place I felt motivated in and it reminded me of why I wanted to stay in education. I definitely felt more creative when surrounded by and immersed in rich history and anytime I felt a little deflated I would walk around the exhibits and remind myself that each of these great discoveries was made by someone outstanding, and that I too could be as outstanding as them. My most motivating places to study were the dinosaur gallery and space gallery – they were my favourite!


What do you love about magic?

When I was younger, my family would occasionally take trips to Southport on a Saturday, just a short train ride away from my home in Liverpool. If we had behaved ourselves my dad would treat me and my brother a magic trick from the little magic stall. We had a set of rings, ropes, thumb toppers, handkerchiefs, coins and cards and would practice for hours to get them right, putting on shows for our friends in the street. I was only ever good at the card ones, but back then I really wanted to be a magician – and to be honest I still do! I still love that feeling magic gives me and how happy it makes people feel. It can distract people from their worries and make them smile, even just for a moment, and I really love that.


What do you dislike about magic and/or the performance of it?

There are some aspects of magic or illusion that I don’t particularly like or agree with, such as tricks that manipulate people’s thoughts or feelings. For me, magic that revolves around any sort of paranormal aspect has many unethical implications. It worries me just how far some performers will take these tricks and how easily audiences can be emotionally manipulated. I know there are only a handful of magicians who do this though and as with everything in the world, I believe magic should only be used for good.


Where do you think our sense of wonder comes from and what can we do to cultivate it?

I believe we are born with our sense of wonder, like most animals, humans continue to be fascinated by everything they see. From birth through to adulthood we want to learn how things work, copy behaviours, try new things and travel to new places, and this hunger for more stays with us our whole lives. People should always follow their sense of wonder (unless of course this wonder leads to someone getting hurt or societal laws being broken) and ways in which it can be supported or developed are by feeding it with more knowledge and experiences. Reading, meeting new people, travelling, experiencing new cultures and just expanding your horizons are all ways of cultivating wonder.


Can you tell me about your journey from STEM student via trainee astronaut to coordinating the UK’s celebrations for the Apollo Moon landings?

After finishing my undergraduate degree in mathematics and masters degree in mathematical sciences I decided I wanted to try my hand at research, and not only that, but make the journey back in to physics. My research focus was in quantum chromodynamics and I used my mathematical expertise to model particle interactions at high energies. Secretly though, I had always wanted to be an astronaut – but I had no idea how to achieve this dream. In 2017 I was fortunate enough to be selected to take part in a BBC documentary to test my skills at astronaut selection. I made it about half way through the process and since then I have continued to train around work by keeping active, learning Russian, studying towards my private pilot’s licence (PPL(h)) and learning to scuba dive. Around the same time as the show airing on BBC Two, I was hired by the UK Association for Science and Discovery Centres to be their space and physics project manager. As part of this role I led space and physics based programmes at science centres across the UK and as a result got asked to coordinate the UK’s plans for the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 (the first mission to land humans on the moon).


50 years on, what can we learn from the Moon landings? And should we be going back?

Excitingly, China has recently sent a mission to the moon and there are talks of multiple space agencies sending both robotic and human missions to the moon in the near future. I think it is definitely a good idea to go back to the moon as there is still so much we can learn from our rocky satellite. The Apollo program gave birth to a lot of the technologies we use today. Things like hand held vacuum cleaners, dehydrated foods, microchips and cordless tools were all originally developed for the Apollo missions. The program also taught us a lot about our own planet and how we should look after it properly.


What are the essential qualities of an astronaut?

To name a few, the essential qualities you need to become an astronaut include:

  • Having a great sense of self-awareness and awareness of others,
  • Being intelligent and skilled in multiple professions/subject areas
  • Having the ability to multi-task
  • Having a great memory and ability to recall important information quickly
  • Having the ability to speak more than one language (preferably Russian, or in the future, Chinese)
  • Being comfortable under water (as this is where a huge percentage of training takes place) and of course being an excellent swimmer
  • Being friendly and supportive of others, a great team player
  • Being able to react proactively, professionally and calmly in extreme situations
  • Having a strong background in a STEM related field and/or flying experience
  • Being all-round healthy, looking after your physical and mental health
  • (Having a sense of humour and likeable personality)

Of course there are lots of other things you pick up during training that are essential to taking your first trip in to space, however these are just the things that will get you through the initial phases of selection.


Going back a couple of generations, the Apollo project inspired so many young people into STEM careers. What would inspire today’s generation of young people to raise their aspirations?

I think there are lots of things these days that continue to inspire young people. Watching Elon Musk’s first Falcon Heavy launch back in February 2018 for example was a memorable and inspiring moment for many, as was Chang’e 4’s soft landing on the far side of the moon back in January. The internet provides an avenue for young people to discover new interests and career paths, to see and experience things that are happening all over the world, and there are so many role models out there that young people can aspire to be. Whether they are space scientists, biologists, computer scientists, athletes or friends and family, I think it’s important for young people to establish good role models early on who they can relate to and can very realistically see themselves becoming.

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