Sweet (Two Thousand and) Sixteen

Is it really only a month or so since I last wrote?! Christmas break aside, so much has happened that I thought it must have been a lot longer! Time is sprinting faster and faster as iMars and Mars in Motion grow. Since I last updated you, the European Geosciences Union has published a blog post I wrote for them that I point you to here for continuity. Some of it might have repeated what I have already said here, but I am happy and grateful for having had the opportunity to introduce myself to a different, but no less potentially interested, audience.

December started with the Geological Remote Sensing Group meeting  at the European Space Agency (ESA)‘s European Space Research Institute in Frascati, Italy. I was especially happy to be reunited with some of my friends from University College London. I was also grateful to present my talk early in the meeting so that I could relax for the rest of my time there and those there recognised me as ‘Miss Mars’ and I didn’t spend the week explaining myself! A superb range of presentations allowed me to play a very successful round of ‘Buzzword Bingo‘ with Change Detection, Big Data and Crowd-sourcing; presentations that struck a chord included those by Alex Gow from DigitalGlobe who recounted the use of Tomnod for voluntary validation and extraction of features on the ground in remote sensing imagery to inform relief efforts in the aftermath of the Nepal Earthquake, and Alex Tewkesbury who talked about his paper on the detection of change of change in remote sensing imagery. It was a far more international affair than I had anticipated, and I made some valuable connections with people I would have otherwise never met.


iMars at the Geological Remote Sensing Group Meeting in Frascati, Italy. Photo: Dietmar Backes

Immediately on my return I was on iMars duty for the second round of experiments. We’re already getting insights into the challenges we will have to overcome to present a change detection task with the crowd sourcing approach, in a way that makes sense to the crowd and the scientists. Somebody asked me in Frascati how I would assess the success of this project and, although the experiments focus on the design of the user interface and task, my dream is still that the crowd-sourced data will produce new insights into the Martian environment, to enhance our knowledge as well as informing missions, and one day train a computer algorithm sufficiently well to detect surface changes automatically. This is the ambition, so it will be interesting to reflect on that this time next year.

We didn’t break for Christmas until we had showcased the project to school children attending the University of Nottingham’s Engineering Faculty Christmas Lecture on the theme of “Light and Sound.” It proved a surprisingly useful opportunity to observe our designs’ impact on fresh eyes, without the silence and unavoidable pressure that experimental conditions can impose. Our potential planetary scientists were keen to work together, rather than on their own, so we engaged in discussions that would ordinarily take place online on forums. For our table’s visitors it became a game of ‘Change or no change?‘ They asked and raised some fantastic questions, which were far more difficult to answer than those at ESA! The difficulty of distinguishing between changes in lighting or image quality and those actually happening on the surface are becoming increasingly clear. It was all worth jumping the last minute technological hurdles that seem sent not only to try us but amuse us on such occasions. The irony of struggling to connect to a network or WiFi to see images that have come all the way from Mars is not lost on us!


Mars in Motion … finally in motion. At the University of Nottingham’s Christmas Lecture. Photo: James Sprinks.

Full steam ahead for 2016, during which I intend to write papers rather than do any more space travel. I have a few papers outlined in my head based on what we’ve learned so far and I am just grateful that after my thesis I won’t be writing the papers alone. I also take some comfort and confidence from the prospect of contributing to two upcoming special issues of journals, which suggest I am not alone in my excitement about the potential for my area of research.

But for now, on my agenda for the first working week of the new year? Addressing the final amendments requested to Nottingham’s mid-project reports (against which we are evaluated by the European Commission at the end of the project); preliminary perusal of the responses and comments that participants in our first and second experiments provided, and preparation for the presentation I will give to the rest of the iMars team in Lausanne, Switzerland next week. For now I wish you (and myself!) all the very best for 2016. I will leave you with the belated Christmas present of these images that I recently found for the benefit of our experiment participants, simply because they are too beautiful to keep to myself. They exemplify just some of the features in which the iMars project is looking for changes.

Gullies carved by the flow of water or lava into a (comet or asteroid) impact basin created four billion years ago. Photo: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona.


A rippled dune front in Herschel Crater. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/JHUAPL.

Craters. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona

Slope streaks. Image: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona


National Women in Engineering Day

Earlier this week I was asked to speak to a group of Year 10 girls (aged 14-15) about careers in Engineering, in honour of National Women in Engineering Day. I was in two minds, mostly because I only had 24 hours to think about it but also, because I often wonder about the impact that these National Days have. Why that day? Would I not be able to present the same message on any other day just as effectively?! Anyway, after Tim Hunt’s comments about women working in laboratories, and since it provided me with the opportunity to speak, I decided to put myself into the lionesses’ den.

I asked the girls to start by writing down the first word that sprung to their mind when I said “Engineering” and they came up with the following:beforeAt the end of the half hour I asked them to do the same exercise and these are the words they wrote:


Now, I don’t remember mentioning curry or telling them it was boring, but the rest of this represents a reasonable result to me. During the session, one girl quite rightly asked me to explain the link between maps and Engineering. I only hope my answer was convincing because this is a bit of a swampy area not only in her head but mine too.

Fundamentally, as an Engineer I apply scientific/mathematical methods to solve problems that people have every day and, in the process I hope make the world a better place. So if you want to label me as an Engineer then please go ahead (I have an Engineering Doctorate after all!), even if I don’t always define myself as one. You’ll just have to forgive me from putting on a different hat from time to time. For me, however, discussions about Engineering do not acknowledge often enough that humans are at its core. And sometimes, Tim Hunt, humans fall in love and cry. Engineering is problem solving by people for people and this is where I strongly believe that women can and should contribute to Engineering projects/teams, aside from the variety of interesting (dare I say it, sometimes fun!) work it offers.

A significant amount of my work as a Usability Engineer (if you want to call me an Engineer!) involves communication: translating science into words that non-experts can understand, asking “So What?”, working in teams, finding common understanding of complex problems, and translating what people say they require into technology that they often use in totally tangential ways to their original needs. I know there are many, many men out there who do these things very well but please allow me to 1) say that women can also be especially strong in these areas, and 2) think it’s unfortunate that, as the girls demonstrated yesterday, they aren’t typically associated with Engineering or appear in job descriptions labelled with the word Engineer.

I’m not an Engineer now because I sat down at the age of 15 and decided that I wanted to be an Engineer. This is what I really wanted to tell that girl. It just happens that what part of what I love to do, and am now lucky enough to be paid to do, is called Engineering by some people. I hope that the girls I met yesterday (feel they can) pursue whatever dreams they have anyway, whether those dreams involve Engineering or otherwise.

(If it’s of interest to others giving a similar talk, I highly recommend the resources on the Tomorrow’s Engineers website.)